I am a 49 year old gypsy cyclist. I am cycling around the world absorbing what I can from the experience of traveling through countries that are so foreign to what I know. While I am limited by language—meaning that I do not speak local languages—I learn so much just by taking the journey.
The advantage of cycling, is moving through a landscape at a slow pace which allows for adventure because I have the opportunity to access areas untapped by tourist development. It forces me to be more creative and allows me to feel like I am forging my own path. Cycling at a slow pace, feeling elements without the shield of a bus or car allows me to experience things that might be uncomfortable but almost always interesting.
In February, my partner and I entered Sumatra from Malaysia on the 30 day visa that is available to tourists.
Sumatra is an Indonesian island. It is the sixth largest island in the world. It is a third world country and it generally feels like my idea of a third world country. It is raw and simple with a twist of creativity.
The architecture is very minimal—necessity based. The transportation is largely by scooter—also necessity-based. It seems that anything can be attached and transported by this small vehicle—people and goods. It is not uncommon to see a family of 4 or 5 on a scooter. I have seen 2 and 3 goats transported on one scooter. Many run their business out of their scooter—whether it is selling clothing, produce, or even balloons—contraptions are built to accommodate the goods. These are not factory designed contraptions. People are forced to be creative with what they have and they build attachments to carry their goods. Scooter taxis are common and so are carriage-type attachments to carry more than one passenger.
Very little of the original landscape is apparent in most of the areas we rode through (the exception being Lake Toba and Bukit Luwang). Nearly 50% of the forest has been cleared by agri-business. Palm oil, rubber tree, and beetle nut plantation dominate the landscape that we rode through.
Despite the lack of aesthetic and modern conveniences, I find myself at peace in this country.
Our cycle journey was placed on pause because I went back to America to spend time with my son. We backpacked in the Catalina Mountains in March and made a longer journey in June—hiking the entire 400 miles of the Oregon Coast Trail. Read more about these journeys.
My bicycle was parked safely in Melakka, Malaysia waiting for my return in July with a plan to go to Java by bicycling through Malaysia, Singapore, and ultimately a ferry to Java. We heard this was possible but did not research the logistics.
When we returned in July to continue the bike ride, we learned that the ferry to Java was more expensive than what we wanted to spend in order to stay in a cabin that felt “safe” on a potentially unsafe journey. Suddenly, our plan seemed like a poor choice.
Always considering alternatives, Rene and I went to work. Our research online suggested that we could fly from Singapore to Jakarta with our bicycles. This was not a good option for two reasons. Flying meant that we would have to pack up our bicycles which always adds a risk of damage. Also, and more importantly, it is a cop out because it feels like the easy way. It skips the journey.
There do not appear to be any other options online. However, Rene insisted that we could take a ferry to a smaller island and slowly make our way to Java. I think he hoped that the islands along the way would be beautiful with crystal clear water and white sand beaches. Mostly we both wanted an adventure. Adventure for us means opening ourselves up to the unknown.
We had a couple choices open for us. There was a ferry to Sumatra, further south than where we finished in March. We could just continue the cycle trip south and catch the ferry at the southernmost point of Sumatra. It would add two weeks to our journey. We are not on any real time schedule so that was not an issue. We could also make it a bit more spontaneous and instead of taking the ferry to Sumatra, we could island hop. Rene said this is how he would do it if he was alone. My interested was immediately peaked. But so was my fear.
Rene is my role model for adventure. Sometimes he challenges my sensibility which wants to take the easier route. The route with all the answers. But because no one spoke English, we were unable to communicate with anyone at the ferry station. We did not know for sure if we took a ferry one place that we could get a ferry to another place in the right direction. We also did not know how often the ferry went. This meant we could end up somewhere and be stuck for several days.
But this is where true adventure happens. And because I completely trust Rene (and myself), I knew we would be okay. It might not be fun. It might be hard. Maybe annoying. But it would be memorable—that I knew.
So we got on a boat that was leaving for the island of Durai. We had very little information on the island. Rene read there were white sand beaches and only two people living on the island to monitor sea turtles.. I was worried about food but I was ready to camp on the beach.
