The Challenges and Opportunities of the (female) Long Distance Touring Cyclist!!
“Only one?! Aren’t you afraid? Aren’t you lonely?” …
These are usually the first questions I am asked by people I meet regardless of country and culture, and subsequently my first forays into learning the local language are usually the vocabulary to express ‘yes … one …alone’ and ‘no problem!’
20 countries, approximately 15,000 km, 5+ languages and 2.5 years since I left that UK and the truth is that solo cycle touring as a woman really is predominantly ‘no problem’!! For me gender comes into play on a daily basis, predominantly as a result of other peoples social perceptions and at times because I think I need to be conscious and aware of cultural issues surrounding the topic, not because I am actually worried about my safety.
I consider myself a solo/cycletourer/female/traveller (say it fast and that is the sensory mash of unboundaried, dis-ordered ideas that I don't want a chronological order for!) … For others, gender can be very dominant and life experience limiting as a result of the dominant cultures perceptions of what is and is not appropriate behaviour/speech/relationship/attire/experience for a woman.
How can I be so sure of myself? Well, since I left the UK in early 2015, I have wild camped in all of the countries I have visited, I have met men, women and children in these countries, individually and in groups. The concepts of fear and loneliness have lost a lot of their previous meaning and sensory for me in this time!
I no longer worry about where I will sleep at night because I know I will find somewhere … I no longer worry about communicating with others in languages ‘foreign’ to me because I know I will manage and that the language won’t remain foreign for long … I know that I will do what needs to be done in order to keep myself safe, well and to continue to enjoy this crazy cycle ride!
And I like my own company!! I can stop when I choose, eat when I choose, camp when and where I choose. I laugh at my own jokes, am appreciative when I am doing things well and can be constructively critical when I stuff up .. which happens regularly but from which I learn a huge amount!! I can also be my own worst enemy and berate myself much worse than anyone I know since I know which barbed thoughts will work their way in … but I am also aware of doing this andam working on developing compassion for myself as well as others!
Experience has shown all this to be the case … and if this is my experience then I would consider it replicable for other people, other women!!
All of this does not mean that there aren’t times of wishing there was someone to share the stress of visa applications, of decision making, of putting the tent up and then cooking, of being able to share special moments of awe and excitement but I see this as different to loneliness … its more apositive sense of wanting to be unburdened or to share experiences rather than of sadness or a sense of loss at not having that connection!!!
Equally the ride so far has not been without incident. I have had difficult issues with men, I have been without food, water and money, I have been the ‘victim’ of physical and verbal (sometimes sexual) harassment and of theft … And I have managed these situations in the best way I know how and have remained safe, physically and emotionally, as a result of doing the best I can and knowing that these situations arise through no ‘fault’ of my own and arise for different people (men and women) in different ways. These negative instances are also a tiny part of my solo touring experience and this perspective is important to me.
I have also been the recipient of unimaginable kindness by strangers - like the time an older woman in Russia took me by the hand to a cafe and bought me lunch, not knowing I had been robbed and had no money. Or the numerous times I have been invited into family homes for food and shelter … or the times a car has pulled up alongside me and a bag of food or some money “for water” has been thrust out of a window and into my hand or someone has smiled and waved and said ‘amazing .. well done .. keep going!!” either in words or gesture.
My view of these instances are that as a solo woman on a bike I am more visible, more accessible and because I am considered within the ‘harmless/crazy’ category I potentially have greater access to women and children regardless of the social situation in each country and have been called Aunty, Sister, Daughter and Friend.
Speaking to other cycle tourers and travellers in general these are things that happen to everyone but from their various lovely anecdotes and their independent views, my assessment is that travelling solo gives people greater ease in accessing you and as a woman I feel the I am seen in an unthreatening light which enables the high energy, playful interactions with children and the ability to go into women’s areas of the home to assist, look, chat or (occasionally) photograph.
Imagine being in my situation and talking to a woman or young person who's eyes suddenly widen as the possibility of travel, maybe not world travel but travel or independence of some sort, opens up. I am not saying that everyone I meet will be able to do what I do … I am in a very privileged position to be able to do this … but to just shake some of the old stereotypes predominant in all cultures relating to women’s roles and to crowbar in the sense of ‘possibility’ is important and potentially liberating.
