Nicole Heker, 26, recently wrapped a 507-day, 6,351-mile solo journey on two wheels from the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai to the southern Portuguese city of Lagos. The Princeton, N.J., native pedaled on paved highways, gravel roads, dirt trails, and horse paths. She pushed her bicycle through sand and up and down steep steps. And, for a few miles here and there, she hitched rides with friendly strangers or was given rides by silent security officers.
"If you had told me when I was 17 or 18 that one day I would be riding a bicycle across the world, I'd have said there was no possible way. I'd never even owned a bike before this trip," Heker said during an interview conducted via WhatsApp as she decompressed in Portugal.
The trip was in part about "unlearning," the idea that you should forget what you think you know, putting aside cultural myths and societal expectations. That advice, which Heker picked up from one of her professors at Penn State University, is what inspired her to move to Thailand to teach English after her 2015 graduation.
It was also a fund-raising mission for Happy Kids Center, a nonprofit based in Bhaktapur, Nepal, for which Heker is director of development. Its managing director is Ellen Carney, also a 26-year-old from the Philadelphia region who had been teaching English in Bangkok when she and Heker met.
"Nicole and I always say that we're weirdly the same person," said Carney, 26, who is back in the United States. "It's all happened very fluidly. We work together so easily."
'HELP AFTER DEVASTATION'
Both women had been looking for ways to help Nepal after it was struck by back-to-back earthquakes in April and May 2015 that had killed almost 9,000 people, injured more than 20,000 others, and crushed infrastructure throughout the country.
So Heker was thrilled when she heard about Happy Kids Center. Founded by three foreigners, the organization was a place for local children to play after hours spent begging or sifting through trash piles looking for items to resell.
"Nicole put something on Facebook about it, and said she was going there to see what was going on," Carney said. "I decided to go with her."
Heker and Carney were both 22 when they arrived in Bhaktapur in 2016. The Happy Kids Center was a semi-permanent bamboo structure with a limited mission. The children had rough lives, and it showed in their thin frames, glassy eyes, and dripping noses.