A few months ago I posted an article about a 20-year-old girl cycling round the world. Shirine is an inspiring young woman, so I caught up with her via Skype to interview her for Grand Adventures.
Alastair:Are you having a break for a few days?
Shirine: Yeah. I’m actually about to fly out to Georgia.
Alastair: Oh, will that be sad, to say goodbye to India?
Shirine: No! Not at all! I’m looking forward to it. No, I’ve had more than enough. I’ve been hear a year.
Alastair: I think India is the sort of place where you can definitely have enough of it for a while.
Shirine: Yeah! I’m heading now to cycle from Georgia and towards Europe. I’ll cycle through Europe for about a year. It will be much easier. Easier camping, a little more respect for me.
Alastair: You’ll also get the wonderful anonymity as well, where lots of other people are just white and blond like you. And you suddenly don’t look very interesting and nobody stares any more.
Shirine: Yes, I know! That’s totally fine. After a year of being treated special every second, I want to be as invisible as possible!
Alastair: When I crossed the border to the U.S., I’d been going about two years at that point of looking different everywhere I went. I loved America because as long as I didn’t speak, and no one heard my accent, then no one noticed at all. It was very nice.
Shirine: The problem in India is that women have a place, but it’s a place much lower than men, and there is no respect for women. So I think after this, it will be a lot easier everywhere will be easier from now on, you know?
Alastair: One of the things I wanted to ask you about was being a woman on the road, because people often say to me, “Oh, it’s all right for you, because you’re a man.”
Do you find the problem with being a woman is the lack of respect you get, or the sleazy men?
Shirine: In every country except India it’s been great. Even in India, I’m very glad I did the months of riding alone, because I got so many more experiences than I would have as a man. As a woman, I was invited in by women. I was taking care of the children. I was working in the garden with the women. I was cooking with the women. I made chapatti and roti a million times. All these things I would not have done as a man.
Every night, I slept in a bed with four Indian women, whether I liked it or not. There is no alone space, because women don’t get to have that concept. I’d have to sometimes sneak out and sleep in my tent for a night, because it was just overwhelming. But as a whole, I’m very glad I did it. Because I think it taught me so much. I saw so much because I was a woman, and because people were so shocked by it [a lone female cyclist].
And even in the States, where there are tons of cyclists. I mean, it’s like Cycle Heaven. But still, I was taken in so many nights by grandparents who were like, “Oh, my God! You’re alone! Come over! My wife will bake you a whole pie!” And sure enough, I’d have a whole pie for dinner, you know? But it was because I was a girl. Like, totally sexist, but in the best way possible.
So even though India is not a country I would suggest any women going to, in a lot of ways, anywhere else in the world, it’s totally the best experience a girl can have, because you’ll experience so much more. And people are so much more willing to help you.
Alastair: The other thing I was curious about, as well as the woman thing – and this is going to make me sound like a really old man now – is you being a young person. I’m sure you and I would agree with all the brilliant reasons why you should do this sort of stuff when you’re young.
Alastair: But in terms of the negative side of it, did you have any issues with your parents not wanting you to go travelling?
Shirine: No. I’m pretty lucky. It was actually my parents who got me into it. They’re the ones who got me started. So at 16 I left and lived a year in Belgium with a Rotary exchange, and then at 18 I actually backpacked for a year alone in South America. So they got used to letting go.
With this trip, they really wanted me to finish school first, and that was their big concern. But now they’re completely supportive. They see that I’m happy, I’m learning so much more than I would in a classroom, and that I’ll always make it work.
Alastair: Do you intend to finish school?
Shirine: Yeah. Probably. It depends on how things go. I mean, I love learning. I love school. If I could somehow make my blog into more of a full-time thing someday, hey, I wouldn’t mind that. But, no, I want to be a teacher someday, for grade one, grade two. So yeah, probably eventually, but absolutely no rush.
Alastair: I decided to make a deal with myself to stick it out and finish university, and then I would set off. I actually trained to be a teacher myself, but I never quite got around to getting the proper job!
I guess the other thing that I think is a concern for young people, especially when you are finishing university with a load of debt, and it’s difficult getting jobs, is this pressure people feel to just get on with their career straight away. Do you feel what you’re doing is hindering your career?
Shirine: Not at all. Because if I do go back and decide to be a teacher, I will put my everything into school. I will actually want to be there, rather than most people who go to school at 18, who pick a random profession, because they have no idea what they want to do, spend four, six years in school and come out with a ton of debt. And they’re being trapped, maybe for the rest of their lives, because they just go through the motions.
