Questions you ask yourself

Burning, Vietnam, April 2012
Burning, Vietnam, April 2012

While bike touring there is plenty of time to wonder about what I’m seeing and ask questions but never enough time to stop and get answers.

It has been harder than I expected to keep writing about environmental issues while traveling. It’s not for lack of exposure to it: I have biked through grim deforested landscapes, inhaled putrid black clouds of pollution coughed out the back of trucks and can rarely pedal more than a few minutes without seeing trash as we’ve biked up through southeast Asia and now across China. But I know that without an understanding of the specific local context that has created these problems I cannot know why these things are happening, what’s in the way of a solution, or even perhaps that this is not too bad because there are good things I haven’t seen – national parks away from roads and out of my sight, for example.

So rather than try to provide a report of any particular environmental story or issue, I thought I’d share some of the questions I’ve been asking myself…

  • Why are they burning so many acres of their hills in northern Laos and Vietnam?
  • Why do they burn piles of leaves but not the mountains of trash?
  • Why does someone at the food processing company think that each cookie needs to be wrapped in foil, cradled in a plastic tray, wrapped in another foil wrapper and then, just in case, wrapped in another plastic package?
  • What happens to the circles of friends and neighbors when entire villages are relocated because a hydro-electric dam floods their valley?
  • How can the Chinese grow such tidy fields of nutritious vegetables and build with such aesthetic finesse also create and tolerate such impressive amounts of pollution, litter and waste?
Trash landscape, Laos, April 2012
Trash landscape, Laos, April 2012
Farming/gardening between Er Yuan and Shaxi, Yunnan Province, China, April 2012
Farming/gardening between Er Yuan and Shaxi, Yunnan Province, China, April 2012
Beautiful decorated walls in the Bai architectural style, north of Dali, Yunnan Province, April 2012
Beautiful decorated walls in the Bai architectural style, north of Dali, Yunnan Province, April 2012

I tried to write down some of the answers I have come up with after riding my bike through these perplexing landscapes but they are just rambling train-of-thought speculations. What I’ve realized (for the hundredth time in my life) is that solutions must be local. There are no wave of the hand, cure-all global solutions. The travelers I meet who say “oh they should just…” are wrong. Without genuine understanding of the local ecology, culture, language, political, economic and social contexts, an outsider like myself has no solutions to offer.

Frustrating? Certainly. Particularly because I have not lived long enough in one place to feel that I am a true local or expert. I guess I’ll stick to asking questions. Here is one more: Will the beautiful roads I’ve ridden and the ones I’m saving for another day still be here for my next bike trip or will they, too, be damaged in the name of growth and development?

One of my favorite places

My road
My road

Alone on the bend in the road, legs pedaling, breeze blowing. Adam is a few curves ahead, there are no cars around. Only the whir of my bike and soft squeak of my chain fills the silence. It’s just me. The road and me. I can stop if I want. I can go if I want. I can do whatever I want – I am alone on this road and I’m traveling. I let myself coast and bask in the moment, enjoying the silence, the warmth, the view. I slalom around imaginary obstacles, slow down, look around. And then I pedal harder, just because I like the feeling of the wind in my eyelashes.

I’m spitting out a mouthful of sea water while bobbing between big ocean swells textured with rough whitecaps. Attached by a harness to my huge purple kite that flies above me, I’m looking around for the board that just came off my feet after my last crash. Each time I sink down behind another swell land goes out of sight and all I see is water all around. This is what I’m thinking: No one can see me. No one knows where my board is. No one can help me. I got myself here, and only I can get myself out of here. So after a moment to enjoy the wildness of this small scoop of wilderness between waves, I dip my kite back down towards the horizon to fill it with wind, and squinting my eyes against the water that rushes over my face I head upwind, tacking to find my board and start the ride again.

Kitesurfing alone
Kitesurfing alone

Perched on the edge of a rock-face I look down and see the space between my foot trembling on the ledge and the treetops. I rearrange my fingers on the holds and look out at the banana field beyond and no one is there. No one can see me so no one knows that I am resting my head against the rock as I take deep breaths and try to pull myself together. The insects are sounding off like alarms for a time-bomb: a reminder that I have to move on, whether it’s going to be down or up. And no one but me knows how many long seconds pass before my arms, hands, feet and mind are inexplicably pulling me upwards again.

Sort yourself out
Sort yourself out

There is no place where I feel more alive than that place where only I can sort myself out.

Why do I do this to myself?