It was a smallish speed boat. Our bicycles and bags were tied to the roof and off we went. We passed many islands on the way. And we also stopped at some. The islands were built up on stilts, well populated, heavy with plastic trash, and where there were not stilt buildings, there were mangroves. Plus, the water was a milky brown. This was not the white sand beach with the crystal blue water.
After 2 hours, we pulled up to the pier at Durai. It was clear that this was a populated island with an infrastructure. Apparently there are two Durai’s. This Durai contained many more than two households. It was primitive and somewhat dirty. Lots of plastic trash. We got off the boat at a pier that also had a little restaurant and lots of people.
A man came up to us and asked us where we planned to stay. We said we did not know. He said his mother had a room—right there on the pier. We looked at it. Super basic. A bed, a fan. And a bathroom with a bucket and hole in the ground for a toilet. $6. Perfect. We will take it, we told him. Then we got on our bicycles and started to ride around. The friendliness of the people is indescribable. It was as though Kim Kardashian just arrived. There were small roads and as we passed, people stopped us for selfies.
We were pleased to find a place for dinner; more of a stand with tables. Typical Sumatran—pre-prepared food stood out in stainless steel bowls. Different kinds of fried chicken and fish served with rice. It seems that if it is not used one day, then it is just re- fried for the next day.
The next morning I was up early and when I stepped out there were already local people waiting for different small ferries. I ordered coffee and just enjoyed the environment. That day we cycled around the island (it is only 9 km from one end to the other) —off road through a forested area to the mangroves.
When we returned, to our surprise, a woman who had a small restaurant next to the pier, took Rene to a back room and showed him a container filled with live lobster. Rene absolutely loves fresh lobster. She prepared an entire lobster feast. For under $10 we sat in a small village with dirt roads, and extremely primitive living standards eating delicately prepared lobster.
This was since a nice deviation for the obligatory room temperature fried food, mie goreng (noodles) or nasi goreng (fried rice) that we usually find along the way.
In the late afternoon, we caught the ferry to Pulau Burung on mainland Sumatra. While this was a really rewarding experience, it seemed clear at that point that this was not an area for pristine beaches and we were ready to start cycling again.
Our arrival on the mainland was a shock. I had already cycled 2,000 km through Sumatra so I felt pretty comfortable with this quirky country. But nothing could have prepared me for this.
Remember, we did not know anything about where we were landing; just that it was mainland Sumatra. We got off the boat and started riding to find a place to sleep. It was built on a swamp —mostly on stilts. Except for small paths/roads, there was not a dry spot. Plastic trash dominated the entire area—surrounding homes, businesses, floating in the water. Goats walked around freely. The people were not friendly and no one knew English. I was a little spooked. It turns out that this place was only accessible via boat. We could not leave on bicycle. We would have to find a place to sleep in this slum.
Somehow, we found an unmarked hotel. We waited a while because no one was there. I do not usually care if I can find accommodation because I can always sleep outside. But it did not seem possible to get out of this slum.
After providing our passports, we were led to our room. It was surprisingly spacious and simple with a nice big window and flowing curtains. It felt like traveling back to the 1960’s.
As we were settling in, there was a knock on the door. The person in charge asked us for our passports again.
I have read several instances of travelers arrested for no reason or kidnapped for ransom but have never let it bother me. But this environment was so foreign. It seemed that no one knew English and there was not a foreigner in sight. Plus, there was no road out of here. I became convinced that we would either be kidnapped for ransom or arrested without warrant. It was not a matter of “if” we would be kidnapped, just “when.”. I read one story about a couple in Myanmar who were deported in the middle of the night.
I was even scared of these policeman as they approached. But it turned out that all they wanted was a selfie.
It all turned out lovely. We got a room. It was really nice. And cheap. We found a good place for dinner. Primitive, but good. We met nice people who spoke a bit of English. At the barber where got his hair cut, we met a priest who told us he had lived there five years and never saw a foreigner. The lack of friendliness we experienced was probably just due to wonderment—who were these strange white people on bicycles and why are they here?
