Unlearning by Bike
Cycling solo from Thailand to Spain
Words by Nicole Heker & Photos by Jeremy John
It’s remarkable to hear the stories and wisdom from someone with a mere quarter century of birthdays under their belt. When many twenty-somethings are just becoming their own person, falling into the capitalism cog and finding joy in the form of baggies and beers. Nicole is outside, exploring, learning, unlearning and making a difference to those she cares about. And cycling from Thailand to Spain.
Nicole Heker has been living and travelling through Asia for the past 3 years. Managing the Happy Kids Centre in Bhaktapur, Nepal since she was 23. Now she is on her biggest adventure, cycling solo from Thailand to Spain. An unassisted bike trip to raise money for the Happy Kids Centre. Her goal is to raise $12,000 – enough to cover an entire years worth of costs for the centre.
We caught up with Nicole to chat about the best and worst parts of the trip so far and we dive into her philosophy on life.
Why and when did you decide to do this trip?
I was working as a deck-hand on a sailboat that would circumnavigate the world. The captain of Mr. Percival is an Australian man who decided to leave Australia for the first time and see the world. I was fortunate enough to get a gig working on his boat for a short period of time, crossing the North Java Sea in Indonesia. At this point, I had been traveling for almost two years throughout Asia and had thought that I had a good grasp of what it meant to be an independent traveler. Then, I met Tiphaine and Marco, two cycle tourers who had cycled all the way to Indonesia from France for over 3 years. They rocked up to the boat with two bicycles and all of their gear. They looked tanned and rough and adventure-worn. Over the next three weeks on the boat, they shared their stories, showed me photos and videos and explained the sense of freedom and autonomy. Their stories beguiled me but it was how they carried themselves that sold me. They were so comfortable in their skin, so confident and strong within themselves. They were resourceful, and independent and were quick to fix things that were broken or take on any new task on the boat that needed handling.
It was their inner-state that captured me and brought this trip to the forefront of my brain. But it had to wait. I had 0 funds left and had already signed a contract to work in Korea for one year as an English teacher. Over that year, I saved almost every penny I could. I did the research, followed all the blogs and Instagram accounts I could find and moved toward this goal–riding my bike from somewhere, to somewhere else, far away. I didn’t know where, but I knew what I wanted out of it. Cycling every day gives one a sense of purpose as it is, but I wanted to have a driving intention behind what I was doing, and I wanted to use whatever platform would form from this trip to make a positive impact.
The cause was easy, I have been working as the Director of Development for a Nepali NGO for three years now, we’re a small organization, but our impact has been huge over the past three years, but like any organization, we needed more funding. This is the impact behind my trip. The intention came a little bit more slowly until I started messaging with an old sociology professor from Penn State University. That’s when I remembered his words on the final day of class. He challenged us to “unlearn everything” and so, Unlearning By Bike was born. I was going to pay attention to the stories around me, the stories that I carried within me, all of the judgments that I harbored and I was going to try, to see as clearly as I could, the truths of the world and of myself.
What does, ‘its the inner journey that I’m after’, mean?
In short, it means growth. We live in our self-made cages of perceived limitations, fears and redundant stories that for the most part do not serve us. On the bike, I try to observe what’s happening, what kind of thought patterns have become habits, and what fears dictate my actions. So often, people travel in search of themselves. While traveling can be a great catalyst for growth, everything–every journey we need to take, every facet of ourselves is already inside of us.
I guess my version of the inner journey is outgrowing my cage by taking responsibility, wandering into the unfamiliar, conquering my fears, and integrating new skills and tools. We are ruled by so many things from our genes to our environment, but, I don’t believe that they have the final word. We have space for growth, improvement, and change. Not just through reading books, or making a Pinterest board of inspirational quotes, but by putting some serious work into breaking down what those limits, fears, and stories are and taking ownership over them.
What has been the most uncomfortable/scary experience of the trip so far?
Mongolia is a place of extremes. I would easily say that it’s one of my favorite countries that I’ve cycled in but it was also scary and uncomfortable at times. One time, in particular, was in a very small town called Ulziit. It was exactly what I imagined the old Wild West to be like–dusty, lawless, streets were strewn with horses, drunk men, and shattered glass. The buildings were short, square and colorful. My three cycling companions at the time, Claudia, Oliver and Jerry, and I rode in on a fair day. The fair happens once a month there and nomads come from all over the region to raffle for a motorbike or some sheep. Everyone was wasted and rowdy, barking at us as we rode in, intimidating us by riding their motorcycles straight for us and then turning at the last second, making sexual gestures towards Claudia and me. We were supposed to be there briefly, just to restock on food and water for the road and then we heard it, “crunch.” It was Oliver’s rim. It was broken. This was a catastrophe. We were stuck in a town where everyone seemed like they wanted to rob us or harm us in some way.
