Unlearning by Bike: From Thailand to Spain with Nicole Heker
“I was cycling in Mongolia, which is the most vast and open and least populated place I’ve ever been. There’s just nothing around for days and days and days...I had only been cycling 40 minutes that day and I just heard ‘GOOM GOOM GOOM GOOM, GOOM GOOM GOOM GOOM’ coming from the woods on my left, and there’s smoke billowing out of the trees. I was like ‘yeah ok I’m definitely going to go towards the sound of drums in the woods.’...There’s a teepee and a woman inside singing. So I’m like ‘what’s going on here?’ and they’re like ‘we’re getting healed, this is a shaman and we’re here for a ritual to be healed.’ And I was like ‘oh that’s really cool, do you mind if I watch?’ They let me sit down by the fire...long story short, I was there for six hours.
There were people getting possessed by 14th century medieval Mongolian warriors. They really included me in all of these rituals, so I had to hop around the fire throwing flour in the flames. We burnt down this giant teepee made of wooden sticks. I had to crawl on my knees up to one of the possessed ancestors and she was patting my head and saying in this really scary voice ‘good girl, good girl.’ At some point in the night, she gave me a gift for my weary travels. Usually tourists pay money to go to these kinds of things and I’m getting a gift from this 14th century medieval...I don’t know. This would only happen if I was on my bicycle. There’s no other reason for anyone else to even be in this area, there’s no other way to really get there. It’s times like that I just feel really lucky to have my two wheels and to go to these really random places and have these really random experiences.”
When I heard Nicole Heker was riding a bicycle from Thailand to Spain to raise money for the Happy Kids Center in Nepal, I was floored by the massive amounts of training, planning, and research I could only assume she had to do to prepare for a trip of such enormity.
“I actually never owned a bike before this trip. Once I got my bike, I was too scared to go on any practice rides because I thought that if I didn’t enjoy it I wouldn’t go on the trip.” Nicole laughs and immediately makes this seemingly superhuman trip feel mortal.
At the time of writing, Nicole is about half way along her journey, resting in Tbilisi, Georgia for the winter. She began her adventure on International Women’s Day (March 8th, 2018) but when I asked her to walk me through the journey so far, she began her story at the end of her four years at Penn State in a sociology course taught by Sam Richards.
“On the last day of the lecture, he was like ‘if I’m going to give anybody any advice, I’m going to say to unlearn everything’ and that kind of unlearning idea has kind of driven most of what I’ve done post college. Just trying to get rid of all the stories that you hear about how the world works, that this is good and this is bad, this is who you are and this is your place within that framework. It’s all of these ‘truths’ that are actually nothing but stories. My goal has been to live more by experience and less by other people’s word of mouth.”
Choosing to live by experience has led Nicole through countless adventures in the few short years since graduating from Penn State, including living in Thailand, teaching English in South Korea, and working with the Happy Kids Center in Nepal, which ultimately led her to start Unlearning by Bike. Although we’re talking through digital airwaves on a Skype call, I can almost see Nicole’s face light up on the other side of the world when I ask her to tell me more about the Happy Kids Center, of which she is a managing director.
“The Happy Kids Center is everything, it’s my entire heart” she begins.
Street kids of Indian migrants in Nepal often have to wake up at 6am to spend the day collecting recyclables on the street that they then turn in to the Nepalese government for about 50 cents a day. The Happy Kids Center was established in 2015 as a simple, safe space for these children to take a break from the burden of collecting money for their families and just be kids. Just a few years later, the Happy Kids Center is now an art filled, solar powered, weatherproof structure, and is also the home of several projects designed to help the children break the cycle of poverty they were born into. One of these programs is a health program, which began after a mother of 5 passed away from pneumonia, a very preventable disease, simply because she could not afford treatment.
“We were just left thinking, ‘Why? Why does this happen?’ This is something we could easily fix, so we started a health fund. It was our first big program. With that fund, we got surgery for one of our kids, Krishna, who has a degenerative eye disease in his retina. It was a $90 surgery that includes transportation, and all meetings with the doctor beforehand, all the treatment, everything. $90 and it saved his vision. Without that surgery he would have become blind within two years and would have been begging on the street for the rest of his life. Something super simple like that can save a kid’s life.”
The Happy Kids Center also runs an education scholarship program, vocational skill building program, and a child marriage prevention program. The programs are Nepali led, so the children can see people who look like them and speak like them in charge, rather than seeing another white person swoop in and save the day. If you’re interested in learning more about the Happy Kids Center, you can check them out here.
The biggest question full time (or near full time) travelers get from those back home when telling stories or upcoming plans is always “aren’t you scared?” I like to consider myself to be someone who isn’t generally ruled by fear (not to be confused with “fearless,” as I am afraid of everything, I just choose to do it anyway) but biking across a third of the world’s land is an especially giant adventure, so I asked Nicole the dreaded question: “were you scared?”
“Before I start anything, everything I’ve done, I have a giant anxiety attack the night before, and then once I start I’m ok but the anticipation kills me. You’re jumping into a blackhole, you have no idea what to expect. It’s hard to properly prepare yourself for something you have no idea about.”
She goes on to tell me stories about the measureless kindness of strangers she’s met on the journey so far. From people who stop their truck to give her a watermelon or a bag of apples, to being invited into a healing ritual by a shaman in rural Mongolia, “people are good hearted and really do want to protect you.” Nicole tells me about how easy it is to communicate with strangers across languages by simply being compassionate and aware.
“Little things like ‘mama’ ‘papa’ and showing pictures, that goes such a long way and they get so excited to see a little part of your culture, they really want to understand you better. It’s a kind of communication we really lack in societies where we do speak the same language. We don’t make an effort to connect because we’ve tuned each other out, in a certain way. I’ve found that everybody tries and that just makes it work.
After going from place to place to place, and not cities but real places, places where the Average Joe lives in each country, you realize how distant we are from reality, especially in the States. The life that we’re living is so different from the rest of the world by a huge extreme. I learned how distant we are from most people and their life experience.”
Nicole has come a long way, both physically and spiritually, since the very first day of her journey pedaling out of Chiang Mai, Thailand. So far she has spent 293 days across 10 countries on the road, and still has a ways to go. She has unlearned that emptiness is boring, and that things provide security. She has learned, in a nutshell, that “people are amazing, nature is cool.” Join Nicole on the rest of her journey by following along on Instagram @unlearningbybike, or on her website unlearningbybike.com.