“We are crooked souls, trying to stay up straight.”
“It’s time to remember what it’s like to feel alive.” – Northlane
“We are crooked souls, trying to stay up straight.”
“It’s time to remember what it’s like to feel alive.” – Northlane
At 25 years old, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t have made it by now. That I wouldn’t have my little flat in some far off land, working that dream job, with that great social life. Its laughable now, how much of an idealist I was. Today, those dreams remain as elusive as ever. I am unfortunately still very far away from where I want to be; still studying, still a waitress, still not living on my own, still going out with friends and having to order a pint while they all splash out on fancy cocktails. Just another few months I keep whispering to myself, not long to go until things change and it all happens for me.
But what if it doesn’t, what do I do then? I am plagued by doubt all the time, worrying constantly. When do you call it quits and say maybe I’m not destined for greatness like I always assumed I was?
My two years on the road travelling now seem like another life, did I appreciate the freedom I had? Did I savour every moment, or was I constantly thinking of what’s next, spoiling it by trying to make it better. I have learned the hard way that this is life, you have to work, eat and sleep, that it cant all be rose tinted fairytales.
I returned home because I missed it terribly yet still I wasn’t happy, so I decided to change things. Because I felt I couldn’t fix the unhappiness I was feeling from my inability to find a career, I decided to try and change my physical flaws. Growing up with acne, I always thought if I could just get clear skin I’d be happier… so eventually I did, and surprise, surprise, the happiness lasted all of five minutes and then voila I was unhappy once more. On to the next thing, I was too fat… so I lost some weight…. was I any happier? No. So I learned pretty quickly that changing myself physically would not lead to permanent happiness.
I felt so sorry for myself. How come all these people on social media where living the highlife, and I was being left behind, constantly struggling… and then I turned on the news and was punched in the face by guilt, how can I feel sorry for myself when this is happening in the world. I see the images of people dying in Syria, ordinary people like me and you that never wanted any conflict but just wanted to live out their lives. Now their children are dying, their homes are been destroyed and they are been forced to flee their own lands, only to be greeted by hate and slapped with a horrible stereotype just when they think they are safe. I walk the streets of Dublin every morning to go to college, and I pass five or six homeless people on my twenty-minute walk. I see my Granny out of breath trying to get up out of an armchair, and I think man, what am I complaining about? Why am I becoming bitter about my lack of success when I’m one of the lucky ones.
So, what do I do?
Just keep going I suppose, and try in the year ahead to create some good in the world and find magic in the little things. Keep the dream alive,”trust the wait. Embrace the uncertainty. Enjoy the beauty of becoming. When nothing is certain, anything is possible.”
Whatever it is I choose to do, I know one thing for sure, I need to get excited about life and its possibilities once more.
Travel changes everything. The harder the journey the more you learn and by God, India was no picnic… dust, dirt, and chaos. The swarms of people, the pungent air, the constant stares, the rats, the slums, the litter, sitting cross legged on the floor, eating curry with dirty fingers, horned cows and stray dogs roaming every street, the aromas of spices and incense wafting through the air, yoga lessons on the grass, crazy driving, incredible views and food and then there’s me and Tom (my best pal from uni)… a Scottish boy and an Irish girl lost somewhere amongst the madness of southern India.
Day one and a kind local invites us to his home to eat, but we realise too late he’s trouble and we are way too naive, that the world is not all rainbows and butterflies and not everyone is a misunderstood soul, when the “kind local” turns his back on you for the whole night and will only speak to your male friend, when he silences you with the infuriating words ‘ok sweetie’ and puts his hands up to quieten you, his exact and poignant use of pronouns when he refers to you as “she” and “her” are like punches in the gut and his use of flyaway phrases like “even she can teach us something” and all you can do is bite your tongue when you feel like screaming, “I’m right here you sexist twat.” He drives us back on scooters at 1.30am, insisting I ride with him, I can smell the whiskey off his breath as he says it. He drives too fast, a stray cow on the street turns his head and almost annihilates us. He topples his head back in laughter as I ask him meekly to slow down…
In Goa, we rent motorbikes and head off on a day trip to a secret beach with the ultra cool hippies from our hostel; one Indian, two Nepalese, one Mexican, one Portuguese, and one Guatemalan… all men, but this time they are the good kind. We scour the Indian countryside, stopping for a banana shake while they sip ‘holy water’, go skinny dipping (them not me) and we lie back in the white sands sipping beers on the deserted shores. Later, we take a quick ferry across to an island, the most northern point of Goa in the torrential rain for chai, returning at night to a restaurant delightfully known as the Happy Corner to bask in the sound of a cacophony of horns ringing from a Hindu Temple – Indian style live music.
Back on the bikes we hop, weaving down the twisted streets to Arambol to the candle lit beach bars for more beers. It’s all so magical. I am perched on the back of Julio’s bike and we talk and talk and talk as the wind sweeps through our hair and darkness closes in around us. He is a wise man who shares his story with me, with words of wisdom like ‘Never entertain jealousy and boredom is a great thing, because it allows creativity to come to life.” He has been bankrupt three times in his life. He is married but in an open relationship. His wife is working for the Red Cross in Myanmar, while he is setting up a hostel in India. This is why I travel, why conform when you could live like this, without rules or societal pressure, meeting people who live whatever way they feel like. This is freedom, this is life!
Only in India, have I experienced such highs and lows, an incredible day like that is followed by a brutal one… the rules of gender here are so misplaced, the men stare at me but ignore me when I ask a question, and address only Tom, ‘the man’, naturally it drives me insane. There are two prices for everything, one for foreigners, one for locals. Hassle and haggle all day long, a man putting a phone in my face to video me, they are like paparazzi and I am a caged animal in a zoo. Everyone is trying to rip you off, not many are kind just to be kind, everyone has an agenda. I know now how lucky I am to be born a white female from the western world. I have always considered myself working class, with two nurses for parents who have worked their whole lives to provide for me and my sisters. How blind I was, we live like kings and queens compared to the Indian version of working class.
Tonight we board an eleven hour sleeper bus overnight from Goa to Hampi. Packed like sardines on bunk beds. The conductor kindly lets us swap from two single beds to one double so as we are together, but then for his kindness insists we pay him a bribe of 100 rupees… everything has a price and though many preach about karma few seem to practice it. Curtains pulled, windows open on this non-AC sleeper bus, the wind cooling the sweat sticking us to the mat. Shoved and pushed, rolling around freely as the bus chugs on, we know this never would be allowed in the western world. It is like The Knight bus in Harry Potter. We giggle and chat, and try in vain to get some shuteye in this mad world as we are tossed around with every pothole and bump as we hurtle south.
We arrive in Hampi as the sun is setting, the local businessmen swarm us as we try and get off the bus, trying to push us into a rickshaw but we have our wits about us despite our tired eyes and we know it is only a two minute walk to the town. The monuments and temples loom splendidly on the hillside, long tail monkeys run across the electrical wires, while the weary people make their morning pilgrimage to the temple. Hampi is a UNESCO world heritage site, the equivalent of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. We find a place to rest our aching bodies with a toilet that doesn’t flush and a mosquito net pockmarked with giant holes patched up dismally with plasters, we finally fall asleep to the distant wails of chants happening outside as the rest of the world begins to wake.
We make new friends with people who are staying at the same guest house. Candi a strong, beautiful Argentinian woman who takes no shit from anyone, she is travelling with her best friend the delightful Mati. They have been hitchhiking and couchsurfing their way through India. Then there’s John from London, whose kindness has no limits, all the beggars we meet, he buys them food instead of giving them money. I know instantly the three will be our friends for life.
The food is incredible. It feels amazing to eat pure vegetarian, handfuls of floury parotta and chapatti swabbing up the spicy curry; the Veg Thali, Channa Masala, Masala Dosa, Aloo Gobi, Dal Fry, all slapped onto a plate or banana leaf. Using only our hands, it’s a spectacularly messy and uncivilized way to eat but brilliant in the freedom of it. I love it, I gorge and revel in the joy of food once more. Although, be warned I nearly always found a hair in my dish!
A local bus to Hospet in torrential rain through ‘roads’ that can’t even call themselves roads. We sit on the floor of the train station for four hours. The station reeks of manure, I swallow down the vomit that threatens to come up my throat. The rain makes it worse. Out on the street you see the caste system at work, one massive fancy ass hotel and all around it pure slums. We sit wallowing in the stench, drowned in the rain and the electricity goes. Typical. Everyone is in barefoot walking through the muck and puddles. There is a young girl in a green sari with wide brown eyes huddled in a corner swaddled in blankets staring at me. The lights blink in and out when a group of young boys taunt us and get right up in our faces, I thank my lucky stars that Tom is here with me. I don’t know if I could have done it alone and that thought angers me, why shouldn’t I be able to do this alone? Because this world is so fucked up, that’s why. It breaks my heart.
But alas, we survive the sleeper train, three beds stacked on top of each other. For twelve hours we lay in our caves to arrive in Mysore, where out on the streets we see cultures clash as the Muslim women stroll in their black burkas contrasting brilliantly against the colorful saris of the Hindus. After sleep, we are reunited with the Argentinians and John, we get a tuk tuk to Chimean Hill, five of us squished in the back of one, I on Thomas’ lap, hanging halfway out the tuk tuk, with Bob Marley blaring No Worries on the radio. We climb 1032 steps to a temple. The hike is a pilgrimage, the colours dabbed on each step in a benediction, a silent prayer. We trudge on, chatting, lapsing into silence as we pull ourselves up the steep incline and concentrate on our breathing. It is a stand out moment, one that I will remember forever.
An overnight bus to Kochi, a man sits next to us asks us for our name and our caste? He asks what religion we are, we say none, he says how come? We say you don’t want to know… The European vibes of Kochi are a welcome break. The boys are playing football, when I bump into Carly an old friend from university in the most surreal moment ever, the world is too small! We go for secret beers and catch up on her life, her adventures in Madagascar and Reunion Island and I just think to myself wow I know some cool people.
Its mad how progress seems to have just stopped in the country, like the 21st century just barreled through and they just cant keep up… or perhaps don’t want to? The electricity consistently goes, the utter lack of sanitation, the people in the shops/markets getting pissed off with you when you refuse to cave to their inflated price and push for negotiation, the rickshaw drivers constantly hassling you. A local woman thrusts her few month old baby at me so as the family can take pictures of the white girl holding a baby. Over the course of the three weeks I’ll have been in over fifteen strangers photos. If you can learn to embrace/handle India, nothing will ever faze you again.
Another bus, this time to the Tea Plantations of Munnar and they are incredible, even in the misty rain. We scale the cliff edges in a jeep to see them, passing waterfalls and miles of greenery; it is nature at its best. Then in typical Indian fashion, the country goes on strike and fails to tell the tourists. All restaurants, shops, buses, tuk tuks, national parks – everything shuts down, we have no food and water for the day.
Our days are numbered, on our second last night we sit on a pier back in Kochi, feet dangling, reflecting on life, when a rat runs across my bare feet. There is a frog in the corner, an Indian man pisses on the side of the street facing us… this is India. Back to the hostel to lie on our backs and stare up at the spinning fan, life is a strange and wonderful thing.
There is only one last destination left before home, Mumbai. The city is huge and bustling, here there is the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. As I look out the dirty window of the local bus, we pass the shanty towns,there is just people everywhere. Twenty five million people in Mumbai alone. Coming from a country of less than 5 million I just cant comprehend this scale. Then onto an overpacked train, full of men, pressed against them, everyone of them unashamedly staring at me. I cannot wait to be anonymous once more, to blend in with the crowd. The train doesn’t stop, just slows down and people make a run and jump and hope for the best…
Our last night in India, we invite the 19 year old Egyptian kid from our hostel to the bar with us, he drinks a double tequila when he’s never drank before. He is drunk almost instantly, slapping his head, talking to himself, we have to bring him home and put him to bed. I whisper a goodbye to Thomas in the middle of the night, the end is nigh, he is off to Cambodia for a year while I will return home to university for one last stab at that dream career.
The time has come to go home. It’s been a whirlwind, a love affair, highs and lows, both easy and terribly hard… worth it though, so, so worth it. Already my glasses are starting to tint with rose. We only have one life, and you must try really hard to live it. I am back behind the bar pulling pints and dreaming of the dusty roads, the host of colours, the spice, the smell of India and the next adventure.
“I urge you to travel. As far and as much as possible. Work ridiculous shifts to save your money, go without the latest Iphone. Throw yourself out of your comfort zone. Find out how other people live and realize that the world is a much bigger place than the town you live in. And when you come home, home may still be the same and yes you may go back to the same old job but something in your mind will have shifted. And trust me that changes everything.”
We take our bodies so for granted. At full health, what it is capable of doing is astounding; it can climb mountains, swim amongst the tides, sprint through fields of long grass… but what about those who never possessed a body at full health, those people who never had the option? When menial everyday tasks are more difficult, every outing is preplanned and climbing a stairs is an arduous task. How would you live your life if your lungs were your enemy? And your days were made up of physio, medication and hospital visits. When you had to consume 12 to 22 tablets a day just to keep you ticking over. How would you live if you were born with an illness that as of yet has no cure? Would you allow it to define you or would you rally against it in defiance?
