How comfortable is it to wear your clothes a week without washing? How delicious is it to cook a one-pot-meal for years? How does it feel to have no wash for days on end? How your towel can smell astringent of slight mold infused with the smell of wood fire. Is there still comfort after living for years on a bicycle? If there is, can it still be called comfort?
Heike, 44 years, from Germany. Cycling for 3,5 years non-stop. Heike’s website www.pushbikegirl.com
We know each other only from internet, but it feels like we have become good friends. We write each other regular, through the good and the bad. I think we started chatting when I was in India, where after soon you proposed me with an interview. I found the way you interviewed other female solo cyclists a beautiful kind of portrait. And I didn’t understand where you got the time from to do so, but now my own curiosity is aroused, I get it.
Now, I have stepped a bit in your footsteps, only because I am so curious. I have questions myself and want to see how other people interpret them. So this questionaries’ of mine is an interactive view on a specific topic where I ask you a question, give my own opinion and is followed by your point of view.
When I am in camp I regularly think of you, Heike. That’s why this specific topic is dedicated to you.
Heike: Cute Cindy, I am also thinking of you very often.
I think you and I have slowly become accustomed to another comfort level compared to a few years ago. Being in nature and surrounded by only mountains, animals, trees and rivers does something to the psyche. It doesn’t mean we get hermits but I think I can say that the way we live our lives has made us, or me, oversensitive to the way live is usually lived in the West.
Such life is filled with accounts, payments, insurances, unnecessary tasks and regulations which are needed to keep up with all. Comfort zone has often become unhuman, or perhaps it has overtaken the initial well-being, now filled with unnatural stuff.
This kind of lifestyle, the simple one, where making money, depending on machines and being highly productive is not important to me. I wish to reach a lifestyle where I might settle in a small farm with some animals and have enough to live on. It’s the opposite of progress as it is. For me this is comfort. The ideal would be to be self-sufficient, self-reliant and live a quiet solitude life (with partner or friend close by). I’m curious to how you see your comfort zone.
1) What is your comfort zone?
For me it is to move in my own pace which is slow. When I wake up I drink a chai or milky coffee first, then I’ll prepare breakfast. I like to write my diary to reflect and will break up camp around 10. I leave quite late for cycling, and I prefer to stop early enough so I have plenty of time to repeat the above. If I have the possibility (water and food enough) I stay a day in camp and make myself comfortable with embroidering, photographing, writing (or reading) and drinking chai. It depend in which country I am, in India my comfort zone was opposite as it is in South America. South America is all about nature, while India is more about culture. But the red line throughout the cycling is reflection and depth. The constant slow cadency where I can stop without hesitation to admire where I am gives me happiness and peace of mind.
Heike: My life on the road has changed quite a lot over the last 3.5 years. When I think back to the starting day of my trip, my comfort was getting to places and wanting to see everything in one day. I had the feeling I will miss out on too much, if I am not cycling 100 km every day.
The longer I was on the road the slower I got.
3.5 years later I am the opposite of what I was at the start. I am still curious, but I don’t have this constant self-made pressure any longer, to miss out on anything because my life might end tomorrow.
I am not an early bird and I love my lonely and quiet nights in the bush. My campfire surrounded by howling coyotes and a bright night sky – magic.
I mainly stay away from the crowds, away from a stressful society, away from tourist destinations and away from places where you have to spend lots of money to be accepted.
I love my space, my freedom and my own decisions. I love lonely quiet roads and trails.
But now, after spending an entire year in the US and Canada mainly in nature, I am also ready for some cultural exchanges and interaction with people again, which I was a bit tired of when I left Asia last year. I am looking forward to a new challenge – the bustling cultures of Latin-America.
After all, the constant changes make me feel most comfortable. I get bored very easily.
2) Do you have a steady order you always hold on to, if possible?
