During June of last year I began preparing from one of the scariest events of my life. I was to give a TEDx talk to an estimated audience of 900 people here in Shanghai. Perhaps, someday, I’ll write about the experience and how it changed me for life.
For years Eleanor Moseman has let her inspiring photos draw attention to the daily life of regular people in far away lands. As much anthropological as artistic, the bond she shares with the subjects of her photography elevate her images from mere observation to, in their entirety, a powerful statement about global humanity, peace, and the possibilities inherent through open-minded cycle travel.
“Ni haipa ma?” (Are you scared?)
As a woman traveling through Asia alone, specifically into remote and desolate areas of China, my gender is often the most obvious aspect of my identity. I have spent over 5 years cycling, trekking, hitching, and exploring Asia and have had nearly every part of my body touched, rubbed, groped,or grabbed by uninvited hands. Catching eyes on a train platform or across a police captain’s desk, assuming I’m oblivious and naive to the wolf in the guise of a sheep. (A police captain in the Gobi of China once told me I couldn’t camp in the desert because of the wolves. The only wolf witnessed was the one telling me this fearful tale, wearing the uniform of an officer.) Fear is used to control and I refuse to allow anyone, or anything, to exert power over my life choices. Gender is not a valid reason to abstain from exploring the world, cultures, and myself. The risks have always been worth the personal reward found at the end of an adventure. My life choices may be easier and deemed more socially acceptable were I born a man, but that’s not a choice and never was.
For the preservation of my true self, of soul, heart, and mind, I have learned to separate my physical presence and identity from who I truly am. After uncomfortable incidents, I have looked at my body as if parts were now diseased, tainted, or just as some strange alien extension of my physical presence. Perhaps if I were to dismember myself I wouldn’t have to bear being tormented by strangers, or even those that have feigned friendship, who think it’s appropriate to invade my physical being.
People continually ask me why I do it, after reading my tales of near rape, threats to my life, weeks of hunger, loss of sanity, and other moments that have invited fleeting moments of fear. Why? Because these are momentary, brief, the unusual. More often I am greeted with care, friendship, and love from strangers who have become friends and family for a lifetime.
I’ve discovered my capabilities and resilience that would never have been found if I hadn’t constantly pushed personal boundaries while crossing regions, foreign borders, mountain ranges, deserts, and continents. Surely I’m not a professional explorer or adventurer but more likely a professional at failures. Those downtrodden moments when I’m screaming at the heavens in fury, panic, fear, or confusion questioning every movement and choice up to the moment – when I’ve nearly lost all faith in myself – is when an adventure reveals its purpose. One purpose has, and will always be, more than just about altitudes, miles, or countries. It’s about what I learn about myself and place in this mystical, wonderful, and often chaotic world.
Voices from women travelers still remain a minority, although our travelogues have been around as long as men’s, have only recently been gaining a mass audience among a general population. (“My Journey From Lhasa” by Alexandra David-Neel sits to my side, published in 1927.) We offer an alternative view, a sometimes very emotional monologue, to our male traveling comrades. I have been allowed to play with children unsupervised, infants are tossed into my arms for my care, or so often invited to the ever-popular dance party with Muslim women behind closed doors. Women divulge their secrets to me, their hopes and dreams, their sadness and despair. Even when language barriers mean I don’t always understand every word, nevertheless as women we understand one another.
My story is different from men’s, and from that of many other tourists who come through China. I’ve lived in China for over 7 years and speak enough of the language to have an understanding of people and culture. The motivation behind my endeavors is simple curiosity. There is a craving of knowledge about people, cultures, customs, environments, and through these discoveries I’ve found inspiration for leading a mindful and proactive life while fueling love for the world, others, and self. This knowledge I obtain from a life on the road is something that I seek out for personal reasons but feel that it should be shared with others that may not have the good fortune to travel the way so few of us can.
A hoped for outcome of my travels, photography, and writing has always been to inspire someone, perhaps a young girl, to pursue her dreams however difficult they may seem. Whether it’s a girl from a small Chinese village that has motivation to study English or a young woman from the States that just can’t seem to find where she fits into modern society. The inner journey takes precedent over the gear, route, mileage, or any statistics, as this isn’t a performance of heroism or endurance. It’s about the highs and the lows, the peaks and valleys, of a journey and where it leads me. Epiphanies and new questions come and go as constant as the tides of the sea and as steady as the symphonies of glaciers.
We all know that it takes a little crazy to travel alone by bicycle, foot, or whatever means for months, years, or indefinitely. Perhaps my stories are an invite for all weirdos, misfits, outcasts, lone huntresses to find their unique path and ride onward with conviction, love, and passion. That route has been created just for…YOU.
A woman that travels alone should not bring to mind the idea of fear or danger. We have obstacles men may never face while sometimes our journey is less difficult because men and women want to help that lonesome weary woman on the road where the destination is only to be discovered by her.
So, to answer the question with which I opened: No. I am not scared. Not living my life the way I want to, is the only thing I fear.
A resolution for the year is to write at least an hour a day so I thought that an attempt at completing this travelogue would be a good warm up. Also, apologies for the quality of this post’s photos, since all my camera gear had been submerged in the river and I was still in shock throughout the day. (New visitors, you can scroll down to find “Tajikistan, Part 3 (July 23, 2012)”.
I stand there, wet up to my armpits but drying quickly in the +40C Pamir heat, in shock. Looking at my gear, looking at my bruises and scratches and trying to make sense of it all. I was an idiot. It could of all been prevented by just keeping the Ego on the shore.
When in the work truck with the two local men, we had passed a work station about 50 meters behind wear I am currently standing. Looking ahead, up a a very rocky path to the pass, I can hear them working behind me, sounds similar to any car mechanic shop in the West.
Two men approach me from the building. One a very petite blonde, blue eyed Russian man and a man that may be local but quite dapper and hip for being a Tajik stuck out in the middle of nowhere. The blonde man smiles at me and asks if I’m okay. I can barely make words of anything that makes sense. Nodding and point to my stuff strewn all about. I ask him if they had seen my friend that I had parted ways with the previous day. They had seen him in the morning, or at least that is what I made sense of the conversation. Both men seem friendly enough and the blonde man tells me they will help me because I am “a woman” and they “are men”. I guess chivalry is well and alive.
After walking away, talking to each other, an old white Land Rover pulls up within 15 minutes with the local man driving and the Russian in the passenger seat. We load all my gear onto the top of the truck, but I can barely move so they do most of the work and I handle some of the lighter bags. I had to quickly collect all my gear that had been drying in the sun and most everything had dried, although I saw condensation building up in camera lenses.