Chris stops and sits on an outcropped rock to catch his breath on our 2km walk up to the hut were we will camp tonight. I hear his laboured breath, the painful drag in and out. Around us are dirt tracks and a brutally deforested area of Coillte. It is a muggy evening with a heavy grey sky that hints at an oncoming downpour. Chris pulls his backpack up and we walk on, heading into the trees. After about half an hour we reach our destination, a little green hut perched on a small cliff face overlooking rolling green hills. It is truly an idyllic setting to set up camp for a night’s microadventure, anything to liven up the week. We quickly unburden ourselves from our backpacks and lay down our mats and bags to gather sticks for a fire.
When I was in fifth year of secondary school my friend died from Cystic Fibrosis, he was sick his whole life, obviously sick, wheelchair and oxygen tank kind of sick. He died and we were heartbroken. We his friends continued to maintain contact with his family; his father James, mother Fiona and little brother Chris. We struck up a routine of sorts, dinners, drinks and a chat about the good times. The years passed by and one by one the friends slipped away, caught up with their own lives, their own worries and hardships but somehow I remained. I found his family liberating, strong and inspiring. They taught me so much about life and as I grew up they became my friends too. This family is different than any I’ve ever known. They are a joy to be around because they don’t suffer fools. They let you away with nothing; there is no such thing as I can’t and over the years we have lived a life less ordinary. We have kayaked the Slaney together, made it into the Guinness Book of Records for participating in the world’s longest swim, gone clay pigeon shooting, done countless Rubberman challenges and a few weeks ago we went camping for a night in the Wicklow mountains while Chris who also has Cystic Fibrosis was on IVs.
James throws some jacket potatoes into the ash to cook and we set about boiling water over the open flames. He plucks a bbq rack from those DIY bbq kits and perches it precariously between the rocks and logs to cook the sausages and pork chops on while the beans boil away contently in their tin. It’s a feast by my usual camping standards! Meanwhile Chris sits on a picnic table and lays out his syringes; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine… all glittering in the sunset on the pristine silver tray. He begins the slow process, filling them up from the glass vials one by one, lifting his t-shirt to expose the various contraptions attached to his body. He doesn’t skip a beat as he slowly injects the meds into his body, continuing the conversation as if this was totally the norm.
The risks are very real for a person with CF to camp while on IV’s; the lack of a sterile environment, the risk of hemoptysis with no easy escape route and a night spent lying on the cold hard ground is not the most comfortable. Three days ago Chris’s lungs were at 46%, the equivalent of me walking with one lung, yet he doesn’t complain. At 19 almost 20 years old, Chris is a breath of fresh air with his no bullshit attitude. CF does not define him or stop him experiencing all the simple pleasures that others his age have. Yes there are risks, but you have to live your life; “A lot of people with CF get caught up with all the treatments. It’s ok to once in a while to skip it. It’s not going to catapult you back,” he says, adding defiantly “Don’t let your treatments dictate your life. There is some leeway. A massive amount is mindset. If your health takes a small hit for a better life, its worth it.”
The sun lowers gradually but the moon is particularly bright tonight. We stare into the orange flames licking the firewood, prodding the embers occasionally. We sip tumblers of vodka and coke and red wine and we just sit and talk. A cold night ensues on hard ground, wrapped tightly in our sleeping bags to stave off the cold. Bedding down, Chris warns us of his coughing; he needn’t have, after a while he falls into a quiet slumber, unlike his father who will scare any potential predators away with his snores.
It is not an easy night and none of us sleep well, we wake the moment light returns, weary, sore and totally spent but exhilarated all the same. We get up groggily and stretch out our aching bodies. The air is crisp and damp and the birds greet us with their dawn chorus. We stuff everything into our backpacks, pull them on and walk briskly out of the woods. Time to go back to reality. A time out every so often is necessary to make you appreciate your cozy bed, the roof over your head, your life and to put those worries that seem so big into perspective. A little midweek adventure to wake us up, shake us up, anything to feel alive to feel normal. If Chris can do it, surely you have no excuse?
A short video of my travels around Oz…
After all that, I am home. Sprawled on the couch in front of the fire with the TV crackling away in the background and Mam and Dad pottering around the house, living their lives.
It’s strange but when I look back on my time in Australia, it is not the touristy things that stand out. In fact it’s the opposite, I found that I was happiest when I was doing normal things, reuniting with old friends… lying in bed sculling tumblers of red wine before a night out with Lori, then watching Netflix hung over the next morning with cups of coffee with a hint of caramel replacing the wine. A meat feast with Josh by the Yarra River followed by a drunken stroll through the botanic gardens, breakfast at Laneway with Pepi, road tripping the Great Ocean Road with him and Cas, sleeping in the back of the car at night, watching the women rip at Bells Beach Rip Curl Pro surf competition, climbing rocks, listening to the Serial podcast as we drive, debating music and politics, discovering the lilting tones of Meg Mac. Pounding the pavements on a run with Lauren, kayaking on the harbour in Sydney with Orla, reminiscing with the other Lauren while sipping sangria and listening to gentle jazz on Darling Harbor…
Nowadays, I tire quickly when living out of a backpack. I become desensitised to the beauty around me, I take it all for granted. Yet I continue to do it because I know I will never regret travelling. It has shaped who I am today. Travel changes how you see people, how you see the world. An innate curiosity is born from it, you question everything, especially what is right and what is wrong. You learn to be kinder, you learn to not care when others mock you for been different, you learn not to be afraid or be ashamed. You learn to look at the bigger picture, to worry about global warming, conservation, politics, rather than the petty things unfolding inside your own little bubble. You learn how to talk to everyone and anyone, how to behave in all kinds of situations, how to feel comfortable in your own skin. You toughen up, get a thicker skin and learn to let go of all that worry and stress you’ve been storing up inside. It flicks a switch in your brain and suddenly you can rub your eyes and see everything as it really is and you can finally see the worlds and your own potential.
I am far from done travelling but for now, in this moment, I am content to be at home for a little while. Nowadays, happiness for me is a hot shower on a cold day, that initial burst when the scalding water turns cold against my frigid skin and eventually seeps in. Hungrily ingesting a great book while sprawled on the carpeted floor in my pyjamas in front of the fire. Those breaths I take after finishing a gruelling run, hands on my knees, dragging air into my lungs, ears pounding. Lying on the couch with my head on my Mammy’s lap, her fingers gently combing through my hair. Driving with the window down and the stereo blasting, and me and my friends screaming out the tunes…
Now I know myself rather well and with a return to routine means I must be on my guard. I must try; really try every day to live. I cannot allow the days and weeks to pass me by without doing anything. I must try to absorb it all, put the phone down, look up, take it in and appreciate those little moments. I must try to get up earlier, camp every few weekends, to learn to cook, to attend talks and lectures about things that matter, to watch more documentaries, to learn something new, to get out on the bike, to live a little more spontaneously. And most importantly, I must not envy others lives but be inspired by them, to allow them to motivate me to do the same. I must try, really try, to just be happy…
Flashbacks of Vietnam flicker behind my eyes with every step I take; litter toppling over the sidewalks, chaotic drivers blasting their scooter horns, the taxi from the airport smashing his car mirror off a parked car and cursing in Indonesian but driving on. The cold showers, the toilets you cant put paper down, the mosquito bites, the monsoon rain as it tumults down…
I find myself once again, alone in a hostel, hauling myself up a ladder to my bunk, tired and agitated with my head pressed against the hard mattress in an attempt to drown out the onslaught of beats pulsing through the wall from the common room next door. I vow to escape Kuta the moment the sun rises, to an island that is more my scene Gili Trawangan.
I am whipped away on a boat to the remote haven, but I feel no thrill as we skate across the sea. I have become a weary traveller with empty pockets and a heavy heart, staying in absolute dumps. This time the dorm room has one single and one double bed. The young locals in charge try to convince two complete strangers to share the same bed, devoid of the knowledge of how our western society works. As I am the only girl I am permitted the single bed, how honoured I am. How do I get myself into these situations I wonder time and time again…
The rain pisses down and the electricity goes. I sit in the darkness, sipping coffee listening to a local strum the ukulele and sing softly. Eventually the generator kicks in like a strimmers cutting hedges beside my head. What you learn about yourself in these situations says it all, to try not to fall into a pit of despair is the key but to embrace the madness that ensues around you. Thunder and lightning clap down around me. The loudspeakers lining the streets call the locals to prayer as I sit in the room with only the bed bugs for company and I sigh. This is hard, how much easier would my life be if I were satisfied to just stay at home. I eventually succumb to sleep against a backdrop of thunder and lightning and Middle Eastern sounding music seeping through the pane less windows.
I venture out for food alone, sitting on a plastic bench in silence chewing slowly, sipping my coffee, and counting the ants crawling around in the sugar jar. There are twelve. I offer to take a picture of a group of adult Indonesians on their holiday. They cannot thank me enough and insist I get in a photo with them for I am and I quote “like a model to them because I am so white…”I laugh and agree in defeat knowing full well I couldn’t look less like a model, greasy hair, smelling of BO, no make up and drenched but I am indeed rather white… I guess I’ll be tucked away in some random photo album forever more.
The everyday life of the locals is beautiful in its rawness and simplicity. The little sacrifice to the Hindu gods of flowers and incense folded in a leaf box left outside their doorstep noon and night. Bicycles and pony drawn carts rattle down the mucky streets, swerving around the puddles or pummeling straight through them. Kids play on their hand built rafts, mischievously tipping it over in the clear turquoise waters of the Pacific and howling with laughter as they melt into its shallow waters. Outside my door boys gather around a guitar strumming youth. Kids cry, mothers bark orders, roosters crow. The sad thing is I know I would love this place normally, it is exactly my cup of tea, the simple life, hard work, engaging your whole body in a task, the wildness, the roughness, the kindness… but I am an outsider and have lost my spark. I am not one of them, a local nor do I fit in amongst the party going tourists blazing a trail of destruction through this solemn piece of paradise. I have succumbed to loneliness, hating the thought of eating another dinner alone. But what are my choices go it alone or don’t go at all?
I long to belong to a community once more. Travelling solo is exhausting. You can’t even go to the toilet without bringing all your bags with you, just in case someone steals them. But you learn so much about yourself as there is no one else to lean on. Everyone should try it at least once in his or her lifetime. But when all you do is travel alone the novelty wears off. I now dread the inevitable times I will spend waiting around for boats, buses, trains, planes with no one to talk to. When you’ve finished your book, taken your pictures, refreshed your newsfeed for the fiftieth time, had a coffee, had a think. It just gets boring. I find myself people watching, envious of others camaraderie, young love or pals having a rant… meanwhile I haven’t spoken to a single human the whole day except for the waiter to order some food. It’s hard, its really fucking hard, no one tells you this in the mountains of inspirational posts online. I know I am lucky, I know I am surrounded by beauty, and wondrous things but sometimes I just wish I had someone to share it with. Plus I burnt my back on the boat back to Bali… just one of the disadvantages of solo travelling, you cant reach your own back to lather some suncream on.
I have come here with a purpose though to tick an item off my bucket list, to do my PADI open water scuba diving course. The amount of bloody theory to wade through before they let us free is not a good omen. I get to the pool part finally but I do not feel entirely comfortable with the goggles on not been able to breath through my nose. But I persist…. And then finally something clicks and we fall off a boat into the open ocean and my mind erupts in awe. The vastness of its crystal waters, the coral reef, all these creatures you’ve seen a million times on TV just chilling before your very eyes. We float through a shipwreck covered in coral, moray eels and puffer fish glide around us. I am weightless; I am wrapped in my own little bubble and this time it’s a good bubble. It really is just you and your thoughts while around you majestic turtles, reef sharks, eagle rays and every fish you’ve seen in Finding Nemo just go on about their daily lives. It is incredible. We must conserve this. We must do something! I emerge elated and finally things begin to take a turn for the better.
From Gili T, I make my way to Ubud and I instantly fall in love. The houses are treehouses built on stilts and nestled amongst the treetops of a jungle, winding streets curve up and down, inclining and declining steeply. I get lost in the graffiti, the painted murals on the walls, the vegetation intertwining with the art, nature and humans colliding… coexisting. Too soon I must leave the place I should have came from day one, and back I go to Denpasar, for a night to catch an early flight.
I convince a fat taxi man to drive me there and quickly discover that he is a beautiful being of a driver. We talk politics, Indonesia’s democratic government, how the people have so little but are so happy with what they have. He tells me about Hinduism, about the upcoming festival of evil spirits which is followed by a day of peace where no one works and everyone stays inside and rests. I can’t help but compare it to our festivals, the partying of our western world. He lectures me like he is my Dad about the dangers of traveling alone as a girl but then slips in that he thinks I’m very brave to ease the rebuff. I asked him has he ever eaten in the restaurant he sits outside of all day everyday waiting for customers. He laughs in my face, “ahaha no, no Indonesians cannot afford to eat in there.” He works three jobs, he runs a Credit Union from seven am to eleven, then is a taxi driver from eleven onwards and in his free time he helps his brother farm the paddy fields. After an hour we arrive in the city it is late and darkness has fallen. The satnav tells him we are here, but I look up and only see a dodgy alleyway, oh god don’t leave me here I beg. “Don’t worry Orla if you don’t like the look of it I wont leave you here, we’ll find you somewhere else…” We continue to search and eventually we find the place, he walks me to the door and asks are you ok here… I smile in gratitude.
