Sisterhood travelling by bicycles
‘It’s different from being in a car,” the tall blonde, Carlijn Bettink, says. “There’s lots of interaction when you’re on a bike, which is really good for travelling. We’re four girls cycling in the heat and people just enjoy watching. When we try to go up hills, people are always laughing and they all go, ‘You girls are crazy! What are you doing?!’.”
Bettink and her three childhood best friends are cycling to their homeland of the Netherlands from Indonesia on their red tandem bikes. During this 400-day cycling trip, which spans 14,000km, their main mission is to raise awareness on women’s rights across the 22 countries that they will be riding through.
From their starting point in Jakarta, Indonesia, in September, they will continue through Southeast Asia to Central Asia, Western Asia, Eastern Europe and finally Western Europe. Along the way, the four young ladies meet up with local women’s organisations, service clubs, embassies and men, too — all to gain an insight into women’s rights in education, family planning and gender equality in each country. The four were in Bangkok earlier this month.
Growing up in a village in south Holland, 24-year-old Bettink, 23-year-old Lidewij Ponjee, 24-year-old Sophie van Hoof and 24-year-old Monique van der Veeken have known each other since they were five. Since the age of 14, travelling together to a new place became an annual tradition. Even after they’ve moved out of their parent’s homes for university at the age 18, summers were still exclusively reserved for travelling and each other. However, after attending a conference, their annual travelling plans took a different turn.
“We were at a conference together and there were two guys who were telling the public how they cycled for a year to raise awareness for clean drinking water,” says Bettink, who is the president of their organisation, Ride 4 Women’s Rights (R4WR).
“We were really inspired by what these guys did for a good cause and that’s when we started to talk about a potential idea [for this journey]. After thinking about what was important to us, we decided that we wanted to fight for women’s rights. Because of women’s rights, we had the chance to develop, study and do the things that we wanted to do in life.”
It took a whole year before the trip could commence, with much planning, sponsor-hunting, preparing and fund-raising before the girls flew to Indonesia. This route was chosen mainly because it allowed the longest distance to bike, with the girls covering around 80km per day.
Although cycling is a normal mode of transport in the Netherlands, this new trial they’ve put themselves through is in no way easy.
“Our average speed is getting better. At first we started out at 20-25kph, but now it’s improved to 35-30kph on a flat road,” says Van der Veeken. “It’s fun in the sense that your mind isn’t the only thing that’s going through something, since you experience changes with your body, as well.”
When the girls are not cycling, they give talks at various organisations and universities, which is what they hope to continue doing after their trip ends in October next year.
In Thailand, R4WR spoke to students at Webster University in Hua Hin and Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University, as well as met people at the Dutch embassy. As they are armed with just their smartphones and a handful of translating apps, Ponjee giggles, “We have to be really creative”, when coming across people who they cannot communicate with.
Sometimes they finds themselves spending the night at various police stations or fire stations, which they’ve found to be a great way to discuss women’s rights with the men there. Regardless, the girls are not here to preach their message to the world.
“What’s important for us is not to go a country and say, this is what women’s rights are,” emphasises Bettink. “It’s not about our opinion on women’s rights; it’s about what we can collect.”
On their website, which follows their travels, a section is dedicated to portraits of women they’ve talked to along the journey. Bettink says she was particularly surprised to find out that migrant domestic workers were treated very badly in Singapore.
“We went to a project in Singapore and that was interesting because at first you’d think the country is very peaceful, but there’s actually a lot of inequality when you look deeper.
“We also talked to a young woman who was the only female to work at a fire station [in Malaysia]. And she said, ‘Well, because I’m the only girl, I get more motivated to be even better. Of course it’s difficult at times but being a woman in this team makes me feel confident’. It’s nice to hear these stories.”
Ponjee adds excitedly: “One aspect of this is it’s also very empowering for us to hear these stories. Sure we’re cycling, but they are doing this and that and that’s so cool! It’s so brave of them and it’s very empowering for us as well to speak to all these inspirational women.”
The team is keen on keeping an open mind and high spirits to the places they will explore, even controversial countries like Iran.
“Of course, we won’t be wearing this while cycling there!” laughs Van Hoof. “But we talked to the Dutch ambassador in Iran and because you hear a lot of stories in the media about oppression, that makes it even more interesting to go there. We don’t want to rely on the media because most of the time it’s very negative.”
“We’re cycling through Central Asia through countries like Kazhakstan, where nobody knows what’s going on there at all. Then we have more popular destinations like Southeast Asia, but the different unexplored countries are what we hope to create exposure to,” says Ponjee.
Their journey is far from over and the girls have yet to make their way through Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar after Thailand.
“Every country has different problems but we all are women and we’re all connected because we all have the same sort of hopes and dreams in life,” observes Van der Veeken. “It’s all about how it’s so different, but it all comes together in the sense that we want to do and achieve the same things. A lot of people we meet say, ‘Oh, you’re only four girls! Aren’t there any men with you or any crew following?’. We want to show people that you have the power to do it, whether you’re a man or woman.”
“The bottom line is you can do anything if you just put your mind to it,” Ponjee concludes on an enthusiastic note. “Men we meet are all like, wow, strong tough girls! Yep, that’s right — Girl power!”
This news from Bangkok Post