The road up to the pass is steep jeep path with large rocks, ranging from fist size to the size of a man’s head. It’s a very rough ride and I’m being thrown from side to side of the back of the truck as the speakers are very loud playing American pop songs. I distinctly remember The Cardigans and Aqua “Barbie Girl” being played at least a half dozen songs during the ride up to the pass. There were only about 6 songs on the tape so it looped a few times between making it to the pass. Of course I’m making small talk with the two gentlemen helping me. The basic questions of marriage, children, home country and the sort. I’ll never forget how blonde the Russian was with the most brilliant blue eyes. The Tajik man with a modern, and hipster, version of a faux hawk. He would of made every young woman in Williamsburg, Brooklyn swoon.
We get out at the top of the pass and they take turns taking photos with me. I regrettably did not take their photos; my mind wasn’t in the best position to be making any sort of decisions or thought processes.
I look down the pass and the road is still rough terrain of at least a half dozen switchbacks. It’s about 3 in the afternoon so I’m hoping to make it to the village at the end of the mountains before nightfall.
They help me load up the bike and they wave me off with smiles and cheers. I begin riding, very slowly, down the pass and every time I make a switch back, the sound of their cheers can be heard from the pass as they can see me. I look over my shoulder to see the sun setting, and the sounds of the cheers become fainter and fainter as I wave to them…only hoping they know how thankful I am for their time and effort. Those cheers and waves from the mountain top was probably morale I really needed to keep me going.
There is another water crossing further down and to not risk anything this time, I unload the entire bike and slowly and carefully carry everything across. I’ve learned a lesson for life.
The road is still pretty rough on the other side and the sun is setting fast. I begin riding down and since it’s beginning to get dark I start shouting “Chris”! every time I see a clearing or somewhere I may see my former riding partner from the last week. Hoping maybe I would of caught up with him and could find someone to cry to.
I finally make it the village at the base of the mountain pass at nightfall. Slowly I walk around with my bike looking for a “Kofe” or a hotel where I can find a safe warm place to sleep for the night. Without finding one I go to the edge of town, cross a bridge, and see a security officer in his little shipping container. Since I’m getting close to the Pamirs where I will need a permit, everyone is being stopped, IDs scrutinized, and asked where we are coming from and where we are going.
The officer invites me into his “office” and home with another security guard there. All daylight has now been lost and I explain where I’m going, where I’ve come from, and that I need to find a place to sleep. I’m hoping he’ll offer some floor space there but it’s not. Describing Chris-Alexandre to him, I ask him if he had seen him. The two guys that helped me over the pass said they had seen him that morning so it’s very possible he could be in the village so I want to make sure he hasn’t continued through. The officer opens his book from that day and I don’t see his name written on the log…I turn the page to the previous day and there is Chris’ name, written down from the previous morning. My heart sinks. There is no way I’ll catch up with him.
Disheartened, I leave the officer to try and find a place to sleep. He said there was an affordable hotel in the village so I go to look. After walking around until after 10pm, without finding one, I go to the covered pavilion that is used for an open air market or bazaar. The town is quiet for the most part and I lay out my sleeping bag on one of the tables used for selling produce. I’m in so much physical pain and absolutely exhausted. I know that I won’t be able to sleep in the next day for the fact I’ll be in plain sight and perhaps the bazaar will even be used in the morning. Hobbling up onto the table, I slide into my sleeping bag with the sound of dogs barking near by.
Letting out a deep breath, I almost didn’t survive the day. Laying out on that table, so uncomfortable in my body, I recount the day over and over and over…regretting every single decision. I also regret not having kept up with this writing as it’s very difficult to recount everything from 4 years ago.
Happy New Year to all of you.
Last week, I finally was able to see a doctor about my back pain. I don’t talk a lot about it but it’s near crippling at times and it disheartens me at times to think how this may prevent me from moving forward into other travel projects that may take a toll on me. The prognosis isn’t good but I knew it wouldn’t be good news. It seems that the car wreck, that I was a passenger in, from my early 20s really messed me up and then an extended 10 years of neglect and more injuries has exacerbated the problems. I refuse to allow this to slow me down and I’ll just have to be more conscious of what I do and to keep weight off my back.
So, here is my first writing exercise for the year and I hope to keep up to the task. Among this blog, I’ll also hopefully be writing the past two stories from my treks out into Eastern Tibet…including the part about my horse running away.
With the Adventure Awards happening in Italy this weekend, I’ve been asked to do a couple interviews as an (absentee) special guest.
This is the first interview that I’ve begun to discuss dealing with depression, trying to find a meaningful route in life with my photography work, and even begin sharing the story of a wedding engagement in the middle of my tour and later a 7 year relationship would dissolve somewhere in the Taklamakan Desert…and much more!
This particular interview is in Italian and can be read here: http://www.thepillmagazine.com/2015/07/30/the-pill-presents-eleanor-moseman-interview/
As I have promised, I’ve written the original English interview below. I’m not sure how this will be received with the public, but I’ll see…
1) Hello Eleanor. We could not start talking about you without mentioning the Asian journey on two wheels.
During the first week of May 2010, I rode my bicycle out of Shanghai with the determination to head West. Plans were pretty open; there were areas I wanted to see and cultures to experience, but I generally planned my route as I traveled. Since I can speak a bit of Mandarin, I would discuss with locals about areas, routes, and road conditions to get an idea of where to go. The funny thing about this method is that I learned that when locals say, “Don’t go there, there’s nothing there,” it seemed that’s when I found the richest and untouched culture, beautiful landscapes, empty roads, and myself. There were areas I traveled that weren’t on maps, or very vague information, so I would have to ask someone at each town if I was on the correct path, usually using a city as a general destination. If I had listened to every “you can’t go that way,” my trip would have been a lot less interesting. Similar to people telling me, “you can’t ride your bike alone around Asia,” that would of led to a much boring life.
My trip lasted approximately 2 years and I traveled primarily solo, besides the few cyclists I met along the way. I’m really fortunate to have a valid residence permit for China so I was able to travel very slowly without worries of visa issue renewals. From some research among myself and friends, it seems I’m second with the most mileage traveled in China alone. My trip totaled about 26,000km by bicycle, with about 24,000km being in China.
I never consider myself a cyclist, although I use the moniker “Wander Cyclist.” I’m a photographer who wanted to see Asia without the constraints of bus and train schedules and pre-determined stops. The bicycle gives you full freedom and people of Asia have a very special relationship with the bicycle, so it’s not such a strange way to travel. My main goal was to document and experience communities and the people of the western borderlands of China. With globalization and government issues, things are rapidly changing everywhere in China, specifically out on the western frontier.
The borderlands is what really struck my interest. China has 56 (reported) minorities and I was able to experience Tibetan, Mongolian, Uyghur, Russian, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz culture first hand without ever leaving the country.
The trip took me through China, Taiwan, Mongolia, Tibet, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Because of my American passport, Iran is very difficult so I turned around in Uzbekistan and headed for my home in China.
The trip really allowed me to grow as an individual and find a path in life that I deem authentic, while finding stories in Asia that I have continued to work on. I just returned from Xinjiang this week, after nearly 3 years, and this opportunity was because of contacts and publicity from my original bicycle tour.