In the morning, we went to the ferry early. It did not leave until noon. We sat at a little store with coffee and Indonesian pastries at low tide watching the goats scavenge around in the plastic trash. And yet the environment was also charming on the pier. We played backgammon and became the center of attention. The crowd was mostly men. They wanted to know where we were going. Where we were from. It was a weird, sweet, dirty, and an extremely authentic environment.
After drinking coffee for a couple hours, I asked for a toilet. The shop owner pointed around the building that stood on stilts above the sea. I opened the door. It was empty. Completely. The floor was made of wood slats. There was a space between the middle slats and when I looked down, it was about 150 feet down to the sea. Did he want me to pee in this space? I went out to find Rene. He confirmed this to be true. So I peed in a space between two wood slats down to the sea. Hygiene has so many standards!
We took a long ferry ride to Tungkal, found a basic hotel, and started off cycling again. This would be a 130 km ride to a city that hopefully had a good bed and a nice shower. It was a typical Sumatran city but it seemed luxurious compared to our recent experience. Since then we cycled 1,000 km along the east coast of Sumatra—a part of the island that is heavily populated, dirty, and hot toward the ferry to Java—Bakauheni. From there we took the ferry to Java where we are currently cycling.
Sumatra was challenging but it was an amazing experience. Thanks to all the Sumatrans that have sent smiles, hellos, and thumbs up!! We definitely felt welcome everywhere we went.
It is four hundred miles down the coast of Oregon from the very north to the border of California—a combination of dramatic beauty with a harsh and grueling environment with sweeping winds in an extremely remote landscape. Who would want to spend time in this testing environment? Apparently not a lot of people because although the beauty is surreal, the hostile environment is just for the diehards. I guess I am a diehard, trying to teach my 12 year old son about patience, commitment, and perseverance. In June 2019, Wexler, my 12 year old son and I walked the entire trail (with some hitchhiking when the road seemed too dangerous).
It is the middle of the night. I am in the tent at a campground on the Oregon Coast. It is cold and I do not want to get up. But I have to pee. I open the zipper of the tent. There is a flap from the outer cover where it is possible to keep our backpacks while we sleep. Our backpacks are gone.
I step outside into the moonless night. In the distance I see what looks like my pack. As I get closer, I realize that it is open. All of the food has been eaten. Even the sealed peanut butter packets. Everything. All that is left are the wrappers. It is a mess.
I walk around a bit more and find Wexler’s bag in worse condition.
We had an extra large stash of resupply because we knew it would be a long walk into the next town and we might not even make it until the following day.
What kind of creature could drag the bags, open zippers, and ravage our things in this way? I was up for the rest of the night trying to figure it out.
It was definitely not a human because of the way the food was eaten. Was it a monkey?
We take a bus from Portland, Oregon to Warrenton and start walking. It is a dark day and it beings to rain. After about 6 miles, we stick out our thumb and a nice gentleman gives us a ride to the campground. People are incredibly friendly here.
We find out where the hiker/biker area is. But before we set up our tent we need to make our way 4 miles north to the northernmost point of the Oregon coast. A young woman at the campground registration offers to give us a ride. We accept with gratitude.
Perhaps the greatest thrill of being alive for me is the element of surprise.
I did not always know this.
I spent most of my life trying to control everything so that each day resembled the day before. Routine was my modus operandi. Wake up, exercise, eat breakfast (the same thing each day), work, maybe work out again, eat lunch (the same thing each day), work, eat dinner (with a small bit of variety). My thoughts did not vary much either. Mostly, they revolved around body image, food, and making sure that I followed the routine.
Please do not get me wrong—in many ways I lived a fantastic, sweet life. I had an amazing, loving husband, I was financially stable, I lived in a beautiful environment. I appreciated all of these things. It was that secondary layer, my inner world that was in so much pain that created an unconscious need to order and control everything.
I am five weeks into a six week adventure through Mexico before I return to my bicycle in Malaysia to continue a worldwide bicycle tour. I wanted to show that Mexico is not the dangerous place that is portrayed in the American media. To do this, I hitchhiked over 2,000 miles through Mexico and then traveled through beach towns, remote pueblos, and larger cities. The only thing I found was kindness, hospitality, and a little bit of fear from the Mexicans because they have an equal fear about Americans.
