Last month, Dutch national Henk van der Klok, finished a 6,000-kilometer trek that lasted six months and ended with an emotional visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
“Over that past seven years, I’ve had so many amazing experiences in different places around the world,” van der Klok says. “I kayaked for 110 days on the Mississippi River, I hiked from the UK to Rome, I rode on horseback through the Canadian wilderness, and I rode my bicycle from Holland all the way to Istanbul. Everywhere I went, I would encounter incredibly kind and hospitable people. When I returned home, however, and saw all the atrocities on TV every evening, I realized this was a completely different world than the one I’d experienced. And that’s when I decided to walk all the way from Holland to Jerusalem without any cash on me. I wanted to show that people everywhere are much nicer than they appear to be on TV. I wanted people to focus on the good things people do, and not the bad.”
ALTHOUGH VAN DER KLOK set out without any money in his pocket, one of the goals of his trek was to raise money for a small British charity called Acorn Overseas, which provides food, shelter and education for orphans living in Thailand.
“In 2015, I worked with these children, who were orphaned following the civil conflict in Myanmar,” he explains. “I prefer to donate money to a small organization instead of to large foundations so that I know exactly where the money is going.”
Before he set out from his hometown of Groningen in the northern Netherlands on his trek to the Holy Land, van der Klok, who is in his early 30s, was full of apprehension.
“I didn’t know if my plan would work – if people would really give me food,” he admits.
He left his wallet and his credit cards with his father, who, unsurprisingly, thought his son had lost his mind.
“My dad and I see the world very differently. I see a world full of kindness, generosity and people that want to help. He sees a bad, rotten, world filled with people that are out to get you. And that’s part of the reason I wanted to do this adventure. To show my dad the world is actually a lot better than he thinks.”
The trek got off to a rocky start.
“The first few days I was too afraid to ask for food, so I went from supermarket to supermarket, living off food samples. I walked circles through the supermarket, taking snacks until either the food was gone, or they started looking at me sideways. Then I’d move on to the next supermarket. Eventually, hunger pushed me to knock on people’s doors. I would explain to them what I was doing, that I wasn’t carrying any money with me, and that I would really appreciate it if I they would let me fill up my water bottle. More often than not, they would sit me down with a plate of food. That’s when I learned that you don’t actually have to ask for food, you just have to give people enough time to realize that they can help,” he says.Why did you choose Jerusalem as your final destination?
“There are three known pilgrimage routes you can take in Europe: Camino de Santiago in Spain, from England to the Vatican, and from your hometown to Jerusalem. I am excited to have done all three treks. I also love long journeys that have historical and geographical significance, and I think it’s cool to think that I took the same path Christian pilgrims walked 2,000 years ago. In addition, I loved the fact that Israel celebrated 70 years since its establishment this year. When I was a kid, I heard lots of stories about Jerusalem and Jerusalem Syndrome. I was always curious to experience that myself firsthand.”Other than chancing upon kind people, did you have any other sources for food?
“Since I know that one-third of all food in the world gets thrown away, I didn’t have any problem approaching restaurants with my lunch box and asking them if at closing time they would fill it with their leftovers instead of throwing it in the garbage. Mostly, they’d give me a meal then and there. Rarely was I turned away.
“I would also go into the dining rooms of hotels around 9 a.m. after most of the guests had eaten their breakfast and explain to them about my journey to raise money for charity, and ask if they would mind giving me some hot water. Oftentimes, they’d offer me a plate of food, too. I was discovering that life without money was pretty good. I wasn’t just surviving, I was thriving, and I actually gained a little bit of weight,” he recalls.
VAN DER KLOK PASSED through 13 countries on the way to Israel, during which time he met thousands of kind people.
“One day I came upon an open meadow in France and I thought it would be a great place to pitch my tent. There were a few people sitting outside of their caravan drinking wine and I was concerned that they might report me to the police, since camping there was illegal. So I got up and introduced myself to them, and they invited me to sit down for a drink with them. Soon a pizza delivery arrived and they included me in their meal, too. In other words, it’s always a good idea to introduce yourself, since strangers are just potential friends.”
For the first two months of his journey, van der Klok carried a special black food bag, which usually contained about two days’ worth of food. “It was my food stash, and I always made sure I had one or two days of food in there, just in case no one would feed me.”
Eventually, he realized he no longer needed the bag.
“Over time, my beliefs changed and I truly believed that the kindness of strangers is something you can reliably depend upon. Now I was truly living from moment to moment, day to day.”
Over the next few weeks, he passed near the Alps in Switzerland and then moved on to Italy.
“I was walking in the countryside and ran out of water. Finally, I came upon a farm and I saw a man working outside. I was so happy to find him, since it’s so much easier to approach people when they’re outside. When you ring people’s doorbell, they’re most likely thinking how to get rid of the person who’s probably trying to sell you something. The farmer offered me water, a meal and even snacks for later. When I reached Croatia, it was during the World Cup Fever, so I walked into a restaurant well before game time and introduced myself to the staff. They invited me to eat and watch the game with them as their guest of honor. Unfortunately, Croatia lost the game, but this did not lessen their hospitality at all.”
From Croatia, he continued on to Albania, Greece and Turkey, from which he sailed to Cyprus. The last leg of his journey was his flight from Cyprus to Israel. He had slept in a tent most nights, and other times he slept in churches or on benches.
“Sometimes I would invite myself home with people I’d met,” van der Klok says with a shy smile. He often showered in lakes or on beaches,and occasionally even sneaked into local hospitals for a discrete wash.
“Sometimes I snuck into hospitals, walked around until I found a shower, locked myself in and simply took a shower there. Nobody ever said anything.”
Despite van der Klok’s positivity, he admits that the journey was not always easy.
“Sometimes I ate nothing. Sometimes I ate only dry bread. I got blisters and there were ant infestations in my tent. In these moments, the only thing that kept me going was trying to find the gift hidden in the adversity.How did people in Turkey react when you told them your final destination was Jerusalem?
“In many Muslim countries like Turkey, the word ‘Jerusalem’ catches people’s attention. As soon as people heard I was walking to the holy city, they opened their doors to me. My trip did not have a religious objective – I just wanted to prove that people everywhere are kinder than most people think they are. I met Muslims, Christians, Jews and atheists, and everyone opened up their homes to me. What I found was that it’s human nature to be kind.”What do you think of the Israelis you’ve met so far?
“They’ve been exceptionally gracious. Throughout my journey, I’ve been receiving messages from Israelis who’ve invited to come stay with them when I arrive in Israel, and I’ve managed to meet a bunch of them. Some people along the way warned me that I needed to be careful in Israel since it’s a dangerous place, but that’s not the impression I’ve had being here. The people who helped me along the way have also been affected by this initiative and are what made my journey possible. Every time someone helped me, I took a selfie with them and uploaded it my Wall of Kindness, which is a giant collage of pictures I have on my website.”Do you think anyone could embark on such a journey or do you need to have certain traits?
“I definitely think anyone can make such a journey. All you need is to be an optimist and see the positive aspects even in difficult moments. And like meeting new people. But I think anyone can adopt these traits. I’ve been dreaming about taking this trip since 2011, but I didn’t feel ready to follow through until 2018.”
Van der Klok’s parents were in Jerusalem waiting for him when he arrived and they had plans to tour around Israel for a week before returning to the Netherlands. He has plans to give lectures about his trip to Israel and then he’ll be leading a toboggan trip to Lapland. What are your plans for the future?
“I don’t know,” van der Klok replies, “but I’m sure it will be an exciting adventure.” Translated by Hannah Hochner.
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