It’s, at times, very difficult for me to imagine the young lady I was before embarking on this trip. It changed my life, soul, heart, and enlightened me to continue on a compassionate and empathetic lifestyle to help those with my photography and inspire others to take the risk to find themselves. I really never thought I would be here, 5 years later, asked to be a part of BAM! or even being interviewed by you. It’s always a very humbling experience for a woman who started from a very modest and simple upbringing in a rural small town of the United States. The bicycle ride was just for me, I really had no intentions or hopes of it becoming publicized or my blog even being read outside of family and friends. I guess that’s the benefit of doing something without expectations or rigid rules…I was just being myself, with no one to perform for or represent.
I, probably like most of the readers, have really no idea what I’m doing with my life. This route, the way I’m traversing through these days and years, it just feels right. I love what I do, the people I meet, and even then there are stresses of finances, obligations, lengths of time without family and friends. I’m just very curious about the world, with an insatiable desire to learn more about myself and my capabilities. I can’t just stop because of the absolute innocent, child-like, bliss it brings me.
People always tell me I’m brave. I don’t think what I’ve physically accomplished as “brave,” but rather how I speak about my experiences. In my opinion, true bravery is speaking from your heart and allowing yourself to love, yourself and everyone you meet. Opening your heart and mind can be very scary and overwhelming, and can bring a lot of hurt. More pain than bicycle accidents or frostbite. Bravery is something that can’t be seen or visualized, it’s something within us that can be expressed by love and compassion, opening ourselves up to the universe.
So I went a little further than the initial question but I really want to express these deep seated convictions.
2) Out of the 7 countries you visited (Kazakhstan, China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Mongolia, Taiwan, and Kyrgyzstan) which had the biggest impact on you?
The western regions of China surely had the biggest impact on me. I was in the Tibetan regions for a few months and then into Xinjiang for a few months as well.
Within a matter of days, the landscape can change from barren desert that makes you think you are on the planet Mars to mountains of the Himalayas where if you stand on your tip toes you almost think you can pluck clouds from the skies while viewing snow capped mountains. In southern Xinjiang, you can be in the southern part of the Taklamakan desert and see a mountain range that separates the region from Tibet. You can find everything between these two regions.
Obviously the open high plateaus, mountain ranges, and deserts of both regions are beyond breathtaking but the people are exceptional. Both Tibetans and Uyghurs are persecuted minorities of China. They still practice traditional religious rites and life hasn’t changed too drastically, yet now with the government interference, this is changing.
These regions, you can spend weeks and weeks alone cycling. This is where I think a lot of my ideas, thoughts, mantras, and viewpoints about life began to form. There is this one moment when I was in Tibet looking out into the plateau when it all just seemed to start make sense. My existence, life, the universe. I remember realizing how insignificant I am in this world. Some people could take this and say, “what’s the point, I’m nobody.” Rather it made me realize we are all here together, as equals, united on a path through life to discover and find basically the same things of life.
I did spend 3 weeks in the Tibet Autonomous Region and I did begin to go a little mad. Also my health really began to deteriorate. The road conditions are really awful and I spent a lot of time dragging my feet and pushing my bicycle.
The Southern Silk Road in Xinjiang was another time I had weeks alone and went a little crazy as well. Both of these times were surely the most fun, liberating, and exciting. They are times of the trip that really stand out.
Between those two regions, I think is where I learned the most about myself, people, culture, religion, love, and life. I could spend the rest of my life in those two provinces, very happily.
3) What inspired you to leave normality to live this adventure on a bicycle?
“Normality.” I don’t know if I’ve ever had a “normal” life. It’s only been recent that I have begun to open up to the complete truths of why I went on a bicycle ride. I was going to save it for the book I plan on writing but, like I said previously about bravery, I’ve begun to speak from the heart.
I had moved to China with a boyfriend in 2008 and fell into the worst depression I had ever experienced in my life. This has been a battle since an early teen. It’s not a “woe is me” or pity me depression. It was a sense that days were passing and had been granted this life to live and wasn’t making an impact in the world. A feeling of being lost and alone in a world where you just don’t feel like you fit in. I needed to find a fulfilling path and answers about the world and me. My curious and inquisitive nature wasn’t being fed. I’d always felt estranged from friends and my peers in the United States, and now even more so in a new country where I couldn’t even express myself with language.
Without going too much into details about this, I decided to travel and leave this “normality.” I needed to get away and a project to focus on. It seemed like simple alternative to wasting my life away with mental and emotional issues or even worse.
It was the best decision I ever made in my life. Of course the moods creep in every now and again and I ride it out with daily reminders I’m stronger than to be a victim of my own mind. Of course, I can’t recommend this for everyone, but it was perfect for me.
Obviously, I wanted to also see and explore Asia and make photographs. But there was an underlying instigator in the trip. My career was at a lull and I felt a bit trapped in Shanghai. I needed more in my life.
People have always told me I am too sensitive. At this point in my life it’s not really going to change and feel this is the attribute that makes my work compelling and intimate with my subjects. Being sensitive doesn’t mean I cry easily, which sometimes I do, but also I can feel extreme happiness. A sensitive person, in my opinion, has a wider range of emotions and can feel at depths that maybe not the typical or average person can. This intense sensitivity to people and my surroundings has probably what has also kept me out of dangerous situations, listening to my well-tuned guts and intuition.
I’ve kept a lot of this close to my heart because I’m not sure how it would be accepted. I’m sure there are many who can relate to these issues and cycling and travel really helps.
Also, I mentioned this boyfriend I moved to Asia with. There is little about this in the blog and written anywhere publicly but we got engaged after cycling Taiwan together around the middle of my trip. After cycling through the Tibetan regions and having an intense soul discovery, I ended the engagement in Xinjiang and the 7 year relationship ended officially, dissolved somewhere in Kyrgyzstan. This trip taught me so many lessons, especially of love, following through on your goals and living for your destiny. There was no arguments or begging to stay together. He loved me enough to let me go and do what made me happy, as he really doesn’t have a say in how I was going to live my life. Ironically, he’s the one who really pushed me into cycling and planted the seed of long distance touring.
When I saw him for the first time after 3 years, when I returned home from tour, I visited the doctor with him and his final prognosis on Multiple Sclerosis was given. The disease has effected him that he has difficulty cycling now. As someone who remains healthy, I continue to do what I do because these abilities and physical freedoms can deteriorate at any moment. Sometimes I see my exploring and roaming as a way to appreciate what I have and to honor those who don’t have these opportunities.
Yeah, so you may be seeing there were a lot of things happening during this “adventure,” inside and out. I hope someday I might experience “normality,” or perhaps this is what normal is for me.
4) We all hear “it’s about the journey and not the destination,” but you truly embodies this mantra of exploration.
At this point in the interview you’ve probably caught on to my passions, convictions, and philosophies about life, love, and the world.