As I walk in to the plush hotel (my treat for the night) and the kind taxi man drives away, a young boy holding a balloon approaches me and gestures his hand to his mouth signaling for food. His mother carries a little girl dressed in rags half starved on her hip behind him. I have no cash on me, I have no food. I am momentarily stunned. Who is this poor family? What is there story? How have things gotten so bad that they are reduced to this? I have nothing to offer, I can only apologize and walk away with my head sagging in anger and sadness, while he stares after me hating me, judging me as I hang my head and walk into a place of luxury that he in his lifetime will never experience.
The image haunts my mind that night. I vow to never forget it, to do something, to appreciate my world, what I have but as I step foot back in Australia the next day, back to a world of comfort, back to my reality… the memories start to fade and my worries snap back to the trivial things; back to appearance, back to money, back to gossip and every time my memory is jogged I groan in defeat. I berate myself that I once again was weak and succumbed to a lifetime spent worrying about things that in the grand scheme of things do not matter. I am alive, I am healthy, I can do anything. But already knowing that this is a vicious circle that I have experienced hundreds of times, by this afternoon as the sun sets I will be lying on a couch with a bag of crisps perched on my stomach, watching Made In Chelsea or some other shite and wishing I could be like the people on the screen in front of me…
Regional Work… the bane of my life. Eighty eight days in the middle of nowhere, $350 a week, working six days a week. The things we immigrants will do to stay in a country.
In order to qualify for a second year visa in Australia, you are required to complete a three month stint of ‘regional work’ in rural Australia. It must fit under one of the following headings: plant and animal cultivation/fishing and pearling/tree farming and felling/mining or construction.
I decided to get mine over with as quickly as possible, so one month in to my new life in Oz I packed my bags and moved an hour south of Perth to a place called Serpentine, to sweat it out on a breaking yard (horse racing stables).
The ‘town’ of Serpentine was to be my living hell…The kind of place where it’s so small that you don’t have to name the shops they can just be called exactly what they are: General Store, Pharmacy, Tavern etc…
Possums clawed the roof above our heads at night, ants sucking on every spillage and dropped crumb, young horses freshly separated from their mothers head-butted, bit, kicked, cornered and ran at me daily.
Frogs, huntsman spiders, hundreds of daddy long legs, cockroaches, mice, brazen flies that don’t budge when you try and scatter them shacked up with us in the on site accommodation – an old farmhouse with patio doors that wouldn’t close and more cobwebs than a haunted house. And a constant threat of bushfires when the temperature racked up.
There was no wifi and bad reception but we got our daily dose of entertainment from our housemates, exes who regularly pulled out knifes, machetes and the odd samurai sword on each other. Once even a bottle of tequila stuffed with tissue paper ready to set alight and throw into the other ones room. Rife with racism and backwards thinking, there was no point in trying to reason with them, so I set back and enjoyed the show.
The days passed slowly, monotonously in the pressing heat, our routine 4am starts shoveling shit, feeding horses, filling water buckets, on repeat. Disappointed by the realization that this dream of mine of living the rural life in a cabin in the woods may not be all its cracked up to be.
Still I had a roof over my head and food in my belly. Once again as in Vietnam, I am learning to appreciate the finer things in life. Speeding down the dirt tracks in the Ute with the windows down and the music blaring. Head lolling back at night to take in the vast sky with so many stars you cannot fathom it. Driving to the beach to eat fish and chips and watch the sunset. The isolation, having time on your hands to see how you cope on your own, daytime napping in an air-conditioned room, lessons learned, character built and buffered. Muscles toned. New cuts, bruises and scars to add to my collection – all souvenirs of my experiences.
Sharing a room with an English girl, a gem of a human to endure it with, to share my woes. Through our shared experience of this place we are bonded, a friend for life. Our daily excursions were the only thing keeping our spirits from collapsing. The falls, the dam, the lookout, the Buddhist monastery, all the burritos… flashes of goodness in the midst of all the chaos.
Apparently I was one of the lucky ones, since finishing tales have trickled through of people stuck hours away from civilisation out in the outback with no towns or cities in range to escape to. The stories of fruit picking, labouring in the hot sun from dawn until dusk, been paid $9 per bucket picked but when it takes four hours to fill just one.
So once again I succumb to nostalgia… was it really that bad?
You have to do it if you want to stay in the country (unless you can get sponsored) so I’ll let you be the judge of that…
Here is what you need to know:
Basically you need to do 88 days/3 months work at an approved location that is classed as regional Australia. Jobs are listed on Gumtree but ask around, check Facebook groups such as Backpackers Jobs In Australia, do your research. The most common jobs going are fruit picking or packing, farms and nannying. If you can find full-time work, the 88 days includes your days off. So it’s three months’ full-time work or just count up your 88 days if it’s part-time. You can do it all one with one employer or several, the choice is yours. My advice is to try and get it done as soon as you land, it takes the pressure off and you can enjoy the rest of your stay. Also you can afford to be a bit pickier because you have time on your side. I wish you the very best of luck with it, please do let me know how it goes!
It is absolutely crazy to me how much my mindset has changed over the last few months… how can you possibly be ‘over’ traveling? Perhaps its just a bad day, or maybe I just need a day off? When you spend your life rebelling against structure, against routine, against normality, against the 9-5… and then you travel and its all so incredible at first. It changes you and expands your mind and you learn so much about who you are and about the world and its people… am I strange to grow tired of it? Perhaps its because I am alone or maybe its because I don’t have disposable income to do all the things I would like to do. The fact that I have to budget, to make cuts, stay in the dingier places, forgo a meal here or there or maybe its simply because I’m growing up?
It happened to me when I was about 7/8 months into my Vietnam trip as well… I was done I wanted comfort so I changed my flight I went home early and once again a few weeks in, my mindset snapped back to its former itchy footed self. I hated home, I hated the routine, I wanted freedom once more. So perhaps too soon, I packed my bags again and departed for Australia. Now, once more I find myself six months in back at that very same point… not happy, not fully satisfied. Jesus, I am hard to please. I’m at all the tourist spots, standing before these iconic buildings and sites that I’ve seen on TV, these incredible beaches and viewpoints that I’ve circled on my map as a teenager and torn out the pages of my travel books. I take my pictures for Instagram, I express my awe but its not quite right… I’m not really appreciating it; it does not excite me like it once would have had. I’m lonely, the bane of every solo travellers existence.
I’m nearly 25, I want a career, I want a group of friends around me, I want to decorate my own little space, I want a local coffee shop and a local pub. I want some pocket money to be able to go to that gig at the weekend. I want a two week holiday in Spain or France. I want a boyfriend. I want to learn how to cook a proper meal, to invite my sisters for dinner at the weekend, to go for a day out with my Mam, to plan another cycle trip with my Dad. How am I back here again, one year on? How have I not learned? Australia is an incredible place but I moved too soon, I do not want to work in a bar here and get hammered every night, I do not want to hop from place to place like a tourist. I want to build a life, here, home, somewhere…I want structure. How things have changed. Once again I rushed into something, made a decision with my heart not my head. That fear of falling behind, of all my friends growing up, settling down before I even figure out who I am or what I want to do. This gnawing feeling constantly leads me to make rash decisions. To book that flight before I’m ready. So afraid I will waste it all.
I’ve learned so much about myself on my adventures and finally I can proudly say I like who I have become. It does not bother me to go out and have lunch or dinner alone, to sit in a movie theatre, to join a club, to be the first to say hello … I am content with myself. But the time has come that I no longer want to be alone, I want to be surrounded by people. For a girl who has come from a huge family, when your aunties are like your second mammy’s and your cousins are like your brothers and sisters… I always thought it was too much as a teenager and I wanted away. Now finally I can appreciate what I had. After five years away and alone I can officially say that I am an independent woman, capable of anything, reliant only on myself… but what if I don’t want to be…where’s the fun in that? What are all these wonderful experiences when you cannot share them with someone? What is that funny/embarrassing moment when you have no one to turn to and laugh about it with? It is not a sign of weakness not to want to be on your own…
I am still not quite the free spirited, fearless, dungaree clad hippy I long to be, but I am getting there. Fear still gets me. And I still can’t find a decent pair of dungarees. But I have time and who’s to say I have to do it the hard way, on my own in a foreign country. I think I deserve a break, a little support system to help me on my way. So I’ve made a decision, I’m starting again, I’ve fucked up but have had such a wonderful time doing so that I’ll never regret it. I’ve travelled a good chunk of the world in the past few years. Yet often it feels like by choosing to travel that I am failing, falling behind. Yes I am 24 and still working shitty jobs, bouncing from place to place, not yet carving out a career for myself and that panics me frequently, but then I look back on what I’ve done in the past two years since graduating and I have not wasted a moment of it. Canada, America, France, Portugal, Spain, Vietnam, Budapest, London, Australia, Cambodia, the Philippines, Edinburgh, Indonesia…
For now the time has come to take a step back and get back on the right path. I’m going to go home to Ireland for a year, I’m going back to college to do a video production course. And it feels right. I think I could really be good at this with a little training. I need a year, to sort my head out, to be around my friends that I have grown up with that I have known my whole life, I want a flat with cute cactuses, arty wall hangings and scented candles, to be able to attend the family functions, the birthdays, the dinners, the weddings, to visit my Grannies, to treat my Mammy to brunch. To do the normal things, the stuff I never even considered that I would be missing out on. I have been away on and off for the last five years and I think, well I hope this time I’m ready to not live out of a suitcase for a little while. Then when May of next year comes about I hope I will finally be able to find my way in this world.
Please do not judge me, I have not failed, I have not given up, I am trying its just going to take me a little longer to get there, but I swear I will get there… in the end.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt
Chris Bray grew up sailing around the world and then leading world-first cart-hauling expeditions across the arctic before becoming an award-winning Australian Geographic photographer, Lowepro ambassador and Canon’s Australian ambassador for five years. Chris’s work has appeared in National Geographic (along with Australian and Canadian Geographic) as well as TIME Magazine and Discovery Channel. He’s written a successful book ‘The 1000 Hour Day’ (now an award-winning documentary ‘The Crossing’), sits on the advisory committee for The Australian Geographic Society and is also founder and CEO of Conservation United, crowd-funding the world’s critical conservation projects. Besides running 1-day photography courses and photo safaris to the world’s most wonderful places, Chris and his wife Jess recently became the first people to sail a junk-rig boat through the Northwest Passage over the arctic.
I am basically just driven by a need to experience new things, to be challenged, to fulfill my potential, to feel like I am getting the most out of this one life that I have. You mention freedom, adventure, health etc – I think these are just factors that need to be in place for me to achieve my broader goal of maximising my life. No one can experience new things without freedom, or be challenged without some adrenaline, or be at their best without being healthy. I certainly don’t go looking for adrenaline though – that’s a common misconception. I always do my best to identify risks and plan how to mitigate them, so as to be as safe as possible. I enjoy life too much to take irresponsible risks.
2. Are there a few key pieces of gear you take with you on every expedition?
I’ve almost always got some kind of camera with me – because I enjoy sharing the experiences almost as much as having them. Anything from a little GoPro right up to my beast of a Canon EOS 1DX DSLR. I usually have a Leatherman handy too, and if I’m in the middle of nowhere, you can’t beat having an Iridium satellite phone just in case things go wrong.
3. Have you ever experienced fear on an expedition? If so, how did you overcome it?
Oh yeah, often! If you’re not at least a little scared every now and again, then it’s not really an adventure – you’re not pushing yourself far enough! Hopefully though, you’ve done all your research and planning, and are properly equipped mentally and physically to deal with any of the possible outcomes. Then, even though you might be scared that X is going to happen, at least you know what you’re going to do if/when it does so that it’s not Game Over. I’ve been in situations (for example in a nasty storm in our little wooden sailboat half way between Canada and Greenland) that have rapidly escalated beyond what I expected to need to prepare for, and in a scenario like that, I think the best thing to do is just constantly think ahead to visualize all the various disasters that could be about to happen, think them through, plan what you’ll do and how to react, and identify things that you could do right now to either prevent them, or if unavoidable, to maximize your chance of survival if it does. This way not only do you keep yourself busy which helps you not to worry, but all this mental and physical preparation will help prevent disaster.
4. You have an engineering degree, yet you are a photographer, a public speaker, an author and you run your own company, where did you pick up all these skills?
I grew up sailing around the world with my family for 5 years so I was always taught to be practical and independent, but to be honest, I was quite a shy, nerdy little kid. At school I feared public speaking more than death, generally had very little self-confidence, especially around other people. It was the effect of going on my first major adventure that started to transform me. Finding myself way outside my comfort zone, learning how to make decisions and live with the consequences, having to be responsible, learning to overcome fear and hardship, the importance of determination and enthusiasm, learning how to break seemingly impossible challenges down into more manageable portions and tackling each in turn until at the end, you come out having seemingly achieved the impossible. The self-confidence & problem solving abilities I gained through my adventures has really opened up all my horizons. I think all skills come slowly though, with practice & patience – and I’m always still improving. Every time I speak in public I feel more comfortable with it, every year I feel like my photography improves, my business skills get better etc.