I notice I have a very strong pattern where I go by, whether I be at home/working/cycling. As for cycling I am at my happiest when waking up when the sun rises, settle for a milky coffee or two, while reflecting the previous day. I will soon get active and start photographing camp and automatically the desire to hit the road will arise; whether it be a hard day, a rainy day or a blistering hot day. The best days, and almost each day is a best day, are in this following, call me an autistic; rising – chai/milky coffee – photographing or another creative activity – breaking up camp – toilet – breakfast – the road!
Heike: Not at all! What I like most in life is diversity and so are my days – every day is different.
3) Cycling brings you to the most beautiful of places, also to your desired camp. Is there a first choice where you find most comfort? Do you prefer to cycle or to camp?
I have noticed strongly while cycling in the mountains in Bolivia I love camping over cycling. This because cycling with a heavy load in the mountains is so demanding. I really enjoyed cycling in flat Paraguay and the Sahara. So I could state that when the going gets tough I look most forward to camp, but of course, it is the bicycle which has brought me to my camp. I think it is cycling which let me enjoy the opposite activity so much. In countries where wild camping is possible I prefer to stop early to camp instead of cycling some extra. I even am on the lookout for the most beautiful spots, and they can stop me right in my tracks. This probably is due to my desire to life a simple lifestyle. Camping in nature comes close: gathering wood, making a fire, cooking a one pot meal and go to sleep tired yet satisfied. The absence of electricity thus the privation of doing more than is really necessary makes this kind of life very simple. I don’t mind stop doing what I do when the sky has become pitch dark. How is this for you?
Heike: I like both. Camping is resting, biking is exploring.
Camping for me doesn’t necessarily mean having a pretty camp spot in a natural environment, it can also mean to pitch my tent somewhere in a super weird place or in the ditch. I like both. I don’t like official campgrounds and I have only used them less than 10 times in my entire time on the road.
Camping to me is often about functionality. The only requirement is safety, quietness and it should be dry. I hardly ever stay in one camp spot longer than one night. If I was lucky and found a beautiful spot then a campfire is an absolute must.
In the US, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan I often started searching for a camp spot when it was already pitch dark. It somehow gave me this special night-time feeling which makes it a bit more exciting. Especially in towns it is a task to find a safe spot at 10 PM in the night – but I always found something.
Cycling is exploring. Feeling exposed to some new corners I haven’t seen yet makes me happy!
4) Do you feel you had to do away with certain principles since cycling has become your way of life?
For me, I became a strict vegetarian two years before I started cycling. Never be a fatty one, I lost much weight while living a simple life in the mountains of Pakistan. Upon returning back to the Netherlands, I held on to a certain diet (no sugar, no meat, no artificial numbers, colorings and additives, no snacks). Being in India it was easy to be a full vegetarian. In countries like Iran and Iraq where I was often invited into homes, I would be offered the best pieces of meat. And I found it offending to deny this sign of respect. And now in South America it is nearly impossible to get enough energy on bread and eggs only, so I gave up being a vegetarian. If I eat pork or beef I do my best to push away the images arising in my mind’s eye. It helps that the animals in South America have generally a good, free life…
Heike: I think my biggest principles which I had to throw over board are to accept the lack of good and healthy food. Back home I was able to buy fresh veggies at a farmers store next door. I was able to avoid food which was shipped from far away, which wasn’t seasonal or treated with lots of pesticides. This is no longer possible. I need to accept what’s available. But on the other hand I learned so many new ways of cooking and also ways of eating, that I think I won far more than I have lost.
5) Do you feel awkward when you enter an up-style society?
You know, we only have a small amount of clothes to wear, and they often look weird. If I enter a rich-men establishment in my red sandals with thick wool socks and a purple legging in a leopard-skin pattern I always feel a hippie. And if I order only one coffee to sit the whole afternoon through, only to use free Wi-Fi, I kind of feel awkward. Another thing, I don’t feel ashamed to smell natural, but I am aware that many people around me stink. I may have a healthy sniff of sweaty smell when I move my arms too fast, but the smell of aftershave and perfume makes me pinch my nose. In places where people look like me I am totally at ease when I show up in clothes smeared in snot and sooth, even if that’s a bit of an upmarket place.
