Rolling the day away

It’s been a bad day at work. A vision-squeezing stressful kind of day. When the headache persists after a cup of tea, comfort food and some venting, one of us somehow summons the motivation to get out. And then, faster than second thoughts, we are out the door with our bikes. Out to the fields, out to the forest.

When the wheels hit the trail we are pedalling fast out the gate, racing our demons, chased by them. It is already late and the light is dusky and heavy with humidity. Parched by days without rain, the forest colours are muted, and here and there I notice the trees looking somewhat crumpled. Even the trail is a dull brown ribbon snaking through the undergrowth, a smudged canvas on which we roll out our frustrations.

We attack the first hill and I wrestle my bike and my brain to keep both glued to the trail, but there is not much time to savour the satisfaction that I’m making it before the sourness and burning starts. That taste in my throat – I don’t know what to call it, it is a mile-run-time-trial-in-the-6th-grade taste – but it goes with that lung-bursting feeling that goes with that leg-burning feeling and it is awful but it feels so good. So good to have something real to rage at: the pain, the hill, the bike, the burning.

At the top of each hill, we collapse onto our handlebars, rip off backpacks, helmets, gloves – everything is so oppressive – I feel like I won’t be able to breathe if I don’t get it all off of me. The weight of not just the things on our backs but the weight of the storm-laden air, of my heavy breathing, of the world: I can’t tell if they are adding up or canceling out tonight. And so we push swiftly on into the next climb, knowing the leg-exploding is around the bend and plunging into that place anyway. At the next break we are nauseous, gasping, speechless.

A third climb, and finally the frustration has been squeezed out, or maybe we just know the worst is over, and we are coasting, rolling, loving this upper section of open forest. The deepest part of the woods is ahead, and up there lies a rough stretch of rocks, but the darkness takes the edge off and reminds me to lift my head and look further out, and then I’m flying down the last open curves, leaning into them, gently pulling, firmly pushing, simply riding. Relaxed now, I let up on the brakes, roll over rock and root, faster and faster, the speed smoothing the trail under my wheels. Feeling the flow, finally. Finally feeling everything good there is to feel about this, about everything in this moment.

Fulfilled, I can go home and rest now.

When synthetic is better than natural

Reviving stale bread with cinnamon and sugar!

In contrast to conservation where natural tends to be preferred to synthetic, and control of our environmental destiny seems to be further from reach than we would like, synthetic happiness is within reach.

Happiness is very trendy these days. I was just sent a whole playlist of happiness talks and in the last two years have been given two books on the subject. There is a lot of advice on how to find it but this TED Talk I just watched says that actually the happiness we make is just as powerful as ‘natural happiness’ and possibly more enduring.

You should watch Dan Gilbert’s talk, but as a self-experiment to create some happiness I will try to quickly summarize and post this blog because according to Gilbert we are more satisfied with irreversible decisions.

If you are given a Monet painting that wasn’t your favorite one from the set you were looking at and then asked a while later to rank according to your preference that same set again, you are likely to rank the one you own as higher within the set. People actually learn to like what they have better.

Here’s a simpler example: you go on a date with a guy who picks his nose, you don’t see him again. Your husband picks his nose, and you say he has a really big heart.

Why? Well for starters our ability to predict our own happiness is not very good, and secondly we have a kind of “psychological immune system” that can help us make the best of what we have.

I think this is the explanation behind why I loved the freedom of traveling by bike, including the freedom of having only one ugly, unflattering and stained shirt to wear every day in front of the guy I hoped would fall in love with me. It’s the paradox of choice, whereby logic says that more choices will bring more happiness, but as one of the world’s most indecisive people, my observation is that happiness comes from packing light (metaphorically speaking).

So though we think that if things don’t go as we hoped they would we will be less happy, what really happens is that our “psychological immune system” takes over and if served lemons our minds (and hearts) make lemonade.

I’ll stop there and recommend again that you watch Dan Gilbert’s TED Talk on the Surprising Science of Happiness, for some very surprising and reassuring insights about creating your own happiness.

The trail is the thing

“The thing to remember when traveling is that the trail is the thing. Travel too fast and you miss all you are traveling for.”

Louis L’Amour

My blog has a whole new look but in the spirit of writing, I am posting a photo from today’s trail. We ran out the front door, down the hill to Route du Soleil and then up to Clambin (the cluster of chalets where the lovely Chez Dany restaurant is). 

Reflecting on personalities here and there

Amazon delta, Ilha de Marajo, 2003
Amazon delta, Ilha de Marajo, 2003

One thing that can be hard about traveling is the loss of your identity. I had the same feeling when I was 14 and my parents moved our family from California to Switzerland. I didn’t speak French, but I was put into a French public school (we lived near the border) and one of my strongest memories is of the frustration of standing around at recess trying to make new friends and not finding the words that would demonstrate my personality, my wittiness.