I’m honored to hear you think I truly embody this mantra. I try to live by this in everything I do, at every moment in daily life. Sometimes I spurt out in public and around friends, “I have no idea what I’m doing with my life!” Even during my adventures, I really don’t know what I’m doing but have enough faith in myself, and want to test my capabilities, that I will figure it out and something will come out of it. There’s no failure, just an unexpected result which is usually phenomenal.
I never planned on going to Central Asia when I began my trip, not even Tibet, but I ended up there and I am so glad I did. I let my soul lead the way, or where the wind blows me. Even last October I went to Kham, Tibet with intentions of riding a motorbike. That didn’t work out after I began to evaluate the risk factors and gave back the bike after 3 days. I had a backup plan and ended up walking, with some hitching, for the remaining 5 weeks.
One reason I travel solo is because I sometimes find myself sitting on the ground staring into infinite horizons, to just think, or even to NOT think. There are times I’m invited into homes and decide I’ll stay for a few days to photograph and learn from them. I try not to work on a schedule or route so I’m allowed to find these little surprises and experiences and truly enjoy them.
Even with my photography, it’s about the experience sometimes and not the end result of imagery. There was a week I spent picking cotton in the fields of Xinjiang with a Uyghur family. I put the camera down and just lived and experienced life with them. Without the camera separating us, I really united with this family and began to understand so much more than if I had just been there with the determination to get images. If an experience leads to photographs, great, but there are other times I just go with the moment and don’t interfere with visual documentation.
The interesting part about this is that some of the most vivid memories have no photo documentation. It’s almost as if I’m recording mentally and emotionally rather then relying on a camera to do the job.
If I find myself in an amazing situation or environment, I’ll stay for awhile. There are no deadlines and I’m always willing and able to change plans. Every morning is a fresh start to make my life more fulfilling, rewarding, and exciting.
5) It is immersing yourself in the culture of a people that comes out of your humanitarian side?
I think immersion is very important for any traveller, specifically someone who really wants to understand the world, people, and culture. We are so bombarded with visual stimulation on a daily basis but we rarely dig deeper. For instance, look at the simple fact that many may have thought I was just an American riding her bike around Asia to sightsee. Digging a little deeper you learn about a battle with depression, love and loss of, and spiritual growth. We live in a world of hashtags and daily updates, a world where some of us just don’t belong. Curiosity, an overwhelming desire for knowledge and deeper understanding, is what keeps us moving towards something greater in life.
Travel didn’t begin for me until I was about 27 years old, even though since a child I had always wanted to see the world. Most photographers talk about flipping through National Geographic and wanting to create those photographs. I would stare at the images and wish I could live with them. I wanted to share their experience; know their thoughts and feelings that were not portrayed through a still photograph.
My upbringing is fairly simple and somewhat common for Americans, but not for those who can afford to travel or even live overseas. As a child, we grew up in trailer parks and it was furnished by my parents salvaging tables, chairs, and couches from garbage. I come from a very blue-collar family and watched my family struggle with finances since I can remember. Having popcorn for dinner, my brother and I thought it was a party but it was because my parents were struggling to feed the family.
As an early teen I began to work for my father during summers, installing carpet and flooring and put myself through college university usually working 20-30 hours a week. After university I had a pretty good paying job in manufacturing designing windows in CAD and saved every dollar to move to New York City to pursue my dream of being an artist.
Perhaps this background has what set me on a path of sharing the stories of those struggling. But I’m not here to shove photographs of starving babies with flies around their faces. I want to show you the simple beauty from every person’s strength and perseverance through daily life. There’s a lot of love in this world that isn’t often showed through mainstream media. Again, bombarded with war, death, sickness but there’s so much more underneath it all.
So, yeah, back to immersion. When I began traveling in 2007, and then by bicycle in 2010, my eyes widened and soul ached. I have immense gratitude and respect for those who remain faceless and nameless, who work day in and day out to feed their families. In Bangladesh, I asked a boss of a brick factory if I could work in the factory for a few weeks. He laughed, “no foreigner would want to do that!” He was wrong. This foreigner wants too!
I want to know the feelings, thoughts, and emotions that these people feel. Not only because I’m a storyteller and this gives me insight, but also it helps me question and answer things about my own life, culture, and country. My meager and simple upbringings are nothing in comparison to majority of the world. Where people don’t have access to clean water or more than one pair of shoes. Where a day of labor could end their life or cause diseases or physical disabilities.
There’s not a day that passes that I don’t feel grateful for the luck of being born where and access to simple amenities that many will never have. Being in a woman where I have access to decent education, and it’s encouraged. Someone who is able to travel around the world and share the stories with those who may not.
When I talk with people about my personal story and travels, I always encourage them to learn another language. As Europeans, most of you can speak at least two, but many Americans only speak English and lack a drive to learn more. It’s very unfortunate. It’s the language ability that’s really allowed me to get as far as I have. When I travel, I’m always open to talking with anyone and everyone. Speaking with locals gives me insight into their life and often opens situations for photography and storytelling.
A part from people, even immersion into an environment: wild camping on silent plateaus overlooking the Himalayas, wind swept grasslands, or barren deserts with no other life forms around. You completely let go of time and place; you have the access to deep within yourself.
Immersion. I feel it’s an act to truly explore and discover the world and yourself.
6) You have a degree in Fine Arts photography and since 2009 you established mainly in Shanghai as a freelancer. What is the role (and importance) of photography in your life?
Yes, like I said, I put myself through university and had formal training in fine arts, specifically photography and film. Unfortunately, after graduation we are sent out into the world to make an income from creating art. That doesn’t happen. So this is where I began photo assisting in the commercial photography world and then onto China to begin making an income from my skills. Photography isn’t the greatest paying job and I also do web design, other digital and media gigs, and even painted a few houses a couple summers ago.
Photography is my life’s blood. It’s what keeps my heart beating and soul on fire. I can feel an absence in my life if I’m not photographing, editing images, or reading about photography. Sometimes when work is slow and money is bad, I question giving it up. I think it’s a common thought among all creatives. Unfortunately, I can’t because this is what I do and there’s nothing else in the world that would keep me so alive. I live, sleep, eat, and drink photography. It’s only been recent that I’ve begun to consider myself a storyteller. Again, this comes from the fact I try to immerse myself as much as possible into my projects.
Because of travels and being an expat here in Shanghai, my personal possessions are minimal. It’s my photographs that are life’s souvenirs. There are some evenings I can sit in front of my computer and just flip through them, reliving moments and feelings.
In China, I primarily photograph interiors and architecture for designers. I enjoy this work, as I don’t have to work with a variety of personalities and opinions. I love architectural savvy spaces and smart design, coming from my art background and training, so this is really enjoyable paid work. With media and photography paying lesser and lesser, more photographers are finding extra income in this field and the competition is becoming a little fiercer. This is one reason I have begun to lead workshops and classes, specifically dealing with travel and foreign cultures.
