Unlearning by Bike — A Modern Hero’s Solo Journey from Thailand to Spain

Riding into the myst, braving the unknown. @Jeremyj0hn. Used by permission.

Riding into the myst, braving the unknown. @Jeremyj0hn. Used by permission.

Meet Nicole Heker, a 26 year old world traveler, writer, Director of Development at the Happy Kids Center in Bhaktapur, Nepal, and cycle tourist making her way from Thailand to Spain solo. 

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.

The sheer joy of conquering mountains. @Jeremyj0hn. Used by permission.

The sheer joy of conquering mountains. @Jeremyj0hn. Used by permission.

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.

Beside crystal blue waters. @Jeremyj0hn. Used by permission.

Beside crystal blue waters. @Jeremyj0hn. Used by permission.

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

Gateway to the Ganges

Daily life in the Indian holy cities of Rishikesh, Haridwar, and Devprayag. This region lies in the foothills of the Himalayas where the Ganges River descends from the mountains. I visited not knowing what to expect, and I was both awed and saddened by the experience. The beauty of nature and the Hindu ceremonies contrasted with the poverty and suffering on the streets. The people I met had a high-spirited resilience that seemed to stem from surviving and maintaining their devotion through a challenging life.

SRI LANKA: Island of Dharma

Located at a maritime crossroad, the island of Sri Lanka has been influenced over thousands of years by cultures throughout Asia, largely including its neighbor, India. Home to spectacular riverscapes, numerous Hindu temples, and an array of wildlife, the island is truly something to behold. Here, videographer Piotr Wancerz, captures the people who reside in Sri Lanka going about their daily lives; from schoolchildren to fieldworkers. Explore the island's peaceful beaches, unique cuisine, ancient temples and busy city streets like you've never seen them before in this video.

Revolutionizing Ethical Travel for Women: Meet Purposeful Nomad

Native alpacas graze near the Chimborazo Volcano during Purposeful Nomad’s trip to Ecuador where the group learns about local non-profit, Paqocha’s, mission to restore alpaca populations and meets the community who sheers, cleans, and spins the fleece. Caitlin Murray. Purposeful Nomad.

Native alpacas graze near the Chimborazo Volcano during Purposeful Nomad’s trip to Ecuador where the group learns about local non-profit, Paqocha’s, mission to restore alpaca populations and meets the community who sheers, cleans, and spins the fleece. Caitlin Murray. Purposeful Nomad.

When Caitlin Murray met Alejandro and Agostina, conservationists and owners of Ecuadorian Mashpi Artisanal Chocolate Farm, she’d been living in South America for two years after a solo trip that inspired her to stay.  They showed her how their commitment to regenerating Ecuador’s cloud forest focuses on sustainable farming practices and educating others. They also gave her a taste of their handcrafted Arriba Cocoa bar that won first place in 2016’s International Chocolate Awards.  Inspired by their story and commitment to the environment, Caitlin wanted to bring others to their farm.

Volunteering abroad, solo backpacking, and working in the tourism industry, Caitlin realized in order to access culture and be socially responsible, she must find measurable ways to directly give back to local communities. Driven to create opportunities for women to collectively experience this, she founded Purposeful Nomad. Purposeful Nomad is a travel company that crafts deeper, safer, more ethically responsible travel for women.  They attract women from a variety of backgrounds and ages seeking a different kind of experience.  “I wanted to use tourism as something positive in the world and not just a consumerism ‘let’s take my life and emulate my life somewhere else’ ethos,” Caitlin explains.

Alejandro and Agostina, conservationists and owners of Ecuadorian Mashpi Artisanal Chocolate Farm educate Purposeful Nomad travelers about sustainable farming while sharing their award-winning handcrafted Arriba Cocoa bars. Jessica Scranton. Purposeful Nomad.

Alejandro and Agostina, conservationists and owners of Ecuadorian Mashpi Artisanal Chocolate Farm educate Purposeful Nomad travelers about sustainable farming while sharing their award-winning handcrafted Arriba Cocoa bars. Jessica Scranton. Purposeful Nomad.

Two years after her visit to Mashpi Farm, Caitlin launched her first women-only sustainable social impact travel program in Ecuador - called Food, Farm, Fleece.  The 14-day itinerary integrates local experience and education.  Early on, the group meets with grassroots organization founders of Paqocha, Felipe Segovia and Lorena Perez to learn about their efforts to revive the alpaca population.  Next, they learn from Ecuadorian women how to shear, clean and spin the fleece with the opportunity to purchase handwoven wares directly from the makers.

Going through a transitional time in her life, Sara Carter signed up with Purposeful Nomad to “fulfill her desire to immerse herself in Ecuador's culture, food, and people, while affording her the chance to do it with like-minded women.” Within a few short years, Purposeful Nomad has grown to eight new locations and diversified itineraries - including Cuba, Morocco, India, and Guatemala.

Purposeful Nomad Founder, Caitlin Murray, (second from right) and women’s sustainable travel group gather after a village homestay and camel trek in the Thar desert, India. Jessica Scranton. Purposeful Nomad.

Purposeful Nomad Founder, Caitlin Murray, (second from right) and women’s sustainable travel group gather after a village homestay and camel trek in the Thar desert, India. Jessica Scranton. Purposeful Nomad.

According to the World Tourism Organization as explained in CNBC’s article “Eco-Friendly Tourism” eco-travel is expected to climb to 1.8 billion by 2030.  Since 2000, worldwide destination seeking has jumped by more than 50 percent. As socially responsible travel continues to grow “we make sure our dollars stay local.  We’re not a luxury tour company,” says Caitlin. According to McColl of Ethical Traveler, the best way to travel sustainability is to get to know the local people so the “money stays in the local economy, rather than getting extracted by foreign corporations … as a bonus, it’s a more genuine experience, and a better chance to connect with local people.” Purposeful Nomad prioritizes local from lodging and cuisine to hiring knowledgeable guides.  Caitlin builds partnerships by talking to locals and finding ways to help. She doesn’t assume to know what a place needs. She asks. Would you like to work with us?  How can we help?  

According to MarketWatch, more than 1.6 million people volunteer on vacation each year, paying more than $2 billion annually to help out while traveling.  Nevertheless, it brings into question how much lasting impact they are generating.