March 9th, climbing “Take Forever”, graded 5b, 38 meters long…

We recently took a break from biking to climb for a week near Thakhek. It had been months since I’d last jammed my feet into my too-tight climbing shoes and tied myself to the end of the rope. I dipped my hands in my chalk bag to dry off some of the nervous sweat, checked my harness to be sure I had the right number of quickdraws, and, off I went.

Up, up, up, this is going fine. Yep, I love climbing. Feels so cool up here. Look at me go, I bet I look pretty good right now. Ooh nice move there with the little knee drop, yeahhh. Clip here, clip there. Shake out the  arms, nice breeze in my hair now that I’m 20 meters up. Man, I love this feeling. Now, where is the next hold. What? There is no hold. This is meant to be a 5b. Where. Is. The. Huge. Hold. Where? Panicky downclimb to the last clip. Shake out the burning fore-arms again. Chalk up. Chalk up some more. Why is there no more chalk in this bag? Climbing in the tropics is the stupidest idea ever. Feel around the cliff again – nope, no good holds. Tentatively smear a foot over there, and a foot here, nope nope not doing that, too risky. Back down to the last clip, but I am still just holding the cliff. Why do I do this to myself? Why am I up here? This is so not cool. I was perfectly happy on the ground. Isn’t biking thousands of kilometers enough of a challenge or am I that dumb that I need to go and scare myself like this? Every time Julie, every time. I cannot possibly hold that tiny bit of rock and put my foot on that tiny slippery place and move a step further. No way. No but I can. I have done this before. It’s 5b. I can do this. You can do this. You like the burn of adrenaline in your forearms. That’s why you are here, Julie. It makes you feel alive. Now don’t do it, don’t say it. Don’t say that terrible, awful, un-undo-able word. Look up, you can, you can, you can.

“Take!”

Shoooot. It’s done, it can’t be taken back. I’ve told Adam to take in the rope and my chance for the flash (doing the climb first try without resting on the rope) is gone. Forever. I knew it before I said take. I knew that if I tried I might have made it. Or I might have slipped, but the fall would have been okay – the rope is there, the bolts are new and solid, the wall is vertical so it would have been a nice clean fall, no problem.

Two minutes later I’ve had a rest, the burning in my arms has faded a bit. I reach up again, move my foot a little, stretch a little further. And, wait, what’s this, another hold? And that little tiny bit of rock to grab is not that small really. And, ufff, grrr, gahhh! …and suddenly I’m at the next bolt.

And this is why I climb. To practice not saying “take”. Climb till you fall. Easier said than done.

To experience the indescribable feeling of that moment before an irreversible decision, an irreversible word. To feel emotions more raw than my fingertips after a full day on limestone. To discover the clarity of mind that is only accessible above the last clip. To know what it’s like not to know if you can do the next move and to know that no one but you can do anything about it.

March 10th, climbing “Driving School”, graded 6b, 20 meters long…

There is more to it though. It’s to prove to myself that I can do the final three exposed moves above my last bolt on a 20 meter climb that has used every last bit of my strength because even with nothing left in my arms, I will NOT say take again. I WILL do this. Grabbing, clawing, fingers slipping, gasping, screaming, arms burning, I haul myself over the ledge. I don’t say take, I don’t downclimb. And I am finally, sweatily, ecstatically at the top of my first 6b ever. 

The view is amazing. The rappel down is glorious.

And more than the need to push myself, this is why I climb. Because it feels so good up there.

Climbing tick list for Thakhek, Laos
Climbing tick list for Thakhek, Laos

Learning conservation, Khmer and how to say hi to a million kids in Cambodia

In February we spent over three weeks biking across Cambodia, a place I expected to have mainly dirt roads and sad, reserved people scarred by the history of the Khmer Rouge and the ongoing threat of landmines.
What I found instead were good roads and most importantly, smiling, laughing, screaming, cheerful children everywhere. Apparently nearly 50% of the 6 or 7 million Cambodians are under 16, which is easy to believe when you find yourself losing your voice from trying to say hello back to them all.

The highlights were definitely the days we spent along the Mekong outside of Phnom Penh up to Kratie and biking around the Angkor Wat temples. Here are a set of pictures to give you a taste of what Cambodia is like.

On the road

What do you see on the roads in Cambodia?

Haybale on wheels (western Cambodia) Haybale on wheels (western Cambodia)

Haybales on wheels lumbering by that leave bits of hay stuck in your helmet.

Family vehicle (Cambodia, between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh) Family vehicle (Cambodia, between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh)

Squeaky bikes for the whole family. Bike-pooling is the way to ride in Cambodia!

