People are a Window: The Kindness of Strangers

In January this year, Andrea Brena, a student from Italy, sent me a sizable list of questions for me to answer as part of a research project he was working on. Before the answers get lost in my inbox forever, here they are.


What’s your name?
Robert John Thomson, but people call me Rob.

Where do you come from?
I grew up in Invercargill, New Zealand. Small town at the southern-most tip of New Zealand. Small-town atmosphere, cold, nothing to do except explore the outdoors or drink copious amounts of alcohol; I preferred the former.

When did you start to take long trips?
I have only ever done one long trip. From July 2006 till November 2008. Before then, the longest trip I had ever done was a week long, with a bunch of friends, on mountain bikes, in the middle of nowhere in the South Island of New Zealand.

How did you end up travelling by longboard?
From July 2006 till April 2007, I was cycling on a bicycle from Japan to England. In Tashkent, Uzbekistan, I was wandering around the city visiting different embassies, to apply for visas for onward travel (Central Asia is a bureaucratic nightmare). At that time, I thought that it would be convenient if I had a skateboard on which to quickly move around town (I could take it on public transport etc etc). This got me to thinking about actually travelling between cities on a longboard. A quick web search showed that Dave Cornthwaite ( was skating across Australia with a support crew. From there, the seed was planted in my mind. I wanted to do the same, but with no support crew; solo and unsupported. 5 months after Tashkent, I finally arrived in Switzerland, and then at that point decided, as a test, to skate the rest of the way to England. So I sent my bike home to New Zealand, and bought a longboard and a backpack. The 1500km skate from Switzerland to England was a success, and I decided to carry on. I enjoyed the challenge (not only physically but also intellectually ? i.e., how can I make my luggage as lightweight as possible, but still be self-sufficient) and novelty of it. Later on in the trip, the lure of being able to achieve and extend a Guinness World Record was a large motivating factor; it made me feel like I was really doing something on the cusp of human endurance and capability.

Would you tell the most beuatiful experience you had being helped by somebody?

Which role do people that you met on your way play in your trips?
They are a window into the true nature of the place where I am travelling. You can only get a very surface view of what life is like in any particular location just by looking at the sights as you whizz by on a bus, train, or in my case, a bicycle or skateboard. Most often, the sights you see in the tourist areas or on the outside of people’s homes are a polished presentation of an image people want to present, rather than a true reflection of what they really are, or what their life is really like. Of course, even when a person invites you in to stay, they are also presenting a certain version of themselves to you, the traveller; they are often trying to create a good impression of themselves or their country. But still, you do get to see a different side of your destination when seen through the window of a person’s private life; i.e., home. For example Keith and Mary – ? showed me a reality of ‘American life’ that was a far cry from the affluence we see on mainstream American television media.

Do you think that the generosity that you met in your travels was because you were travelling in a humble, generous way?
Yes. Definitely. Just the fact that I was on a bicycle or skateboard garnered, it seemed, instant respect and affability. And I can relate to that. The stereotype of criminals is that they will do the least effort for the largest gain (even if that ‘least effort’ entails risk). What I was doing required a herculean effort, with very little gain (at least monetarily), and therefore, at least by that definition, I probably certainly did not come across as a criminal.

Can curiosity be the reason why they help you?
For sure. Someone skating with a large backpack along a highway is not something you see every day. And then once people heard that I was from New Zealand, that was like a final seal of approval: this guy is probably going to be interesting. People love something out of the ordinary (that’s why there’s so much sensational stuff on TV; it sells). And a real live curiosity is always going to be more interesting that TV.

Are people aware of the reasons that move you to this experience? Do you think this could be a factor that brings them towards you or to help you?
For people who helped me in the US, I would just tell them that I was doing it for the adventure of it. I think that most people that invited me in to stay or helped me out understood that concept. As for people who invited me in in developing countries (Central Asia, China etc), I think it was more for the novelty/curiosity factor. Like the time I was invited in in Uzbekistan ( and in China ( and In the Uzbekistan scenario, I was invited in to stay, and half of the neighbourhood came to visit, and we all had a huge meal together, talking and exchanging stories of life in our respective countries. The same in China. In the US, however, I felt that people were more motivated by their belief in what I was doing.

