When she graduated from Penn State University in 2015, her professor challenged her to “unlearn.” Not her well-earned education, but her limiting cultural myths and expectations. Discovering the symmetry between Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and Carl Jung’s process of Individuation, Nicole set off to write her own myth by following her bliss. Her journey led her to teach english overseas, to backpack the 500 mile El Camino de Santiago in Spain, and eventually to becoming a core team member with the Happy Kids Center in Bhaktapur, Nepal.
Their vision is to free the children of their community through education, health care, and the abolishment of child marriages. Since 2016, the Happy Kids Center has helped increase school enrollment by 45% and reduced child labor to 8%, with many of those attending school in addition to their work. And they’re just getting started. The Center is establishing long-term stability by hiring local staff and partnering with the government to offer incentive-based scholarships, community meal days, vocational programs, and child-marriage prevention initiatives. Ultimately, they don’t want to be needed anymore. They would rather see the community empowered to create its own change and growth in the future.
As part of that goal, and to continue her quest to “unlearn,” Nicole set out on a solo bicycle journey across Asia and Europe to raise $12,000, enough to cover an entire year’s worth of expenses for the Happy Kids Center.
Nicole’s journey began in Chiang Mai, Thailand on March 8, 2018, the International Day of the Woman. As a woman of symbols and rituals, this was an empowering day for her to embark. Soon, cycling across unknown landscapes became a moving meditation in which Nicole began to unlearn myths about what it means to be a productive human living a meaningful life. She’s learning to live slowly, like the shepherds and herders, but fiercely, like the Kyrgyz horse riders and Mongolian falcon hunters. She is learning to trust and rely on the good nature of people without naïvely closing her eyes to real-world dangers. She’s re-evaluating her needs, wants, and limits. No porcelain doll defined as a sweet, delicate, sexual thing, Nicole is becoming a woman who runs with the wolves.
Embracing the unknown is a key part of the journey for Nicole. With her eyes set on Sevilla, Spain as the finish line, she’s embracing the twists and turns along the way. She fell in love with the Mongolian steppes, trusted the flow through difficult border crossings, and traversed mountain passes and cultural barriers alike. Along the way, Nicole has learned first-hand the importance of caring for the land she travels through, how the most positive impact is often the least physical impact. As a cycle-tourer, she spends most of her time in the spaces between tourist destinations, and may be the first foreigner a local has ever met. Through such experiences, she has learned to respect each place she encounters as belonging to the locals and their culture, even when she doesn’t understand their customs. Traveling with an open heart has given Nicole the opportunity to see the world with a new clarity and shown her how people all over the world really want the same things.
Nicole’s journey continues through the Republic of Macedonia, and her adventures can be followed and supported through her website, Unlearning By Bike. The best way to learn more about the Happy Kids Center is to visit their website at www.happykidscenter.org. There are multiple ways to get involved and support their work directly, including one-time donations to any of their campaigns, volunteering services such as media and web design, and becoming part of the Happiness Tribe through recurring monthly donations. Happiness Tribe members receive quarterly gifts and newsletters as well as invitations to special events.
Joseph Campbell describes the ideal life as being filled with one Hero’s Journey after another. Nicole Heker is certainly filling her life up. And most inspiring of all, she’s not hoarding her experiences for herself, but sharing them and the lessons she’s learning along the way with all of us.
By: Todd Holcomb