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

In Honor of Pride Month, an Overview of LGBTQ+ Triumphs and Setbacks Across the Globe

From Taiwan to Kenya to the United States, LGBTQ+ individuals face profound discrimination and tirelessly advocate for equality.

DC Capital Pride Parade in the United States. Bossi. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

DC Capital Pride Parade in the United States. Bossi. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

June is Pride Month in the United States, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer individuals across the country are commemorating the anniversary of the historic 1969 Stonewall Riots, recognized as a turning point for the LGBTQ+ liberation movement. Yet around the globe, simply existing as a sexual or gender minority can be profoundly dangerous and even life-threatening—and even amongst celebration in the US, legislative developments threaten to undo the decades of progress that have afforded LGBTQ+ individuals their rights to live with dignity and respect.

Recently in the news for LGBTQ+ discrimination is Russia, whose grim record of intolerance based on sexuality is particularly pronounced in the region of Chechnya. Located in the North Caucasus, Chechnya experienced a vicious anti-gay purge in February 2017, and one that is now tragically recurring. In early May, Human Rights Watch reported that Chechen police were rounding up men presumed to be gay or bisexual, proceeding to detain them at the Grozny Internal Affairs Department, where they were humiliated, raped, and brutally beaten. Activists with the Russian LGBT Network asserted that at least 23 men were detained between December and April due to their sexuality. Chechen authorities have denied reports of the persecution, and Russian federal authorities have neither commented nor launched an investigation.

Demonstrating against Russian homophobia. Marco Fieber. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Demonstrating against Russian homophobia. Marco Fieber. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Perhaps even more shocking than the negligence of the Russian authorities, some governments have actively ratified discriminatory treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals: Across the globe, 76 countries still place criminal sanctions on homosexuality. One such country is Brunei, a small nation located on the coast of the island of Borneo, whose Syariah Penal Code went into effect on April 3 of this year. The code calls for a wide range of barbaric punishments affecting LGTBQ+ individuals, including death by stoning for anal sex and 40 lashes with a whip for lesbian sex. It prohibits consensual same-sex conduct, broadly discriminates against women and sexual and gender minorities, and infringes upon freedom of expression and religion. In response to international outcry, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who holds absolute power in Brunei, has put forth a de facto moratorium on capital punishment, but the ban could be lifted at any time and does little to mitigate the dire rights offenses of the penal code.

Later that month, in Kenya, the High Court upheld similarly anachronistic laws criminalizing consensual acts between same-sex adults. The laws are a relic of colonialism, first put forth by British settlers in 1897; while they are rarely enforced, they nevertheless validate a climate of prejudice and violence, and are used to justify police harassment, employment and housing discrimination, expulsion from schools, and artistic censorship. The court case that concluded on May 24 addressed a 2016 petition by three Kenyan human-rights organizations, which asserted that the criminalization of same-sex conduct violated various rights—including equality, privacy, and human dignity—enshrined in Kenya’s constitution.

Just that same day, across the ocean in the United States, LGBTQ+ rights sustained a blow with the proposition of a new rule by President Trump’s administration. The rule would remove nondiscrimination protections for transgender people under the Affordable Care Act, erecting further barriers to wellness for a community that already faces difficulty in accessing healthcare. Protection on the state level is of little consolation, given that only 14 of out 50 US states prohibit health insurance discrimination based on gender identity, and 10 specifically exclude transgender-related care under Medicaid policy.

Protesting the Trump administration’s anti-LGBTQ+ policies. mathiaswasik. CC BY-SA 2.0

Protesting the Trump administration’s anti-LGBTQ+ policies. mathiaswasik. CC BY-SA 2.0

Within a sea of devastating setbacks for the global LGTBQ+ community, instances of progress and activism stand out as beacons of hope. In the deeply Catholic Mediterranean archipelago of Malta, a transgender woman named Joanne Cassar was recently allowed to marry, representing the culmination of her nine-year legal battle. The following day, on April 1, the Maltese government passed a gender recognition law, which came into existence largely due to Cassar’s efforts, and which acknowledges that “gender identity is considered to be an inherent part of a person which may or may not need surgical or hormonal treatment or therapy.” The law also initiates a working group on transgender healthcare to research international best practices, with one-third of the group mandated as being experts in the field of human rights.

In May, another historic ruling made Taiwan the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage, effective from the 24th of the month. “Today, we can show the world that #LoveWins,” tweeted Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, the morning of the ruling, celebrating the same sentiment as the crowds that turned out in the streets, cheering, weeping, and waving rainbow flags as news of the decision spread. There is still room for legislative improvement, particularly given that the law does not provide equal adoption rights for same-sex couples, but the events of May 17 nevertheless represent an impressive step forward for the East Asian region.

Appeal for Rights parade in Taipei, Taiwan. Luke,Ma. CC BY 2.0

Appeal for Rights parade in Taipei, Taiwan. Luke,Ma. CC BY 2.0

While legislative strides are crucial to affording LGBTQ+ individuals the rights they deserve, grassroots activism can be an incredibly powerful driver of official change—such as in the case of Joanne Cassar, or of the LGBTQ+ organizers who recently marched in Honduras to celebrate the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia. The activists’ demands included an end to pervasive violence against LGBTQ+ people, legal recognition of trans identities, and curtailing prohibitions on same-sex marriage and adoption. Currently, two petitions brought forth by the leaders of activist groups—one pushing for a process allowing official name and gender changes for trans people, and one encouraging equality of marriage and adoption—are pending before Honduras’ Supreme Court, and various other LGBTQ+ rights cases are afoot in Congress and in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Like any human-rights movement, seeking legislative and societal parity for LGBTQ+ individuals will doubtless continue to be an arduous battle fraught with discouraging defeat—particularly considering the vast disparities between rights in different countries, as celebration of one victory in one nation is dampened by news of horrifying injustice in another. Yet with the efforts of LGBTQ+ community members and allies, and the renewed conviction offered by recent progress in Taiwan and Malta, the international community can continue to hope that each Pride Month will bring more to celebrate than the last.










TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.

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