Women in Bicycle Touring and Bikepacking

An interview with Ana Zamorano on Women's Cycling Day

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There is only one mother. However, I have many adoptive mothers; at least one in each country I’ve traveled through. And here I was missing a Kurdish mum. That day I was lower than normal and the sun and heat were terrible. As usually, I left the house I stayed over pretty late and already knew I had to climb only + 400m to get to another town and be able to chill eating in a shadow on top. But when I started cycling up, I felt so hungry but promised myself to have lunch after the complete the slope. But a few minutes later, when I turned the second curve, a woman appeared from somewhere giving me a sight "Chai?" and the gesture of eating. So I threw the bike, and went into the garden where it seemed that they were already waiting for me to eat; Two men, a boy and herself. Although we only understood each other by gestures, I called him "mum" and she responded me like "Anayan Asisi". Basically something like "my lovely Ana, I love you." And that's how that afternoon before a siesta under a walnut I became Gulchin's adoptive daughter.

 

Women's Cycling Day

2020 marks the first Women’s Cycling Day which will take place on the second Saturday of October annually, and celebrates woman cyclists of all kinds. We took the opportunity to speak the inspirational Ana Zamorano about her experiences as a solo woman cyclist, international bikepacker, and photographer.

An interview with Ana Zamorano

Damian - Hi Ana, it has been so great getting to know you over these past few years since you started riding the Outback on our Adventure Team. Can you tell us a little more about yourself and how you came into bicycle touring and bikepacking?

Ana - Well! I am from a green village surrounded by beautiful mountains near Bilbao and the Cantabric Sea, in the Basque Country. Although the mountains in The Basque are not high peaks and it rains a lot, hiking, biking, climbing or surfing are part of our day -to-day; it does not matter if you are a kid, young or retired, that nature and outdoors are part of our identity.

I was born in a family who like to travel so I started traveling since I was a little one. We discovered most of Europe, some countries in Northern Africa, a bit of the States... it was great growing up with a perspective of the World, getting to know the diversity itself. But the big step came when I did my first solo travels with a backpack when I was 16! I got hooked and then, at the age of 18, I did my first volunteering experience in Nicaragua. My life changed quite a lot since that summer working on a project with some elderly, abandoned people. I decided to spend my summers away while studying Communication Degree in university, doing some volunteering in El Salvador, Gambia, Indonesia, India during different periods.

Actually, I liked to do volunteering because it gives you the chance to meet locals and live in the country doing same things as people who live there. But there came to a point where I wanted more…and life brings you what you dream of. When I was in Uganda on my way to the jungle (hitchhiking, taking moto-taxis etc.) to see the last gorilla mountain on Earth, I bumped into my very first bikepacker ever and that guy and his bike blew my mind. I talked to him for a few minutes, enough to know I wanted to start cycling the World and get to know all the villages and people I was skipping travelling on a bus, plane, car or train. The day I fulfilled the dream of seeing the Gorilla Mountains in their own nature, another one came up straight away!

After Uganda, I got a promotion in Northern England and lived there for two years until the moment I felt I was 100% ready to hit the road on a bike. Firstly, I prepared myself in the Indian and Nepali Himalayas for three months, studied yoga and meditation and hiked a lot. Then I felt I was ready to start cycling South America, so I did it so. My cyclist friends advised me I would not be able to do it, but far from that, I crossed The Andes through amazing landscapes, villages and steep off-roads! “Yes, I can” I used to repeat myself.

After almost a year and a half, I flew home to change gear and then crossed Iran and the Caucasus with an Outback 27,5 and Pinion. Awesome by the way!

 Ana-Zamoano-1

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One hot day in Armenia, climbing up a pass, a car appeared when I realized a kid was driving sitting on an old man legs. When they both looked at me, I did this ?; The same gesture was back to me from the kid and we both smiled after all. About finished the pass some hours later, parked my bike under a shadow when this woman appeared with three sheep. It was probably one of those moments in which I don’t have much energy left to speak, just drinking. But as she insisted I popped in to hers and not only helped her in the garden, lynched honey, had a shower, amazing food and milked the cow. Such a coincidence when we realized the child I greeted with my tongue on the way up was this woman’s grandson. We played and laughed together for some hours

 

Damian - What was it like before you went on your first big tour – were people encouraging or worried about you as a young woman travelling alone? How did you mentally prepare?

Ana - Well, I had feedback from both perspectives. From one side, as I said people and some friends told me ridiculous things looking at me as a solo woman on a bike in South America. It is a shame when close friends say things like “someone is going to rape you and we will have to find you in a forest.” This was repeated more than once.

