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Ishbel Holmes: ‘It was never about how far or how fast I was going to go’

29th January 2019
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Ishbel Holmes is “World Bike Girl” - an apparently fearless solo cyclist and adventurer, who has made it her mission to travel the world, liberating stray animals and fighting social injustices along the way.

All images courtesy of Ishbel Holmes 

Her story is an incredible one: half Iranian and half Scottish, a childhood marred by poverty, a stint on the streets as a teenager, foster care, a period spent as part of the Iranian women’s velodrome team… and now an author, activist, blogger, traveller, mental health advocate, animal-rescuer and campaigner for the rights of women everywhere from Iran to Bolivia.

I catch her on the phone as she’s moving into her new house with her dog, “covered in white paint”, just in time for Christmas. It’s an incongruous moment to catch her - about to set down roots, after years of what seems like a highly nomadic, home comfort-free, lifestyle.

It’s unlikely that her new home will stop her venturing off across continents, though. Her stories run the gamut from Brazil to the Syrian border; from Bolivia to a glacier in the Andes. Speaking to Ishbel is a conflux of urgent ideas that stream down the phone; an urge to tell stories of hope and resilience from every corner of the globe. Speaking to her offers the distinct feeling that there isn’t enough time, or enough breath, to get across the richness of the stories that she wants to tell, or the work she wants to do. It’s a big, sweeping tale that takes in continents, and the power of human resilience, and miles upon miles of dusty road, traversed by tyre tracks.

A bicycle, from the beginning, has been at the heart of Ishbel’s story.

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Mental health and cycling

It was early poverty, and a realisation that the freedom offered by cycling could assist with her precarious mental health, that led Ishbel to realise the true value of having a bicycle at her side.

She tells me that her family relied on cycling as their main form of transport (“because of the poverty that we were in”) and that it was when she started sixth form college that she finally got a bike of her own, second-hand, to avoid having to pay train fare - and that “It wasn’t until I was older that I realised that that was probably why I was able to cope the way that I did with my mental health.”

Ishbel calls the transformative power of cycling “amazing”, in terms of how it aided her long-held mental health problems - something that had led her, at the age of just 11, to almost give up on life.

“I felt that I couldn’t write the book (“Me, My Bike and a Street Dog Called Lucy”, published last year) unless I was being completely honest,” she says. “I suffered from mental health as a child, but at the time no one was talking about mental health - even the concept of a child’s mental health, nevermind an adult’s.

“So I thought everybody was like this; I thought I was normal. I was extremely anxious as a child, I hated myself. By the time I was 11 years old I just wanted to die, really.”

The benefits of physical movement and exercise as an immediate coping mechanism, she says, can’t be overstated: “If you’re under any sort of stress whatsoever, or you’re worrying about something, or you’ve had a bad day, go out for a bike ride, or go out for a brisk walk. It’s one of the best things that you can do for yourself in that moment. It’s science; endorphins are released in your body - you feel happier. You’re brighter; you’re more aware. It lifts your mood.”

As someone who has battled mental health demons and appears - if we can ever say that - to have come out of the other side, she’s passionate about the value of openness: “It’s so important that people are speaking out,” she says. “If you had a sprained wrist you’d go to the doctor, you’d mention it to your friends…

“Everyone, at some point in their life, will experience mental health difficulties.”

It’s important to realise, she says, that “You can manage it; you can get better. But to do that you first need to be secure enough to acknowledge it, to go out and get the help, and actually manage it.

“That’s why I’m speaking out, because that’s what I believe in.”

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A female athlete in Iran

Growing up in Scotland but being half-Iranian (on her father’s side) led to an odd state of affairs for Ishbel as an adult. She explains to me the odd diplomatic loophole that kept her out of the country for so long.

“The Iranian law is that you have the nationality of your father, regardless of your country of birth,” she says. “Although I had never set foot in Iran, they wouldn’t allow me to get a tourist visa to visit because they said I was Iranian.

“And I fought for years, because I didn’t want to go in as an Iranian citizen, because then I gave up my British rights. Just in case anything happened.”

It seems like a wise decision - but of course, when you’re an explorer at heart, being indefinitely severed from half your heritage is unlikely to sit well forever. It was this curiosity that led Ishbel, eventually, to take the plunge and visit Iran as a citizen.

As a velodrome sprinter already, her time in Iran later led her onto a place in the Iranian national cycling team - something that, as a woman living and functioning in the country for the first time, “was a whole different ball game… really tough.”

Depending on our person contexts, we might see Iran as a restrictive state, a haven of safety in the otherwise volatile Middle East, a historically fascinating piece of history - or through any number of other lenses. For Ishbel, life there was a culture shock.

“Lots of things that we take for granted here…” she says, trailing off before recalling specific events: “You’re not allowed to sing in public… I remember being surrounded by the Iranian police, being told to get off my bicycle. And I knew instantly that I would go to prison before any man was going to tell me I wasn’t going to ride my bike.

