Cycling for change
In today’s world, people are looking for more and more purpose in their job, their life and even their holidays. Whether it be trekking a mountain, exploring an uninhabited island or ‘giving back’ in a developing community, experience holidays are becoming more and more popular. This is a story about how my adventure holiday turned into a ‘once in a lifetime’ adventure- and why my life will never be the same again.
In 2009, whilst living in London, I chose to cycle to Paris by myself, instead of spending the long weekend with mates drinking in Spain. It was an odd decision for me and one that justifiably invited ridicule and mockery from friends, especially because I didn’t even own a bicycle. I had no idea that this initial drive to seek adventure would lead to the birth of my very own social enterprise some five years later- Social Cycles.
Social Cycles hosts small groups of cycling adventure enthusiasts through Cambodia & Vietnam, in a journey that carefully balances ethical research and local impact with cycling and site seeing. Along the way, riders get the chance to interact and connect with local grassroots NGOs, as well as learn about specific cultural issues regarding poverty in developing countries. At the end of each adventure (usually two weeks), riders get to fund a project as a group that they feel is the most efficient, sustainable and has the highest chance of success, without promoting dependency.
2009 seems like a million years ago now. I look back at that cycle trip to Paris from London and laugh at how naive and unprepared I was. I didn’t even take a puncture repair tyre with me, just a paper map! Saying that, it was an incredibly rewarding experience of freedom and achievement.
After another 12 months working in a suit, living in the City of London, I yearned for that freedom again and spent my next holiday cycling from London to Germany. It was this trip that opened up my world. Crossing borders on almost a daily basis, through France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, gave me a sense of unlimited opportunity. The world was in front of me and I wanted to see how far I could go. It was then that I knew I would attempt to cycle half way around the world, from London, home to Melbourne.
I gave myself 12 months to plan and for my bonus to come in. After excitingly telling friends about my ambition, they all seemed to ask if I was doing it for charity. Honestly, it hadn’t ever occurred to me. It didn’t really make any difference to me as I was going to do the trip anyway, so I figured… why not.
However, this led to a more complicated question. How do you choose what charity to donate to? After doing a little research and meeting representatives from the bigger international charities, I felt really uncomfortable about their lack of transparency, but now felt bound to find a charity to raise money for. So I decided to start my own- The Kindness of Strangers. This gave me the opportunity to not only raise funds, but have influence over the distribution of those funds. It also gave me the responsibility to investigate and learn so much more along the journey home. After two years and two months, 26 countries crossed and over 28,000km in the saddle, The Kindness of Strangers funded 13 projects via local NGOs in six countries. This learning and incredibly rewarding experience would change me forever.
Upon returning home to Melbourne in 2013, I fell back into old habits and re-entered the corporate world, swapping my shorts & t-shirt for a suit & tie once again. But the bug was within and the suit was a façade. Whilst talking to a co-worker about my adventures, she mentioned that she was inspired to do something similar and sign up to volunteer at an orphanage for two weeks in Cambodia. Through the ensuing conversation as to why that form of volunteering is not always the best way to support local communities, I thought, rather than try and convince her, I could show her. And essentially, this was the birth of Social Cycles.
Social Cycles works directly with grassroots NGOs in order to fund projects that are income generating, sustainable and community based. These are some of the key values I learnt from my time at The Kindness of Strangers. Whilst we aim to have an ethical and sustainable impact on local communities, the primary role of Social Cycles as a social enterprise is to have an educational impact on the rider themselves.
My belief is that the best way to make a positive difference abroad is to spend the time talking to local experts and learn about the issues first hand by people living those experiences. The knowledge that you obtain from listening to their stories will help you to understand the impact of your volunteering or donation, so that you can choose educated ways to make a positive difference. This is my learning from two years on the bike. Social Cycles aims to replicate that learning in two week adventures for riders.
The next trip leaves in June for Cambodia (17th to 26th). Further adventures planned for Cambodia and Vietnam in October and December.