Is it because people see how much you believe in what you are doing that make them help you?
See above.

Is it because you’re showing that you’re taking in everything (good and bad) of their environment and nothing can stop you?
I think this is a factor, for sure. A human powered traveller is not taking the easy route, and I think people see that.

Are more people helping you on the road without knowing your story or people that know about you from media, like internet, tv, radio and press?
I think only one to two people I met along the road had heard of me before I arrived. A woman who saw me in the news paper invited me to a lunch with a scout group ( and Patrick, who heard me on the radio ( The point is, that most people who helped me along the way had no third-party evidence that I was who I said I was. Some contacts were made through people I had met previously (such as one person calling a friend further along the route).

How many people that helped you ask you money for a meal or any kind of service they gave to you?
None. Except once. In a town called Karakol in Kyrgyzstan. I asked a local for directions to a local hostel, and he said ‘I will tell you if you give me money.’ I was tired and irritable, and refused, and just carried on and found the place by myself (

Did you ever offer anything to them?
No. I gave the family in Uzbekistan 100RMB (Chinese money; about 10 Euro) as a souvenir, but even that felt strange. That is to say, it felt like an insult to their hospitality to offer money. For me this is a bit of a moral dilemma. You see, the less money I part with on a trip, the longer I can travel for. My 2.5 year journey cost about US$15,000. That is very cheap living. And what’s more, that US$15,000 was my life savings. I didn’t have any extra. So really, in a way, I didn’t have any money to spare, and every chance I had to save money was helpful. But then again, travelling itself is an absolute luxury. As a (relatively) rich Westerner I had a choice to travel. Most of those people I stayed with in developing countries will never have the opportunity to have even close to US$15,000 in savings. I wonder how many of them will earn that much gross income in their entire lives, even. This is something I struggled with, and have come to an awkward compromise where I figure that the value of my journey is in the fact that many people followed my journey on my blog, and learned something new about the world and humanity.

Have you noticed if their kind attitude is just towards you or also towards people who live around them?
I definitely got preferential treatment. But this is understandable. I found that when I met a stranger meet under jovial and novel circumstances, both parties (me and the stranger) presented only the very best parts of ourselves to each other. This is understandable. People want to be thought of as nice and good and likeable. As people get to know each other better, a more realistic vision of each other forms. They get to know the good and the bad. Life becomes…normal. And not every day can be a celebration, which is what it felt like when I was invited into someone’s home. A celebration for the intrepid explorer. Fun, novel, a hero (in that I was doing something that many people wish they could do).

Would you do the same, seeing a foreigner on the street and bring him to the home of your family?
When it comes to family, it becomes more complicated. Through my experiences, I personally have become very comfortable with trusting strangers. To the extent that if I saw a person cycling or on some kind of an adventure, and hearing something about their story, I would probably invite them to stay or offer some kind of assistance. My wife, however, is more cautious, which is great; it creates balance, some would say. So I think that my journey has made me more trusting. Some might say recklessly trusting, but I think that how you view trust is dependent on many things; your upbringing, experiences, personality etc etc.

Have your physical conditions (bad or good, in need or not) had an effect on the generousity ofthe people who helped you?
I think that some people understand that a young person on an adventure is always going to appreciate some support, so they are inclined to help. There are not many millionaire 25 year-olds cycling or skateboarding around the world. Usually they have given up the security of a job and income for the pursuit of adventure and travel. So by default, they are poor. In terms of actual sickness or tiredness, I think the family that let me stay with them in Texas appreciated that I needed rest (, so I ended up staying about 5 days with them. I have, however, been taken advantage of when I was sick. It was in Turkmenistan, and I was staying at a cheap hotel and I was very sick. I had a 40 degree fever. I had to change some money to buy some food and medicine, so the hotel staff changed it for me from USD to Turkmen money. It was not until the next day when I had left, I realised that they had short-changed me.

Is your way of travelling attracting people to come towards you?
Yes. Like I said above, it is the novelty factor, I think.