5. You are a busy man, do you ever have free time to just relax, or are your hobbies now your job so you don’t need time off?
I’m very lucky to be working for myself, in a job that’s my passion. I love it. However that does also mean there’s no escape from it – when you own your own company, especially one where you’re so completely absorbed inside it (eg: away overseas running photo safaris) for 10 months/yr, the brief times when my wife and I are ‘home’ is the only chance we get to work ‘on’ the business instead of ‘in’ it. There’s no such thing as ‘after hours’ or ‘weekends’, it’s just non-stop from when you open your eyes until well after dinner at night. Of course we schedule in time to catch up with friends or go somewhere, but our calendar is usually pretty crammed about 18 months out, so life is a little bit too hectic all the time. To be honest, at the moment, no, I don’t get enough time to even catch up on the backlog of emails, opportunities and chores, let alone catch my breath and take-stock, or plan properly for the future. Jess and I are working on trying to re-shape the business to allow a bit more me and us-time though!
6.Whats the most difficult thing you’ve ever done?
There’s been various physically challenging moments on some of my adventures, but actually, the trickiest thing I’ve ever done was having just graduated as an electrical engineer with a first class honors, awards and great job offers, to decide to turn my back on all that and instead try to follow my passion of adventure and photography and attempt to make a career doing that instead.
7. Have you experienced Type 2 fun? The idea that expeditions/challenges are miserable while enduring them but the fun and the pleasure comes in hindsight, once completed, perhaps in recounting the adventure afterwards?
Oh absolutely, all the time – that’s one of the great benefits of always having a camera with me, so I can laugh about terrible moments later on, and share the experience. It’s the same with wildlife photography, there’s a lot of Type 2 Fun going on there – often I have to endure a lot of annoying waiting, or miserable conditions etc but I do endure them, because I know that the end result, a beautiful photograph of some amazing animal that I can admire later in all it’s fine detail and share with everyone, will be worth it. If you need instant gratification, I would avoid both expeditions and wildlife photography!
8. If you could make money solely out of adventures alone would you give up running the photography courses?
It was a conscious decision I made to stop earning a living from adventure alone. I did live off sponsorship and adventure related incomes like speaking, selling articles etc for years. But after my second arctic expedition, completing the Victoria Island traverse which was a fairly epic, five year project costing more than $250,000, I realized that for adventure to be a career, in order not to go backwards, I’d have to keep somehow doing bigger, bolder, more dangerous expeditions, and eventually I’d either end up totally burnt-out, or more likely dead. Also, it’s very hard to raise enough money to even embark on an expedition, let alone make enough on the side for a decent living – it’s a lot of hard work.
Instead, I decided to devise a business model that would still let me travel to the world’s most wonderful places, get paid for it, and still be able to take chunks of time off to go on personal, more hard-core adventures, such as over the last five northern summers where my wife Jess and I rebuilt the little wooden sailboat and sailed it in stages up over the top of Canada and Alaska through the Northwest Passage. We took four months off work each year for a while there. I do enjoy good friendships with many of the interesting photo safari guests we meet, and I also love the challenge of running a successful business, and expanding it. Even if I won lotto, I’d still keep running my business – I might just employ more people so I could take longer holidays and more of them.
9.Would you say it’s a harder path you have chosen rather than an easier one, by choosing lets say an office job over your lifestyle?
Harder in that it’s required some difficult decisions, hard work, dedication and risk yes, but personally, I’d find it way harder – too hard in fact – to spend my life sitting at a desk with an office job. So it depends what you define as being ‘hard’. I should point out though, that despite seeming from the outside like a glamorous, perpetual-holiday lifestyle that Jess and I enjoy, it is a HUGE amount of work, and without meaning to sound arrogant, I really don’t know anyone who works as hard, or as long as Jess and I do.
10. Do you think having partner changes things, makes you have to reconsider the risk factor involved in some of the things you take on, perhaps say no to something you would have otherwise said yes to?
Yes, and of course your choice of partner has a huge bearing on how much influence it has on your ideal lifestyle I’m super lucky in that Jess is very adventurous also, she’s always up for anything, and together I think we achieve more than we could apart, that’s why I married her. But still, it’s true that when you’re going on (or considering going on) a trip with someone you care for and genuinely feel responsible for, it does affect your decisions but probably for the better. There are things I’d probably have risked myself, but with Jess onboard, who’s depending on me to make the right decision for both of us, I’d opt for the safer one. I don’t see that as a bad thing in the end. Sure, there may be times when I’d like to be able to just set off solo, or do a trip that Jess wouldn’t be keen on, but I actually think if I was keen enough, she’d let me go anyway, and the fact is I’d probably just end up missing her, or making the wrong decision without her input.
11. Do you have any advice for people wanting to break out of their comfort zones?
Just go on an adventure somewhere, anywhere! It doesn’t have to be epic, lengthy or expensive – it’s just gotta be further along some path than you’ve ever been before. Grab some friends, think of something you like doing, and then come up with some crazy exaggeration of that same undertaking. If you like kayaking, pick somewhere on a map and work out how to kayak from A to B. Whatever.
12. Can you tell me more about your conservation work and why you do it?
I’ve always loved nature, wildlife and the outdoors. Initially as a kid watching David Attenborough documentaries while growing up sailing the world, then going on my own adventures to so many beautiful, remote and unspoilt corners of the world, and now every month on my photography safaris it’s the same. It’s all so wonderful, so perfect and often so delicate, and it crushes me to see how quickly so much of it is being damaged or lost, forever. It’s true that on a personal level my business profits from the beauty of the natural world and so I feel it’s only fair that I give back, but more than that, I feel that humans as a whole are being grossly unfair to the natural world, and I feel it’s important to at least do my best to come up with a way to mitigate the losses. So having come up with an idea to attempt to re-structure the rather erratic way the world tends to donate to countless charities, I hope that ‘Conservation United’ will soon be able to start channeling funding to actually start solving some the world’s most critical conservation projects. If I can help prevent just one species from slipping into extinction, then I’ll feel like my effort, my life, was worthwhile, and meant something – made a difference.
13. I hate asking people this question but alas it has to be done, what’s next for you?
More photography courses around Australia and photo safaris all around the world! This year we have a few new destinations too, including Iceland and Greenland, so that’ll be fun! Check out www.ChrisBraynet – I’m also looking into starting up a little eco-lodge, hopefully finally launching Conservation United, trying to sell our sailboat so we can start thinking about upgrading to a bigger, metal one so that we can go back into the arctic, perhaps with kids even! A family might be the next really big adventure I suspect, but we’ve got a bit of re-organizing to do of our current lifestyle before that would work!
Find out more about Chris Bray’s adventures via his website.
I try this ‘new year, new me’ bullshit annually…it never works. Already just a few weeks in and all my vows and promises have spiralled out of control once more. Life got in the way.
When you watch from your window as billowing smoke comes barreling your way from a bushfire started by fork lighting. Hear the drones of the voice from the television tell of the devastation of the town next door, completely flattened by the wicked orange embers. While you wait your turn, waiting for the call to evacuate, to flee… but the call never comes. You are safe. But you never go next door to help them pick up the pieces.
When you read a post on Facebook about a city in Syria that is under siege by its own countrymen, seeing photos of sallow skinned children starving to death before your very eyes and you blink and scroll on by to giggle at the next dumb viral video…
When you laugh nervously at the alarming thought that Donald Trump could become the next President of the US but then you are hungry so your thoughts turn to what to have for lunch instead…
Forever desensitized to the horror unfolding on the news, when finally something seeps in, something clicks. Your eyes absorb what you have always glanced over and for once you really see the horror in all its gritty glory.
Here I sit, albeit a bit dirty and worn having been bitten and head butted by horses, living amongst frogs, cockroaches and ants as I grind my way through my regional work. A little tougher and bedraggled then when I first landed but safe and fortunate all the same.
I ‘like’ these Facebook posts and share them, I frown and shake my fist at the TV and groan about what a horrible world it is, and “I always wondered why somebody didn’t do something about that… then I realized I am somebody.” A quote I read by Lily Tomlin. This realization is so stupidly simple; I cannot fathom how it never occurred to me before. Finally though, it has struck a chord, and it is resonating through me.
New Year, new me… by the end of week one I’d already managed to lock myself out of the apartment and had to walk barefoot to my cousin’s house at 5am, wake him and his pregnant girlfriend up and plea for refuge.
I get so impatient with myself, and my many faults… I am too weak, watch too much television, waste too much time, spend too much money, care too much what others think of me, think myself too fat, too ugly. I always blamed society for putting this pressure on me but I have realized it is me, I am my own worst enemy.
I must stop beating myself up, berating myself for all my flaws. I am only human; I will never be perfect and this year I really hope to stop trying. For too long, I’ve ignored the problems of the world, fretted about my failings instead, about all I don’t have when I have plenty. It is time for me to turn the spotlight off myself and shine it outwards, onto others. Why do I spend my days writing and documenting my own life when others have more important things to say, stories to tell, and issues to be brought to light. It is my turn to give back, to put my hands up, step up and to help. I will turn the lens on the people of the world, learn about their lives, let them tell their stories, help people that really need it and perhaps in doing so I will finally be convinced of my worth.
What do I really want to spend my life doing… not just travelling or doing extreme sports and having a good time but rather in conservation and activism, assisting real change in the world. Therefore anything I do from here on in will have more of a reason behind it then my own selfish delight.
My guilt is foreboding and at times overwhelming. I volunteered for one day this year to help collect clothes for the refugees in Calais, one fucking day out of 365 days this year. Is that really all I could spare? What bullshit have I fed myself? I didn’t donate one drop of blood this year… I was in Vietnam I tell myself, that gets me off the hook. I got a tattoo the year before, so I couldn’t? I spent hundreds of euros and dollars and Vietnamese dong on sculling beers and spirits on the weekends and then told myself I’m too broke to drop a coin in a homeless mans cup or to spare a fiver for that charity. The guilt literally riddles inside me.
This year, things need to change… I need to change. We’re off to a rocky start, but lets face it amn’t I always? Such is life. All the things in this world I don’t agree with, I have not earned the right to complain about unless I try and do something about it. There are so many undocumented tales out there about great cruelty and injustice, of weeping deforestation, of starving children, of slain animals, of racism, of homophobia, of corrupt politics, of bribes and favours, of debt and death, of a crumbling world… but also of magic, of passion, of freedom, of human beings rising up in the face of adversity. This year, I vow to give back. I have had my moment, now its time for others to have theirs…
Happy Belated New Year to you all.
I have worked hard my whole life, slogged away at it quietly behind closed doors; the junior cert, the leaving cert, my degree, countless unpaid internships, countless shitty part time jobs. All on the basis that once I came out the end of that tunnel, my efforts would be rewarded. I would have the offer of a job, not just any job, but the dream job.
Alas, here I sit, a year on and not only do I not have the offer of thee job, I have no offers for any jobs, not even the ones I once thought beneath me to apply for. What has happened, where have I gone wrong?
I have followed societies orders, I have studied hard, never smoked or taken drugs, been nice to people, rarely fought with my parents, never had ‘issues’, never was demanding, or attention seeking, never built up a credit card debt, never gambled, never did anything illegal, never did anything too reckless. I’ve been a good little girl. Yet it seems, none of that plays a part, none of that counts…
I mustn’t be good enough?
Ouch. Saying it out loud is like getting punched in the gut.
So what do I do, I emigrate of course, like countless Irish before me. So here I sit in Perth, Australia crashing in a cousin’s house. Taking up space. I have announced to the world that I am here, you can employ me now, and once again I am met with stony silence. Moving was meant to solve the problem, a bigger marketplace, a better chance… instead just more people to reject my resume.
It has been suggested to me that I should think about retraining? One year after graduating, I should admit defeat and choose a more sensible option. To give up on Journalism, to give up on the dream before I’ve even given it a chance to take off.
No, I can’t do that, not yet. Shall I slug away once more, working bar jobs, scraping by, living the student life, waiting for the opportunity that might never arrive?
Or do I take the less sensible option and gather together the scrapings of my bank account to explore Australia, in the hope that while I shuffle through the outback, someone will reach out and take a chance on me? With the knowledge ever weighing on my shoulders that if they don’t, I’ll have to crawl back home with my tail between my legs, my confidence in shatters, and ask Mammy and Daddy to support their failing 24 year old once more.
Do I gamble in the hope that this may actually happen for me, or do I settle down to a reality that I’ve never wanted?
The time has come to make a decison.
Go on, roll the dice. Decide my fate.
There’s something very appealing about hitchhiking.
What’s not to love? It’s free, it’s spontaneous, you will see and experience incredible things and meet people from all walks of life.
It is a little reckless however, and while we love a little recklessness from time to time, its important that anyone who does want to try hitchhiking is prepared and as safe as possible.
I recently got to chat to Jade Braden, a regular solo hitchhiker…here are her thoughts on it all.
1.Tell me about one of your hitchhiking experiences?