Temples everywhere (Cambodia, between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh) Temples everywhere (Cambodia, between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh)

Cambodia is mostly Buddhist and there are temples all over the place. I wondered about the dynamics between the monks that live in these beautifully-maintained buildings who make daily alms rounds to villagers in rickety, dilapidated houses to ask them for rice and money in exchange for a blessing.

House on the road (Cambodia, between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh) House on the road (Cambodia, between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh) Houses on the road (Cambodia, between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh) Houses on the road (Cambodia, between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh)

The typical Cambodian rural houses seems to be made of wood with blue trim and tile or thatch roofs. As you ride by you squint your eyes against the sun to pick out the source of the voice shouting “Hello! HellO! HELLO!” from where it is resting in the shade under the house so you can try to wave back in the right general direction without falling off your bike since while you were looking away from the road you didn’t see the upcoming pot-hole.

Cheerful bikers (Cambodia, between Phnom Penh and Kratie) Cheerful bikers (Cambodia, between Phnom Penh and Kratie)

There is plenty of traffic in Cambodia but there are also still thousands of bicycles that people cheerfully ride along the mostly-smooth roads. How long until they make the transition to almost only motorized transport as in Thailand?

Schools and kids everywhere Schools and kids everywhere

There are schools and kids everywhere! It’s fantastic to see such an abundance of schools and children who clearly have no confidence problems as they shout hello to us strangers passing by. Despite the fact that 99% of the time the kids weren’t actually in school but biking away from it or outside for recess, I felt extremely hopeful about Cambodia because at least they’re trying to educate the next generation.

The man we could talk to because he spoke French! The man we could talk to because he spoke French!

I was told that the burden of recent history weighs heavily on Cambodians and they would be sad and reserved. Luckily it was hard to see past the noisy happy children, but I did notice that the adults were more reserved and less likely to smile and wave hello than in Thailand. The older people we met, like this man we were able to talk to because he spoke French would have certainly suffered greatly during Pol Pot’s reign, no matter which side of the conflict they were on.

History

S-21 Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh S-21 Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh

In the years up to 1975 Cambodia was in a civil war that led to the Khmer Rouge take-over of the capital that year. The day they took Phnom Penh they emptied the cities and began forced labor camps. They also took schools like this one and converted it into a prison where thousands of people were tortured for information and killed. Seven of the 20,000 that came through prison S-21 survived. At the S-21 museum we learned that this was just one of hundreds of similar prisons across the country. Around 2 million people were killed in the genocide that lasted from 1975 to 1979.

Being a sustainable tourist

Typical roadside snack stop Typical roadside snack stop

This is what a typical stop looks like when you are biking in Southeast Asia: the front of someone’s house converted into a small store, filled with mostly nutrition-less food wrapped in plastic and more plastic. About every 20km or so we start to look out for those orange treasure chests: cooler boxes that conceal cold, sweet relief from the heat. Shamefully, my willpower to resist the bottled drinks wilted in the 40 degree heat, so in the rural areas I tried to carry my trash to bigger towns where hopefully it would be burned or buried rather than scattered along the side of the road or in someone’s backyard.

Sticky rice in bamboo containers Sticky rice in bamboo containers

Sticky rice and beans packed into bamboo stick wrappers (‘krolan’) is one of the few snacks you can get on the road that doesn’t leave a plastic legacy behind. Unfortunately business creativity seems to be lacking in Cambodia because all the  women we saw selling these were in one spot. (Coconuts are also a good option – someone just needs to invent a biodegradable straw!)

 Development

Riverside in Phnom Penh Riverside in Phnom Penh SUVs in Phnom Penh SUVs in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh’s waterfront was a lovely, clean, tiled quai-side with colorful, sparkling boats, though just a street back was the dirty market. The cars some people drive are also in stark contrast to the rickety, squeaking bicycles of the countryside.

 Environmental challenges

Sweeping trash (Cambodia, market in Phnom Penh) Sweeping trash (Cambodia, market in Phnom Penh)

I thought Thailand had a litter problem but it seemed even worse in Cambodia: in every market I visited I felt like I was shuffling my feet through a thick layer of plastic trash and food scraps. The morning market in Phnom Penh was clean in contrast thanks to this man sweeping up the scraps.

(not) In my backyard-ism / not NIMBYISM (not) In my backyard-ism / not NIMBYISM

If people have to put up with this much trash in their own backyards can anyone really expect them to care about a bit more litter by the side of the road? As a biker from countries where you can be fined for littering it’s still hard to see so much trash along the way.