How do you see the kindness of people? What is your view of it?
My personal philosophy is that the kindness I experienced is the way that we are supposed to be. It is the way we were born, in a way. But over a life time of watching and reading news that, by necessity of the medium, reports only the sensational and scary, we end up believing that the world is a place not to be trusted. We end up having a default setting in our brain that says that all strangers are guilty criminals until proven otherwise. The people who showed kindness to me are beautiful examples of what happens when we choose to believe that the narrative portrayed in mass media is not intended to be a narrative that says ‘this is what humans are’. We need to realise that it is a narrative that shows a part of human nature. A part that is, in my view, a very miniscule one.


Day 273 – ITALY and SWITZERLAND: From Villadossola to Brigabad via Simplon Pass

Today’s distance / 今日の走行距離: 89.25km
Average speed / 平均速度: 11.0km/h
Time on bike / 走行時間: 8h 05m
Total distance to date / 今日までの積算距離: 2061.1km (plus 9700km)
Ascent / 上り: +1780m
Descent / 下り: -1365m

By the vertical meters I climbed today, you’d almost think I was cycling in the Swiss Apls…

The day began with some more picturesque Italian alps foothills villages, this one the center square of Villadossola.

Courtyard in Villadossola, Italy

And just in case you ever wanted to know, this is what the rear end of my bike looks like. Yes, the rear light is attached by a piece of garden hose. I didn’t have the drill required to drill a hole in steel pipe, so I melted some holes in the garden hose to do the attachment. And hey, it has lasted 12,000km, so isn’t all bad.

Rear end of a bike in Villadossola, Italy

Enough of the gratuitous bottom shots, and onto the real action.

I was eased into the mountains slowly, with the haze of the Italian side of the alps giving me teasing hints into the wonder that was to follow.

Misty mountains near Villadossola, Italy

A road sign pointed towards Siberia. I gave that a miss, thinking it would take another few years if I went via that road.

To Switzerland, the long way (sign in Domodossola, Italy)

The task for the day was to get up over Simplon pass to the town of Brig in Switzerland. From Domodossola, that was about 60km with a 2005m high pass in the middle. The plan was to take it easy and see how things went.

Swiss border at Gondo, Switzerland

As usual, I was feeling good arriving in a new country. As soon as I crossed the border, the environment changed. The air smelt great for some reason. Like Heidi had just skipped past or something, leaving a scent of fields of daisies. Like, honestly, the air really did smell different. I thought maybe they had special scent dispensers hidden in the mountains to welcome tourists…

In search of water after the border, I found myself at Fort Gondo. A massive mountain fotress carved into the rock. To see the whole fort you needed to ring someone to arrange a visit, but the main access tunnel was open to the public. It led to a massive 90mm cannon aimed just right to ensure the quick dismissal of any unwanted visitors heading up the Simlpon Pass.

Fort Gondo gun near Gondo, Switzerland

Barrel of the cannon at Fort Gondo, Switzerland

Road up Simplon Pass as seen from the gun turret at Fort Gondo, Switzerland

The road up the pass is steep in places, but never goes over 9%. I was happy enough to spin away in my lowest gear for the four or so hours it took to get to the top.

Simplon Pass, Italy

From the top it was a quick 22km downhill. What took four hours to climb, took all of 15 minutes to descend.

Simplon Pass, Switzerland

My first ever night sleeping in the beautiful country that is Switzerland was on the covered porch of a deserted building.

First sleeping spot in Switzerland near Brig

Day 272 – ITALY: From Castano Primo to warehouse in Villadossola

I slept in a small shed last night along side the canal that runs from the Ticino River to Milano.

Sleep spot outside of Castano Primo, Italy

As I was packing up preparing to leave, the apparent owner wandered by to check the water channels in the adjacent fields and seemed none too perturbed when I indicated by gestures that I had slept there during the night. Jolly nice lot, these rural Italians.

I headed from there straight to the Ticino River. The Ticino River flows out of Lake Maggiore. Lake Maggiore is the lake I needed to pass by in order to get to the pass that would link me with Switzerland.

