How cycling through Africa with no money brought us closer to Allah

Nathim Cairncross and Abdullah Jimenez embarked upon a year-long bike trip which took them from Kenya to Turkey. Now living in Istanbul, their experiences on the trip uncovered some incredible spiritual gems, as Nafees Mahmud reports.

Amongst the hustle and bustle of the approximately 20 million people living in Istanbul are two recently arrived friends: 38-year-old Nathim Cairncross, an English teacher from South Africa and 24-year-old barista Abdullah Jimenez from Spain.

They are the most chilled out people you can meet: comfortable in their own skins.

One reason for this is the journey that brought them here. They travelled from Cape Town to Istanbul (mostly) via bicycle over a year and both men attest to the spiritual growth this led to.

“This journey allowed me to know myself and he who knows himself, knows his Lord. Through this trip I got a step closer to my own truth: knowing how to act according to what my own heart wants,” says Abdullah.

Nathim adds that despite the shortage of money and having no guaranteed accommodation the simple act of getting up and going compelled him to “develop more trust and conviction that all will be ok.”

A good idea

Such journeys are usually undertaken by travel writers or those fundraising for charity. For them, the motive wasn’t specific. The casual way in which the trip was initiated is reflective of their admirably nonchalant demeanour. Nathim says “it just sounded like a good idea.”

It was proposed to them over dinner by another friend who started the journey with them but ended up taking a different route. “It was very spontaneous,” Nathim reflects. For him, it was another opportunity to break free of the shackles of daily life which he feels can impose rigid structures on people.

“I wasn’t thinking about consequences. If you think about those matters you kind of create barriers for yourself.  Even during the journey, we can see if we put up excuses it wouldn’t have happened.”

He’d previously made a similar trip in 2010, cycling from Cape Town to Mecca to perform Hajj so his confidence in his own endurance wasn’t under question. For Abdullah, two days after the adventure was proposed he quit his job and within two weeks had everything he needed (bike, spare parts, backpack) except what seemed the most obvious necessity: money.

“I only had fifty dollars. I told the guys I want to do this but have no money. They hardly had any either and said I didn’t need any.” Initially he was sceptical but as the journey began he says the truth of their insight unfolded.

They left Cape Town in August 2018. The journey involved a plane ride to Madagascar (which they cycled around for three months), a flight to Mauritius then to Kenya from where they cycled through Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. From there they took a flight to Ankara and cycled to Istanbul.

Generosity of strangers

Though the biggest challenge was not having money, this didn’t stop them from getting what they needed.

Nathim says: “In Madagascar we went to a mosque only to be told we couldn’t sleep there. But then someone took us to his home and we stayed with him for two whole months! We practically became part of his family, sharing meals with them.”

Nathim feels this heightened his reliance on, and trust in, Allah. “This generosity is something you can’t predict. You can’t say ‘I’ll leave here this morning and get this, this and this.’ You don’t know what is coming your way. Sometimes you get your provision for the day, sometimes you don’t. With or without money, if you make a move, if you get out there, things happen for you.”

On numerous occasions when it seemed despair could set in, simple but remarkable things happened for them.

“We cycled from Nairobi to Mombasa. One morning we didn’t have any food so we did about 50K and we could feel we were in trouble: our bodies were shaking. We were in the middle of nowhere. The sun was blazing. Then a car pulls up. We look at the car and we see a can of Coca Cola and Fanta coming out.

“I cycle up to the car, take the cans and rub them all over my face and then the guys in the car give us a bottle of water. We gulped down the drinks. We continued and then the same thing happens. We’re dehydrated so we stop. We’re just talking. Next moment, a truck pulls up in front of us and the driver asks: ‘Where you going’? We say Mombasa and he says, ‘come, I’ll take you’. Just like that.”

Enjoying Ethiopia

One of the most important aspects of the journey was experiencing different cultures, the most enjoyable of which was Ethiopia’s.

“The food is amazing, and the hospitality. People sitting in a restaurant see you walking past and they look at you and invite you to the table. They don’t know you but everyday, every single day this happens. When you engage with the people there they give one hundred per cent eye contact and attention and try and figure out what it is you want. And of course, the women in Ethiopia. They are beautiful. It is not this typical Barbie beauty they put on TV. It is original beauty,” Nathim shares.

Beyond the initial challenges of accommodation and money, others included the climate (that Sudanese sun is harsh, brother! Nathim exclaims), losing a bike in Egypt, stomach ailments and language barriers.

Being back in the developed world has deepened their appreciation for simple things such as hot running water.

Reflecting on what they gained most from the trip Abdullah says: “I saw I was in the hands of Allah. I had to turn to him for everything I needed and that is what I did. I saw my duas sometimes being accepted instantly. I prayed for money and it came from someone I didn’t know. I stopped worrying. I was living in the moment.”

For Nathim, it was seeing how “life has its own rhythm. It’s not about these man-made systems. In some parts of the northern world these are so strong it’s impacting people and making them inhuman. Whereas in Africa people still have a lot of the human spirit in them.”

Keeping the human spirit alive isn’t easy in this day and age. In this context the idea of cycling from one continent to another with no money and no planning doesn’t seem so radical after all.

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