Heike: Yes I do. At the same time I think, when I am wearing my dirty campfire smelling clothes and I am entering a fancy place, that I am such a lucky lady that I don’t need all this fancy stuff those people need. Then I sit and smile and think what a wonderful lifestyle I chose to live.
Freedom. No competition, no pressure, no need to perform.
I also learned to adapt. Isn’t travelling all about learning and exploring? I can easily switch over to a behavior which is appropriate for any situation.
I also figured out, the less you wash yourself, the less you smell. Being outdoor all the time, not having access to soap and water so often, my body seemed to get used to it and I smell far less than I do when I have a shower every day. My Merino-Wool Shirt also helps a lot.
I totally agree with you, that it is really cheeky to use WiFi all day long while paying only for one coffee. Luckily in the US, where I spent my last year, I never felt uncomfortable because many other people are doing the same here.
6) Do you notice your manners have changed towards those of a cave woman?
I do. And I think there’s nothing wrong with it. I can still be mannered of course, but sometimes I catch myself in situations I think: ‘Imagine people back home would see me doing this?!’ Often the style coming with cycling and leading a basic, self-reliant life makes you do such things. Things where hygienic is less important. If you think about it, people do a lot out of regulations and blindness following. A few examples are that I rather not flush the toilet, to save precious water. In camp I clean the dishes with dirty water, as I often have so little. In camp I not always wash my hands after toilet, I rub them with sand or use wet leaves to clean them instead. I feel not dirty when I haven’t had a (bucket) shower for a week, as long as I keep my face and essentials clean. When I enter a pharmacy or well stocked supermarket and see the amount of hygienic products, then I know it’s just a commercial trap. I do love my products, but I am equally happy with a tin of Nivea.
Heike: Good question. I am still far away from being ‘Homo Heidelbergensis’, but my luxuries are super basic. Actually the only few things I am carrying as toiletries are a toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, toilet paper and a little bit of soap. No cream, no sunscreen, nothing. I wash myself in towns, where there is a sink in most public places or if I am invited in.
Once I am back in the third world I am sure this will change again, because public toilets are rare in those places and I also don’t want to use other people’s resources who have far less than me. Then I will stay a few days a month in little guesthouses which are affordable.
Water is an issue. I don’t want to waste the water I carried from far away for cleaning my cooking pot. I use mainly sand to clean the dishes if I am far out.
I remember a moment in Laos where a long-term traveler invited me to have a shower in her hotel room. I brought along my soap and my mini-towel and she asked me where my shampoo is? She couldn’t believe that I only use soap to wash my hair. She had shampoo and conditioner and couldn’t resist trying to convince me how important it is to use them. I found this really funny back then.
In Taiwan a little girl and her family walked along the beach where I had camped for the night. I was ready to brush my teeth when they came along and the curious little girl asked me where I am going to brush my teeth? I answered her, ‘I am not going anywhere, I do it right here.’ She replied while searching for a bathroom along the beach: ‘But how, there is no bathroom?’
7) Do you do things you wouldn’t do back home?
Naturally, cycling cannot be compared with being back home where you have to fit in and thus have to do certain things. Also, of course, back home we have all the luxuries so we won’t have to pee in our cooking pot if the need is high. For example, I am not such a big fan of shaving anymore. But in the West, generally, shaving ‘unnecessary’ hair is a must. If I see my legs now, I smile broadly. I don’t bother with shaving unless I am in an upmarket place for longer. I am eating straight out of the pan, like any cyclist. I notice too that certain styles, like eating with your hands, are better to be avoided in the West. Or licking your plate. Or scraping your food or left overs with your fingers. Scratching where ever there’s an itch (to a certain extent though). In general, I could compare myself with a poor worker/a simple farmer where richer people look down upon. Although I always look cared for, have manners and be polite. How do you experience the things you would not do back home?