My second hitchhiking experience comprised of 21 hitchhikes in a single trip. I wanted to get out of my town to escape monotony and go on an adventure – the thought of traveling alone was initially quite scary to me but also felt necessary so I followed through with my plan to travel towards the West Coast.
The length I traveled varied from a mile to as much as 8 and a half hours of driving with a single person. On average, I would travel about 30-45 minutes before transferring to another rider. Waiting time for a ride was 15 minutes on average with as short as 3 minutes (two cars nearly collided into each other in California trying to pick me up) and as long as 2 hours.
The reasons for why drivers picked me up varied from “It’s not safe for a girl to be hitchhiking alone,” “You remind me of my kid/niece,” to “I once was a hitchhiker too.”
2. Best experience?
I had a great number of experiences – it’s difficult to narrow them down! My overall favourite thing about hitchhiking is trading stories by talking about traveling experiences, personal stories and overall learning about the other person.
For instance, I heard about a man’s hitchhiking experience during the Polish riots in Europe and how he evaded soldiers with machine guns at the border who claimed that his passport picture was not him, causing the driver and other hitchhikers anxiety while he sat confused, not understanding the language. Thankfully, that was cleared up by showing another picture of himself to adjust the claim and shortly afterward, getting kicked out by the driver after crossing the border.
Otherwise, a favourite driving experience was when I got a 6 and a half hour ride from Green River Utah to Nevada with a cool guy who pulled over to call a relative, only to see me running to his car. He was kind enough to offer the ride, provide food along the way, and even offered a place for me to stay after playing a few billiard games with him and his friend.
Another favourite experience was during my last day in Phoenix in which I had met another hitchhiker who traveled alongside me for the past 3 days from California. I was invited to a burning man meet and greet event by a group of people at a firehouse shelter and impulsively said yes to come along. I was driven to Tempe, had great conversations with them, and experienced a new culture. I even got to try out fire breathing, which was exciting.
Lastly, I became a traveling therapist in a way with a young veteran who experienced PTSD following his deployment out in Afghanistan. We were able to resolve some difficulties he had without getting too in depth and he seemed more relaxed once he dropped me off in Green River Utah.
3. Worst experience?
I had my fair share of uncomfortable experiences as well as pleasant experiences, two of which involved boundary issues with people. I had an uncomfortable driving experience with a couch surfer host in Carson City, Nevada. Although in general, I found no fault with the site and their list of hosts, the host who offered a ride along the Northern part of California back to San Francisco gave off an uncomfortable vibe while conversing with me about his broken relationship (and his interest in me) as he understood myself as a therapist. It was a long drive to tolerate before I arrived at my next couchsurfing host. If the situation became any more intolerable, I would have asked to be dropped off, then receive another ride with someone else.
Another uncomfortable experience was when I agreed to stay over with two people (a young woman and her uncle) at a house in Vale, Colorado who saw that I was hitchhiking and offered their place for me to stay. I enjoyed spending time with the woman however the uncle was being too physically touchy before going to bed. I set my boundaries firmly, stated that there was no relationship between us, and he backed off for the rest of the night. Thankfully, he respected my wishes, although he complained a bit beforehand, then let me be. If that situation continued, I would have left the house promptly and went camping instead.
4. What do you think of the taboo that exists, that as a female solo traveler you shouldn’t hitchhike?
There is some truth to the idea in which females may have more dangers to face when hitchhiking. However, I challenge that idea in which you need to be smart and aware of any red flags before you accept a ride from anyone. If you get a bad feeling from someone when offered a ride, say no or state that you are not heading the same direction as they are while making your intentions clear that you do not wish to inconvenience them anyway. If you feel uncomfortable during a car ride, you have a few ways to approach the situation – you can ask to be dropped off if you feel that they will let you or you can pretend to be sick or need to use the restroom, forcing them to pull over. Watch how you are dressed and be clear with your boundaries and expectations. Truly though, in my experience, I met far more amazing people on the road than anything else since most people who stopped by to pick me up wanted to help.
5. Top tip you would give to a female trying hitchhiking for the first time?
Again, there are many tips I can offer but the biggest one is do your research on hitchhiking before taking the journey and trust your instincts. I went through several sites, looking up ways to stay safe, where to stand on the road, how to interact with others, and what supplies to bring.
For more hitchhiking stories from female travellers and for some top tips on how to do it safely, have a read of this story I did recently for Cooler Magazine…
Man, real life is tougher than I thought it would be. Trying to make me sit down and stare at a screen for hours a day is fruitless. I will fidget, I will moan, I will become grumpy. I will rebel.
I try to get up but society puts its hand on my shoulders and pushes me back down. Like a dog, I am told to sit, stay, as they slowly back away, hands outstretched in an attempt to placate me, so I don’t make a run for it.
I really thought I was done this time, that I’d be happy to settle, to begin to build a life for myself. It wasn’t lies, but now I know, it’s not the way I was built. I can’t make you all happy. I can’t sit still. I must return to the open road again even if it destroys me. I must try, before time escapes my grasp.
Bicycle Adventure #2: Mizen to Malin Head (length of Ireland) by bike | camping at night | alone (unless I can convince my lovely Aunty Ann to accompany me, hint hint!)
If anyone is considering doing something similar (Hanoi to Ho Chi Min), here is our route, distance travelled each day and our kit list. If you need any more help or information, feel free to get in touch.
Ho Chi Min Highway & A1 Highway
Day 1: 92km – Destination: Hang Tram, maybe Hoa Binh?
Day 2: 69.5km – Destination: Roughly Lam Son
Day 3: 83km – Destination: somewhere near Thai Hoa
Day 4: 113km – Destination: near Phou Chau
Day 5: 83km – Destination: Huong Khe
Day 6: 132km – Destination: somewhere after Phuc Trach
Day 7: 59.5km – Destination: near Cam Lo
Day 8: 82km – Destination: Dong Ha
Day 9: 70km – Destination: Hue
Day 10: 100+km – Destination: Da Nang
Day 11: Rest Day
Day 12: 68km – Destination: Tam Ky
Day 13: Day off (sick)
Day 14: 98km – Destination: near Quang Nga
Day 15: 89km – somewhere on the highway
Day 16: 93km – Destination: Song Cau
Day 17: 132km – Destination: Dai Lan
Day 18: – Destination: Nha Trang
Day 19: Rest Day
Day 20: 92km – Destination: Phang Rang
Day 21: 82km – Destination: Phang Rang/Phang Thiet
Day 22: 77km – Destination: Phan Thien
Day 23: 75km – Destination: Long Khan
Day 24: 84km – Destination: near Bien Hoa
Day 25: – Destination: Ho Chi Min City
Vietnam is a country of contradictions. A stranger can hold my face between their hands, rub the hair on my arms, braid my blonde locks. Two minutes later another is shoving against me flogging their goods: “Madame smell the coffee, taste the pho, feel the texture, see the colours of the spices, buy from me, buy from me, Madame…”
I thread softly through the markets to pick up supplies. Sweaty bodies push against me, pungent air caresses my nostrils, humidity sticks my hair to the back of my neck. Smoke rises in the alleys, plastic kids chairs and tables consume the pathways, a cacophony of horns intertwined with the high pitched natter of the Vietnamese language drown out the peace, the dust churns and settles, churns and settles, the flies hover over the raw meat spread out across cardboard on the ground, the final flick of a live fish before the machete drops to behead it and life seeps out.
The Vietnamese crouch, the sweet iced coffee with condensed milk as it touches your lips, the tacky flashing lights over every shop front, the Buddha and mini pagoda statues adorned with fruit and cigarettes and cans of booze, the heaving flem filled hack of the locals whose lives play out in a world of putrid air pollution, the smoke and inhale of the thuoc lao pipe and the fifteen second blissful high that follows.
The tanned creases of the old women’s skin, the stereotypical straw farmers hat, the kindness colliding with the meanness, closing your eyes, crossing your fingers and stepping out on the road to cross, the cruelty to animals, the resonating sound of a slap of a child across the face, the red flag and yellow star, the fat white tourists licking ice-creams, the ao xao, the sauces, the lizards darting across the walls surrounding you. Every town has its product; aloe vera land, tile land, corn on the cob land, duck land…
Millions of mopeds zoom past. The squeak of the overloaded battered bikes with no gears. The crisp linen shirts and red chiffon bow of the school kids. The terrible roads, the contrast of stunning limestone eroded mountains with the polluted dirty cities. Like Ireland eighty years ago.
This is my Vietnam.
It is a dangerous world we live in. Or so everyone keeps telling me.
But fear is a terrible thing. Fear traps you, restricts you, and confines your mind. Fear makes you settle for average, when you were destined for so much more.
I decided I would not let fear of the unknown dictate my path, so I moved to Vietnam alone. Six months later my fifty-four year old Da flew out to Vietnam’s capital city to cycle the country with me. North to South, 2000km, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Min City.
My foot presses down, the pedal begins its rotation, and we are off, Hanoi to Ho Chi Min by bicycle. Instant chaos in the city’s streets, we push our way slowly out of Hanoi while trying to find our balance with our overstuffed panniers. Finally we break out of the cities confines and into pure countryside, to the town made of sludge. With no compact ground to stabilise ourselves, we struggle in vain through a road of ankle high muck, we fight to keep the momentum going because if you stop, you’re stuck and you will sink. The locals on the side of the street look on laughing their asses off at us. Dad makes it through the fifteen minute mud bath. I stutter and fall and have to drag my way out on foot, giggling in disbelief. The madness has commenced, we have reached the Ho Chi Min highway, our home for the next two weeks.
We cycle against a backdrop of limestone cut mountains, patterned paddy fields, farming women bent over their crops, while a constant dribble of kids emerge from their homes and chase us down the road to scream their hellos. We aim for 70km but end up doing 92km because there is no place to rest our weary heads. The series of hills gnaw away at our energy and leave us replete. Day one and already a routine, one we will fine tune over the coming weeks. A shitty motel tonight, with cigarette butts, squat toilets, no sheets to line the rank mattresses, and only an uncased fan to cool us in the hazy heat. A full chicken carcass, beak, bones, feet, organs intact and some leaves and rice thrown in front of us to dine on. But what magic, we are here, we are finally doing it. What a wonderful life it is.
The days roll by; I quickly learn the Vietnamese words for father and daughter because everyone thinks we are married, creepy. Da’s gears won’t change cogs, so he’s having a rough time trying to get up the hills of which there are many. Low mileage forces us to ride on through peak sunshine, ebbing away at our battery, stopping every few miles to force water down our throats and slather on sun cream over the sweat. We push on, making a note of what not to do; there will be no lie in tomorrow, up early to get the miles under our belt before the heat hits. Surreal beauty surrounds us, blue skies, water buffaloes bathing in the lakes, the beautiful people waving, we have to fight the urge to stop every minute and take a photo or we will never get there.
A sense of easiness settles between us as I plague Da with questions about his life, about the world, which at twenty-three I still have so much to learn about. He entertains me with tales about the life he has led until now, about work, about my brilliant mother. It distracts us both from the heat and the pain. We keep commenting that maybe it is us westerners that have it the wrong way round, these people in all their poverty seem happier than us. Labouring in the farms or chilling in a hammock in the shop/restaurant/house they own until a customer rocks up to be served. Taking a siesta between twelve and two each day, cruising through the rolling landscape on a motorbike, spreading seed in a paddy field knee high in mud underneath the sweltering sun. Meanwhile we burst our balls to build a career, to get another promotion to make more money to buy more crap that we do not need. Are we really the developed country or is the joke on us?
We are both tired, needing a place to stay and not finding any, there is nothing worse than having to push on when you’ve already given up. Da grabs on to the back of a bamboo truck, to hitch a ride up the hill. Tonight is another cheap motel, another hand held shower, washing out our gear with soap in the sink. I treat myself to a fresh pair of knickers after three days. This is the life. The days start to morph together. We stop to help an unconscious drunken man out of a dike. We despair at the miles and miles of deforestation in process around us. It saddens me to witness a world ‘develop’, Vietnam will soon mourn the loss of a simpler lifestyle without machines and technology. I want to shout at them to stop, to look at the western world and see that they are making a mistake. They should be preserving their way of life, not destroying it. We ride past a dead man on the road, after been knocked down, a sheet covering a part of him, blood pouring out of his head onto the tarmac. Tragedy, and yet somehow the world continues on as if nothing has happened. I have a rash and blistered backside and heel, and an infected ant bite on top of the foot. I am punishing my body, forcing it to adjust rapidly. But in all this pain, there must be some light, some beauty.
I push my bike up the side of a mountain in tears; a frightening descent follows as darkness closes in. Our bodies hurt; we need to rest if we are going to have a chance at making this. The Vietnamese point and laugh at us, overcharging us because we are white, therefore assumed to be wealthy. Sometimes I hate it all, the people, what we are doing. Pushing eighty to a hundred and thirty kilometres a day, every day on a motorway consumed by road works in the pissing rain. I’m in misery, questioning everything, this trip is going to change who I am. We pass war memorials every few miles, reminding us of this countrys bloody past. I snap at Da because he’s left handed and if we sit beside each other and share one plate, his elbow constantly hits off me because I’m right handed. A car hits a motorbike who hits me, knocks my panniers off and nearly topples me. Rashes, ant bites, dark rims under my eyes, a bad cycling tan, knotted dreadlocks… I look a mess. Why do we choose to suffer? But every time we reach those lows, a moment will follow that lifts us right back up. Always such simple things; a pea and grain flavoured ice-pop for breakfast, a nap under a tree at noon, the blast of a shower, calling home, a cool beer, a pineapple. And voila, day saved.
