As a travel writer, I’d run into this issue before: What happens when you discover a story that’s not located in a place where people actually want to travel? In the past, I’d reluctantly given up the story idea, no matter how compelling. Because in order for me to get paid by magazines to travel and write about it—my main source of income—the destination needs to be one that other people are interested in visiting. The problem this time was, I had a story idea that I couldn’t let go, despite the fact that it was in Afghanistan.
I first heard about the women of the Afghan National Cycling Federation in an email from a friend, Shannon Galpin, who ran a nonprofit that aimed to improve the lives of women in some of the worst places in the world to be female, including Afghanistan. “There’s a road bike race team here!” Galpin had emailed me from Kabul, where she was doing aid work, in the fall of 2012. She wrote that she’d met one of the team members—a man who’d been her server at dinner—and that she was going to try to drop in on one of their training rides before she left.
Her next email, a couple days later: “So I met them, and their coach. And get this—he told me there are WOMEN on the team. Can you believe it?”
Photo Credit: Claudia Lopez
I couldn’t. And neither could Galpin. In her seven years of humanitarian work in Afghanistan, she’d never seen a woman on a bike. In fact, in 2009, when she brought her mountain bike to Afghanistan and biked 100 miles across the Panjshir Valley, she was said to be the first woman ever to do so.
Women racing bikes in Afghanistan was a groundbreaking story. Under Taliban control in the late 90s, Afghan women were not allowed to participate in sports, let alone engage in the obscene act of straddling a bike saddle. Even today, it’s not culturally acceptable for an Afghan woman to ride. Married women don’t leave the house except to run errands like grocery shopping. And when they are outside the home, they don a burqa, a billowy garment that covers them from head to toe, with a small peephole for the eyes. Try pedaling a bike in one of those.
It’s not much better for unmarried women. Afghan girls learn to play some sports in grade school, like volleyball and tennis, but once they are of childbearing age, athletics are no longer considered an appropriate use of their time.
In contrast, both Galpin and I had taken up cycling as adults. And both of us had had empowering experiences with the bike that went far beyond the physical. Mountain biking had given Galpin an outlet to process having been raped as a younger woman, and inspired her to start her non-profit Mountain2Mountain. For me, road-bike racing (at the amateur level) had given me the courage to leave a good job in the technology sector to pursue a far less reliable career as a magazine writer, and the confidence to finally leave a failing marriage.
Galpin and I weren’t the only ones who felt we’d personally advanced as a result of taking up cycling. The bike has been considered a catalyst for change ever since the turn of the 19th century, when it played a supporting role in the women’s suffrage movement. As Susan B. Anthony famously said, in 1896, about bicycling, “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”
Photo Credit: Claudia Lopez
How might the bike create positive change in Afghanistan? The question had me hooked, both as a writer, and as a human being. I imagined traveling to Afghanistan to meet the women of the Afghan National Cycling Federation, interviewing them, and even participating in a training ride, to report stories for U.S. media.
Reality check: It would have to be on my own dime. Afghanistan doesn’t have a Tourism Ministry that funds travel journalist visits. Nor would “Bike Touring in Taliban Country,” or “Couple’s Weekend Getaway in Kabul” appeal to any of the major travel magazines, i.e., the ones with budget to cover a writer’s travel expenses, on top of purchasing the story. The major news organizations, like the BBC and the New York Times, have their own reporters on the ground in places like Kabul. They wouldn’t pay to send a freelance writer; they’d just snatch up the story for themselves.
Meanwhile, Shannon was planning another trip to Kabul, in late April, to meet the women and deliver donated carbon-fiber race bikes, cycling gear, and apparel that she intended to amass through her non-profit. She agreed to let me tag along for the first 10 days of her trip—if I could pay my own way. I ran some numbers:
- $1800 – Airfare to Kabul
- $600 – Hotel
- $600 – Shared costs of a van, driver, and translator
- $215 – Emergency medical evacuation insurance
- $160 – Application fee for visa for travel to Afghanistan
Total = $3,375, plus the cost of eating out for 10 days in Kabul. At the time, I was making about $40,000 gross. My travel expenses would be 10% of my annual net income. Ouch.
Photo Credit: Claudia Lopez
I knew that I’d sell some stories to help offset the expenses—a profile on the team for ESPN, a personal essay about my experience for Women’s Adventure, a news blurb on National Geographic’s adventure blog—but the odds were against breaking even. Plus, there was the opportunity cost, the income I gave up by choosing to travel to Afghanistan instead of working on stories that actually made me money. In my head, I knew the decision to go to Afghanistan didn’t make financial sense.