Purposeful Nomad focuses on tapping into established grassroots organizations that are already happening on the ground and are a proven success to help measure their impact. “Bigger volunteer organizations, can create incredible infrastructures in developing countries, but once they pull out, the schools are empty.  We don’t want that,” Caitlin explains.

With the mounting popularity of conscious travel, terms like responsible, sustainable and ethical can often be overused or misused in the tourism industry.  Epicure & Culture contributor, Daniela Frendo explains, “In the travel industry, greenwashing refers to tour operators which make eco-trips seem more sustainable and ethical than they actually are.”  Travelers can mitigate this by asking travel companies whether they employ local people and buy locally-sourced products as well as learn more about how invested the company actually is in community-based projects. Aware of greenwashing, Caitlin says, “If you take shortcuts, people are going to know.” She thoroughly vets organizations and individuals to ensure there is transparency in where the money goes.

Back at the Masphi Farm, Alejandro and Agostina’s passion for conservation and keeping the Ecuadorian traditions of the cacao crop alive balances well with dishing out delicious artisanal chocolate.  So, for your next trip, consider traveling with a purpose—it doesn’t get much sweeter than that.





JULIA KRAMER is a New York-based writer and avid traveler who addresses systems changes to social challenges through storytelling and community building.  When she’s not writing or on the road, you will find her cooking something from her urban garden or hiking.  Read more of her articles on travel and social impact at julia-roos.com.

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Shadows of Bangkok

The city of Bangkok is the capital of Thailand and is known for its busy streets and ornate shrines. The videographer, Jiajie Yu, described his intentions for making this film as “wanting to portray Bangkok in a cinematographic way, create a hypnotic, immersive and suggestive experience of the city through its faces, alleys, sound and music.”

Alaska

Tim Kellner recorded this video to display his experience traveling in Alaska. In regard to his experience, Tim states “When I was a kid I would stare up at the giant stuffed grizzly bear in the Buffalo Science Museum and imagine seeing it alive and in the wild. That dream finally came true. I can't even begin to describe with words my experiences in Alaska so hopefully this video will capture just a small piece.” The music in the video is also by Tim.

Spirit of Kenya

Wow Tapes has taken us across the globe through videos demonstrating experiences have been as culturally exhilarating as this one. The filmmakers were accepted with broad smiles and open arms into a wonderful campfire evening with one of the many tribal groups in Masai Mara. Sitting under the moonlight, they heard tribal legends and felt the human-aspect of the animal-dominated savannah.

Corsica

Corsica is a mountainous Mediterranean island with large, thick forests. The places captured in this video are Porto, Plage de Porto, Tête du Chien, Gorges de Spelunca, Capo-Rosso, Tour de Turghiu, Calvi, Boucle de Ficaghiola, Lumio, Plage Arinella, Village d'Occi, Pigna, Eglise Sant’Antonino, l’île-Rousse, Plage de Ghjunchitu, Plage de Lozari, Désert des Agriates, Punta di Furmiguli, Plage de Saleccia, Saint-Florent, Nonza, Plage de Nonza, Eglise Santa-Giulia, Erbalunga, Corte, and Lac de Melu.

The Trail To Kazbegi

What happens when four like-minded adventurers head into one of the world’s wildest mountain ranges with nothing but their mountain bikes and enough food to survive for 10 days?

The answer? What doesn’t happen? Terrifying lightning storms. Raging-river crossings. Snow-covered glacial pass traverses. Mind-melting descents. Constant fights with vicious dogs. Tense encounters with over-zealous border-patrol guards.

All of the above were just another day following “The Trail to Kazbegi,” a self-supported mountain-bike mission through the highest reaches of the Caucasus Mountains in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Our four-man team—adventure filmmaker Joey Schusler, Bike magazine editor Brice Minnigh, photographer Ross Measures and mountain man Sam Seward—spent half of June 2015 exploring the crown jewels of the Georgian High Caucasus on a feature assignment for Bike.

CANADA: The Push

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A Winter Journey into the Canadian Arctic

I twisted around, trying to free my arms from inside my jacket and bring them up to my head. The two hats I’d been wearing had fallen off and the cold night air now gnawed painfully at my ears. Fumbling inside my sleeping bag, awkwardly moving countless batteries, bottles, and fur boots from underneath me, I eventually found the hats and pulled them down over my ears. Through the numbness of gloved hands, I tried to locate the toggle at the hem of my bag. Several frustrated attempts later, I seized it and pulled the sleeping bag in tighter around me. It was 1.00am and I hadn’t slept a wink. 

The sun had set hours earlier and the northern lights had begun their nightly dance across the sky. A glittering green hue shimmered over the pale snow that lay beyond my open tent door. I switched on my head torch and its beam flashed against walls that were stiffened and brittle, encased in a hard veneer of ice. The thermometer showed -30˚C, or maybe just a touch below. Despite my tiredness, this was an incredible place to be: high in Canada’s Northwest Territory, up above the Arctic Circle, camping on a frozen river. I’d spent the past year travelling from the southern tip of South America to this point, now just a few days’ ride away from the frozen shores of the Arctic Sea marking the halfway point to my bike ride around the world. I was following nature’s frozen highways, taking to the ribbons of white that spill out across the land this far north; the rivers that are lifeless until spring when the ice gives way to the thaw.

But lying in that tent, alone, was a scary place to be. The walls began to quiver and shake and, adjusting my hats once more to clear them of my ears, I caught the unmistakable sound of a storm coming in. The gathering violence of the wind crescendoed in a deep, rumbling, basso growl as my tent sprung to life, buckling under the growing pressure. I peered out of the door to see no more green light dancing, no more stars shining overhead. Clouds had already gathered and I struggled to make out the banks of the river from where I lay. I quickly zipped the door closed, crawled into my bag and lay there, eyes wide open, listening to what was coming. 

The roar was overwhelming – chillingly thunderous and seemingly intent on tearing apart my diminutive shelter. Ice and snow shook free from the walls, showering me, pulsating and shivering likes motes in a snow globe. I lay utterly still, gripping the insides of my bag. I closed my eyes, trying not to imagine just how far away from help I was. I knew then that this storm, which had been forecast to hit some days from now, would be a game-changer. The thin cut of clear navigable ice I’d been cycling on down the river would be swamped. I knew I was stuck.