River life

Precarious house (Cambodia, between Battambang and Siem Reap) Precarious house (Cambodia, between Battambang and Siem Reap) Floating houses (Cambodia, between Battambang and Siem Reap) Floating houses (Cambodia, between Battambang and Siem Reap)

To avoid the busy tourist track road between the Thai border and Siem Reap (location of Angkor Wat) we first headed south to Battambang, then took a boat across the Tonle Sap lake to Siem Reap. The slow eight-hour ride gave us a chance to observe how people live along a river and on Southeast Asia’s biggest natural lake.

Despite the proximity of the lake to Siem Reap, the town faces water shortage issues because of its outdated water pumping system – and the increased demand from tourism. Locals have their water rationed throughout the day – but not the hotels, or the upcoming golf course.

 Tourism and Angkor Wat

Stephane shows us around Angkor Wat Stephane shows us around Angkor Wat

In Siem Reap we met up with Stéphane, a friend of a friend who has lived in Cambodia for several years and has fantastic knowledge of the natural and archaeological history of the area. He also works for an organisation that documents land-mind casualties to try to get them cleared and banned. The information they gather has been used to convince the government to redirect de-mining efforts to populated rural areas rather than just on new road or construction sites. The annual number of casualties has come down from around 800 to 200.

Stunning Bayon temple at Angkor Wat, Cambodia Stunning Bayon temple at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

The temples are stunning and definitely one of Cambodia’s real treasures. Thanks to tourism the area is well maintained and thus fairly free of litter and still well-forested.

Falangs everywhere (Tourists/white people everywhere) Falangs everywhere (Tourists/white people everywhere)

Everyone visits this temple where the trees climb over the ruins and wants to take the same photo. After waiting impatiently for a few minutes for the people to clear I realized it wouldn’t happen and decided to show you what it’s really like: too crowded! Our favorite parts of the temple complex were the areas that barely get a mention in the guidebooks where you can slowly ride around on single tracks and soak up the atmosphere.

 Mekong

A beautiful place to camp by the Mekong A beautiful place to camp by the Mekong

The Mekong is a beautiful river and cycling along its banks north of Phnom Penh was a great chance to roll slowly over bumpy, dusty roads and say hello (Soussa-dei!) to lots and lots and lots of kids.

Trash on the MEkong river banks Trash on the MEkong river banks

Moving closer to the edge of the road for a photo and then realizing the river bank is covered in trash like this makes you think twice about buying another can of coke or plastic bottle of ice tea at the next break. If the people who design the packaging for this food saw where it all ended up would it make them think twice about the designs and materials?  There is no garbage collection system, so where are the people supposed to put all the trash?

Mekong backyards Mekong backyards

The dirt roads between Phnom Penh and Kratie brought us past agricultural villages growing rice and other fruits.

Bridge at Kampong Cham Bridge at Kampong Cham

Though the Mekong is not a major trade or transport artery, it is not entirely rural and does have some big concrete bridges like this one across it.

 Wildlife

At the temple in Sambor we visited the conservation center for the globally Endangered Frog-faced Soft-Shelled Turtle. They run a small but impressive center for a number of young turtles that seem to spend all their time buried under the sand in their little tanks. Locals receive money to bring in eggs or hatchlings as an incentive not to instead sell them for food or medicine on the black market. At the conservation center (supported by Conservation International) they care for the hatchlings until they are old enough to be released. It was inspiring to read about the increase in nesting sites and hatchling survival thanks to this simple but obviously effective conservation effort. And the turtles were extremely cool little creatures!

Asian Giant Soft-Shelled Turtle Asian Giant Soft-Shelled Turtle Information about the conservation status Information about the conservation status

In the late afternoon our host at the homestay in Koh Phdau on Koh Rouginiv island (30km north of Kratie) took us out on a small boat to see the river dolphins. We were lucky and saw plenty of the freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins, a globally Vulnerable animal that lives in brackish waters and several rivers of South East Asia. In the Mekong there may be only 80 or 90 left. Catching glimpses of them breaking the surface of the smooth, swirling water and hearing them blow in the quiet evening on the river was certainly one of the most magical moments of Cambodia.

River dolphins River dolphins

The dolphins are threatened by habitat loss and destruction but also by gill-net fishing that can ensnare dolphins. Luckily these three boys we saw fishing in the late afternoon are just using a small net.