In October, I’ve teamed up with a yoga instructor and we are leading a workshop in Thailand titled “Exploration of Self and Our World: Mindful Practices in Yoga and Photography Retreat.” We have created a unique program that combines the practice of yoga and photography with the cohesion of mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and compassion.
Apart from this, I’m want to start leading tours in Western China for those who are up for a little off the beaten path photography.
As for making art, I’ve actually found time and inspiration again after stopping over 10 years ago. It’s the travel and unique experiences that have reignited the creativity.
7) Now we have just to come to Livigno to meet you in person. Have you ever been in Italy first? What do you expect?
Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to attend in person this year. I have a horse awaiting my arrival in Kham, Tibet, where I will begin a solo trek on the plateau during that weekend. The trip should last at least two months as I hope to document nomadic life and culture on the plateau.
It’s been in recent news how the government has been herding these people into sedentary lifestyles and it’s creating dissent, poverty, and their culture to disappear. I had planned on this trek for almost a year and think it’s even more important now with the recent public media.
I really hope I’ll be invited back next year and have already planned on keeping my schedule free. I’m planning on a bicycle adventure sometime around mid-summer of 2016 and look forward to attending in person next year after the trip.
Even with my absence, I expect it to be great times to be shared among like minded folks who have an understanding for each other’s lifestyle and personal goals. I wish good times for all!
Again, I thank all of those involved with BAM! for the invite and opportunity. They’ve put in a lot of hard work and have selected some outstanding people to be attending the event. I’ll be submitting a little video introduction of myself and adventures that will be shown. Of course, without overseeing you, many thanks to The Pill Magazine for this opportunity to reveal a little more about myself, life, and travels.
If you didn’t catch the announcement a week or so ago, I have a new home at www.adventureXmoseman.com
It’s still under construction and should have a lot added over the next few weeks. Someday…I’ll get to finishing the story here…someday.
Stay tuned for links to stories…
Yep, I’ve done it again. Look forward to you all getting involved or even just sharing the campaign, is more than I could ask for.
Awaking the next day with heavy eyes as the cool dawn begins to break into the early morning heat. The aches and pains and are extremely acute as I roll off my sleeping mat, as an invisible force is nudging me to get out into the bright sunshine; onward through the beautiful and majestic valleys of Tajikistan. I’m more groggy than usual, as dogs barking throughout the night continually pulled me across the floor, careful not to disturb the old woman and small child sleeping, to the window to check on bicycle and the four bags attached at her sides and top.
The house begins to take upon life, as there are women’s voices break the silence, as I dress and prepare to depart. The old woman asks me to stay for breakfast but I kindly insist I must carry on. Generally breakfast will take a few hours and it’s never been a eat and run type of an affair. Using those early morning hours to cycle will make the difference of 50-70 km a day, to end with a full belly of traditional Muslim food and a long nap under an apricot tree.
Saying my thanks with “rexmet”, speaking in a native tongue based upon Turkish, I exit the mud packed home into the chilled morning light to continue on.
The sun gets intense, and heat unbearable where it sometimes reaches 48 degrees, so I need to make as much progress as possible.
Yesterday had been a short day and the remind myself that I must make up for lost time.
I traverse along a single lane, with deep crevasse jeep tracks, going slowly up a valley. I lost asphalt nearly two days ago as I had chosen to take a route that most people don’t ride. I had debated about the route as no one could give me an accurate description of the area and there is a missing section of road on the map. Like usual, I was not quite sure what to expect but knew I wouldn’t see dozens of cyclists. Spending over 20,000 km already through China where I can speak the language, I am notorious for pulling myself off well traveled routes to see what else the world has to offer…but…sometimes there is a reason a particular route is not taken by the masses.
Stopping about fifteen kilometers ahead from the community I had stayed in the previous night, I stop for breakfast and supplies. Far from a proper town, supplies are limited but I make do with sodas, naan, and sugar glazed cookies filled with an apricot jelly.
Thankful for the dark storm clouds rolling in and the cool breeze on my skin, I know this will cut down immensely on the heat. I will be able to cycle through the early afternoon without a break. The trees are disappearing and it’s becoming rock mines along a raging brown river. I had been warned of the rivers and glacier melts during the summers; later learning that they were higher than average this summer. The water is angry and completely out of control; hearing her beating against the stone banks and walls. Such a contrast to the cool breeze, gentle rolling clouds, and the steady and calm beat of my heart.
There have only been one or two Land Rovers driving in the opposite direction since leaving the last town about 4 hours earlier. It’s becoming lifeless except for the massive rusted mining machines and mounds of gray stones. The road is more difficult as the stones cause me to lose my balance at times…tipping me off balance a few times, causing my right foot to try and find traction among the broken stones.
Spotting a small pond where the water was flowing clear and shade provided by some short trees, I decide to push over to watch the direction of the storm and to repair a snapped bolt on the front rack. There is no one around and decide to wash my clothes, feeling guilty I had a clean body living in the filthy and salt marked cycling clothes. Although my hair had been washed yesterday with bar soap and seemed to make my oily hair even worse, so a proper shampooing was in order.
One man stops to speak with me, only to return to give me some strawberry cookies he had in his Land Rover. He begins to get a little closer and asks me more questions than I bargained for and realize I have to back him off. I’d had enough men make assumptions about a single American woman in Central Asia and knew I needed to ward off any preconceived ideas.
“Is he your friend?” The man asked me in Russian and points to a blonde Tajik boy with a knapsack and dog. It took me a second to figure out if this kid was another traveler, just choosing to walk but realized he was a local. Deciding that an innocent lie is order for this moment, “No, my friend is ahead.” Which always confuses them because they assume friends should always be together. The man drives off after putting some water in his radiator and the boy has gone up towards the cliff across the road from my trees.
After washing my clothes and hair, I put on some traditional Tajik Atlas printed pants that were made in Dushanbe and hang my wet clothes up in the trees, needing to secure them as the storm is making it’s way closer. My hair tied and wrapped up on my head, I attempt to fix the snapped bolt. The best I can do is to use pliers to tighten the headless screw into the eyelet threads.
The vivid blue sky has now been completely grayed out, and it begins to rain upon me and my damp clothes. I put on rain gear to cut down on my chills and to cover up my wet, yet clean hair. Thinking it’s probably best to stay under this three for a little bit of coverage, I begin to organize my panniers, as I had dumped everything out digging for soaps and tools.
There is a sound in the bushes behind me…like the sound of something hard falling into dried grass. I stop, there is no one around…what was it, who is it? Another. Then another but it comes through the 2 meter high trees I’m standing under.
Rocks!? Why are there rocks falling from the sky. Walking out from under the trees to straighten up, I look around. My left arm is hit with a piece of gravel then “crash” and another “crash”, these are fist size stones if not bigger.
Across the gravel road and about 15 meters from me there is a cliff, approximately 50 meters high and I see the blonde boy and his dog. The sky is dark and I can barely make him out has he begins to launch another rock, then another.
