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.