The 2019 documentary “Biking Borders,” chronicling the nine-month, 9,320-mile cycling adventure of two college friends, Max Jabs and Nono Konopka, from Berlin to Beijing, opens with the pair struggling to stay upright as they pedal down a snow-covered road in eastern Turkey shortly after Christmas 2018.
These guys are just nuts, I thought. Immediately, I was hooked. I had to watch this travelogue — twice.
Following its opening scene, the film, recently released on Netflix, cuts to Germany and thereafter follows the pair’s journey chronologically, starting in the summer of 2018 at the Brandenburg Gate and ending at China’s Tiananmen Square in the spring of 2019.
Viewers quickly learn that their trek was far more than a sightseeing tour of Europe, the Middle East and Asia. It was fundraiser to build a school in Guatemala, which has the highest illiteracy rate in Central America — roughly 25 percent.
We also learn that the two, despite attending university in the biking capital of the world, the Netherlands, had barely pedaled anywhere before their epic trek. Apparently, Jabs had ridden a little while in school, but Konopka not at all. In fact, the two undertook no special athletic training for their journey. According to a Forbes article on them, they figured they would get in shape on the way.
As noted, these guys just seemed nuts — but in the best of ways.
The two 20-somethings, both German, graduated together with degrees in international marketing from Fontys University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands in 2018, and set out on their journey only months later, headed to some of the most remote, inhospitable, potentially dangerous places on the planet. Yet they were all smiles, veritable fonts of infectious positivity. Chalk it up to irrational exuberance or youthful naiveté, but they just went for it — and succeeded — continually promoting their trek via social media along the way to bolster donations for their cause.
If you watch anything on Netflix this winter, be sure to catch this film. For starters, it just makes you feel good. With so much pain in the world these days, it reminds us that there is hope for humanity, that we are not all irredeemably greedy, self-centered creatures. We can, through the power of belief and teamwork, do enormous good for the world.
Jabs and Konopka started out hoping they might raise 50,000 euros (about $56,500) to build a one-room, cinder-block school in Guatemala. By the time they reached Iran, they had collected that sum and more. As of press time, the project had raised 288,700 euros (about $326,400), enough to construct five schools. Their new goal is a million euros — enough for 20 schools in Guatemala, Ghana and Laos.
Jabs and Konopka partnered with the New York City-based nonprofit Pencils of Promise, which builds the schools. Adam Braun, 38, a Brown University graduate who worked on Wall Street, started the organization in 2008, prompted by a conversation he had had with a little boy on a street in India while in college. The boy was begging for money. What he wanted, though, was a pencil so he could write and learn. Braun gave him one. Later, feeling unfulfilled in high finance, Braun recalled that chance meeting and left behind his safe, well-appointed world for international nonprofit work, starting Pencils of Promise with $25. The organization has since raised $75 million for education in the developing world.
I knew none of this before watching “Biking Borders.” When I learned the story behind the film and Pencils of Promise, I just had to donate to the cause, which can be done at www.bikingborders.com
. The site is in German, but Google Chrome can translate it into English.
Whether or not you donate, you should watch this documentary. The scenery is stunning, and on the road Jabs and Konopka encounter many kind-hearted people who offer them aid when they need it most. And yes, things go awry from time to time, despite all their optimistic planning.
Jabs and Konopka just embrace the people they meet, and people embrace them back. The two seem unafraid, no matter the circumstance, even in countries that are known to be hostile to Westerners. In Iran they are met as something like heroes, with people waving to them, cheering for them and pouring food into their hands — and strangers welcoming them into their homes for a night’s rest and a rice-filled Persian meal.
As an avid cyclist, I am at once envious of and fascinated by their trip. You needn’t love cycling, though, to enjoy this hour-and-a-half-long film. At its core, it’s really about our shared humanity, and these days, we can use all the humanity that we can muster.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.