I just read an author comment about a family in Laos, where she observed their distance from “modernity’s slick coolness” and their lack of “irony, cynicism, sarcasm, and presumptuousness“. This reminded me of the earnestness with which many people across Asia told us about their lives and asked about ours, and how in that situation you do not tell your life story with any of the witticisms, sarcasm or humor that you might here in the west. So this aspect of your personality is erased, and for the most part you repeatedly find yourself telling people “Yes we’re married. Three years! No we don’t have children [pointing to bikes] we have bikes – no room for children. Later we get rid of bikes and have children.” 

The thing is, that list of traits missing from that family in Laos are not such great things and I don’t know why we missed those means of expressing ourselves. It is easy here to be self-deprecating or critical of others or other things. When you travel you have to practice having a simpler, purer personality. It’s probably a good thing to practice. What if “slick coolness” came from being honest, generous, interested in others and excited about life?

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Responsible happiness

The Maximiser

Detour off the Pamir Highway, Tajikistan

My friends tease me for being a maximizer, a person who “needs to be assured that their every purchase or decision was the best that could be made”. Now that we’re getting close to home I’m slowly transitioning from bike touring to ‘normal life’. I am spending less time figuring out how to get edible food, and more time wondering what a palatable post-bike touring career/lifestyle could be. Instead of asking a Chinese noodle restaurant “What is the best, cheapest dish on your menu that is typical of Sichuan province but is not too spicy and preferably does not have Sichuan pepper in it?” I’m now asking, “May I please have a fulfilling, fun, meaningful, ethical, well-paid conservation job that still leaves me plenty of time to kiteboard, rockclimb, snowboard, take photos and spend time with my family?” I know, I know, I should try to satisfice or simplify more (the healthy opposites of maximizing).

It’s not helping that I keep looking at photos on adventure sports sites like this one or this one and reading articles by people who give themselves the job title of “Adventurer / Author / Motivational Speaker”. Alastair Humphreys (the round-the-world cyclist whose book inspired my journey) actually makes a living writing and talking about his adventures. Making a living by doing what you love: I can’t say the idea hasn’t crossed my mind. But is that really what I want? Would I feel like I deserved it?

I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we all are seeking something better in life. So, I think, the very motion of our life is towards happiness.

– Dalai Lama in The Art of Happiness

When I think about doing something I love as a career (e.g. outdoor sports) I feel like I need to justify the decision in terms of environmental benefit. I don’t know why because most people have a job that they do just to make a living. They’re not trying to save the planet or solve child malnutrition. Doing something and getting paid for it is what humans have to do, and it’s a valid pursuit in life (as long as it’s not harming the planet or others). Is it pretentious to think I will only feel fulfilled if I have a job that helps the planet? On the other hand, is it respectable to choose a job just because it seems like it would let me have a lot of fun?

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.

– Leo Tolstoy

Some people think that happiness is “a trivial American preoccupation”, that it’s self-indulgent. Despite a heavy conscience of guilt for not doing more for the environment, I disagree. In fact I believe taking care of your own happiness is the first place to start to make the world a better place. Happy people are more likely to smile, to care, to give, and to think about the well-being of others. I also feel strongly that we each have a responsibility to make a positive contribution to our community – both local and global.

What I’m doing now is really fun: I love improving my kiteboarding and exploring the world by bicycle. I often laugh with glee when I manage to get my kite to pull me several meters off the water’s surface or carve a perfect snowboard turn down a powder slope. All of this makes me happy. I know I need these things in my life because they bring me happiness that gives me energy and motivation to take on the daunting task of being a conservationist. I’m close to arriving home to Switzerland but I know this is only the beginning of my journey in responsible happiness.

The books and websites that inspired this entry:

Getting refreshed

I’m a guilt-free conservationist….
It just dawned on me that in the same way we needed to take a break from biking to help us refresh our energy and curiosity, this year of traveling is also a way for me to renew my passion for conservation work. As such I don’t feel guilty about not writing more regularly about environmental issues. Instead, writing about Playground Earth is my way of having a positive take on the natural world and linking two passions: outdoor adventures and conservation.

I’ve recently set up a Facebook page called Learning Conservation to help reach a wider audience. I’ve also linked this blog to FB and I hope these changes will help me reach a larger audience. Coming soon: more on the next phase of the journey, an exploration of Playground Earth from the boat we will be sailing across the Mediterranean in September!

You can now “Like” my blog posts, “Send” them to others or comment on them here or on FB. Getting your feedback is very helpful so I hope I’ll hear from you!

In Tajikistan, looking across the river to the pretty villages in Afghanistan
In Tajikistan, looking across the river to the pretty villages in Afghanistan

China Challenge

We pedalled into China with 30-day visas and over 5,300km of road between us and the exit at the Kazakhstan border. Knowing we could renew our visas twice we applied some simple and, at the time, logical calculations and decided we would need to average just over 70km per day for about three months straight, not including rest days. We called it China Challenge and ambitiously raced off, optimistic that we would triumph over Chinese bureaucracy and pedal every kilometer across this massive country, maintaining a continuous line of human-powered transport home.
The problem is, China already is a challenge Continue reading “China Challenge”

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.


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

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.}