1000km later, we crawl into Da Nang, head to toe in muck, the dirty rain filling and corrupting our lungs. We have reached our half way point. We gorge ourselves on glorious western food, satisfied for the first time since we started. We take a moment to appreciate what it is we are doing. To appreciate life, kindness, beauty, fun, calmness, the freedom of choice, the freedom to change things, to evolve, to change myself and the path I walk on. To suffer in order to appreciate what I have, the luxuries of my world.
The rest is short lived and we return to the road, this time on the A1 motorway in the lashing rain. A series of wrong turns, added miles, a puncture and more rain follows. Hardship. Maybe there is something after all to the 9-5 job, the mortgage, the husband, the babies, the log fire, the cable TV? Day thirteen becomes an unplanned rest day, after I submit to fever through the night. Da fusses around me worrying that they are malaria symptoms. We ride to the hospital to do the test. There we witness real suffering; a young man after a motorbike accident, bleeding out, with broken legs. In another corner two old men writhe in pain on their deathbeds. We perch awkwardly on the edge of a trolley. The test comes back clear, but a high white blood cell count suggests a viral infection. Rolling with the punches.
We trudge on. Miles of road works; dredging up so much dust it’s dangerous. The buses and lorries beep and barrel on through, if you don’t make a swift jerk of the handlebars towards the ditch then you’re a goner. We bellow profanities after them after the near misses, but they just wave, carting their busloads of fat white tourists from scenic spot to scenic spot, missing all the culture, the actual food and lifestyle of the Vietnamese people, content to be blindfolded to reality as they holiday. Some days I think, wow look at what we are doing with the time we have been given, what badasses we are but sometimes for a second I think, I wish I was on that bus that nearly barrelled me over into a paddy field. How great it would be to be reclining, eating a can of Pringles, and looking out the window at the lovely scenery, but not looking close enough to see the wrinkles on the locals faces, the bend of their spines after years of being hunched over labouring in a field. Not close enough to see the poverty, to see suffering. To see their lean, sinewy figures in motion. not from dieting but from manual labour. No notion of what indulgence or McDonalds or spare cash is. I pull my baseball cap down, my buff up around my nose and mouth, and through squinted eyes I push on through the dust cascading down around us.
I can feel myself growing stronger. I am starting to enjoy the burn; I don’t dread the hills as much. There is something about earning it; it’s a good kind of suffering. Around us the world chugs on, a migration of yellow butterflies surrounds us like snow falling. The hammering of the stone breakers clinking out a tune, chimes around us. After a tidy descent, we stuff our faces with mangoes; bananas and cans of coke at a quaint little food stall, enjoying the evenings heat on the back of our necks. The Vietnamese talk to Dad, he replies in Gaelic and they both pretend they are having an actual conversation. I stand back and laugh.
Day 18 and we roll into the resorts of Nha Trang to feast on Mexican food and large pints of golden San Miguel. The sheer enjoyment we get from the taste, from understanding the conversations around us, and from simply being anonymous again. Six beers and we are blotto, like giddy school girls. We discuss life, make plans, and marvel at the wonder of it all, and the realisation that we are actually here and in the midst of doing it. We stumble back to the hotel, and call home to tell them all how much we love them in slurred words. What a hand we’ve been dealt.
Day twenty-one and we are somewhere between Phang Rang and Phan Thiet. A miserable start, a man on a motorbike drives up and grabs my breast, Dad chases him but in a case of bicycle versus motorbike, the motorbike is going to win. What is wrong with this world that makes people think it is alright for men to do that? If I am to survive, I must toughen up. Sparse desert surrounds us, there is nothing to entertain our irises, but you can’t put your head down and focus solely on pedalling because a truck will devour you. Every day we guzzle litres of hot water and butter biscuits, undercooked eggs, coriander, chilli and soya sauce thrown on a bread roll, or if we are lucky a banana sandwich. My stomach is curdling and Da’s lost so much weight he’s now got a pair of moobs. I’ll never again take a fridge for granted.
Morals are low, my body is starting to give up, I’m sick of trying. Da is the only thing keeping my legs rotating. Four days left, we must push on. The heat presses down as we push up an exposed hill, we find a cluster of trees, lay out the sleeping bag, and lay down to ponder it all. These are the moments we crave. I cannot describe the pleasure derived from a cold can of coke pressed to your lips, when your tongue is dry and the sweat is gathering in beads on your forehead. Somehow, time passes; more crazy heat, another crusty motel with squat toilets, bum guns and no sink. I break down; Da rubs my back and tells me not to be so hard on myself. This better get better in hindsight! I swear if I ever see a bike tourer or backpacker walking past my house, I’m going to chase them down to smother them with tea, cake, dinner, a bed to sleep in and nourish the shit out of them.
And then suddenly in the blink of an eye, it is day twenty-five. The final day. We stumble into Ho Chi Min city among a traffic jam of motorbikes. I cannot believe it. Finally after all of that, it’s actually over. We make a beeline for McDonalds, sup cans of Saigon in bed, it’s all sinking in. We really did it. What an extraordinary thing for a father and daughter to do together. And although at times, I wanted to kill him, he’s my Dad, he’s my hero. He’d never been to a developing country before and at fifty four, with a year to go to retirement after years psychiatric nursing; he jumps on a plane and cycles the length of Vietnam.
I’ve realised that your life doesn’t have to be the stereotypical idea of perfect, the Facebook perfect; the far flung lands, the backpack, the tan, the Raybans, the bleach blonde hair, the figure, the boy, the parties, the selfies, the Instagrams. None of that is real. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone, you don’t have to impress anyone or make them jealous. How about striving for your own version of perfect? It can be on a much smaller scale. Having a family, living in your home town, having a group of friends who you can laugh with, a Friday night beer, a little job that you love, your own idea of perfect. We are so privileged here in Ireland, and we have no idea. But I suppose I never would have known I could be happy with this, unless I did what I did, have done what I’ve done.
Two weeks later, my blisters have healed. My muscles stopped aching. The hardships suffered are but a hazy memory. I am home. I am free and I am already bored… the next adventure awaits.
We stepped foot into Cambodia. Five of us, the original five, all such different people forced together through circumstance and found that we fit together. Three Canadians, one South African and me. The first night we partied hard, free of Vietnam, of work. We were young and reckless once more. In the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, here for one night only to gulp long island ice teas and one dollar beers. To sway to the music underneath a canopy of fairy lights on a roof top bar.
A six hour bus to Sihanoukville, to the beach. I gazed out the dusty pane with heavy eyelids… and it was there that I fell in love with a country for the first time since my own beloved Eire. Head resting against the window I watched the world go by, watching the landscape morph from flat plains to towering hills, from dessert to jungle, from turquoise bath water to open sewers. I saw the blood orange moon, the houses built on stilts, the red dirt paths, the kids running and laughing, playing barefoot soccer… young and wild and free.
Such a simple life. A hard but happy life.
I am jealous of them , they are jealous of me.
How can such polar opposite worlds exist simultaneously? The Western world and the developing world, seemingly oblivious to one another’s woes.
Could I live this life, after growing up on the privileged side? Could I really be poor, not the kind of poor that we already say we are, but real poverty. Could I give up all my possessions, relinquish the internet and work as a labourer? Eat slower, live slower, appreciate the little things in life once more. Family, the beauty of a sunrise, the texture of the ground beneath your bare feet. Laugh sporadically and cathartically, work with my hands, draw sweat. Find joy in the feeling of a shower after a hard day’s work, the feeling of calluses forming on your hands and feet, in the satisfying but relentless itch of a mosquito bite, the peel of a sunburn. Every second playing out as if in slow motion.
We escaped to the island of Koh Rong, to Long Beach a forty-five minute climb over a vertical collage of rocks and then a straight drop back down the other side. Sweat pumping and heart pulsing between my ears I progressed slowly, the effort cleansing me of my over indulgent past few days… to emerge onto paradise. No postcards, no film, no tourist advertisement could do this justice. It was like being high, all your senses attuned to the magic unfolding around you, high on life. The sand like fluffy flour sifting between our toes, the water rippling clear and turquoise. We wrapped hammocks around spare trees to camp for the night. Another first for me, but encompassing everything I have ever dreamed up of for myself. Only other youthful hippies to share its floured shores for the night, all packing for one night, but staying forever.
Watching the magic of bioluminescence explode around me during a late night swim, sparkling plankton lighting up the dark waters beneath my hands. Gathering wood, lighting a campfire and dozing off beside it. Fleeing to our hammocks when the buckets of rain and lighting start hailing down upon us. Rising and stretching in the morning air, gathering our belongings swiftly and power walking back along the beach to catch a boat to reality in a typhoon. Laughing out loud at my luck, it hasn’t rained in four months here, but the day I come, typically the tarp is yanked free and the water unleashed. Wading out to the old wooden boat, body fully submerged in the rocking tide, bags held high over our heads. Tossing them carelessly on board and scrambling awkwardly in after them for a bumpy ride back to the central hub.
The days blurring together, a mash up of bed bugs and insect bites, we looked like we had chicken pox. Chronic diarrhoea and vomiting for three days in squat toilets with no flush and no toilet roll, “character building” my Ma and Da would say. I can’t shave my legs because it’s like a cacophony of sores kissing my skin. I can’t shower too often because the communal ones are usually covered in shit and when I do its under cold spurts of water that I have to psych myself up to put my head under. Highs and lows. Cambodia you have not been kind to my body but you have freed my mind. I think if I shimmy a few steps left of paradise I could find an oasis of real life that is more my style and while away my days here contently.
But I can’t stay in paradise forever. A trip to The Killing Fields see’s to that, pulling us back to reality, shaking us into the present after one by one we succumbed to tiredness and grumpiness with the passing days, with the constant company. Opening our eyes to real suffering, real problems. What Cambodia went through, genocide and now poverty and my utter inadequacy or inability to do something about it. Am I who I want to be yet? Still I disappoint myself. It’s all so fake, white people’s paradise, the white’s working the easy jobs in the bars etc, while the local people unclog the booze and drug induced puke smeared toilets, clean the rooms, man the boats, collect the rubbish left behind by the white partiers as they continue to blaze a trail of destruction though their chosen holiday destinations.
The world is a funny place. It both baffles and awes me frequently.
So much still to do. So much still to learn.
But I’m starting to grow weary, I’m starting to miss home. My family, my old friends. I have turned the final corner in my journey, but I can’t pack it in yet, I’m so close. Home is in sight, three more months, three months brimming with so much potential. The preparations are under way, two more weeks of work, of selling the last of my possessions, of having a routine, of lie ins and a steady income.
Da is coming… two more weeks until we cycle the length of Vietnam…
“You can’t fall if you don’t climb, but there’s no joy in living your whole life on the ground.” – Unknown.
“There can be no place more desolate, despairing and awful.” – Lord Kennet (1971)
Last summer Nick Hancock landed on an isolated rock in the North Atlantic Ocean in pursuit of two records, the longest solo occupation of Rockall and the longest occupation of Rockall in history, after 45 days in solitude he achieved both, earning himself a nomination for Adventurer of the Year. I got the opportunity recently to discuss the incredible expedition with the man himself.
1. Where did you get the idea from?
I was made redundant in 2008 and moved to Scotland. There was no work in property, so I took a job in an outdoor clothing shop. Whilst there, and bored at the till one day, I decided I needed a challenge and started to research the possibility of sea kayaking from mainland Scotland to St. Kilda, via Skye and the Outer Hebrides. In doing that I came across a story about some Spanish sailors being ship wrecked on Rockall and making it safely to St. Kilda. That drew my attention West. I read a lot about the rock and quickly became aware of the existing group and solo occupation records. I decided then that I wanted to visit and hopefully break the records.
2. What gear did you bring with you?
I had to take all of my food and water for two months as there’s no fresh water supply on Rockall and nowhere to prepare fresh food. I also had to take a method of generating power in order that I could charge the communications equipment and electronics I took with me, so I built an Ampair wind turbine on top of Rockall, which provided more than sufficient power, and I was loaned a BGAN satellite unit by Inmarsat, via which I could blog and Tweet. In addition to these key items, I also had a laptop, from which I blogged, and which had hundreds of ebooks on for passing the time.
3. What item proved the most useful?
It was probably a combination of the laptop, BGAN unit and my satellite phone, all of which I used to get up to date weather forecasts, so I knew what weather was coming and the sea state to expect, and also, after the storm, they were critical to communicating and planning my exit strategy.
4. What was your day to day routine like for the 45 days?
In order to eat into the time I tried to slow everything I did down and take as long as possible over tasks. There was no concurrent activity out there. I’d generally tried to not get out of my sleeping bag before 0900 and would then take an average of around an hour to have breakfast and complete daily ablutions. Then, depending on the forecast, I would either read, if the weather was poor, or I would get out of the RockPod and exercise, collect samples, measure features, or generally try and enjoy being there by watching the wildlife. Lunch was around 1400, and I would eat again around 1900, after checking the forecasts online, before more reading and bedding down around 2200hrs.