It felt anything but safe, but we were stuck. Jerry and I found a hotel and barred the door with some chairs and Claudia and Oliver got a ride back to Ulaan Baatur where they would buy another rim and meet us back in Ulziit. It took two days. Jerry and I only left that room to pee in the ditch outside, one at a time, while the other stood guard at the window to make sure nothing happened. When we were leaving the hotel owner begged for money and started trying to grab at all of our things laying around the room until finally, my face made its point and she left. Sufficit to say, we did not enjoy our stay in Ulziit.
What has been the most memorable/enjoyable experience of the trip so far?
Before this trip, I had never really heard of Tajikistan let alone knew where it was. This small country, surrounded by Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and China, exceeded all my expectations. The landscapes were surreal, epic mountains were the backdrop to this incredible stretch of bike riding. Being very unpopulated, I felt like I had the world to myself. All of my camp spots became home, the roads were mostly paved but led us up, up, up incredible passes that gave me a daily sense of accomplishment. We were dirty and rugged and resourceful. We built campfires and bathed in rivers and when something broke we had to fend for ourselves, getting creative as we patched up tires or adjusted chains. Every evening, it was just us, me and the couple other cyclists I met on the road and the stars.
When we did come across the occasional nomad or mountain family they treated us like family, inviting us into their homes and showering us with hospitality, usually in the form of many cups of tea and a place to sleep. There are countless moments, in every country that has touched me in some way, but Tajikistan as a whole was just a wild and adventurous time that tempted my imagination and left me a different person as I exited out the other side.
What do you mean by “designer of my fate”?
Being the designer of my fate is about living with intention. Without awareness and intention, it is easy to get swept up into the crowd and end up living a life where you never question what you want or what makes your heart dance but just follow the herd. It also has to do with circumstance. For example, the night can be dark, and storms can rage, but by taking responsibility as the “master of my fate” and captain of my soul” I’m giving putting my confidence in myself to change the direction of things. My philosophy on living life is ever-changing haha! But at the base of it all is “Follow your heart/bliss/curiosity” whatever that may mean for you and LOOK INSIDE. See what drives you and ask yourself “Is it fear or is it love?” When I’m 70 years old I would be proud to say that I lived–that I tasted and tried and wondered and that I left this world a little better than when I found it.
What books are you currently reading and what is your favourite book?
I am currently reading Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut. I really love his works, particularly his short stories from Armaggedon in Retrospect. It’s so difficult to choose a favorite book but Siddhartha by Herman Hesse is a short read that I keep coming back to before starting any journey. It demonstrates the non-linear path of a Siddharta’s journey to enlightenment. I keep going back to that book because every time I read it, no matter how different my life circumstance has become, it sings true and teaches me new lessons.
When you were a child and at college, what did you want to do with your life?
I have always been someone who felt drawn to the margins. When all my friends were checking out the flowers, I was turning over the rocks, looking for something else. I was always pushing the rules and sometimes, I took them way too far, but I had this insatiable curiosity and thirst for experience-based knowing. I wouldn’t say that I thought I was unique in any way, but I knew that I questioned everything and that I had little regard for doing what was expected of me. I’ve never really had a clear image of what I wanted to do with my life.
I’ve always had an idea of the person I wanted to be though. I remember being around 10 years old and going over to my friend Caylin’s house. It was different from any other house I’d seen. It was a Victorian style and painted yellow. Her kitchen was colorful, with orange floors and yellow walls and they had their own garden outside growing strawberries and cherry tomatoes and giant sunflowers. Caylin’s mom had a tattoo, she skinny-dipped in the pool outback under the moonlight, and she went deep water swimming, encouraging me to do the same, something that my parents usually forbade. Her job was in construction and on Caylin’s birthday one year, she put a hammer in all of our hands and taught us how to build. She was different and I knew that when I grew up, I wanted to be radical and draw my own lines as she did.
As I grew up, I tried to fit myself back into the mold. I went to university, still not knowing what to do with my life, and thought what office job I would get when I graduated. After studying abroad, something reawakened. I decided to trust myself and just follow my curiosities. That brought me to Thailand after graduation, where I started to really ask myself questions about who I was and what I was interested in. Now, I plan on having many careers! I want to write a kids book and be a yoga teacher or start an eco-cafe somewhere. I want to live in a treehouse and a van for a while and get good at using my hands by practicing ceramics, wood carving, and leather-work. But I find its best not to plan too much. I’ll just keep following my curiosities for now.
If you would like to donate and keep up to date with Nicole, check out www.unlearningbybike.com