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Biking Towards Empowerment

Julia Reynolds is an American freelance writer who is currently riding a bicycle about 3,500 kilometres from Northern Vietnam to Singapore with her boyfriend, to raise money for the Asia Foundation's Women's Empowerment Fund. We wanted to share this extract from her blog where she is documenting the journey to raise awareness about the incredible challenge she is taking on. Day Twenty-Four, in Which We Attempt a Comeback From Disaster

This is a tough post to write. I haven’t felt as low as I did yesterday for quite some time. Things started out well. We put a quick 50 kilometres behind us before even stopping for coffee and pedalled down the last of southern Thailand in a state of cheerful anticipation, pausing to photograph nearly every wat and temple and Buddhist image we passed. Wats became scarcer and mosques more frequent, the saffron robes of Buddhist monks turned to jewel-toned hijabs, spicy curry to spicy laksa. We crossed the border to Malaysia with greater ease than crossing a busy intersection; immigration on both sides was a breeze and a free three-month visa was issued immediately. Including exit stamps on the Thai side, cycling to the Malaysian side and getting stamped in, the entire process took about fifteen minutes erring on the conservative side.

Once we were in Malaysia we pointed our bikes in the usual southerly direction with the usual vague plan to pedal until exhaustion and check for accommodation at that point. We hit one big storm which we waited out under a bridge for a bit chatting with some locals who were also trying to escape the downpour, but other than that the ride was uneventful. Dave mentioned a couple of times that he had seen a few signs suggesting bicycles weren’t welcome on the highway, but I decided to eschew those suggestions and keep on keeping on.

I had the region of Kedah in mind as a first-night destination because it was about 50 kilometres south of the border; combined with the 85 we had completed before crossing to Malaysia it made for a good resting place before pushing on toward Penang. The city of Alor Setar sparkled on the horizon as we were coasting out the last of the storm (it’s monsoon season in Malaysia, turns out) so we headed into the city to find a room.

In a manner that was not wildly out-of-character for us, we had neglected to purchase a Malaysian Sim card or even exchange money, so we were already a few steps behind when we arrived in Alor Setar. We found a well-lit spot by a central mall and locked the bikes to a metal gate before going on a search for a money exchange and a Sim card.

About twenty minutes passed. We traded some baht for ringgits, bought a couple of  Sim cards and this crazily delicious thing that was kind of like a creme bruleé baked in phyllo pastry, and departed the mall.

As we were walking back toward where we had parked the bikes, something looked wrong immediately. I heard Dave say, “Holy shit, I think our bags are gone”.

I responded, “Yup, and even more importantly one of the bikes.”

One bike was left, a chopped bike lock, a raincoat and a shredded bungy cord. I started pacing in a small circle like a caged animal, as if my constant motion would unearth some clue to the whereabouts of our vanished belongings.

I screamed the “F” word, and then I screamed it a few more times for emphasis. I cried in anger, and then I cried in sadness and then I cried because I couldn’t think of anything better to do.

I thought about the last three weeks on that bike, muscling up mountains and flying down hills and drifting through wildflower-strewn valleys. I wrestled that bike into elevators and over steep, narrow concrete overpasses on highways. I poured sweat and blood and yes, even tears on that bike.

And then I started thinking about the rest of my stuff and unfortunately that didn’t brighten my perspective all that much. See, the thing about only carrying a 15-pound (7 kilo) bag is that nothing in it is expendable. I don’t own much that is expensive or luxurious, but everything in that bag was special to me. If you only pack fifteen pounds of everything you own, that fifteen pounds is bound to be made up of your favourites. There were t-shirts I bought in Nepal and Laos and who-knows-where-else over the years, jewellery that wasn’t valuable but meant the world to me, a Kindle loaded with books and photographs and things I’ve written. Dave lost a shirt someone he loves gave him over twenty years ago. When we checked into our hotel in Alor Setar last night I was having a really tough time regrouping. The theft still didn’t seem real, and although this is an oft-overused writing cliché in response to crappy situations, I truly did long to wake up from what seemed to be a particularly malevolent dream. We ate some food. We went to sleep. We woke up. Our stuff was still gone.

At this point further ruminations on what could or could not have been done differently begun to seem pointless and irrelevant. The only thing to do was move forward, and the item that would make moving forward easiest would be a new bike. So I found a bike shop, bought a new bike, and we got back on the road.

Of course, a few other things were involved, like buying a few items of clothing, a $5 backpack on clearance at the mall, and tying several items to the one remaining bike rack, but the bike was the main order of business.

Now here we are tonight in Georgetown on the island of Penang. Rather shockingly, this is exactly where I had hoped and planned to be tonight before my bike was stolen yesterday. Other than the fact that we rode in monsoon downpours almost the entire day and I spent a lot of money I didn’t really want to spend, today really wasn’t all that bad. It was an absolute picnic compared with yesterday’s abject emotional turmoil.

We have about 750 kilometres left to ride, a current total of one old bike, one new bike, two pairs of shorts, three t-shirts, one pair of sunglasses, two hats, four ATM/credit cards, and, most importantly, two passports and a whole lotta love.

Tomorrow we’ll be travelling lighter than ever toward Singapore. I’ll close with some photographs from Day Twenty-three, in Which Said Disaster Occurred and I Didn’t Feel Like Writing a Blog Post. They took my bike, they took all my clothes, but this stoic golden Buddha doesn’t need that stuff, and he seems to be doing just fine.

Several people have contacted me upon learning of our misfortune wanting to help. This is incredibly kind and generous, and I am beyond thankful to have so many amazing humans in my life. However, I am fortunately able to cover my own losses as far as the bike and the contents of the stolen bags. If anyone wants to contribute, please give to the Women’s Empowerment Fund: Biking Toward Empowerment

The team have paid all their own expenses thus far, with the exception of mountain bikes donated to us in Hanoi by Grasshopper Adventures, a cycle touring company in Asia, and have raised over $1,500 thus far for their cause. 

They return to work in the US in late December, so have about twenty days left in which to complete the ride and raise all the money we can for the Empowerment Fund. Head to Biking Toward Empowerment Gofundme to support them in their journey.

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