“Hey! You, I see you!” in English. I had studied Russian for three weeks in Bishkek but when you begin to feel your blood boil it’s not so easy to squeeze out the translated words.
He launches another and begins to pick up another rock. The rocks are getting bigger; the heaved stones have less time between them. His aim is definitely improving too. I again repeat that I see him and he needs to stop while choosing a few four letter words that is understood throughout the world. The dog is barking and running back and forth along the edge of the cliff. Rocks continue to rain from the sky, overtaking the harmless precipitation that had previously been speckling my body.
During my first few months of tour I learned my “War Cry”, something I didn’t even know existed until it had to be used to remove a man’s body lying atop of me. It came to surface because it’s all I had to fight with, the shrill death cry coming from a woman that feels her existence being shattered from within. This moment isn’t so frightful as some of my previous battles so I knew it must be conjured up like a masterful magician, or rather resourceful sorceress.
Now intense feelings, deep buried memories, frustrations are brought to the surface; I allow myself to feel vulnerable and scared. Opening my mouth to inhale has much air as my lungs can take to push the call of anger from my cracked and sunburned lips. As my breathe moves from my guts, I keel over at the waist to make sure that all of these emotions have found their way out of my soul. I let out another and another. Sometimes it feels difficult to stop, releasing emotions that have been shoved deep within my mind for the simple act of survival.
The boy and the dog have now disappeared. I pack up my bike and know it’s time to get out of here as fast as possible. Slightly damp and clean clothes are put back on my shivering body and my clean hair braided, I assume I would be leaving danger behind.
I had rested my bicycle on her drive-train side, so I could manage repairs. I’m a bit uncomfortable pulling her from the other side so the tire slips down the damp soil. The sharp silver teeth from the triple crank puncture deeply in the front of my right ankle. Water nearby is turning bright red from the blood rushing from my body. There is nothing to do but remain calm.
All I can question at the moment is,“Did I puncture something important under the skin, deep into my body…I hope this stops…and I don’t bleed out here in the middle of nowhere Tajikistan.”
I’m splashing water on it from the stream, which I know isn’t the best antiseptic to be cleaning an open wound. Especially since I had been watching the cattle bathe and drink from the same water a few meters away, my little pond only separated by a few inches of mud. The bleeding continues…and it’s not letting up.
A Tajik woman is now watching me from the cliff. Too many people are aware of me, I’ve let out the crazy woman “war cry”, and the boy has also returned. I hate, and avoid, confrontation or really any uncomfortable situations in unknown territories. Especially when I can barely speak a few words of the language. In China, I’m more than willing to argue and reprimand as I can speak and understand the culture after living there for more than 4 years.
I push the bike to the road keeping my eyes on my foot, watching the blood stream down my leg and the dark red beads of blood stream down into my sandals. Another battle scar.
Deciding to walk the bike after the injury, the rocks, the scream, and the storm…just get the hell out of here and to allow myself to find calm physically and mentally. There had been days like this before and did not take notice of the omens.
Around the cliff and continuing up stream I am met by an older Uzbek man carrying a stack of newspapers. We communicate through broken sentences and some pantomiming. He has me write my name down on a notebook and invites me to stay at his home for the night, as it’s storming. I politely decline, as his home is about 3 kilometers downstream. Rarely do I backtrack and had made little progress over the past 24 hours. We parted with smiles and I continue to walk my bike over the road which had now become loose stones. Experience was telling me I was finding my way off the beaten path.
The next two hours I would be alternating between riding and pushing through loose gravel, slowly going up and some rocky and steep descents. Once passing a mining community where I saw a village inset up in the mountains about 10 kilometers away. I would be going over a pass and was hoping that was not it because of the infinite switch backs for endless miles, or so it seemed. I told the men banging away at new homes where I was headed and they directed me at the fork of the road.
Continuing upstream, I pass a man lounging a top a mound of stones nearly 5 meters high and he lazily assures me I’m headed in the correct direction. There are roads always branching off this mining road and doubt is beginning to grow within me, with a nagging hint of anxiety. Traversing through mounds of stones, old rusted mining machines and equipment, the road going up and down and crossing paths with a few massive trucks, assuming if I was going in the wrong direction, someone would alert me.
Around three o’clock I find myself looking across the raging river that was the source for the water I had been cycling along for the day. The water is coming from the mountains, my right side and snaking to my left and continuing down through the villages I traveled through earlier. There are some trucks to my right, so before deciding to cross the water, I ride the two kilometers up a hill to find someone to speak with or an alternative route.
Riding through a few switchbacks and pass a shepherd and his cattle, I arrive to a small work community where mining trucks and Land Rovers are in a parking lot with a few old aluminum sided buildings. Passing through the checkpoint before two men stop me and tell me it’s the wrong way. With arm movements and finger pointing, I must cross the water.
Backtracking to the bank of the water, gulping the hints of fear and anxiety down, I know that if I were to set up camp and wait until sunrise the water would perhaps be lower.
Standing on the edge of the riverbank, created out of massive stones and gravel, my thoughts and apprehension is drowned out by the water beating against the stones and cliffs. The opposite side of the bank is about 15 meters across and turns into a field of gravel and stones. No sight of a road or tracks. The miners told me this was it; I can’t doubt the directions of locals.
I apprehensively lay the bike on her side, briefly examining the dried blood all over my ankle and foot wile noticing the flies enjoy taking a brief rest on the wounds. The water is rough, muddy…it’s bad, nothing I’ve encountered before and look up into the mountains silently, yet innocently, cursing the summer ice melt.
My riding partner, Chris-Alexandre, is about 30 centimeters shorter and I reassure myself “if HE can do it, I CAN do it!” Heck, and I’ve been on the road longer and a well seasoned veteran. This isn’t a big deal.
“Moseman, you can do this…you’ve been through hell and back, this isn’t anything you can’t defeat.”
Taking a deep breath, standing with my bike to my right and holding the handlebars with a white knuckled grip, I give a good push into the water and the front wheel rolls forward. The front of the bike drops so far down that the water is nearly rushing over my front panniers. The tire doesn’t hit the bottom so I’m pulled further into the water than anticipated. My heart skips and stalls when I realize that I’m well over my head in this situation. Water is now brushing along the bottom of the rear panniers and up to my knees. I can feel the front of the bike wanting to be whipped down the river, giving no consideration to the woman between it and the wall of stone further down. The bicycle behaves like a buoy and I think if I can press the front down it will surely help stabilize. Taking all my might while trying to prevent my body from trembling with fear, this technique doesn’t work. The further the front goes down the greater pressure I feel from my bike, as mother nature’s force is not going to take mercy on me.
Two helicopters are above me, as I had noticed them circling the area all day. I thought maybe they were surveying the high waters. (I would learn the following day that the reason for the helicopters was because a Civil War had erupted in the Pamirs that morning.) I look up, now one is hovering over me. Do they see me, and are they worried for my safety?