I can also say my mum has been a good support for me on this so it kept me motivated. I didn’t take the bad vibes or comments from others to heart. If you have support in your own house, it is different. My mum always says, “I only –pray- for you not to meet the wrong person on your way.” Me too, actually. I believe a bad thing can happen anywhere as a solo woman, even walking somewhere in my hometown. Above all, I believe that 95% of the people are good ones; and I have good reasons and experiences to back this up.

 Ana-Zamoano-2

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The narrow road to get to Mestia, although beautiful, was full of marshrutka (taxi) with tourists passing by super fast. I stopped to eat under a bush in front of a house and asked myself many questions. Some time ago I learned not to judge a country by the people I meet in its cities. During this break I was wondering how Georgians could change from cities to villages, even more in a National Park as special as Svaneti where wars, own culture and conflicts between neighbors have marked both their past And, a little later up and down those endless slopes, Jdz (right) went out to my search bowing to me in the middle of the road while carrying firewood. And what starts with a coffee, ends with food and ... much more!

 

Damian - Thinking back to your earlier trips, what are some of the first things you learned as a woman solo touring by bike, and have your perspectives changed since then?

Ana - Awareness and believe in yourself is the key. I normally say solo women travelling on a bike are alpha women, they should have strong character and personality. I mean they do not feel they need anyone next to them to face a solo touring trip, even though fear is always there, we embrace our reality.

As I used to travel –with a backpack- alone before doing it on a bike, I could gain some trust and learn a lot of things in different parts of the World. When you travel solo on a bike, you have to learn even more because you are the captain of your house, GPS, kitchen, bed etc. I have learnt how to hide myself camping away from any roads or villages, how to dress - I cannot wear a crop top and shorts when it is hot, for example. I also know how to avoid drunken people, how to escape from odd situations… it is not simple at all but it is not impossible either. You just need to trust yourself, listen your thoughts and feelings all the time, not relaxing too much when you are with men. I get closer to local women and research in advance how a given country to cycle for a woman. For example, it is not the same experience to cycle as a woman through Iran or the Congo as it is to cycle through Australia or Europe.

Unfortunately, this kind of caution is innate, subconscious, part of us, so we do not have to actively think about this all the time. Despite all this, I trust in the goodness of people around the world no matter what country or what reputation a region may have, whether South America, Iran, the Caucasus…anywhere. I am open to meeting locals every day and I think you can see this in any of my photos or social media stories. I have not had any problems apart from the ones you could have anywhere in the World.

Ana-Zamoano-3

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A cyclist is always hungry, a Canadian told me while cycling in Ecuador. And I swear that that morning in the church I woke hungrier than normal and dreamed of the descent that would take us to a nearby town where we could buy something because the cockroaches had eaten our bread and we had a few days that we didn't find oatmeal in any little store. However, breakfast arrived earlier than expected. I went down first and stopped in front of a flock of sheep while waiting Oihane. A shepherd appeared with a radio on and a small backpack. He asked me with gestures if I go alone and if i had breakfast, I said no. You can imagine and see how we ended up, although we insisted very much on he needed all that food for the whole day and we would arrive at a nearby town soon "Nyet problem, nyet problem" which means no problem. Hospitality has no borders in Armenia

 

Damian - Your photographic portraits are very personal, direct and brave. When people see your camera (or even your bike) does it change the way they see you or interact with you? 

Ana - Yes! I have the feeling that the bike itself changes the perspective from me to the people I meet on my way. It is awesome because they do not look at you as “a rich person coming from a Western country” It is actually the opposite! They look at you as a brave, crazy (in a good way) and strong person – even more when you are a solo woman. They open their houses and heart for you. I have thought a lot about this because people have given me food, accommodation, and love everywhere I have travelled. I used to ask myself why with a big smile on my face. After many hours thinking this while cycling, I realized that you find bikes everywhere in the World. The bike is such a simple and cheap way to move and, it does not matter how rich or developed the country is. Locals ask me why I am on a bike, sometimes in Spanish (South America), sometimes with signs and I always say “I would have not met you if I had come on a bus” - they usually laugh and nod.

Traveling by bike is just perfect for me as a filmmaker and photographer because these people are the ones I have missed when I was moving around with a backpack: small villages on empty and remote landscapes. I helped a family to pick strawberries in the Iranian Kurdistan, I milked a cow in the Caucasus and a camel in Iran, I help a blacksmith in Peru, I talked about wild horses in Colombia, I climbed a 6000m mountain with indigenous women in Bolivia… my portraits are the result of spending quality time with different kinds of people in their environments.

I also consider myself a friendly person and I am pretty sure this helps my photography. I can capture people as they are. I do not need more, I just want to capture and tell the story behind that portrait just looking at the eyes of the person on the picture. I mostly choose countries with strong traditions and cultural identity because they inspire me, and I am able to create images that reflect that strong identity, capturing what I feel, and practicing compassion everywhere.