The summit is properly flat, as it was blown off by the Royal Engineers for a light beacon to be fitted. Unfortunately it’s too small to live on and most of it is taken up by the light housing. A few metres below the summit is Hall’s Ledge, named after the first person recorded to have landed on Rockall. It’s generally level although not particularly flat, nor big at around 11’ by 4’ at the widest points, but it offers the best place for a shelter and is where I and the previous occupants set up camp.
There were lots of birds all the time, mostly gannets and guillemots, but also puffins, shearwaters and even a couple of lost racing pigeons and a starling! In terms of mammals, there were often two or three seals about, hunting in the shallower water around Rockall and Hasselwood Rock (about 100 metres to the North). The most spectacular sight though was the minke whales, of which there were at least three if not four or five around at any one time. It was amazing to be able to watch them hunt and blow at the surface, and I spent a lot of time just sitting and enjoying the privilege.
Physically it was just a matter of being fit and strong enough for the initial climb, the descent at the end, and hauling and lowering kit up the rock. Apart from that, I had to learn quite a few new skills relating to winching and hauling the RockPod, for which I trained with the local Fire and Rescue team instructors. Mentally, I’m pretty self-reliant anyway, and am able to entertain myself, so it was just a matter of setting enough tasks to stave off any boredom.
I had originally planned to stay for two months as the existing records were 40 days solo and 42 days as a group; I wanted to beat these records and push them out far enough that they wouldn’t be broken for a while. Two months was a good round number to aim for and fitted within the tight weather window that summer in the North Atlantic allowed. Early in the morning of day 28, I was hit by a Force 9 storm which dislodged my shelter, the RockPod, and also ripped away four of my barrels of food and equipment. This left me with around fifty days’ worth of food if I was frugal, and I then had to strike a balance with the weather forecasts, food reserves and when the charter boat was available to get me. This all came together at forty five days, which is why I left the rock then.
I had originally thought that I would be ready to go in two years and the expedition was christened ‘Rockall 2011’ as I hoped to land in the 200th anniversary year of the first recorded landing. In reality, it took five years hard work to design and build the RockPod, find a suitable boat (the one I used wasn’t even launched until 2012) and to raise the funding to pay for the boat fuel and charter. That included a reconnaissance trip and a failed attempt to land in 2013 due to bad weather.
The coastguard knew I was on the rock, and I was just on the outer limit of helicopter rescue; although it would take several hours and a refuel to get to me, and then they would have less than half an hour on site to search for me. I took with me an EPIRB, and SPOT location beacon which I set off every morning to say that I was OK, and my satellite phone also had an emergency beacon built in. In terms of living on the rock, whenever I was out of the pod I wore a climbing harness and was tethered to Rockall with a life line clipped into various anchors around the summit and Hall’s Ledge. I didn’t want to slip off!
The only time I was scared was during the storm I mentioned. I was on my own, 250 miles out in the North Atlantic, in a Force 9, in the middle of the night. I couldn’t see anything it was so dark, and I couldn’t leave the RockPod for fear of the high winds and waves. Around one in the morning, after a lot of spray and few small waves had hit the pod, a large wave came and shunted my shelter across the ledge. I didn’t know if the straps holding me down were still attached, and couldn’t check because of the weather conditions. I just had to lie there and hope that was the worst of it. The pod quickly slipped back to near its original position, but in the morning I saw that a number of the straps were slack and an anchor bolt had bent under the force of the water that hit. It was not an experience I ever want to repeat.
The RockPod is a converted water bowser like the ones you see at road works. It’s a rigid plastic capsule that would have held around 2.5 tonnes of water, so it very strong, but light too. I added an access hatch, port hole and deck vent from Lewmar in order to provide light and ventilation, and bolted fourteen 1 tonne rated lifting points to the shell so that I could tie it down to Rockall with ratchet straps. I then levelled the floor with plastic sheeting and insulated it with spray on expanding foam insulation. The only other thing I did was to screw a plywood sheet on the bottom to level out the concave base in order to assist with the initial winching up the rock at the start of the expedition. It was perhaps more an evolutionary process then direct design, but I had certain requirements that my shelter had to fulfil, and what resulted was a strong, light weight, water proof shelter that floated and could be relatively easily winched.
No, I won’t go back to try and extend my record, even if someone does beat it. I am hoping to go back to Rockall soon though, perhaps next year. The place just gets under your skin.
That’s hard to answer, there were so many highlights: the minke whales, watching an amazing sunset and knowing you were the only one seeing it, the solitude (a rare thing in the world these days), surviving the storm, speaking to passing vessels over the VHF, and then seeing my ride home coming over the horizon. All were fantastic in their own way and went together to make the expedition an amazing experience for me.
Follow Nick’s future adventures on Twitter @RockallNick or his website.
I am still not fully satisfied.
Why is it that I can’t be content with a 9-5, with good friends, good food, a great family, an income. Why do I want to suffer? Why do I crave mud, sweat and tears above all else? Why do I want to feel hardship? Why do I think this way when so many others don’t?
This constant search for adrenaline, this search for freedom is exhausting. Nothing I do blots out this scalding desire to be more, to do something reckless, scary… something epic. I don’t have a concrete plan, I don’t have any money. But I don’t think I ever will. I am 23, I have no commitments, no offers of jobs or internships, no credit card debts, no loans, no boyfriend, no kids. Therefore I have no excuse. No reason to be doing nothing. Technically I am free, yet I have never felt free, all I hear are rules, rules rules, how to act, how to dress,… so much bullshit. This is why I need an adventure.
I know I’m not alone, others like me are out there, others that get it. Sir Ranulph Fiennes once said: “Those that ask the question will never understand the answer. Those that understand the answer will never ask the question.” That is it. That’s the best explanation I’ve ever gotten as to why I am this way, why I live the way I live. It can’t be explained in words.
My life is by no means boring. I spent Christmas abroad in a country that doesn’t celebrate Christmas. I ate a curry for Christmas dinner and skyped my family while they opened their presents and narrated the humdrum of goings on, of who got what. I rang in the New Year with three brilliant Canadians in Hanoi. The next day I boarded a plane to the Philippines for my cousins wedding.
I stayed in a four and a half star, gem of a resort with its own private beach, two pools, an all you can eat breakfast buffet but all I felt was eerily concious of the people who are living mere yards away on the breadline in galvanised sheds with dirt floors. And they were the most polite and kind people I have ever met. I was uncomfortable, I felt guilty as I gorged myself. This is not me, this is not who I am. I like lying on the ground when I’ve eating too much, sitting on the edges of pavements, wearing out a pair of boots so much that my mam has to throw them out on the sly, eating seven bowls of cereal in a day so i won’t have to buy food.
But I got to see the grown ups, the Irish, my brilliant family. Some who I never felt quite in sync with before to discover a common interest; a bid for the Seven Summits, a recklessness to backflip off a banana boat, to rent jet ski’s, to parasail…A family all hailing from rural Ireland, flying in from their adopted homes in New Zealand, Australia, Doha, and London to celebrate the unification of two family’s and two cultures, the Filipinos and the Irish. Seeing my Mammy and my auntie Ann after months. The two of them halves of a whole, black and white, providing comfort and a good kick up the arse when required. Snorkelling, kayaking, jet skiing, hobie cat sailing in the luke warm waters of the South China Sea. Finally letting myself relax and be content to laze away a day or two on the beach, drinking and stuffing my face.
But it was a temporary respite from my ever restless consciousness, it came to an end and I had to return to Vietnam upset, tired of flights and layovers and crappy buses. So I handed in my notice, just so as I could feel like I was in motion, like I was making progress and I began the countdown.
Four weeks until the Lunar New Year and Cambodia.
Eight weeks until Da comes and the pedalling begins.
Thirteen weeks until the cycle ends and then who knows what…
It’s all figured out until April 17th, the date Da fly’s home. After that I have no further plans, no nuggets of knowledge or ideas, no money, no return flight, nada. And it really is a scary feeling.
I’ve always had some vague, fuzzy idea of the next step but this time the horizon is blank, scarily blank. I chose a year of teaching abroad to put off the inevitable decision. I thought within a year of bought time, surely I will have figured it out by then… but maybe not knowing the next step, what I will do or where I will be a week from now or even a day from now is the key, that is after all the very essence of adventure, and that is exactly what I keep saying that I am seeking.
I leave you with an extract from an article by journalist George Monbiot, something I reread every now and then when my resolves are starting to sway and I’m tempted to pack it all in and go home.”When faced with the choice between engaging with reality or engaging with what Erich Fromm calls the “necrophiliac” world of wealth and power, choose life, whatever the apparent costs may be. Your peers might at first look down on you: poor Nina, she’s twenty-six and she still doesn’t own a car. But those who have put wealth and power above life are living in the world of death, in which the living put their tombstones – their framed certificates signifying acceptance to that world – on their walls. Remember that even the editor of the Times, for all his income and prestige, is still a functionary, who must still take orders from his boss. He has less freedom than we do, and being the editor of the Times is as good as it gets.” (From: http://www.monbiot.com/career-advice/)
Just think about it.
These ten edits are some of my favourite from the past year. They will make you think. They will make you smile. They will make you so jealous that perhaps you will re-evaluate some things. They may also force you to look on life, the world and the people in it a little differently from now on.
1. This is Backcountry
3. Racing through the elements – Red Bull Elements 2013
4. Motion Reel
5. Open Eye Signal – Jon Hopkins
6. Adventure is a way of life, welcome to 2014
8.The North Face: The Explorer
9.The Joy of Air
10. North of the Sun
A little edit of my uni’s surf club trip to Belhaven, Scotland on Saturday.
David and Katharine are 13months into running the length of South America. 5000miles through rainforest and mountains to raise both money and awareness for the environment. I got in contact with Dave when he emerged from the rainforest for a brief spell to hear about their amazing story so far.
1.You ran to raise awareness and get people passionate about nature again, do you think it has been working?
Ha, that’s a tough one to start with! I think it depends on what level. Locally, when we stop at a school midway through our running day it is a fantastic opportunity to inspire – it’s easy! We are there with people, we are enthusing about the natural world around us, we have images and video and feathers we find by the road to identify and the feedback is immediate, people are psyched! From afar, who knows?!
People are used to sporting events been used to raise money for cancer or other human-related causes, not wildlife. The publics reaction can depend on class and country, but generally speaking most people are resistant to anything that they see as an attack on their current way of life – it’s the human condition. We are saying, “look out the window, the natural world is utterly amazing”, people are hearing, “these guys are greenies trying to make it more difficult for me to have a big car!”
Also, depending on the media, feedback isn’t immediate, in fact with some forms of media e.g. radio, you never receive it! So its hard to tell.
2.What do people need to do to help?
It’s easy, have an affair with nature! People of any physical condition can do it – go out, be in the real world, be amazed by the complex natural systems that support human life, ask questions, investigate, learn that we are part of nature, not above it! We are passionate that so long as people know more about the natural world’s secrets, there is a chance that we can reverse the damage we are currently inflicting on out planets life support systems.
To help people find tangible actions that suit their lifestyle, we’ve set up a campaign with ‘DoNation’ which anyone can join and help do cool things for the planet. We’re also raising money for Birdlife and Armonia and Conservatcion Patagonica.
3.What running experience did you have before this?
We are both keen recreational runners, no more than that, with the odd longer competition under our belt. Kath has ran the 45 mile ‘4 INNS’ race several times. I have enjoyed the Scottish Islands Peaks Race, and Northumberlands Castles and Islands, both sailing/running events, but mainly we run for the fun of being outside in all weather. Nothing better for de-stressing!
4.How are your feet withstanding this?
Really good, I haven’t had a single blister! We have a nice combination of shoes for running with the trailer and running free, plus we go barefoot about 10% of the miles now – its great for training your running style and hardening the feet a little.
5.What distance do you cover on average per day?
Our average running day is now 23miles. We used to find 20 was enough, given the 80kg trailer we run with, and given the fact an injury could end our dream, but now we can smell the finish we are looking to take a few more risks to squeeze a little more out!
6.How do you keep your mind focused and your spirits high after so long on the road?
It’s better not to consider the overall distance remaining – just deal with each shift as it comes, each half hour, each mile, each step if it’s a really tough climb! Each step makes a difference, and we have taken close to 10,000,000. It´s a nice metaphor for the steps people are taking to protect the planet too, 1 in 7bn is daunting, but there is no silver bullet, each small, seemingly insignificant step is making a difference!
7.Any stories of good deeds or amazing people you’ve met along the way?
Many! We are alone a lot, but never far from human kindness. One thing I would say is that the place in which we received the most charity by the roadside; food, drinks, shelter, banter, is Bolivia. What is interesting is that Bolivia is the poorest country in South America!
8.What advantage have the barefoot shoes given you?
They are great. The idea is always to run as naturally as possible at all times. On certain road conditions (or with the trailer!) you simply can not do it with bare feet. The gravel makes you wince or you have road debris, or the asphalt is so hot it sticks to your skin. We slip on the barefoot shoes and we are back on, running lightly with a quick cadence. We change our shoes a lot!
