Both men held knives.
They started at each other with vokda on their breath. I lay curled up on the floor watching from the shadows expectantly. But I'm getting ahead of myself...
I was on a trip to Russia in 2013 traversing the Road of Bones. We'd just come to the remote city of TomTor, a city famous for recording the coldest temperature ever in the northern hemisphere, -97 degrees Fahrenheit.
Thankfully we were traveling in the Fall before the snows and cold temperatures descended.
(Traveling in Russia. Photo credit Scott Brady)
Deep mud blocked our way forward. Seeing our situation, the mayor of the home invited us to stay with his brother, Andre. Andre was a man of Mongolian decent and his family had a heritage and love of horses.
As his children cooked us a meal he proudly showed us horses his family had owned, trained and ridden over the years on an old TV.
Night fell and I curled up to sleep on the floor of the older, well kept home. I awoke in the night to see Andre and our Russian interpreter talking at the table over the light of a single, dim bulb. They had hit it off well and were exchanging stories, vodka and laughs well into the morning.
(A home and vehicle in Russia)
As they were preparing to retire Andre rose, went into his back room and emerged with a beautiful knife. It was an object he seemed to value deeply and it undoubtedly had accompanied him on many adventures.
He presented it to our translator who accepted it with reverence and gratitude. After a few minutes our translator stood up, went out to his vehicle and returned with a knife of his own that he presented with ceremony to Andre.
We left the next day and I'm fairly certain these two men never met again. But I have no doubt their evening and the gifts they exchanged will never be forgotten by either.
Giving thoughtful, meaningful gifts is one of the best things you can do to help connect with the people you encounter during your travels. First and foremost, it lets people know they're valued and appreciated. It's also a chance to share a share a bit of your culture and life with them, even if you're thousands of miles from home.
Gifts also, quite literally, open up doors for you. On countless occasions the goodwill that gifts generate have led to invitations to meals, local adventures and spending the night with someone's family in their home. This isn't why we give them, of course, but it's amazing to see how a small gesture can go such a long way.
What makes a good gift to give to new friends on the road? Bring something that is unique to your home or culture, that reflects in small way who you are. This could be local jewelry, clothing, snacks or a local drink or spirit, if appropriate. If you have a specific craftsman skill (wood, leatherwork, etc) it's hard to beat giving something you've personally made.
Years ago I was traveling in the Northwest Territories when we had the opportunity to visit an Inuit village where traditional whale hunts were still occurring. We were invited into the Community to enjoy a meal whale meat, jerky and other traditional Inuit dishes.
(Fresh whale meat in the Northwest Territories)
Before we left we gave one of the village elders a necklace that I'd brought from my home, made in Montana. She was touched and later said it was one of the most meaningful gifts she'd ever received. I believe it was a combination of the thought and the ties to our home that made such an impression on her.
(You can watch us present the gift to the Inuit Elder in the Expedition Overland episode 11 below around the 10-12 minute mark.)
So the next time you head out on an overland trip give some thought to the people you'll encounter and how you can share a bit of your own life and culture with them. It will undoubtedly make them feel appreciated, strengthen your bonds and make for a much richer experience for all.
- Clay Croft
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