"Filmmaker, photographer and, above all, human"

 Ana-Zamoano-4

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"Don't you get tired of traveling?" The only teacher at the school in that little town where we were camping sent her husband to our tent and invited us to sleep at their place. We told him with gestures not to worry, that everything would be fine and that we would meet in the morning. But he insisted so much so we went to his house, and although we had already had dinner, we did it again. After tea, we told him we were very tired and would say goodbye again in the morning. So we did after camping some meters ago from theirs. But what we least expected was that, that day, her daughter - who works as a programmer in Denmark - was celebrating her birthday and she was extremely sad not having her there. I thought about my family, cos I've been away for the last eight birthdays. And I immerse myself in her feelings, and although I am not mum, I can find them and empathize. So I didn't mind spending the morning with her while she showed me the woolen sweaters she knitted, or the honey they take from the honeycombs every summer or the pictures of herself when she was as young as we are. That day we started cycling very late, but I didn't care. We learned from each other and made each other our day less cloudy. Thanks to these moments I am not tired of traveling

 

Damian - You often speak to children in schools about bike touring – what kinds of questions do they ask you and what messages do you want them to take away?

I love kids and these talks have been the best! A school from my village called me because they wanted me to explain to some students (six to eight years old) the diversity of cultures, clothing, rutials etc. we have in the World. So, I created a simple and strong message for them based on respect, and sharing of values. I went with the Outback fully packed so they could touch and investigate my panniers too. They were just amazed and looked at me like their new hero!

Children’s questions are by far the best ones as they don’t have the same filters and preconceptions that adults do. At one point I said “I started in Argentina” pointing it out on the map; one of them immediately asked me how I could cycle on the water (the Atlantic Ocean) to get there. They are so innocent!

Also, one instance that really left an impression on me when I was showing them how people have treated me on my travels. One child asked “What if the shepherd in the picture invites you to his house and then he changes his behavior once inside? What would you do in that case?” I honestly did not have words to answer.

But the best thing came when I was having a drink with some friends at a bar in my village and two girls came to say hi and tell me they wanted to cycle from China to Japan. I melted with pride looking at them!

Ana-Zamoano-5

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The magic of the road. Intuition made me start down through the wrong path to give me a reward. When we found the flock of sheep there were only furious dogs but suddenly a tall and thin man came running down from a slope. Our savior. He shouted at his seven dogs and even he armed himself with several stones to scare them; we had to cross through the middle of the flock and the dogs were not doing more than their work. This is how once the fright was over, this guy -of our age- invited us through gestures to coffee, pointing out his house on top of the hill. And as I can not say no, there he helped us to push our bicycles. Not only was there coffee, but chocolate, juice, cookies ... we met his puppies, his brother - with whom he lives - and we even rode one of their horses. At this moment I felt like the luckiest person in the World; the reward was to be surrounded by beautiful animals among hillsides of immense green. What else could I ask for?

 

Damian – That is a great jumping-off point for the next question. Do you have any advice for other women who are interested in touring but might be hesitant to start?

Ana - Just prepare your bike and go out! Don’t get caught up in the negativity of the media, don’t read mainstream newspapers, just follow your dream and what you want. If you feel you need more confidence, you can always start with a micro-adventure and do an overnighter or a weekender, for example, and in a place you know well or in a country you feel it could be super safe. There are a lot of routes through Europe where you can use Warmshowers or Couchsurfing instead of camping most of the nights.

There are also some Facebook groups for bikepacking and bicycle touring women where we share our opinions, fears, routes we have done, point of views… it is very interesting because you also connect with more people like you, and get support this way.

 Ana-Zamoano-7

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Not every moments are beautiful. Especially when a man with his three children invites you to have a coffee with and you as alwas accept it until you have to activate your alert. My friend Oihane came to Armenia for three weeks and this was the first time - in two years of traveling - that I left a house that fast. We rode horses, hug more animals they had and after a coffee, my friend went to the bathroom. I didn’t realize this man followed her, and being alone with, he ask her for sex making this gesture ???? In a matter of seconds she came in again and said "Ana, let's go now!" I couldn’t understand anything but I quickly said goodbye to his children. They understood the situation less than me and we left with the excuse of time. And so we always have to find excuses; Always alert. Always exposed. In Armenia, in France, Japan or in Iran. My friend gave him a resounding NO for an answer and left. But what if he had forced her? I will never stop traveling alone for cases like this, however, I thought of all those who after the ‘no’ suffered and could never report it

 

More from Ana Zamorano

Read Ana's account of a solo female cyclist at Bikepacking.com: NOT ONLY MOUNTAINS: BIKEPACKING IRANIAN KURDISTAN 

Experienced & written by Damian Bradley #Adventure
Equipment found in this article:
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