The next few minutes would feel like hours, a lifetime, an eternity.
I trudge further into the water so I’m standing next to the left front pannier, pressing my body against the bag in hopes to steady the bike and push her back up the bank. Looking up into the sky, watching the helicopter hover above me, I realize my body isn’t going to be able to stand against this pressure for much longer. What do I need to do to survive this situation to the best of my possibility?
It’s very difficult to make a fast, drastic, life altering decision when fear has taken over your senses. Colors are more vivid, sounds more intense; your heartbeat is pounding in your head while your mind is sitting in the bottom of your guts. Your reality, and world, is spinning out of orbit and you have no idea where you will land or how you will fall. One is left, merciless, to the innate instinct; I can only hope that mere 30 year of existence in this lifetime have taught me a few things for survival.
Continually trying to push the bike up the bank, from the side, is not going to work. Gripping for life on the handlebars, knuckle bones, tendons, muscles wanting to break through my sun cured, leathered, skin from the desert sun. I move my body very slowly and carefully to the front of the bike. Attempting to awkwardly straddle the front wheel between my thighs, but still a bit lopsided to the left. The water is well up to my waist, as I stand at 6’ tall. Breathe, relax, concentrate, PUSH.
Looking up. Am I praying for the helicopter to drop a ladder like I’ve seen in rescue shows or for the Gods in the heavens to save me? Wanting to raise my arms to wave for help, I know this is impossible as I will lose the bike, my stance and will be swept away before my palms leave the handlebars.
Do I let go of the bike? Do I sacrifice all my gear and let her go? The only possessions in my life for years only to be swept away because of a complete ignorant and irrational decision.
Did Ego come to play with me by the river that afternoon?
The camera! Not just the camera…my digital files! A year of photos and files are in that back rack bag. The water is not over the rear bags, yet, but if I press my front wheel down the water is rushing against my bar bag that has my DSLR, passport, and cell phone.
I look downstream where the river crashes against stone cliffs and then turns left at a nearly 90 degree angle.
Turning my face to the sky and scream “Help” like I’ve never screamed in my entire life. I am going to die…my life is going to end, right here, NOW. There is no way my body will survive that abrupt bend in the river. I imagine my body hanging onto the floating bike until it crashes against the stones. How long would I go down the river with my bike…imagining my greatest possessions in life being bashed against stones, thrown around the river, until my lifeless body gives up and nothing would be recognizable?
Long, loud, and wailing screams of help are being released into the canyon, echoing and bouncing around the mountaintops. Finally I see three men watching from the mining area I had been earlier.
“Please, help me, I’m going to die!!!! Help me, PLEASE!!!”
They stand there and I know there is no way I can hold this up even if they do come to help.
“PLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAASE!!! HELP ME!!!!!!” I had tried to bring up my Russian to clarify my meaning but I couldn’t grab the necessary words from the air spilling from my terrified body.
I begin to have images of my mother and father. There is a feeling rushing over me, almost like their presence is near. The images alternate between them; my childhood home and town. It’s more a feeling than imagery. I am going to die, this is the end. With another near death experience in my past because of a car wreck, I know this feeling and it’s growing stronger every moment.
My personal fears are overtaken with the realization my parents will NEVER see me again. They will never be able to say goodbye; not one last hug or kiss. The crashing water will dismantle my undernourished body and they will never see the physical presence of what they had created. I am not fearing my disappearance but the pain I will cause my dear mother and father. Losing my life WILL kill them. I must figure this out, not for my own livelihood but for the sake of those that made the sacrifice of their own lives for mine.
It’s guilt that overwhelms my consciousnesses during those last moments of life. I’ve been selfish. Leaving my friends years ago, ending a long love affair, and not being closer to my parents. Not being a better daughter, sister, friend, girlfriend…a better person. This would be the ultimate of selfishness, to let my life be taken away and leave those behind to suffer.
What’s the most important thing on my bike? I’m going to have to try and remove the bags and throw them up on the bank and hopefully lighten the pressure of nature beating against me.
The bar bag: it holds my passport, camera, cell phone, and money. How am I going to manage this balancing act and release the bag to toss onto the river bank? Am I even going to be able to get enough force behind the launch of these essential items. I’m no longer even thinking about the hard drive and year’s worth of files in the back bag. Thousands of photographic images of the persecuted Uyghur minority of Xinjiang, would now be lost and destroyed forever.
In a split moment after I release my hand to reach for the bar bag release, the bike is thrown on top of me and I’m pinned under with the top tube against my collarbones. All my gear is completely submerged and visualize all my photo gear and files being flooded by the brown silt filled water. The current turns me counterclockwise and I’m facing my death, straight to bend of the river and against the unforgiving stone wall.
My parents are now standing before me in a grayish and hazy cloud, arm and arm as I remember them from my childhood. This is the end, you will never see me again. It’s over. This is going to kill you both, so much more pain for you two and I will realize none of it. I can’t…it just can’t happen this way.
Two meters down the river I’m pulling myself out on my back,with my eyes finally opening, onto the bank with my face to the sky and bike still on top of me.
The plastic bin that holds my food, cooking supplies, and a book had been pushed out from a tight bungee cord and are now moving swiftly down the river.
Within a second the bike is clearly out of the water and I’m examining myself for serious wounds and see the water line on my shirt nearly hitting my shoulders.
There is no time to cry, no time to panic, not even a chance for recovery and to smack myself to see if I’m actually still ALIVE because the bags have been flooded and I have to get my gear out to dry. Unloading the bags trembling, shaking, teeth chattering, absolutely exhausted. This shouldn’t be happening, but it has and it’s my fault. I should have known better, I’m an idiot. Beginning to cry, the first in years…not heavy and heaving because I’m too exhausted…but silently with big crocodile tears rolling down my sunburned cheeks.
A coal mining truck eventually comes to my rescue and takes me across the water explaining to me they saw my friend earlier. They would leave me at the base of the pass that was a meter wide stone path. Pointing up, telling me that’s the direction I must go.
We unload and they leave, after plenty of “rexmet” and my right hand over my heart. The first friends, a meeting of souls, I would have for this second chance at living. Or, were they simply angels that had descended that mountain in a steel chariot on massive wheels to only escort me safely over Sytx to the “other side”? These days, dreams and reality intermingle too much for me to ever make sense of the dividing lines.
Dumping all my bags next to a pile of rusted mining equipment for the hot Tajikistan sun to dry, I let it out. The tears are running down my face, all over my shirt, losing my breath because of exhaustion of nearly drowning and now the emotional melt down.
There is no longer a fear of death, was there ever? Perhaps my fear has been more directed at living? What do I fear? Fear prevents movement, progress, growth…this is not me. Maybe I don’t define and experience fear as many do.