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At some point in the early hours of the morning the storm passed, leaving in its savage wake a tent battered and bruised, and hanging limply from buckled poles. I turned over, shifting into a more comfortable position, waiting for sleep to wash over me once more, but in the eerie silence that hung over the landscape I caught a faint, far-off sound. Somewhere in the trees that towered over the river came the unmistakable sound of a wolf’s howl. Shit.

I’d passed through the small village of Fort McPherson the day before and there I’d been approached by a man. He’d heard about my ride and had come to impart some advice: be careful of those damn wolves, he told me. It’s been a long winter and they’ll be getting hungry. He then offered me his gun, but I couldn’t tell if he was being serious or not, so politely refused. He slapped me hard on the back and went on his way, but the image of wolves prowling the snow and ice ahead lingered. Now, the howls clung to the night air, first intensifying and growing louder, then joined by yet more cries. I fixed shut my eyes, willing the noise away, berating my mind for leaping to all sorts of unpalatable conclusions. I was gripped by a cold, dark fear, but eventually, mercifully, the baying faded. 

When morning finally arrived, and my eyes flashed open, I knew what lay ahead of me. I’d ridden roughly 100km from that last village, and the next one was about 60km further on. My ride down the river was supposed to be for only two days. I’d packed food for three, just to be sure. Crawling out of my tent I squeezed my feet painfully into frozen boots, old, second-hand army things, and took a few steps. My feet broke through the barely frozen crust and plunged into deep, crystalline snow beneath. Where bare ice had been the previous day, the only possible passage I had down the river had been swallowed up in the night, engulfed in thick, pillow drift snow; the wilderness had asserted its authority once more. I began melting snow to make breakfast and took stock of my situation. I had two days’ of food, 60km remaining distance to cover, and a 50kg bike. The snow was deep and soft; I knew I wasn’t going to be breaking any speed records. I grabbed a handful of oats and threw them in my pot – it didn’t look like much, but it was time to start rationing. I guessed I’d be pushing for four days, so unless I happened to stumble upon a miraculously well-stocked winter cabin, I had to make two days’ worth of food stretch.

It was tough to get going that morning, to get the tent packed away onto the bike, to leave my warm sleeping bag knowing what lay ahead. I won’t lie: I was unnerved by my situation, perhaps even scared. I knew how far out of my depth I was – a couple of lapses in concentration, exposing my fingers, face, or feet for too long, would be disastrous out here. I picked up the bike and stood it in the snow. It was time to start pushing.

That first day went by surprisingly easily. I made slow progress through the snow, but it was progress nonetheless. Somehow I managed to flick the ‘positive’ switch in my brain; I was overwhelmed neither by the cold, nor the hunger, not even by the relentless fear of wolves. But when that first day was done, when I was again tucked up in my sleeping bag, that switch turned off. Adrenaline seeped away. Those fears bloomed fresh and savage again and a sense of hopelessness washed over me. I’d come to the Arctic in winter to challenge myself, and to see a place few get the opportunity to experience. I had come in search of romantic solitude, to live within the pages of a Jack London novel; to travel through a land so culturally prominent in our ideas of adventure and heroism. Stuck on this desolate river, far away from friends and family, I realised that rather than experiencing sweet solitude, I was desperately lonely. All that had compelled me to come here, the emptiness, the beauty, the challenge, now towered over me and threatened to crush me into submission. Words jumped from Jack London’s pen that I instantly knew to be true: ‘The unending vastness crushed him into the remotest recesses of his own mind, pressing out all the false ardours and undue self values until he perceived himself finite.’

For three days I pushed my bike, by inches closer and closer, painfully slowly against a backdrop so vast I felt like an inadvertent drop of paint on a pure white canvas. Late on that third day, tired, lost, and seized by loneliness, I made out two bobbing lights closing in on me. I lifted the goggles from my face to make sure I wasn’t imagining it. Yet there they were, two lights approaching, and with them two men on snowmobiles. I waved and pushed my bike forward. They pulled alongside, switched off their engines, and beamed at me. I was confused. I couldn’t figure out what they were doing there. ‘We’re the local Search and Rescue team,’ one said. ‘We came to find you’. 

I was stunned. I later discovered that news of my journey had reached the town of Aklavik and, worried I’d not been seen since before the storm, the local police had dispatched a local Search and Rescue team to find me. They radioed back to the village and their words almost made me laugh: ‘We’ve found the guy here on Husky River, we’ll see if he wants a ride.’ They told me that the village was only a couple of kilometres away and that I’d pretty much made it. I didn’t think twice about jumping on the back of their snowmobiles. I wanted nothing more than to get off this river that had trapped me for three days as quickly as possible. As I stowed my bike and the rest of my kit, I caught sight of the gear they themselves had brought and I realised then the seriousness of my situation. They carried a gun for the wolves, and a body sled, just in case.

BEN PAGE is a multi-award winning filmmaker, adventurer and photographer based in Yorkshire. He has spent the past few years travelling to some of the world’s remotest corners in search of wild and diverse adventures and experiences, usually on two wheels.

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON SIDETRACKED

Travel to Cuba

 

A return to the past, old cars, colonial houses, and decoration anchored in the 50s. Cuba, marked by dictatorships and political revolutions, maintains its lifestyle intact. A tour of the north and center of the island: Havana, Viñales, Cayo Jutías, Playa Larga, Bahía Cochinos, Playa Girón, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, Cayo Santa María.

MONGOLIA: In Search of Warriors

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LIKE ALL WORTHY QUESTS, MY FASCINATION WITH MONGOLIA BEGINS WITH A STORY. A STORY THAT TURNS ITSELF LIKE POLISHED STONE WITHIN MY FINGERS.

A hunter, old rifle by his side, returns with a few marmots, highly prized delicacies throughout the Mongolian countryside. / A simple road, common in Mongolia, calls to mind this native proverb, “If you endeavour, the fate will favour you.”

A hunter, old rifle by his side, returns with a few marmots, highly prized delicacies throughout the Mongolian countryside. / A simple road, common in Mongolia, calls to mind this native proverb, “If you endeavour, the fate will favour you.”