For me, adventure is not something that I go out and do sometimes. I see every day as an opportunity for a new adventure; for a way to face my fears, to challenge my beliefs, to push myself to try new things, and to accept change and impermanence.
In many ways, I love and crave change. It makes me feel alive. All of my senses are turned on when I am in a new situation and a new environment. All parts of me —-physical, mental, and spiritual are turned on. That is why I have chosen to be a nomad.
I have spent the last 48 hours in some sort of personal torture to meet my self imposed deadline to complete this blog post. In this time I have threatened to not only cancel the entire blog, but to abandon my larger project; a year long labor of love.
“You have nothing to say.” “You are not good enough.” “Why would anyone want to listen to you?” Even though I know that these voices are not my friends, that I have vowed so many times not to listen to them, I let them bring me down.
I regularly hesitate to post my real feelings because I know that they might not be popular. Because the shame I feel might be familiar, but also unacceptable to say out loud. But I also know the hesitation feels like all of my adventures—crossing a seemingly impassible river, cycling alone in the dark, getting lost, the list goes on and on. So here goes....
Children are a burden; a responsibility. But also our greatest teachers. I am so grateful for everything my son Wexler has taught me. I would not be the person I am today without him.
It was not until I faced the challenge, instead of resisting it, that I was able to be the parent I wanted to be.
This was not always the popular road, but I have learned to cherish my own values as opposed to relying on those of others.
I did not know shit about being a parent. My 12 year old son has a life of his own. There are a couple things I have learned. The more honest I am to myself and take full responsibility for myself, the stronger and more present I get as a parent. And the stronger I get, the more willing I am to give more severe consequences.
I have such great sadness about the parenting thing.
Freedom as it turns out, is all about being willing to take risks. I am cycling around the world with my partner. But we give each other a lot of freedom and independence on the journey. By riding alone most days, I give myself the opportunity to go my own pace and stop when I want.
When I am alone, I am more alert to everything around me. I need to be completely responsible for myself. Cyling in Asia, the people are so helpful and friendly and absolutely willing to assist if needed—especially because I am cycling off the beaten tourist path. I am such a rarity, they are thrilled to see me. Even though I feel like I have this underlying support, it just feels different to be on my own rather than cycling with a partner.
It is also excellent for the relationship. It is really exciting to reconnect and learn how each of us managed. We are both on the same (or at least similar) route and yet separate
I have never won a gold medal. I have never even won a medal. I have never stood on a big stage. But when I am riding my bicycle through Asia (currently Sumatra) and am greeted by hundreds of people with waves, smiles, and shouts; the only way I can describe it is as a professional athlete earning a gold medal might feel standing on a stage in front of thousands of people.
Over the years I have heard travelers say, “I loved X or Y country because of the people.” “The people made it.” “The people are so friendly.” As someone who is not particularly social, I never really understood. Plus, how do you communicate with people from another culture if you do not speak their language?
I did not understand because it is more of a feeling that it produces. It is nothing particularly intellectual. There is rarely a transmission of dialogue—except incredibly remedial. It is the smiles and the enthusiastic shouting and the thumbs up that produces such joy.
Today was my second day riding my bicycle through Indonesia. I am in Sumatra. An island of about 50 million people. This is part of a longer journey around the world.
It was a really hard day. So hot. So much traffic. My mind was torturing me. “Why are we doing this?” “We should have gone somewhere else.”
But I have been doing this long enough to know two things. First, great things come out of discomfort. There is always an end to the tough times. I was right.
I have not seen a single white person since I started riding. This does not seem to be a tourist destination in any way. But that was the point of the trip for me. To myself in a situation where accommodation, resources, and communication were limited. This is a way to test myself. To learn.
It is also a great way to meet the local population. I find that when I arrive in an area in an unexpected way, people are joyfully surprised.
These stories are about my inner and outer journey as a nomad with no address, a citizen of the world. My journey is about challenging myself by embracing the unpredictable, uncomfortable, and also joyful moments. My hope is to inspire, motivate, and entertain you.