Along the Ticino River towards the southern end of Lake Maggiore is Parco Lombardo Valle del Ticino, a nature reserve. The reserve has many tracks for walking, horse riding, and cycling. I promptly got lost, having a blast in the process.

Cycling through Parco Lombardo Valle del Ticino on the way to Seste Calendo, Italy

At times the tracks reminded me of Tajikistan. Big, loose rocks, soft leafy ground.

Cycling through Parco Lombardo Valle del Ticino on the way to Seste Calendo, Italy

The 10 or so kilometers to Seste Calendo took way longer than it should have, but hey, what a great way to break the monotony of endless sealed roads.

I had lunch today on the shores of Lake Maggiore. The southern end of the lake where I had lunch is not so great. Buzzing insects, stinky sand, and the air all a bit too hazy for my liking. And waht’s with all the middle aged Russian-speaking women drinking vodka? Honestly, it was the weirdest thing in the world. I thought I must have missed a sign to the entrance of the park saying ‘Park for Russian Speaking Middle Aged Women Only’. There were gaggles of these women spotted all over the place, with no other males in sight. One particularly curious group wandered over and began inspecting my cooking skills. They were from the Ukraine, and were suitably impressed with my fettucine, tomato puree, tuna, and walnut concoction.

I gobbled my lunch far too quickly, and made a hasty getaway after one of the women stated rather too enthusiastically that her daughter was 25 years old.

“Only slightly younger than you!” she breathed, with that twinkle in her eye.

I have seen that twinkle before. It is that twinkle that lays bare a mother’s desire to see their daughter marry a rich young western bachelor. Most often seen in central Asian countries, and very often accompanied by a grin showing a mouthful of gold teeth.

I was happy to get away, lest the mistaken image of me as a rich western bachelor be revealed.

Near Stresa, a town along the western side of Lake Maggiore, I had my first real mechanical breakdown of the trip. My indexing ring on the thumb shifters broke, leaving me only with the friction setting.

And now for those who are not as cycle savvy as some, here is the detailed version of what happened: 

My bicycle has gears. When I change these gears, much like on a car, it gets easier or harder to pedal. On the back wheel, there are 9 cogs, all bigger or smaller than each other. By moving the chain from one cog to another, I can select what gear I pedal in.

To make changing from one cog to another easier, my gear leaver that I move using my right thumb has a special thing inside it called an index ring. This index ring makes a clicking sound to let me know that I have moved the leaver just enough so that the chain jumps up or down a cog, enough to smoothly change gears.

Well, this index ring somehow broke in half today.

Broken indexing ring (Shimano Ultegra bar-end thumb shifters) in Stresa, Italy

The object above is the index ring, and it is supposed to be a ring. Not two halves of a ring.

All is not lost however, and there is a backup function on the gear lever whereby I can just move the gear lever freely without the clicking sound to guide me. After 8 months of constantly moving the gear lever to the several positions needed to select gears, I have the positions mentally set in my mind. Kind of like a violin player. I have gone from having frets to no frets.

Old stuff abounds in Italy. Old houses.

Old shed near Ornavasso, Italy

Old bikes.

Old bike in Ornavasso, Italy

As the title of this post suggests, I slept in a warehouse tonight. It was concrete. Massive and echoey.

Day 271 – ITALY: From Seregno to just past Castano Primo

I left Shirley and Yuri’s wonderful abode at about 2pm with a nice little 10 minute powerpoint presentation nestled safely in my USB memory stick. Thank you again to Shirley and Yuri for letting me take over their computer for a day!

Oh, and Shirley makes some mean Japanese cuisine. The tofu was awesome.

Tofu prepared by Shirley in Seregno, Italy

I headed from Seregno towards Legnano. The general mission for today was to buy stuff. A regular shopping spree. My big break came when I spied a big shopping mall near Legnano. Bought some togs (not ‘man skins‘), some new trousers and a t-shirt, and some rubber shoe things for walking in the water.

All in the name of summer camp counsellor work, due to begin on the 29th of April. After surviving for 8 months with only one set of clothing (the set that I wear every single day), I figured it was time to splash out and get a second set.