Heike: I agree, living on the road means simplicity. And I am pretty sure that this is the main reason why we are happy out here. The less you have the less you have to worry and the happier you are. And isn’t it great sometimes not to follow any manners our society taught us?
I wouldn’t knock on people’s door to ask for a spot to pitch my tent. I wouldn’t wave down cars to ask for water or food when I accidentally miscalculated the distance to the next resupply spot. Sleeping in the ditch or eating everything that’s offered, even if it is an octopus which is still alive – yuk.
Wearing my Merino Wool Jersey for one month straight without washing it. Washing my panties at McDonald’s in the bathroom sink and attaching them to my bike to let them dry.
And surely a lot of other little funny things.
But I also noticed that people are impressed at how I live and how I survive. I actually never felt I was being stared at or that people made a fool out of me. I can easily say that people accept me how I am and that is a comfortable feeling and gives me strength to continue.
8) What is comfort for you when there is no comfort anymore?
When you are at a high altitude, when the wind is blowing fierce and you are not able to make a fire, and when your food is spaghetti with sardines, when the cold is biting your bum. What is comfort then? I am referring to my stay at a pass in Argentina. I couldn’t resist the absolute superb view and swapped that for all comfort. Comfort then became the knowledge of the high altitude, the views, the solitude at a splendid place on Earth. Although I couldn’t have breakfast nor my much-needed morning coffee because of the hard wind, I sought comfort in going down. The descent became my comfort, where the warmth would slowly greet me. Sometimes comfort means having to miss out on it but knowing you will have it the next day.
Heike: Rain and wind, no food at all. Freezing cold temperatures and wet clothes are my biggest predator. Moments when I want to throw my bike in the ditch and hate myself for being so stubborn not to have accepted the offer of a lift. Hours where I feel sorry for myself.
But moments which are so important for reminding me how lucky I am! Lucky to be out there, healthy and able to travel – far more lucky than most other people on this planet.
Most of the time I then pull out my maps and plan where to go next. The best healing process of all. Comfort happens mainly in your mind. My freedom is my comfort, no matter how uncomfortable it is.
9) Comfort is home to many people. Yet home is in the heart, in the mind and not necessarily a designed place made from bricks and cement, apart from your family. For how long would you be comfortable would you go back home, the place where you are born?
As for me, I am comfortable for a while: enjoying the hot shower, the water-boiler with which I make a tasty herbal tea in no time. Be my own natural self at my family and have good conversations with the very few good friends I have. I enjoy the big fluffy bathmat on the cold tiles and especially my room in the attic, smoky from incense and stocked with animal skins and worldly carpets. But not for very long because with the presence of nonstop electricity, the need to do more than actual necessary, makes life find its way in an unnatural pace very soon. Without wanting to complain, the closet too full with clothes makes dressing up in the morning a slow, indecisive process. The supermarket stocked with food from over the world gives the same headache; what to cook now? Somehow, being back in the Netherlands makes me super aware of how much redundancy we live with, the ridiculous choices we have. Or how maltreated the animals are and how superficial many people. I am most uncomfortable with the way business is ran, how much we need to be productive, or how people complain about many things so well-organized. Or the gardens without useful growth. Or to take the car to go to the bakery 0.5 kilometers away. I also dislike it that where ever I go, there are people, buildings and prohibited signs. So in short, I am most comfortable when I can flee from home, that is, the country I was born. Even if that means I leave the people I love behind once again…
Heike: That’s the most difficult question of all. To me, home is where my friends & family are. Where I know lots of people behind different doors. Where there are wonderful childhood memories still settled in my heart. There are no bricks important to me, but there are the people I love. Home is the most special place of all – a love and hate relationship – a place I no longer seem to belong to, but the place I have the most emotions with. A place I am scared to go back to even if I am not sure what I am scared of.
I have no idea how long I could stay there. I guess not for very long. I was six when I decided to see the world to find a better place than home. But so far I couldn’t find it.
And yes, sometimes I miss home.