This is a tale I have replayed so often since childhood, that when I close my eyes, the characters appear, fully defined, as if I could touch them. At the center is my grandfather, Louis, a young French soldier fighting in World War II. I see him then in black and white, even though when he sat me on his knee, decades later, to tell his story, he was colorful in every way imaginable. It was as if my grandfather had grown up through a period of time when everything existed only in shades of black and grey, as if the entire world with its violence and scarcity had the color sucked right out of it.

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Aerial view of Khvod (Ховд), blanketed by snow, in western Mongolia. / Immense landscapes on a 3,200 km drive through eastern Mongolia.

Aerial view of Khvod (Ховд), blanketed by snow, in western Mongolia. / Immense landscapes on a 3,200 km drive through eastern Mongolia.

But then he would tell the part about the Mongol army. About how he was captured and sent to a German prison camp with British, American, and French soldiers. How the camp was eventually liberated, late in 1944, by a small and mighty troop fighting alongside the Allies against the Germans. They were the Mongolian People’s Army, established as a secondary army under Soviet command. As a young child, to hear my grandfather tell it, these liberators loomed large in vibrant, audacious color, a brilliant contrast to the stark landscape that surrounded them all.

Herders from Ulaangom (Улаангом), the “Red Valley”. / Drinking Mongol tea, made with mare’s milk and salt, at Üüreg Lake (Үүрэг нуур).

Herders from Ulaangom (Улаангом), the “Red Valley”. / Drinking Mongol tea, made with mare’s milk and salt, at Üüreg Lake (Үүрэг нуур).

I was seven or eight years old when my grandfather would tell me this story, and I remember the grin on his face and the tears in his eyes as he told his tale: “The Mongol army charged the prison and the Germans were scared to death at the sight of them. Never before had anyone seen a people like this. They were fierce and the Germans ran away. They ran for their lives.” He told me that afterwards the freed soldiers and the Mongols kept hugging one other and celebrated long into the night.

This is how my grandfather’s life was saved.

As a young boy this account had a massive impact on me. That mysterious Mongol Army of men who saved my grandfather’s life; they saved my life.

A young rider bathes with his horse at Buir Lake (Буйр Нуур). Mongolians call wild horses “takhi,” which means “spirit,” and horses are profoundly important to them. They believe that one rides to the afterlife on a horse.

A young rider bathes with his horse at Buir Lake (Буйр Нуур). Mongolians call wild horses “takhi,” which means “spirit,” and horses are profoundly important to them. They believe that one rides to the afterlife on a horse.

Mongolia.

THE NAME HAS ALWAYS LINGERED IN MY MIND AS A COUNTRY WITH A MYTHICAL CONNOTATION.

Illuminated bands of rain sweep towards a group of “ger” or yurts, huddled on the shores of Üüreg Lake (Үүрэг нуур) in western Mongolia.

Illuminated bands of rain sweep towards a group of “ger” or yurts, huddled on the shores of Üüreg Lake (Үүрэг нуур) in western Mongolia.

When I got older, I worked as a photo assistant to a high-end fashion photographer in New York, learning the craft and saving a bit of money. For three years I was absorbed in that world of fashion, which was very glamorous and comfortable, but I was most attracted by the travel and began to long for more. At some point, I determined to go to Mongolia and see the place with my own eyes. In the summer of 2001, I took a month and set off.

While I brought my cameras on that first trip, a bit of equipment and film, I was mostly thrilled to put the experience of traveling first. This journey was more a pilgrimage. I have since returned almost annually for fifteen years, driven by a desire to capture the majesty and serene nature of the Mongolian landscape and inhabitants through my photography. At first I sought to discover the country of my imagination, but with every trip, my relationship with the land and its people deepened and became my own.

Timeless reflection. Surrounded by deserted, low mountains, Tolbo Lake (Толбо Нуур) in western Mongolia. / Stopping for tea, our hosts were caring for their grandchildren. Their nomadic home was quite rustic with carpets for side panels, a long-gone style rarely seen today.

Timeless reflection. Surrounded by deserted, low mountains, Tolbo Lake (Толбо Нуур) in western Mongolia. / Stopping for tea, our hosts were caring for their grandchildren. Their nomadic home was quite rustic with carpets for side panels, a long-gone style rarely seen today.

“Even when quite a child I felt two conflicting sensations in my heart: the horror of life and the ecstasy of life.” — Baudelaire, Intimate Journals

On that first trip to Mongolia in 2001, I took a photograph of a mother and her infant son at their home on the shores of Üüreg lake, in the western part of the country. I traveled with an easy to pack, black piece of fabric. The light in this country is so beautiful and the fabric was capable of diffusing it to great effect, especially when shooting portraits of people.

Five years later, in 2006, I returned to the region where this family had once resided and sought them out. I often make small prints for the people I photograph and, if lucky enough to see them again, I like to give them as gifts. People in Mongolia, especially in the countryside, live great distances from each other and do not typically have access to this type of technology. I asked my guide to help me find this particular family as most in this area tend to be nomadic and the surroundings are constantly changing. We drove around the area asking people if they knew where we might locate them. Eventually, someone recognized the family and showed us the way.

A Mongolian “ger” (гэр) or yurt, covered with skins and felt, the traditional home of nomads living on the expansive steppes of central Asia.

A Mongolian “ger” (гэр) or yurt, covered with skins and felt, the traditional home of nomads living on the expansive steppes of central Asia.

We arrived, as you do in this part of the world, completely unannounced. The family remembered me, gave us a warm greeting and served us a tea. After we had eaten, I pulled out the photograph and handed it to the couple.

The mother picked up the picture, looked at it and there grew a void, her face filled with great sadness as she left the room. Her husband picked up the photograph and stood, his eyes swelling with tears. Their baby, he explained, had died of a virus three weeks after our first visit. They had never seen any picture of him. Here was this image allowing a mother and father to reconnect to their lost son. For a moment, it was like a resurrection—that powerful. My guide and I drove the four hours back in complete silence, as if we were under the spell of what had just happened. It was one of the most profound moments I have ever felt, creating that deepest human connection.

Mother and infant son, in their home on the shores of Üüreg Lake (Үүрэг нуур) in western Mongolia.

Mother and infant son, in their home on the shores of Üüreg Lake (Үүрэг нуур) in western Mongolia.