Six weeks before the trip, Shannon emailed me that three of the women from the team had just returned to Afghanistan from New Delhi, where they’d competed in the 33rd Annual Asian Cycling Championships. It marked the first time in history that Afghanistan fielded a women’s bike race team. When I got to the end of her email, I realized I was holding my breath. I exhaled, feeling goosebumps all over. Not only was it a historic event, but it felt like the political manifestation of everything bicycling meant to me, both as a woman and as an athlete. It was suddenly clear that I had to go to Afghanistan. The story meant more to me than money.
Photo Credit: Deni Béchard
In retrospect, it’s funny (and a bit scary) how little I thought about my own safety. My go/no-go decision was all about money. That quickly changed once I was on the ground in Afghanistan. Within a couple hours of my arrival, the Taliban launched a Spring Offensive, their term for a series of coordinated attacks around the country. Within the first couple days of my visit, the Taliban had poisoned schoolgirls in the Takhar Province in the north, and murdered scores of workers harvesting crops in a field in the south. In Kabul, car bombs exploded, a plane was shot down, and the Taliban raided a hotel in the same neighborhood as ours, raping an American woman staying there. I felt irrational, or at least ignorant, for traveling there to cover a women’s cycling story. It may have been worth a couple thousand dollars on a credit card, but it wasn’t worth my life.
The women of the Afghan Cycling Federation had made a different decision. They risked their lives every time they trained. I learned that they met in secret at their coach’s home in the city, cramming into his car so he could drive them to a gas station on the outskirts, where fewer eyes were watching. There, the women would secure their helmets over their headscarves, untangle their bikes from the heap in coach’s trunk, check the tire pressure, and finally, set out, riding in a pace line on the highway shoulder. Their coach would follow in his car, in case anyone had a mechanical issue—or was physically assaulted.
Photo Credit: Claudia Lopez
I learned that in February, one of the team’s top riders, Mariam, 22, had started on a training ride and woken up in a hospital bed. A man on a moped had ridden up beside her, verbally assailed her, and then rammed into her. It wasn’t an accident.
When I spoke with Mariam and her teammates, sitting on cushions on the floor in their homes with a translator, they didn’t present themselves as activists, rather as women who loved sports. One had a brother who’d taught her how to ride his bike in the courtyard of their family home. Another was naturally athletic and had heard about the team at the beauty salon where she worked. Another had played volleyball in school and was looking for new physical activity. The women of the Afghan National Cycling Federation recognized that their sport was dangerous, but felt strongly that riding a bike was worth the risk. “When I ride, I feel what it must be like to be a man,” said Sadaf, 17. “Strong and free. It feels like flying.”
When I returned home from Afghanistan, shaken from the experience of living in fear, but deeply moved, I set about writing the stories I’d been assigned. Shortly after they were published, something I hadn’t considered back when I was deliberating the trip happened: All three won prestigious travel writing awards. Then, the essay I wrote for Women’s Adventure, “The Road Not Ridden” was chosen for inclusion in The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 10, the first time one of my stories was anthologized in a book. Finally, the North American Travel Journalists Association named me Travel Writer of the Year.
The trip to Afghanistan ended up costing just shy of $4,000. I did not recoup even half of those expenses in story fees. But I earned two things that money can’t buy: recognition and respect. And although I can’t put a dollar amount on it, I’m pretty sure that my Afghanistan stories had a direct impact on me landing more story assignments, breaking into more magazines, and increasing my annual income by 40% over the next three years.
Photo Credit: Claudia Lopez
Perhaps even better, the women of the Afghan National Cycling Federation were catapulted into mainstream Western media. Today, dozens of news outlets and magazines, from the Atlantic to NPR to the Guardian, regularly report on the team. In 2015, National Geographic named the Afghan women cyclists one of the Adventurers of the Year. In 2016, they were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Afghan Cycles, a feature-length documentary about the women, will premier in 2017.
I’ve realized that not every story’s value can be measured in dollars. Since Afghanistan, I’ve made it a practice to self-fund one passion project each year. Similar to how I budget for taxes, moving a portion of every paycheck into a Tax bucket, I move 5% of every paycheck into a Passion bucket. It generates a couple thousand dollars a year, so I can take a trip without the anxiety of taking on credit card debt. Not every passion trip has been as fabulously successful as Afghanistan, but I haven’t regretted a single one.
Adventure Journalist Jayme Moye writes about human-powered travel and exploration (by foot, ski, bike, and paddle). She is based in Boulder, Colorado.
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