I’ve pushed the limits, and beyond, more than most will ever in an entire lifetime. My fear is of the torment I would cause others; I nearly lost my life to only cause others a lifelong mental and emotional death. Near-death stories often tell how the hero sees fleeting images of his lover, his children, and his close friends and feels grief stricken that he will never see them again. This was not the case. I saw the only two people who gave me life out of love, lose one of the greatest things that they’ve created and nurtured in their lifetimes.
Momma and Pops raised me to believe that I must live life for myself but I learned that one of my responsibilities is to hold onto this life for those that love and need me. This simple existence and lifetime isn’t for my benefit, but for those that my soul has intermingled with. To continue to travel within this life, full of passion, conviction and using my personal power and inner strengths to overcome whatever obstacle may stand in my way. Whether man, beast, machine, or my own inner demons…I must go on for there are those that are counting on me, and my many safe returns.
Descending into a valley together, Chris-Alexandre and I would part ways around 10:00 am in the morning. In Central Asia, I had noticed that when accompanied by a man I don’t have opportunities to talk with locals as all conversation is directed to the man. Chris-Alex would wish me luck and make plans to stay in touch and meet up ahead, then I was off on my own, as I know so well.
Spending the day riding through a hot and arid valley, but where the small villages are tree lined, I pull over to rest under some trees on the western edge of a village in the late afternoon. It’s currently Ramadan, which explains the quiet and calm through the days. At sunset, Muslims will quit fasting and have a meal together. It’s considered rude to eat and drink in front of fasting Muslims and I take consideration in hiding myself a bit when eating on the side of the road. At this resting point, I’m not eating but rather just sipping my water and trying to figure out what my plan will be for the night as it’s nearing 6pm.
There is a fence separating me from a front yard with trees and between the house and trees is a small garden. An older woman wearing a traditional Tajik dress and pants, similar to a shalwar kameez, as vivid green as the short trees surround me walks up to me with a young blonde boy holding her hand. Exchanging smiles, her mouth of gold glistening in the Pamiri sun as she says “aleikum asalaam” after my greeting of “asalaam alkeium”. She looks at me and my bicycle and directs me to bring my bike and to return to her home down the dirt road that leads behind the garden.
I would be greeted with children and one of the most beautiful Tajik girls I would ever meet with her perfectly henna died eyebrow. She is all smiles and I can feel the love among the women while the children are still apprehensive about the lonesome traveling woman. Many villages through Tajikistan have few men, as I was informed that many men work in Russia where they have a family there and one here in Tajikistan. Images of hippie communes flood my imagination here in Tajikistan, happy and beautiful women and children living off the land. Children running around playing in the dirt, a toddler in a crib made of crudely welded steel you would see about construction sites, and the young woman chopping fresh vegetables from their garden. This might just be “the life”…
The gold toothed older woman in green, the most elegant camouflage I’ve ever witnessed, begins to pantomime to be about taking a shower and washing my clothes. It has been awhile and I’m wondering if she can smell the odor of travel, woman, and just the scent of a foreigner. It’s a hot afternoon, where temperatures can get close to 50C in the sunshine during midday, and I’m not going to deny a cool bath and after a few minutes trying to communicate she let’s me know she will heat up some water for the bath. Then I’m led to a corner of a mud packed building, where my bike leans against.
Following her out of the shade and into the cooling Tajikistan air, I’m led into a dark room with light entering from a single window and she directs me to undress and get into the tub. I remove all my clothing except for my delicates. She looks at me, not even flinching and somewhat serious with no concern, directing me to remove EVERYTHING. I look into her eyes and I know in my heart she’s a good woman and mother just seeking to help and accommodate the strange traveler that has fallen into her life. Taking a deep breathe, I drop all my clothing along with my modesty and I step naked into the tub. She pours water over me that is the perfect temperature for this hot July afternoon and she uses the bar of soap that’s splitting to wash my back and hair. I have gone years without affectionate, and innocent, human touch and I feel my body slump over in ease and enjoy the gentle and intimate touch of her hands running through my hair and over my shoulders.
Stepping out refreshed, I follow her into the garden where more women are arriving and I’m handed fresh vegetables such as cucumbers from the garden to eat. Cooled down, clean, snacking on vegetables and being served a never ending supply of chai.
There is a woman that appears that seems to be around my age, and she is. It turns out she used to be a teacher and she can speak a little English along with some Russian so we can communicate a little bit. She explains her husband lives in Dushanbe and she is childless…I can’t imagine what that must be like in an area where child bearing and raising is of the utmost importance in the culture. I take an immediate liking to her, her warm and comforting brown eyes, and I watch her tend to the children as they are her own.
Shortly after her brief explanation to the other women about me, we go inside the main house, passing a teenage boy sitting near the entrance. We enter a room directly off the side where I’m accompanied by a few young male toddlers and about a half a dozen women. The woman with the henna eyebrows is in the room, with about 5-6 more, and is accompanied by another younger woman carrying the brunette baby from the yard. It’s explained that they are married to the same man and using wash cloths, those two women along with the gold tooth matriarch, invite me to become the third. Hysterical laughter breaks out when I smile and nod my head “no”. But after months in Central Asia, and my first time among a commune of women, the thought of sister wives doesn’t seem like such a horrible idea.
After the joking and the conversation, as women slouch against the wall pulling up their pants and dresses to cool down, the matriarch shouts to the teen in the other room to turn up the music. She shuts the door and begins dancing as any beautiful Tajik woman does. I’m pulled up off the floor and it feels as if I’ve returned to a dance party from my university years. Talking, dancing, laughter…the children are enjoying themselves as well.
There is an advantage being a woman traveling alone, I have been allowed to see and experience moments that are usually behind closed doors or in the kitchen. We have jokes in the West about women being barefoot in the kitchen. Well, as a feminist, I’ll tell you I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else besides behind those doors or kitchens…it’s where all the fun happens…and gossip…and just behaving like all women around the world.
The matriarch, blonde boy, and I take a nap in the room after the dance party and neighbors leave.
Around 7pm we get up and she takes me for a walk around her land, showing me a new storage building that’s being built out of stones and through the gardens. The children play and we go to a fence dividing the neighbors where I meet a young girl. The adults shout back and forth to one another, along with explanations of who the visitor is.
The sun is setting and we return to the woman’s home where the two sister wives are preparing food and the teenage boy is still listening to music acting indifferent to the entire situation. The matriarch serves me food separately from the family unit and then they begin to share a large platter of polo/plov, eating with their hands which is the traditional and standard way. The daily fast has ended and they will eat and then pray. The teacher that I warmed up to returns, the television is on and we all lazily lounge around having a very gentle conversation.
They will see my exhaustion and offer me to my sleeping mat as they will stay up later to continue eating and praying. I’m led back to the room where the dancing happened earlier in the day and directed on the mat next to the wall, furthest from the door. I will be sharing it with the matriarch and the small blonde boy that never leaves her side.
Little would I know what the next day would bring…some of you do…and perhaps it’s one reason I have been stalled to finally write this story out for you.