Whereas if you’re doing it my way, I’m kind of thinking through each step, and actually deciding for myself what I want to do. And living like this, you see that money is not the issue. Of course, unless you’re graduating from a U.S. school [university] and have $40 grand of debt.
My dream job is actually leading children’s wilderness things, like camping, biking, taking kids and teenagers outdoors. Because there are so many kids who don’t do it. Taking them fishing, taking them skiing, taking them backpacking for their first trip. And that kind of thing, well, this trip will give me a lot of credibility, whereas sitting in a classroom won’t.
Alastair: You mentioned just now the boring issue of money, and I’ve read on your website how you saved up to get going. But are you earning money along the way, or are you just living cheap?
Shirine: Nope. $5 a day. That’s how I’ve done the last year now. My expenses were just under $2,000. So yeah, just living cheap. In Europe it might be a few dollars more. But the way I saved up was that I was a nanny, so I was making under the table $10 an hour. So it’s not like I was making a whole lot. But my rent was cheap, a cheap apartment. You don’t go out to eat, and living gets pretty cheap.
Alastair: Life on the road is very cheap as well, isn’t it?
Shirine: Yeah, it’s very cheap. It’s cheaper here than even my cheap apartment back home.
Alastair: That’s a good way of looking at it. I saw on your website that you offer for people to make donations for your travels. Does that help, or is that just a nice little bonus now and again?
Shirine: Well it’s funny. I did not want to put it up. I was actually against seeing people with it up for most of my trip. It’s a new thing. The reason I put it up is that so many people were telling me, “Your blog’s like reading a magazine. And in a magazine I would be paying. Put it up [the donation button], and we can throw you $20.” So after I had 10 of these emails, mostly from random people, I did, and I’ve actually now collected $1500 in my PayPal account.
It’s almost all from complete strangers. So it is an extra bonus. If anything, I’ll just use it to travel longer. It’s not going to make my travelling any different, if that makes sense. But, yeah, it’s encouraging to see that I get little comments with these donations that people do want to keep reading more and are willing to support that.
Alastair: I think it’s a really nice idea, and I think it’s something that if people don’t want to give you, they don’t have to. You’re not forcing it on them.
Shirine: Yeah! Exactly!
Alastair: On my blog, right down to the bottom quite unobtrusively, just a little bit where people can make a small donation, exactly for the same reason.
Shirine: Is it for coffee?
Alastair: Yeah, I save for coffee!
Alastair: I think an interesting grey area is Kickstarter. There are now so many people funding their adventures through Kickstarter. And I get so many emails about those. I feel slightly dubious about those, when essentially they’re trying to get you to give money to pay for their travel. There’s certainly a grey area between giving them money for travel versus giving money to a charity versus doing what you do, which is essentially writing articles, and people can pay if they want to.
Shirine: Yes. That’s how I’m trying to look at it, because that’s exactly why I wasn’t going to put it up, because I don’t think anyone should fund my vacation, if that makes sense. And my parents actually didn’t want me to put it up either, as they saw it as funding my vacation. Why would anyone do that?
But now that they’re seeing the articles, and that the blog is taking up many more hours than I originally planned… I love it and I’ll keep doing it. But if I’m going to keep posting an article a day, often with research, then I feel okay if people are paying for my time that I’ve spent writing.
Alastair: Yeah. And I think what’s exciting thing about the prospect is that, as long as you phrase it correctly to not sound like you’re grubbing money, then you can actually get yourself quite easily to where your life and journey is self-funded. So many people want to try to make an adventure of their career, and they tend to think in terms of being on television, or having some best-selling book, but I think what you’re doing, starting as a grassroots thing and building it up is a really good idea.
Shirine: Well I’m not dependent on the income either. I actually don’t want to make it a full-on career where I’m dependent on earning money from the trips, because then for me, it’s kind of taking the point out. Whereas for me, now that it’s a bonus, I’m not worried. It doesn’t matter if I come and have no donations. But if I come and I have $20, it’s like, “Yeah! I got 20 bucks!”
So, it’s exciting rather than stressful, I guess, which is nice.
Alastair: Why do you travel by bike?
Shirine: After backpacking through South America I knew I would be traveling for the rest of my life. I also knew I wanted something more. I wanted to do something different, something not everyone does, and something that gives my travel a “purpose.” I also wanted a way to visit places other travelers don’t get to see, to stay in small villages in the middle of nowhere, and to have the freedom to go wherever I want, whenever I want. A bike fulfills all of this and more. By traveling by bike I am taken in by locals, I spend my nights camped in beautiful places, and I get the feeling of personal accomplishment since I am traveling by my own power. Plus, it is fun! Even after over a year of pedaling, my favorite part of the day is still while I am in the saddle.