As a solo woman cycling I have also on occasion (and I think because people in different countries and cultures are confused by what I am doing and how to categorise me) been thrust into the male arena and been asked to sit and eat with the men, discussing the world and politics alongside many other issues, which is an excellent opportunity to discuss roles and to get my ideasregarding women’s rights or the differences between the different religious cultures across in a non confrontational way … you can often ‘get more in life with honey than with vinegar’ and these situations have been just such a place for careful, subtle, ‘plant the seeds’ discussions!
Its an amazing experience and a privilege to be able to move across these boundaries and the way I navigate is by no means seamless. I am constantly aware of and worried that I might inadvertently slip up and cause offence or cross an unknown boundary and make myself vulnerable. Its tricky but so worth it.
Solo touring also provides endless opportunities for me to develop my self awareness and self reliance. I have found it amazing that when there is no other person I will just get on with sorting out what needs to be done … a recent set of river crossings in Kazakhstan being the perfect example of this.
The local men in the village effectively blocked my access to the route I wanted to take, telling me it was impossible, that the river was too high, that there was no bridge, that I (as a woman on a bike) could not do it. I felt I had to back off from this onslaught of kindness, concern and total lack of understanding of who I was as a competent individual (not gender), reroute though the village a different way and then after doing practice crossings for each river, minus the gear to assess the depth and flow, continue on my merry way all kit dry and intact and and me soaked to the armpits!!
In short … there are so many opportunities to be had as a solo woman cycle tourer!!! Yes, there are difficulties but there are for everyone regardless of age or gender. Life throws different issues at us at different times and touring life is no exception.
‘Not ready’ potentially arises as a woman not because its true but as a result of what we are told to believe we need to have or to be in order to be ready … I often feel I have to be ‘more’ able, ‘more’ knowledgeable, just ‘more than’ myself in order to what has been a male dominated arena. The reality is that I don’t have to … but that is how it often feels.
I sometimes find it difficult to ask for help for these reasons but that is an area of my personality that I am working on … asking for help is not about showing weakness or a fault, and if another person sees it as such it is for me to ensure that this doesn’t get in the way of my personal progress … my journey!
But these are ‘feelings’, mine and others … they are not tangible, unassailable fact … and I try to see them as such.
My suggestion for anyone grappling with these ideas and issues are that …
- You will never feel you know all you need to know, you will never feel ready,
- Go before you feel ready, ready will come …
- Now is the time to go …
- Go now!!!
Tips for solo touring
- Expect there to be tough times and difficulties to surmount … these are there for everyone at different times, in different ways regardless of gender. Developing ‘mental toughness’ is part of the process for all cycle tourers because this life is physically and mentally challenging but what we receive in return for the dedication surpasses those tricky times and is beyond measure.
- Do it your way … you are an individual person, not a gender. This is not a reason to limit yourself. Yes consider culture and adjust as you see appropriate but adjustment is not necessarily about limiting.
- Who you are and how you travel as an individual will structure your experiences .. be open to making changes as you personally evolved through your journey but don't be afraid to ‘lock down’ and confidently say “this is my way … I don't need/want to follow your way”!! People may try to assert their ideas of ‘how to tour’ … this is more about them than about you!!
- Violence, accident, loss. These things all happen to ‘people’ not genders. Men and women are unfortunately subject to violence, accident and loss as a result of being in a particular place, at a particular time and encountering particular individuals through no fault of their own. The manifestations of these can vary depending on gender but are still part of that individuals experience. Social fear and the external processes to ‘protect’ and ‘control’ women is more likely to limit life experience if not span than solo cycle touring.
- Its not about the kit you have its about how you use your many skills in different situations!!! Less is more .. especially when getting it over a 4000+m Pass!!
- Developing confidence and quick thinking will get you into many interesting and wonderful situations you never imagined you would be in (think getting invited to stay in a family yurt in the middle of the Mongolian Steppe) and will also get you out of tricky situations when necessary!
Tailwinds and sunny trails to all those out there and and to those just starting to pack!! Enjoy and hope to see you on the Road!!!
(Rae Hadley aka @boats.and.bikes on IG and blogging as Wide Eyed Views on Wordpress!)