9.Have you came up with an effective way to treat blisters yet?
Yes! Our INOV-8 race socks have basically all but eliminated them. We are not paid-up athletes so are not obliged to say this, but they work. They are single skin socks and with our INOV-8 and VIVOBAREFOOT. I have not had a problem in over 5000miles of running in rain, wind, and snow. Barefoot running probably helps too as it hardens your feet.
10.How have you seen your fitness change?
I have no idea when these calves arrived, but they did! We have improved greatly fitness wise, but still there is never an easy 23-mile day running whilst pulling a heavy trailer, sandwiched between other longer running days!
11.How much food and water do you carry on you?
Good question, it varies wildly. We carry the minimum possible whilst making sure we never go hungry. In the more populated areas that could be 2 days worth, maybe 3kg. On the wild stretches (we have carried food for 21 days)probably 100kg! We eat local food and do not use bizarre packet foods which are expensive and unavailable, and seem to me to just taste of stock cubes.
Water, again depends on the territory. We drink a lot, usually 10L each per day, so that’s 20kg water per day on the trailer when we are in dry areas. Good to remember that dehydration is a major cause of running injuries so not to be messed with. In Chile and here in the rainforest we can carry very little as it always available. In Argentina water was the limiting factor, and at times we carried over 30 litres. We use a LifeSaverSystems water filter to pump and clean wild water where it feels like we need to, but this does take valuable running time (and calories!).
12.You have been running for over twelve months, when is the expected date of completion?
20th October 2013, not a day later!
14. What is the coolest animal you’ve seen on route?
I love Guanacos, it´s like a sexy version of a camel with long eyelashes! Best bird moment? An Amazona Parrot landed on Katharine´s shoulder a few days ago whilst we were running past the rainforest. Sounds silly, but we asked it what it was called and it said “Laura”. It’s true! Mind you, it said Laura to everything, whilst nibbling Katharine’s ear.
15. What are you using to navigate?
Garmin Forerunner 310XT GPS watch plus google satellite images. Each charge lasts us two days now, and we can charge it with the PowerMonkey solar panel easily in an hour. It’s very good, but I wouldn´t swim with it on as the seals are going, we are really using our equipment!
16.What are you finding the toughest to cope with?
Living by the roadside – it´s sort of a mix between local celebrity and being a tramp! We try to hide as best we can when we are not running but it can be really tough, not having somewhere to call home.
17.How are you getting on with each other after so long in each others pockets?
Can you imagine it?! We are friends as well as husband and wife, and running partners, but at times we flare up!Sometimes the whole of South America wouldn’t be big enough, and we yell in the wind! Naah, like all relationships we tend to focus our angst on the ones closest (especially given there is nobody else who speaks your language within 5000miles!), especially when hungry and tired, but we are normally too tired to remember what the thing was all about! What normally happens is some wildlife moment or other gets in the way of our mood, and we end up saying ¨wow, what the hell was that?!¨.
18. What’s the best piece of gear you have brought?
INOV-8 wrags! It is a little piece of fabric that we cannot live without! They protect us from the sun, wind, dust, rubs in a myriad of places best left undisclosed!!
Check out my interview with adventurer and TV presenter Simon Reeve on Sidetracked online.
Sidetracked: Hi Simon, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us. Author, adventurer and presenter: which do you think best represents you?
Simon Reeve: An adventurer would be one of the descriptions I might use if I was feeling really poncey along with author. I like calling myself an author because I wrote a book and I’ll be trading off that for probably the rest of my life. Also now, probably my most important title is dad and that’s the hardest one to live up to.
So tell us a little more about your book, and how did you go from writing to presenting?
I really don’t know how that happened to be honest. It’s really bizarre. I wrote a book on al-qada that came out in 1998 which warned of a new era of terrorism and nobody took any notice whatsoever and then 9-11 happened and it became a best seller, I went on the telly to talk about it quite a lot and that lead to discussions with the BBC about making TV programs for them. I had my own hair and teeth and I had written this book that had given me some experience and legitimacy and so I set off on a journey for them around central Asia which was interesting. It was an area in which I was really interested in and I thought BBC viewers might like to learn a little bit more about it and so that was my first TV gig. That was around Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan for a series brilliantly titled Meet the Stans and I’ve been going ever since. I can’t believe it. Here I am now ten years later. Don’t tell anyone.
Read the rest of the interview on the Sidetracked website here.
1. What is the difference between a pro women mountain biker and a pro man mountain biker?
There isn’t a huge difference! The men are usually quite a bit faster, but there are a few pro women who tend to beat up on some of the pro men (not me!) There are less pro women than pro men.
2.What is it that appeals to you about the sport?
I love that you can get on a trail and ride way out into the middle of nowhere in a relatively short period of time. You can get places cars can’t go, and places it would take days to hike to! The adventure and being in the trees is my favourite thing about mountain biking. Also, with trail riding, it forces you to be present and focus on the moment because you are trying to navigate a trail. It’s harder to space out and it’s mentally relaxing. Everything else seems to fall to the wayside and I can just be on the trail. I love racing because it gives me opportunities to ride different places, meet new people, and of course – challenge myself!
3.What has been the highlight of your career so far?
I’ve been so lucky to have a lot of great moments in my career. The coolest thing I’ve done is the Yak Attack Stage Race in Nepal – a 10 day race across the Himalaya that I was the first woman to ever finish! Racing Marathon World Championships in my USA kit, winning a couple of 24 Nats titles, and winning the Breck Epic twice have been really huge for me too. I’m excited about future growth and adventure in my career. I’ve really been pushing myself the last couple years to think outside the box and try races that are considered to be the “hardest” in the world, and in exotic places!
4.How many bikes you have and what are they?
Oh wow, lots!! I have 2 road bikes, a CX bike, 2 Canyon mountain bikes, a Misfit SS(it’s new!), a beater bike for a commuter, and a Canyon 6inch trail bike. Next, I want to get a fat bike! The Surly Moonlander looks sweeeeet!
5.Which is your favourite one?
Right now? My 29er Canyon HT…I am dying to get a 4” 29er full suspension. I should have one this year!
6.What do you find is the best brand for gear?
It depends on what you want to use it for! I am really excited about my Primal sponsorship this year because they not only make great clothing that fits me (think women specific), but they are involved with a lot of events I go to and really give back to the community. I love my Hestra winter riding gloves! I’m also a fan of Maloja (I don’t own any yet, but I always admire it) and Capo for clothing.
7.Where is your primary spot to train?
In the summer, I head up to Summit County as much as I can and ride CO Trail sections around Breck. I live in Boulder, CO and most of my go-to rides are dirt road climbs are 1-2 hours in length, or trails up the mountain!
8. What are next big competitions coming up on the calendar for you?
This is going to be a big year! I’m so excited at the opportunity! I just won the first mountain bike race across Haiti called the MTB Ayiti Ascent Stage Race. I’m heading back to race the Yak Attack in Nepal for my second time in a couple weeks! After that, I’m looking at a few one day events like Whiskey 50, Breck 100, Pisgah 111K, and Leadville… which will revolve around the Transylvania Epic, 3 day Breck Epic, and one of the most exciting – Mongolia Bike Challenge at the end of my season. It’s going to be a huge year for me, it’s hard to believe it’s all going to happen!
9.Whats your diet consist of to keep on top form for the season?
I don’t change my diet all that much throughout the year. My diet consists mostly of fresh foods. I normally eat granola+berries or oatmeal for breakfast, almond butter sandwiches for lunch, and various veggie/fish/whole grain dishes for dinner that I’ll cook. Throw in some dark chocolate, beer, and Michael David wine for treats and there you have it!
10.Who is your main competition?
Myself! I try not to focus on my results on who is there. I try to focus on performing to my best ability and usually the cards fall into place.
11.You have a job as well?! How do you balance both? Is it because there’s no money in women’s mountainbiking?
It is extremely difficult to get paid to ride your bike as a female mountain biker. I work for Ergon full time doing sales and marketing which involves some weeks sitting at the computer, and some weeks travelling to various spots in the USA to do dealer visits. Additionally, I work as a freelance journalist with about 5 different magazines I contribute to. I stay very busy! It’s all about time management. I sit down at the beginning of the week and schedule everything including my training to make sure it all happens.
12.Your favourite distance to race is the 75-100mile range. Why is this?
I like covering more ground because you get to see more! Also, it doesn’t cost you the race if you make a mistake or have a mechanical. I also simply love just riding my bike, so the longer I get to ride, the better! I love the challenge. I always feel like it’s over too fast if I do a shorter event and want more.
13.How does it feel to represent your country in your sport?
It’s a great honour to wear the USA jersey! It’s something I never imagined doing, and something I will never forget.
14.How do men in the sport treat you?
They are actually really great –fun and encouraging for the most part. I love kicking their ass too. They also keep me humble. I ride with a lot of pro guys and am constantly getting dropped. Sometimes it really messes with my confidence, but on race day it’s always, “Oh, I’m not as slow as I thought I was!” That’s a good thing!
15. How did you go from it been a hobby to you turning pro?
I just sort of raced into it. I find that if you work hard and have a vision, things work out.
16.What do we need to do to grow the sport?
Our sport is actually growing rapidly. The racing scene maybe not as much. I think lower entry fees and fun, challenging courses with a festival atmosphere are key!
Follow Sonya’s Adventures:
Published on OutDare Adventures, read the full interview here.
Q: Did you ever drink and party and live the ‘student life’?
A: Ya definitely, I was a completely normal student; I did all of that stuff!
Q: You’ve never received sponsorship; you just save up and then do cheap trips. That’s freedom in one sense but does it mean you’ll never be financially free because you have to spend so much of your own money?
A: The row the Atlantic was a sponsored trip so I am starting to head down that way. But if I can possibly afford to do it myself then I like to maintain the independence, the simplicity and just to be my own boss and that’s worth quite a lot of money. Most of the trips that appeal to me really aren’t very expensive, so I just save for it.
Q: Do you think it’s just as safe for women as it is for men to go on solo adventures/expeditions?
A: I think that 99 percent of the time yes it is or perhaps even safer because people are nicer to you, but I also think there is that slight, elemental, potential risk that at times you’re a women on your own in the middle of somewhere, it can get a bit scary.
Q: What do you look for when choosing a suitable place to set up camp?
A: Running water, so near a river would be good and nice soft grass.
Q: Do you get any criticism over not having a traditional job? – How do you prevent that from disheartening you?
A: A little bit, people often say things like oh it’s alright for you, or you’re lucky, or it’s easy for you. Mostly I think, well I chose to do this, I’m no superman, I’m not a genius. Anyone could have done what I have; it’s just a choice I made. It slightly annoys me when people sneer a little bit and say oh when are you going to get a proper job. I’m earning enough money to live the life I love. So it doesn’t really bother me, mostly I think it’s just envy.
Read the full Interview here.
In a pair of Doc Marten boots and Primark gloves, with no training done or experience under my belt and only a Tesco sandwich in my backpack, I decided today was the day I would climb Ben Nevis. At 6am, I boarded a minibus tottering with strangers and gear and off we set on a three hour journey across Scotland to the base of the UK’s tallest mountain.
At half past nine I put one foot in front of the other and began what I thought would be a pleasant stroll up a big hill. Three steps in and I was peeling the clothes off me, sweating and nervous about my tendency to assume that I can do anything as long as I keep moving. After the uncomfortable pleasantries of introducing oneself to the group, I fell into a thoughtful silence and shuffled onwards. It is never until the going gets tough that boundaries break down and people start to open up and share their stories. An hour and a half into the hike, the snow appeared, the hats came out, the gloves came on and we talked to break the monotony of our thoughts and to forget the twinges of our muscles as they began to protest.
One German, four French, one or two English, one Swiss, several Scots, and one Irish hiked our way upwards, single file, mostly in silence, lost in our thoughts and the blissful scenery that held us in place. One hour to the summit and all we could see is white; snow and fog embedded us. If our leader didn’t know the route off by heart, we would be lost forever and all I had was a Refresher bar for nourishment. The group split, with the latter one slowing and ready to potentially turn and head back to base. I was stubborn, I could keep up with the speedy fuckers. But as time elapsed, I felt my body slow. I was not keeping up, I was tired, I wanted to abandon, to turn back but if I did everyone would have to. So I dug deep, it killed me to do so but It would forever haunt me to make others abandon due to my weakness, so in my boots that were built for fashion not for climbing I dug my way onwards. Falling often, sliding backwards on the ice, frustrating the group with my pace. But they were kind and patient and they encouraged me onwards. And eventually, when all I could see was vast whiteness I stepped upon level ground and one of the hikers turned to me and said “Guess where we are?” “Where?” I replied, sagging on the precipice of defeat. “We are on the summit.” he smiled and hugged me.
Blissful glee rocked me for a moment, a quick photo by the marker and then a plea to move quickly back down before daylight fades. The descent was rapid, six of us took off at the front, I fell many a time, some scarily close to the edge. But once my boot touched gravel I was free and solid, and I moved quickly down the mountainside. Six hours after setting off, I had returned to reality. A quick call to my overprotective mother to tell her I was still alive. And then the usual thought popped into my head; “Hmmm, what shall I do next? Perhaps a surfing trip on Tuesday?”