“There is not a particle of life, which does not bear poetry within it.” — Gustave Flaubert

While in the countryside, especially, you can feel the influence of Buddhism. In every ger, the Mongolian term for their traditional tents, you will find a small altar with a Buddhist icon. In each village there is a monastery. It is a subtle presence, one felt primarily in how people relate to life. Death is a passage, a journey. It happens, it is anticipated as part of the life cycle. Does death trigger sadness? Yes, but life goes on. The religious culture is something that seems to create an overall sense of morality. In my experience, Mongols are extremely fair people. You ask their point of view and they tell you precisely what they think.

Horse riders at rest in Horkon, central Mongolia. / Baasan Lama, a monk at Bulgan Temple, a Buddhist retreat in the Gobi Desert.

Horse riders at rest in Horkon, central Mongolia. / Baasan Lama, a monk at Bulgan Temple, a Buddhist retreat in the Gobi Desert.

In Mongolia, nothing happens the way you want or expect.

For me, coming from a western culture where everything is linear, this was an awakening. If you are traveling, you only know when you are leaving, never when you will arrive. I found that amazing. In a country as immense as this, the elements are so powerful there is no control. There may be a snow or sand storm. Things that can physically prevent you from moving forward on your journey. You cannot continue… until you can.

Two schoolboys, wearing fur-lined boots, walk home through the snow near the village of Altai (Алтай) in the far west of Mongolia.

Two schoolboys, wearing fur-lined boots, walk home through the snow near the village of Altai (Алтай) in the far west of Mongolia.

I have learned that most of the time when things are not going as planned, that is often when the situation is the most visually exciting. We have to go a different direction than where we came from and stay one more night all because of a flat tire. But, that is when something special happens. We end up saying afterwards, “Wow. Mind blown.”

Take, for example, the following series of images, which illustrate exactly the type of unexpected scenarios that gift themselves to you while traveling through Mongolia. We had a plan to fly direct from the capital, Ulaanbaatar, to Tsaatan lands, to visit reindeer herders on the Russian border, but for some reason our flight got canceled. This happens a lot. We had to stay one more night in the city, get on a different flight to somewhere further away, then rent a car and drive back across this vast lake, Khövsgöl, one of the biggest lakes in Mongolia. This arduous journey, all to reach the town we were originally attempting to fly to directly. I was fuming. I had just three weeks for this trip and now I was losing two entire days.

The Altai Mountains, seen on a flight from Ulaanbaatar to Ölgii. / A bridge near the village of Altai (Алтай), a few miles from China’s border.

The Altai Mountains, seen on a flight from Ulaanbaatar to Ölgii. / A bridge near the village of Altai (Алтай), a few miles from China’s border.

During the winter months, this lake is completely frozen, often an ice layer of up to six feet, and instead of taking the dirt road, often filled with potholes and hard to navigate, trucks and cars travel directly across the iced over lake. There is a risk, of course. As the drive went on, the truck we were following suddenly began to collapse into the ice, without any warning.

A warmer wind from the south had been blowing in recent days, making the upper layer of ice more fragile. Everyone in our vehicle shouted out in shock “Arrgh!” and we stopped as far away as possible, as the ice in the epicenter was quite fragile. While we contemplated the situation, the owner of the truck, who had at first abandoned it, along with the other passengers, walked back to the vehicle to retrieve his belongings. While he was still in the truck, we heard a massive roar. A roar so deafening we were surrounded by the thunderous sound echoing from the ice.

We knew something was about to happen. Everyone ran from the truck, as it sunk even deeper, seemingly fixed into the ice. Immovable.
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What happened next?

Well, the Mongols are impressively strong willed and determined. They called for help and a few hours later a couple of other trucks arrived.

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Together, the group waited for night to fall, so that the ice was again solid and reliable ground, and then they literally pulled it out of the ice. So badass.

That truck was filled with wood, likely bound for a construction site. There was too much potentially lost revenue trapped in that one ice circle. Fortunately, no one was hurt that day, but locals have told me stories of jeeps and trucks, loaded with occupants, disappearing entirely in the frozen lake after the ice had cracked, never to be heard of again. Only later did we realize how close we were to possibly meeting the same fate.

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This lake was full of unusual surprises. Earlier the same day, we had come across two young men lying on the ice, in the middle of nowhere. We stopped the car and got out, but they did not move. They just stared. They were completely drunk, wasted. It was still morning! They were just lying there waiting for something.

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I love the perspective, the color, and texture of the ice in this image. Knowing the strange backstory makes it even better. I had not planned this particular journey, but some of the most powerful images I shot during that trip happened thanks to that canceled flight. In these types of consistently disruptive circumstances, an overall shift in perspective takes place. In retrospect, the entire experience turned out to be perfect.

A boy from Kharkhorin (Хархорин) wearing a traditional “deel”or robe, with a silk sash. / Two brothers from Khövsgöl Lake (Хөвсгөл нуур).

A boy from Kharkhorin (Хархорин) wearing a traditional “deel”or robe, with a silk sash. / Two brothers from Khövsgöl Lake (Хөвсгөл нуур).

Looking back, all my visits to Mongolia have been marked by unexpected moments like these. One place in particular is layered with memories. Many years ago, when I first arrived on the Trans Siberian railway, with no plans and little idea of a destination, I saw a tiny blue dot on the map, in the far west of the country. I could just make out the words, Üüreg Nuur, a lake. Somehow attracted to it, I decided that was where I was going to go. A few days later, I took the picture of the mother and her baby son, and over the years, I have returned many times, making friends and photographing most of the families living there. I have seen toddlers become teenagers, teenagers grow into young adults, and older men pass away. The full cycle of life.

Wrapped baby, held by his sister, at Üüreg Lake in western Mongolia.

Wrapped baby, held by his sister, at Üüreg Lake in western Mongolia.

Last summer, I returned to Üüreg Lake once again, in June, traveling with two local guides. At some point we stopped because we came across a group of herders who had all of their sheep laid down by the water so they could shear them. When I pointed my camera towards this man, he lifted the sheep high up above his head. It was completely unexpected. Intrigued, I shot a few frames and then asked him, “Why did you do that?” He said, “I don’t know — it is something I have always wanted to do.” Often photography inspires a certain playfulness and spontaneity; there is something fundamentally human about posing for a camera.

A local herder shearing his sheep on the shores of Üüreg Lake (Үүрэг нуур) in western Mongolia.