After all action, I was hungry. As hungry as a wasp…

A wasp chowing down on something outside mall near Legnano, Italy

I chowed down like a hungry school boy on the bread rolls and boiled eggs and other goodies that Shirley had ever so very kindly prepared for me this morning.

The shopping spree took most of the afternoon, so when I finally emerged from the extra-sensory abuse that was the mall, I rode off after the quick meal in a daze into the fading sun towards Castano Primo, a small town in the general direction of the Ticino River.

Bridge in Castano Primo, Italy

Day 270 – ITALY: Serengo

I have spent today sitting inside using Yuri and Shirley’s internet that they have kindly let me use. I have updated the last few days of cycling through Italy, with a few decent shots of churches…

There is something that I would really like some help on however. I am trying to put together a powerpoint presentation with some of the best photos of the trip so far. I am trying to choose at the most 50 photos (preferably less) that sum up the journey so far.

Here is what I have chosen after going through the 1,300 photos I have online:

(this link will take you to a special page with small images showing the photos I have chosen so far)

There are 97 photos here. But what a hard choice. I am trying to choose photos that do the following:

  • Move the viewer. Make them feel something strong inside.
  • Show life on the road.
  • Inspire.

For me, every single photo that I have uploaded during this trip moves me. For me, every photo has a story attached. But you can’t show 1,300 photos to an audience. They’d go home bored out of their chairs…

What photos have inspired or moved you? Even a vague description like “the one with the clouds and horses” will help.

Thank you!

Rob in Piazza Del Duomo, Milano, Italy


In other news, I was accepted by Village Camps to be a spring outdoor education camp counsellor this spring in Anzere, Switzerland. The location is near Lake Geneva. Therefore, the plan is to work with Village Camps over the spring and possibly summer, and then carry on to England once the contract at Village Camps is finished. I will still update this website once weekly with a weekly report during the camp period.

I start at Village Camps on the 29th of April. Till then, it’s all mountains! Bring on some tough climbing and fast downhills!

The Swiss Alps await…


Day 269 – ITALY: From Milano to Serengo

I left early again from my sleep spot in the field after a very good deep sleep.

Sleeping spot in freshly cultivated field 10km south of Milano, Italy

And then the joys of not having a guide book struck again. I had no idea that this existed until I rounded the corner. I let out an “ooof” kind of sound as I entered the Piazza Duomo.

Il Duomo di Milano, Milano, Italy

I mean, this thing is incredible. The spikey bits look as though you could throw a stone at them, and they would fall off their stools. Amazing that it has survived.

Inside of Il Duomo di Milano, Milano, Italy

The interior is breathtaking. How long it must have taken to carve just the floor pieces I can’t imagine. The whole interior and exterior of the Il Duomo di Milano is under refurbishing, but wow. Just wow.

Restoration work inside Il Duomo di Milano, Milano, Italy

Stained glass windows, embalmed bodies of dead priests, what a place.

Stained glass windows in Il Duomo di Milano, Milano, Italy

The wonder did not end once outside of the church. The galleria to the north of the Piazza Duomo is like walking though a time machine. If not for all the tourists, you’d think you had walked back in time. The glass roof is enchanting.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II roof, Milano, Italy

Earlier in the week, I had received an email from an old aquaitance from my time in Japan. Shirley was doing the same job as me in another small town in southern Japan, as Coordinator for International Relations. She and her husband, Yuri, now live in Serengo, about 20km north of Milano. We arranged to meet up when I passed through the area, and I stayed the night with them tonight.

Day 268 – ITALY: Piacenza to Milano

Today’s distance / 今日の走行距離: 110.23km
Average speed / 平均速度: 15.5km/h
Time on bike / 走行時間: 7h 05m
Total distance to date / 今日までの積算距離: 1751.9km (plus 9700km)

I got up early. Just after daybreak. My bike had left tracks in the freshly planted field. It was dark last night when I had wheeled the bike to where I slept, so I hadn’t noticed the newly planted grass. Dumb.

I finally found my way out of Piacenza and onto some small roads leading out of the city along the banks of the Po River.

