Me, the arctic circle and 10 euros. I found myself in this lovely situation at the ATM when, out of money, I went to make a withdrawal only to find my bank card didn’t work. The bank clarified that due to an unpleasant disagreement with a past creditor my account was frozen indefinitely: I was broke. Thus in a matter of minutes I went from having a year’s savings to having only the loose change in my pocket.
I’d like to say I took it graciously, that after years of travel and near death
experiences the loss of something as insignificant as money meant next to nothing, but that’s not true. Like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” who faces ruin after losing $5,000, I felt my life coming unraveled. The snow that looked so calm and tranquil a moment earlier, looked cold and menacing. Where would I sleep? How would I eat? Even if I survived the subzero temperatures how would I stay a travel writer? The future loomed like a never ending series of hurdles, each one taller than the next.
We live in a disconnected world. Money moves from work, to account, to card, to cashier without so much as a coin changing hands. This monetary exchange, in one form or another, makes up the vast majority of our transactions. The idea of something for nothing has become alien to us. Even with something supposedly free, like Facebook, we expect hidden costs. Independence and self-sufficiency are the highest goals, the sign of success. To depend on others is to be a failure.
To call out for help in a world like this is a hard thing to do. To ask for something while offering nothing but gratitude is not only strange, but painful. Most adults will never have to ask anyone, especially a non-relative, for money and the words we have for people who do – beggar, mooch, parasite – are none too kind. Yet as every homeless person knows, when faced with starvation or freezing these words lose their sting and necessity’s strong hand pushes you onward.
So in my desperation I reached out to family, to friends and even to strangers. I don’t know what I expected, perhaps I was too upset to really expect
anything, but what I received was overwhelming kindness and generosity. First from locals who sheltered me, a travel companion who fed me and a hostel owner who offered me money. This was just the beginning. My family immediately offered to wire me funds and my friends were just like family. Before the day was over I had a dozen friends offering to send me help.
Some friends, not wanting to wait, immediately sent cash to my next destination; others asked where they could wire it. In the end it wasn’t even just the people I had reached out to who helped. One friend sent money just based on my Facebook status. Not even personal hardship stopped them. A friend with barely a penny to his name sent me $20. It was a beautiful gesture that made me feel more connected to those around me than I had in a long time.
I once answered that I would prefer a life of great highs and lows to one of calm evenness. It’s an easy answer to give when walking the sandy shore of a Greek island. Isolated in the dark arctic winter without the certainty of tomorrow’s food and shelter is what really puts my answer to the test, but once again I’m reminded that it is only through the moments of near despair that the full joy of the mountain tops can be appreciated
Success is a tricky word to define and I’m not sure how these three years on the road measure on the scales of life. Still, like George Bailey whose terrible loss is made more than whole by friends expected and unexpected, in my moment of greatest need the people in my life were there to catch me and remind me that true happiness doesn’t come from a place but from people, or as the angel Clarence would say, “no man is a failure who has friends.”“Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends.” – William Butler Yeats