A local herder shearing his sheep on the shores of Üüreg Lake (Үүрэг нуур) in western Mongolia.

Perhaps, above all, in this country, I have learned how to adapt.

Nothing unfolds as you might first imagine, but these unanticipated moments bring rich and beautiful gifts. Traveling here has brought me a new perspective, even some wisdom, particularly as it relates to being attached to expectations and schedules. Over time, I have relaxed my grip on the rigidity of my own culture and let go enough to accept what will be. I have applied this in my everyday life. Even if I am on an intense shoot for a commercial job, I now trust that everything will eventually work out just fine.

Two friends go out for a ride near their home by Üüreg Lake (Үүрэг нуур) in western Mongolia.

Two friends go out for a ride near their home by Üüreg Lake (Үүрэг нуур) in western Mongolia.

“A strong cold wind gets up from the W.N.W — that is to say, at our back — but we are on a desolate steppe, where we can find neither shrub nor anything else which can help to combat the cold that it is beginning to be unpleasant. On the other hand, we come upon some very pretty flowers, lovely wild pansies and edelweiss that would delight the heart of an Alpinist.” 

FRENCH EXPLORER, GABRIEL BONVALOT

Across Thibet, The Mongols, 1891

Buddhist monastery in the summer months. / A frozen river winds through the stark landscape, on a flight from Ulaanbaatar to Ölgii.

Buddhist monastery in the summer months. / A frozen river winds through the stark landscape, on a flight from Ulaanbaatar to Ölgii.

You will find two contrasting dimensions in Mongolia, bound both by culture and geography. It is the 19th largest country in the world, yet there are only three million people living there. Close to half that population is located in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, today the country’s industrial and financial heart, where technology has evolved considerably.

Meanwhile, the rest of Mongolia’s people are dispersed all over the country in small villages and towns, with some thirty percent still choosing a nomadic or semi-nomadic way of life, moving across the land with their horses. People may have a satellite dish or cell phone, but connection is erratic. Here, life is very slow; it hasn’t really changed over time.

A remote satellite dish provides the evening’s entertainment. / A herder smokes a cigarette rolled from a scrap of newspaper.

A remote satellite dish provides the evening’s entertainment. / A herder smokes a cigarette rolled from a scrap of newspaper.

Vast plains and beautiful landscapes are the hallmark of these remote lands. The air is pure. The food is very simple. Essentially, a meal is meat that has been taken from a sheep killed that morning and cooked with some flour. The customary tea is called suutei tsai and made with mare’s milk and salt. My initial physical experience in Mongolia is always an exponential energy increase from the combination of fresh air, vast open space, outdoor activity, and unprocessed food intake. It is amazing. It toughens you up — all that vitality and energy.

A herder, his wife, and their five young children make their way to winter pastures, transporting their “ger” or yurt and all their belongings.

A herder, his wife, and their five young children make their way to winter pastures, transporting their “ger” or yurt and all their belongings.

There is a spiritual effect as well. Mongolia, overall, is a very flat country, and you can see for many kilometers. Nothing to obstruct you. Somehow, being able to see so far away brings you back to the moment, to where you stand right now. You float through that space. There is a reflection that delivers your own reflection directly back to you. This sense of place and of self, it centers you. In Mongolia, I am able to stay in the moment much more powerfully than other places. The strength and vibrance coupled with the spiritual energy from grounding in the present, is a restorative experience.

“Та өндөр бүтээхийг хүсэж байгаа бол, Хэрэв та гүн ухаж байх ёстой.” — If you want to build high, you must dig deep.

MONGOLIAN PROVERB

Bayanzag (Улаан Эрэг) or the “Flaming Cliffs” in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert are said to appear to be on fire as the sun sets.

Bayanzag (Улаан Эрэг) or the “Flaming Cliffs” in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert are said to appear to be on fire as the sun sets.

For years, I wanted to photograph the Kazakh, a robust people living in the extreme western part of the country high in the Altai Mountains, who traditionally hunt on horseback with golden eagles. In December 2015, the opportunity finally presented itself. I had two weeks; everything was arranged. The eagle hunters are all ethnic Kazakh their ancestors having fled to neighbouring Mongolia during the mid to late 19th century, in the face of the advance of the Russian Empire troops during the communist era. Some speak Mongol; many don’t. They are Muslim, rather than Buddhist, and for most of the 20th century they remained an isolated, tightly knit community.

The hunter, Jaidarkhan, an ethnic Kazakh whose ancestors fled to Mongolia, and his eagle.

The hunter, Jaidarkhan, an ethnic Kazakh whose ancestors fled to Mongolia, and his eagle.

Living by the ancient art of eagle hunting, I found them to be very generous, kind people. In Kazakh, the word qusbegi, or falconer, comes from the words qus (“bird”) and bek (“lord”), translating as “lord of birds.”

These days, however, only a few Kazakh are still traditional hunters. Some continue primarily for show, as there is a new tourist economy that can support the fading art form, especially each October, when eagle hunting customs are displayed at the Kazakh’s annual Golden Eagle Festival.

In good years, Kuantkhan Ologban and his eagle catch around 30 animals. Some years, none are caught at all due to extreme weather.

In good years, Kuantkhan Ologban and his eagle catch around 30 animals. Some years, none are caught at all due to extreme weather.

Winter in Mongolia often brings raw, biting winds, and extremely challenging conditions, so our journey to reach Kazakh lands was demanding. When we finally arrived, utterly exhausted, in temperatures of –30°C, I quickly became sick with a fever and was forced to stay in bed for seven days. I was deeply disappointed. My guide, and friend, Enkhdul, with whom I’ve crossed the entire country many times, in all seasons, from the Gobi Desert to Tsaatan lands in the extreme north, and from the eastern plains to the Altaii mountains in the far west, told me, “We are not leaving! You have been talking about coming here, to do this, for years.” So, I waited it out and got better. However, I had only three days to shoot everything.

Hunters value their eagles immensely. In winter, they sleep inside with the family. / Alpam, who is learning the art of hunting from his father.

Hunters value their eagles immensely. In winter, they sleep inside with the family. / Alpam, who is learning the art of hunting from his father.