1912 bridge crossing the Po River near Pavia, Italy

The small roads lasted until this bridge, which crossed the Po River and headed into Pavia, another beautiful Italian city. The city reminded me of Dunedin, a student city in New Zealand. Students everywhere. Graffiti everywhere.

Through Pavia, I saw my most beautiful sight ever.

Bike lane into Milano along the Pavia-Milano canal, just out of Pavia, Italy

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a bike lane. With its very own distance signs. Oh the joy and jubilation.

The bike lane runs all the way from Pavia, right into the guts of the sprawling city of Milano, along the Pavia-Milano canal. No traffic, just beautiful flat cycle path.

I didn’t make it right into Milano today. I slept in a freshly cultivated field, and decided to make a dawn attempt into the big city tomorrow morning.

Day 267 – ITALY: Cremona to Piecenza

Today’s distance / 今日の走行距離: 68.62km
Average speed / 平均速度: 15.0km/h
Time on bike / 走行時間: 4h 33m
Total distance to date / 今日までの積算距離: 1641.6km (plus 9700km)

Was it the bad sleep last night near a small row of batches on the banks of the Po River? Or perhaps I had cycled too hard yesterday.

Or perhaps I had just had my fill of beautiful Italian towns with beautiful Italian couples enjoying the beautiful Italian spring weather. Europe can be a lonely place for a guy alone on a bicycle. I yearned for the adventure of Asia.

Whatever it was, today was a generally blue day. No energy. Went to a supermarket to buy food and didn’t know what to buy. Just wandered around for half an hour. I finally bought some sandwiches.

And my SD memory card for my camera finally gave up the ghost and stopped working. I bought a replacement. A 2GB SD card for 22 Euros. The 1GB one was 18 Euros. Twice the memory for not twice the price.

Evidence of carnage in Piacenza, Italy

A tap outside a small playground in Piacenza reminded me however that fun was still being had in the world.

I chose a spot in an open field to sleep and only dozed for most of the night.

Day 265 – ITALY: Peschiera to Torre de Oglio

Today’s distance / 今日の走行距離: 76.40km
Average speed / 平均速度: 16.2km/h
Time on bike / 走行時間: 4h 42m
Total distance to date / 今日までの積算距離: 1460.7km (plus 9700km)

It was kinda tough to leave Steve and Jutta’s. What a wonderful couple.

I headed back to the Mincio River where Rhiner and I had cycled the day before. Rhiner reccommended that I head down the Mincio river along the cycle paths, down to the Po River. The Po River is the most significant river in northern Italy.

It was amazing weather again today. A mild tailwind helped me along the cycle path, and I got stares from other cyclists, many of them overweight men with bellies hanging, their lycra cycling tights straining to hold it all in.

I arrived in the historic town of Mantova just after lunch. It was a weekend day, and there were many stalls set up in the central square. A large marque caught my eye. It was for Grana Padano parmesan cheese. Next door was a competitor tent showing their cheese also.

Big chunk of parmisan cheese, Mantova, Italy

That’s a big block of cheese. 35kg to be exact.

I asked if I could buy 200g. That request was met with strained faces. It’s a little too little, I’m sorry, their faces said.

I wandered out of the tent a little disponded, and started towards the competitor’s tent. i heard hurried steps behind me and one of the Grana Padano staff members tapped me on the shoulder. She indicated that I should come back.

They handed me a handful of small off-cuts. Enough for a cook up of pasta, so I was happy.

I was about to leave on my bike when another Grana Padano cheese master strolled over and we began talking about my trip.

You’re from where? You came on that? For how many kms?!

Suitably impressed, I was herded into the tent once again and given a big 400g slice of parmesan cheese, a small grater to grate it with, and some brochures for Grana Padano cheese.

That stuff is gooooood. I put way too much of it on my pasta, but I can’t help it. I had eaten the 400g slice within two days.

The rest of the day was again on good cycle paths along the Po River flood banks. I arrived at Torre de Oglio late, just before dark. This is where a floating bridge crosses the Oglio River, just before it joins with the Po River.

Bridge over the Oglio River, Torre de Oglio, Italy

I found a small side road that lead downstream towards the Po River and slept in the grass to the side of the road.