Boys fishing on the Mekong river Boys fishing on the Mekong river

Click here to see more photos of Cambodia…

On traveling and writing

I’ve now been traveling for nearly five months and yet I still haven’t figured out how to convey what I’m experiencing in words or pictures on this blog. But now I’m sitting by the lazy green Mekong river in Laos with a nutella sandwich, cold passionfruit juice and an afternoon’s break from my bike so there’s no good excuse not to just write. So here goes…

Since there are several reasons why I’m out traveling there are several ways I might write about it. This blog started as a way for me to write freely about conservation so I’m trying to find a meaningful (and practical considering poor internet connections) way of writing about this adventure in a way that keeps it connected to conservation.

“All adventure is a vessel for getting to the more important things in life.” – Alastair Humphreys, 2011

What are the important things in life to me at this moment? The environmental lessons that don’t make their way to my desk in Europe. The human connections that happen only when you are miles and miles from ‘civilisation’, sanity and the safety of the known. The nature of your own edge. The nature of nature’s edge – and society’s. The serenity and satisfaction of reaching an ‘ah-HA!’ moment at the most unexpected points in your life.

Even if I’m not working in conservation right now I’m living slowly and sustainably, and I’m getting closer to discovering a way to lead a life that brings conservation and outdoor adventures together.

Bike touring
Bike touring

Two inspirational women who recently cycled for ten months visiting transboundary protected areas (national parks that straddle national boundaries) summed up what I’m trying to say just perfectly:

“There are places you can get to by road, and there are places you can only get to by being on the road, a state of mind you can carry, with concerted effort, to almost any context.” – Cycling Silk, 2011

The seed for my own expedition or adventure was planted about a year ago in the second half of my masters when I got to attend a few talks by expedition leaders (including Sir Ranulph Fiennes). The craving was only further fuelled by the extreme sports videos I would watch online while putting off the essays I should have been writing. I wasn’t interested in being a backpacker or in moving ‘to the field’ for a gritty but noble conservation job. I wanted to do something physically demanding outdoors. I wanted to learn about the world and myself through the total sensory experience of life outdoors every day. I didn’t know it then, but I do now: I needed to be on the road in every possible sense.

Being on the road is both a lifestyle and a state of mind. The route we are drawing on the map with our bikes is a transect through time, through my life and others’, and through social and environmental landscapes. It’s just one of many possibilities, but whatever path I’m on is the way it is and a chance for me to learn something along the way.

To give you a taste of Laos, here are a few observations in the time I’ve been sitting here writing:

{A woman in a typical conical woven hat guides a small canoe over the river carving a rippling V into its smooth surface.}
{A man fires up a longtail boat below the deck I’m sitting on and the whap-whap-whap cuts through the thick, hot air, disrupting the near silence.}
{A monkey in a cage at the hotel across the sandy lane starts whooping out a high pitched warning cry as tourists walk by laughing.}

Get a yellow card

You can’t learn or improve

Julie showing off a chocolatey backroll

unless you push your limits a little.

I’ve played soccer since I was eight years old and I’ve always been too nice on the field. When I was eleven years old my dad’s coaching advice was: get a yellow card. He didn’t want me to be mean or unsportsman-like, he just wanted me to play hard and stop being such a wimp. I was so proud of myself when I finally got the guts to gently nudge another girl with my shoulder.

For the last two months I’ve been learning to kitesurf in Hua Hin, Thailand. It involves learning to control a huge kite to pull me through the water without crashing it down on other swimmers, sweeping tourists off the beach, slamming it into other kites, or landing it in a thorny tree. Luckily none of these things have happened (yet), but nonetheless part of the learning process is getting dangerously close.

If there were kitesurfing referees I would definitely have been yellow carded a few times by now.

Once I could control the kite I then faced the challenge of generating enough power to get me up on the board but not so much that it launched me out of the foot straps. When that happened I would fly running through the air and drink a huge mouthful of seawater upon landing. There were also the attempts to return to land amongst tumbling waves, watching out for hits in the back of the head from my board when it came off my feet, and jumps that ended in epic blinding face plants.

Unfortunately all of these things have and still do happen to me. Each time it happens I think to myself: another yellow card for me, yessss!

I’m glad I submitted myself to the eye-stinging, nose burning, head throbbing pain that is inevitable if you choose to attach yourself to a giant kite you can barely control. I’m also pleased I put up with the intense frustration of being a beginner because after all that I have not only learned to kitesurf, but also learned that ‘get a yellow card’ is one of the most important lessons my dad taught me.

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