The Kazakh community is quite incredible and their stories fantastic: how they proceed, scaling remote and cragged mountain peaks to find the eagle they will raise. The relationship that forms between the hunter and eagle has a special connection and symmetry that can only come from time and great care. Sometimes a hunter will work with an eagle for ten or twenty years.

Dalaikhan, a champion hunter, with his 2-year-old eagle. He is wearing fox-skin clothes from previous successful hunts.

Dalaikhan, a champion hunter, with his 2-year-old eagle. He is wearing fox-skin clothes from previous successful hunts.

As we were so far north, in the middle of December, the hours of daylight were few. The sun was consistently low on the horizon, casting a golden, soft light on everything and everyone it touched. But once the sun disappeared, the temperatures plummeted to a frigid –20°C. My analogue camera would jam and stop working completely, forcing me to end for the day. Once again, gifts and challenges.

After just one day, my camera and I had become seemingly invisible, to all but the inquisitive eyes of the youngest child.

After just one day, my camera and I had become seemingly invisible, to all but the inquisitive eyes of the youngest child.

Like so many other times in this vast and windswept country, my expectations did not match the reality. I had planned for two weeks and received a mere three days. But, those brief days surpassed anything I could have hoped for in quality and depth of relationship. Their grace and exceptional strength was tangible. Here, among the sweeping landscape and rugged way of life that shapes the inhabitants of this part of the world, I could imagine the men who rescued my grandfather.

The mountainous landscape dwarfs two Kazakh hunters and their horses in the far west of Mongolia, near the village of Altai (Алтай).

The mountainous landscape dwarfs two Kazakh hunters and their horses in the far west of Mongolia, near the village of Altai (Алтай).

While the heroic ferocity of my grandfather’s Mongol Army certainly inspired my obsession with this country, we are all products of our experience. Regardless of culture, each of us are indelibly shaped by the events and history of the generations that precede us. I may have first come to Mongolia in search of warriors, but I return again and again having discovered raw beauty and elegance in a country equally ethereal as it is grounded.

Casting a diffuse, shimmering light, the winter sun was low in the sky, as we watched this young herder and his cattle pass by.

Casting a diffuse, shimmering light, the winter sun was low in the sky, as we watched this young herder and his cattle pass by.

Maybe it is the influence of my professional background, but I have grown attuned to noticing elegance, even in the wildest places in the world. There is always a glimpse of quiet splendor, an angle that calls out something beautiful. Perhaps the knotting of a silk cord along a side pocket or a belt that is latched around a robe, maybe hair done a certain way. I am attracted to these graceful elements and know when I see them that I will make a photo.

Summer rain clouds gather over the lush grazing pastures on the shores of Üüreg Lake (Үүрэг нуур). / A farmer, pausing for a moment, in his day’s work. / A young woman wearing a traditional “deel” or robe.

Summer rain clouds gather over the lush grazing pastures on the shores of Üüreg Lake (Үүрэг нуур). / A farmer, pausing for a moment, in his day’s work. / A young woman wearing a traditional “deel” or robe.

All of this is an odyssey. In Mongolia, this journey is most often about shooting in difficult places and seeking the elegant angle. I found photography very late in my life, but am thrilled to discover the range of perspective it offers. It is a learning process that requires great sensitivity. There are constant questions: How am I able to emotionally perceive what I see? What will it take to tell this story in a unique way? All of this fascinates me. This is my passion project. After fifteen years, I have a much better sense of what makes my work distinctive. My sense is that over time, my images have become more artful. Still, this is a work in progress.

I am always exploring.

 

COMING SOON

For years, I have been working to collect material for a retrospective book of my photographic work and experiences in Mongolia. In Fall of 2018, I will be publishing a limited collectible edition of 1,000 books in a large format (17 inches x 14 inches) with more than 250 pages. There will also be a handful of special editions that are offered with a signed print and a special book encasement. Follow along on my Instagram @fredericlagrange to keep up-to-date.

 

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA.

 

FRÉDÉRIC LAGRANGE

Photographer & Director based in Brooklyn, NYC shooting for a diverse range of clients worldwide. Capturing nuanced human stories through evocative color & black and white photography.

fredericlagrange.com

 

MOVE

3 guys, 44 days, 11 countries, 18 flights, 38 thousand miles, an exploding volcano, 2 cameras and almost a terabyte of footage... all to turn 3 ambitious linear concepts based on movement, learning and food ....into 3 beautiful and hopefully compelling short films.....

= a trip of a lifetime.

Move, eat, learn.

Hiking the "Deadly" Kalalau Trail

Ryan J. Harris and his travel mates attempt to hike up the dangerous Kalalau Trail in Hawaii in pursuit of the best pizza in the world. Usually you just pick up the phone and call Dominos but sometimes to get a good slice you got to put in work. They hiked the Kalalau Trail in search of a mystical pizza maker they had gotten word of.

Two Years in Cambodia

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It all started on a tuk tuk ride…

I had just landed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, after covering the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) in Tacloban, Philippines.

Although I had never been there before, Cambodia was already the place I had decided to call home for the next year, or more. It was May 2014. The sky was still painted in black when I got off the plane and was engulfed by the warm and humid weather that, as I would learn over the following months, so much characterizes the country, especially at that time of the year.

As I exited the airport, all I could see was a chaotic frenzy of hands waiving and pointing to their tuktuks. They were all wearing similar clothes – sandals, a pair of pants and a shirt – and they all had big, unequivocally authentic smiles on their faces.

I don’t know if by instinct or pure luck, I ended up going with a driver who would later become a great friend of mine. Bunchai. His tuktuk was painted in red and it was so carefully and effusively decorated that it reminded me of the carnival parades we have in my home country Brazil.

As we cruised the quiet streets towards Tuol Tom Poung, a central neighborhood where a fellow photographer would host me until I found my own place, I just couldn’t believe in what I was experiencing. What was once just a dream was now a reality. I was indeed beginning a new life in Southeast Asia.

The Sun was just rising above the Tonle Sap and people were already doing choreographic exercises along the river promenade. Buddhist monks were walking around with their orange and red robes – some of them holding iPads -, and entire families were impressively balancing on the top of tiny and seemingly fragile motorbikes.

I fell in love immediately. I felt at home.