Alastair: And why do you travel at all?
Shirine: Think about it, seriously. Why not travel the world, explore different cultures, climb mountains, visit temples, and live life simply but happy. Many people see my lifestyle as “alternative,” which is hard for me to understand since I could not imagine living any other way. By my mid-twenties, instead of having a mortgage, a nine to five job, and a lot of built up stress like most Americans, I will have backpacked, cycled, and lived for a good part of my life on the road. There is no better education than travel.
Alastair: Did you have some sort of “Aha!” moment, a big moment that made you think, “I’m going to do it. I’m actually going to go from daydreaming about travelling around the world to actually making it happen.”
Shirine: Yeah. I guess it all started out in South America. I loved South America. I’ll cycle it someday for sure on a next trip. But I felt it was just tourist town after tourist town, and I wanted something more. And so my favorite moments were mountaineering and trekking, where I was with locals, where I was not in a tourist town where everyone was white. I was actually doing something else.
And so I decided I was going to take another year off. It was going to be one year. I was in a nursing program, actually before leaving, and was planning to come back to it after a year. And so I decided I was going to start in India and backpack my way through Asia. Somehow I decided I wanted to cycle across Tibet, which we all know is impossible right now.
But I still typed it into Google and basically started reading blogs. Actually, yours was one of them too. And I started reading blogs of people who cycled around the world, and everyone’s “About” page. And I was basically like, these people all sound like me. They all want to travel with a purpose. They want to see locals. They want to do home stays. They want to camp. They want to live simply.
And from that day on, this was three, four months before the trip. I said, “Okay, I’ll go get a bike.” And I did. I went and bought a bike and left just a few months after that.
Alastair: That’s very cool, just turning a dream into reality is actually not a very hard thing to do if you just go and do it.
Shirine: Yeah. Do it! And that’s part of the reason I now have my blog, is because that’s what inspired me to travel. For me the most rewarding part about it is when people say . . . I actually got a woman the other day who emailed me and said, “I always thought I needed to wait until I found a man to cycle, and now that I see all the countries you’ve done, and I see how you’ve done it, I’m going to do it without.” And that’s the most positive thing I can hear, because it was reading other people’s blogs that got me started as well.
Alastair: That’s very cool. What would your advice be to someone, a young person, maybe fresh out of university? Let’s say, a young woman who’s wanting to go do some sort of adventure. What lessons have you learned that would make it easier for the next time?
Shirine: First of all, just do it. We both know that’s most important. And then, don’t over-plan. Maybe do some research about where you want to go, but just go for it, wherever it is. Just pick a country, pick one randomly if you want, or do it in your own country. There’s so much to visit in your own country. And just let yourself be free. Don’t let yourself have schedules, or rigid plans, because sometimes you’ll find a place and love it. Sometimes you’ll find a place and hate it and want to move on. So let yourself be flexible when you leave. And don’t worry. Everything always works out.
Alastair: I think if I could put words into your mouth, I also think a really good thing to add to all of that is to remind people that it’s not the end of the world if you go off somewhere, and you hate it, then you can just go home and get a job. It’s a reversible decision.
Shirine: Or you can always change countries. I don’t know if you read, but I was actually supposed to be headed east on this trip, which is why I’m now in India a second time, because I was going to do India down to New Zealand. And I’m obviously now doing India, Nepal, India, and then over to Morocco. So plans change, and let them change, because that’s the best part about travel.
Alastair: Absolutely. The last question I want to ask you is what would be a cool adventure to do for $1000?
Shirine: Oh, jeez, that’s a hard one. I have two options. Can I have two options?
Shirine: Either I’d walk into an airport and buy a random cheap flight, whatever they have. So you go, you don’t know where you’re going at all, and you see on the board that Iceland is leaving in two hours, and you can get it cheap, because it’s last-minute. So either a totally spontaneous adventure like that, or I think I would either hitchhike around the States, or probably cycle out Alaska and Canada, and do the Rockies. For $1000, I could do the Rockies for months.
Alastair: Well, actually, here is the very last question. I’ve spoken to quite a few cyclists. One thing I’ve been trying to make people realise is that £1000, or $1000 is actually quite achievable for most people in the West. But it’s actually a massive amount of money. So how far could you cycle for $1000?
Shirine: Six months. Easy.
Alastair: Thank you. And good luck with the rest of your ride!
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