During the two years I was fortunate to spend in the country I obviously saw extreme poverty and shocking social-economic inequality. I witnessed – and documented – several and horrifying human rights violations. I learned about the atrocities and crimes against humanity committed by the Khmer Rouge, which took the lives of over 2 million people.

But I also saw remarkable resilience and an inspiring ability to find joy even in the most challenging circumstances. I saw generosity and kindness. Faith and Gratitude. Compassion and Happiness. I saw a younger generation trying to leave the past behind and embrace the future.


I explored remote and impressive temples from the 12th century; I spent relaxing days at paradisiac islands and sleepy river towns; I zigzagged through the chaotic traffic in Phnom Penh with my 1989 Vespa; and I had way too many beers with my local neighbors (most of them tuktuk drivers), who would always invite for a beer every time they saw me getting to or leaving my house. They never accepted a No for an answer.

I worked for magazines and I cooperated with many local and international NGOs. I photographed every single day during the time I was there and through this daily wanders I learned to see the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary.

Cambodia has taught me lessons that I will forever carry on my heart and I hope I will have the chance go back in the near future. The recent news that the only opposition party has been dismantled is certainly worrying and it makes me think of all the friends I left there.

If up until recently Hun Sen – who has been in power since 1985! – at least tried to keep a democratic appearance to his government, it seems that now he is no longer concerned about exposing the true face of his (totalitarian) regime. Cambodians, who have gone through the horror of Khmer Rouge just a few decades ago, certainly deserve better and brighter days.

Bunchai, the first friend I made in the country, is still working at his day job and driving his tuktuk in the evenings and early mornings. The day we took that same way to the airport, but on the opposite direction, two years after our first encounter, was unusually cloudy and gray. I don’t remember seeing much during our ride. Perhaps I had too many thoughts and memories going through my mind…

When we finally reach the airport, after a trip that seemed to have last for an eternity, I give Bunchai a big hug and just can’t hold my tears. I ask him to take care of himself and his family, and I tell him that if he ever needs any help he must call me immediately.

He gives me that very same smile he had greeted me with two years earlier, and says, with both determination and confidence:

“No worry, my friend. I will be fine! See you soon!”

 

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON ROAM MAGAZINE.

 

BERNARDO SALCE

Bernardo Salce is a a Brazilian photographer whose work seeks to celebrate cultural diversity and raise social-environmental awareness. Having previously lived in Cambodia and Colombia, he is now based in San Diego, California. You can follow his work @bernardosalce.

http://www.bernardosalce.com/

Traveling Alone Is Insanity, But Do It Anyway

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I wrote this post last year when I returned from a 4-month road trip across the country..

I still believe everything I wrote.

I just returned from a 12,000 mile, 4-month long road trip. Alone.

Some of the perks of traveling alone include:

  • Doing whatever you want.
  • Eating whenever you want.
  • Being able to pause.

If you’re anything like me, you’re constantly consumed with other people having a good time. When I’m traveling with someone, I’ll sacrifice what I want to do to keep them happy.

I mean, I know that this sounds selfish, but I’m 23 and I need to be a little selfish before I get married and spend the rest of my life with someone. I’ve learned so much about myself even after four months, which is why you need to do a road trip all alone.

Loneliness Is Good For You

You need to feel that loneliness, because only then will you be able to face any inner demons that you might have. A twelve-hour drive kind of forces you to think. It’s just you and the road.

Trust me, when I was out in the middle of Montana, navigating my way through beautiful countryside, I had time to think. I had time to appreciate the little things, too, like talking to a gas station attendant after seeing nobody for days.

Just do the damn thing.

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Feeling Terrible On The Road Is Okay

My first night on the road trip I felt deep despair. I wasn’t happy at all. I was in New Orleans, far from my home, and I knew nobody in this city. My gosh, traveling alone at that moment felt like the worst decision I could’ve ever made.

But I got through it.

I started smiling at people, and asking them how their day was. Sometimes they would start a conversation with me! Believe it or not, I made a few friends in New Orleans. By the fourth or fifth day in that crazy city, I felt at peace in the middle of a storm.

I was out there, but I was making the most of it. And isn’t that a metaphor for life?

You’ll Face Problems, But That Doesn’t Mean Your Trip Isn’t Worth It

I ran into problems on the road that I had to overcome. At one point I had to drop $1,000 that I really couldn’t afford to spend on a new brake system for my car.

When I came into the shop to test drive it, the brakes still didn’t work. I blew a major gasket, and I ended up having to stay with my friend in Phoenix for another week. These things happen.

In Austin I met a guy from the UK who needed to get out to San Diego. I agreed to drive him out that way, and in exchange I had a companion for the week.

Spend time traveling by yourself.

Make your own decisions, listen to your heart, start to be spontaneous. Allow yourself to get lost. Gain a new perspective.

The solo road trip is all about you, but it’s not always about being alone. It’s about making your own decisions, and asking yourself why you made those decisions. You’re just learning.

Uncomfortable Situations Suck At The Time, But Make You Stronger Later

I always say that throwing yourself into an uncomfortable situation brings growth. That’s why I stayed in crappy hostels in bad parts of the city. That’s why I was angry that my boss screwed me out of $600, but in a weird way was thankful for it. In those dire situations, I became who I am today.

I learned that life isn’t going to be fair, or easy, or breathtaking all of the time.

But I found through my trip that we can chart our own course through life, because I literally and figuratively did that for four months. And that’s the most valuable lesson of them all.

Nobody is steering the car but you! You turn on the ignition, you type in the address to the GPS, and you’re the one who decides when a view is just too beautiful to keep driving.

You are in control. The road does its best to throw you off track by introducing obstacles and problems along the way, but if you’re dedicated to it then you’ll make it to your destination one way or another.

I think if you’re traveling with someone else you’ll get these lessons, but just not as potent of a dose. You have someone to lean on if you run into problems out there, but when you’re alone it’s just you.

That’s why you need to do it. Don’t ask any questions; get in your car and go. You’ll be surprised at what happens. You’ll rediscover what it means to be alive. You’ll crush any obstacles that stand in your way, and when you get back you’ll be forever changed.

That’s why you need to travel alone.

 

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE MISSION.

 

TOM KUEGLER

Tom is a full-time Digital Nomad and travel blogger. He has his own Medium publication called The Post-Grad Survival Guide. Check out his website here.