“It’s not just the laws that are in place, it’s also social conditioning. It’s not good to be seen as a woman laughing in public.”

She tells stories about being on the cycling team, including the women having their phones confiscated so they weren’t “distracted”, being thrown off courts during training because the men’s team wanted to practice, not being paid expenses - and, of course, pushing back strongly as a woman who had grown up in the UK.

“When you speak out as a woman in Iran they’ll group against you and try to put you back in your place,” Ishbel says. “It’s getting to the point now, in Iran, that rather than speaking out and saying “We want to have the choice to wear the hijab...””

Again, she trails off before clarifying what she means: “It’s not saying that it’s wrong, it’s saying that not all women believe in it. But you have women in the square who just stand and wave a white flag. They don’t speak out; that’s all they do. They wave a white flag saying they’re in support of this and they’re arrested.

“If you speak out in Iran you have to leave, or you’re going to prison.

“The punishment is death if you’re found to be gay in Iran. I’ve got a friend that had to flee over the mountains into Turkey because word got out that she was gay. She had to flee straightaway; there was no choice.”

She’s clear, when discussing the multiple social injustices that are still commonplace in the country, that there’s a big difference for those who live there and those that visit as tourists.

“In all my public speaking I promote Iran as one of the top destinations to go as a tourist,” she says. “It’s the closest most people will ever get to what it’s like to be a celebrity. You’ll be treated like a king or a queen in Iran. They know what people think about their country, and they’re so grateful that you’re visiting. It’s totally safe as a tourist.”

She is talking, she tells me, about being a woman in Iran - working, dressing, speaking, laughing, riding a bicycle - something that she saw frequently being restricted whilst she was there, and afterwards.

She’s reluctant to judge, though, without reminding us to consider our own fragile contexts - and our own history, as well as that of other countries: “Freedom of speech doesn’t exist in Iran, but that’s the same as China,” she says. “They don’t believe in freedom of speech; they believe it causes problems in society.  

“Countries are all in different stages of their development, and it’s easy to label that. Even in Britain, just over a hundred years ago women were fighting to be able to ride their bicycles and things like that. We didn’t have the vote. Over there they label it as religion…”

As ever though, Ishbel is hopeful about the future - despite speaking out against the treatment of women in Iran to such an extent that she now can’t visit without risking being imprisoned. As she continues to campaign from elsewhere, she emphasises how essential it is that others take up the cause too.

“There’s a huge movement going on in Iran just now,” she says. “I believe that women are going to change the future of Iran… women are connected. When you’ve got women who connect together as one voice for a common vision it’s so powerful, and I believe that changes are going to come with this, and as a result of that there will be changes; other groups will form. It’s just about time.

“It’s really important that people outside of Iran, people in other countries, who are fighting for fundamental human rights that we take for granted, that we are supporting them, for example if there are hashtag campaigns… the people that are doing the fighting inside the country - I don’t mean physical fighting - they can see the hashtags and all the people around the world who are supporting them.”

She’s vocal about the value of social media (something that she teaches whilst on the road, alongside photography, in order to continue funding her travels), and namechecks My Stealthy Freedom - a video campaign started by journalist Masih Alinejad in 2016, which saw a group of Iranian women walking through the streets with their heads uncovered in protest against the social pressure to cover their hair - as a strong example of the power that social media can weild. Some videos featured Iranian men who appeared indifferent to the protest, directly refuting the Iranian government’s position that women who walked in public with their heads uncovered would be in danger. My Stealthy Freedom’s Facebook page currently has more than a million followers.  

“What that does is offer protection, because obviously their leaders and their security are going to think twice about people in their custody being treated badly if the world is watching,” Ishbel says, before reflecting on how her stint in Iran opened her eyes and led to unexpected consequences - some life-affirming, like cycling around the world, and others devastating, like not realistically being able to return.

“When I started racing for the Iranian national women’s team I wasn’t interested in women’s rights at all, because I personally hadn’t been affected,” she says. “I did begin to speak out whilst I was in Iran, but it became very difficult for me and I left Iran to begin cycling the world solo. But that inspired me.

“I can go to Iran now, but if I go to Iran I’ll face 20 years in prison.”  

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Campaigning

Whilst Ishbel was cycling across Bolivia solo in 2016, the supreme leader of Iran - where she had spent time on the national velodrome team - issued a fatwa against women riding their bikes in public.  

She organised “what I thought was going to be a little press conference” in response, but “all the networks turned up”... and suddenly she was speaking out about the issue, supporting the #IranianWomenLoveCycling campaign (part of the aforementioned My Stealthy Freedom) and spreading the message as she cycled onwards from Bolivia to Rio de Janeiro.

The response was more than she could have expected: “Police, firefighters, people in the public, students - every was holding up the signs I had, #IranianWomenLoveCycling, and I was taking pictures of that and sharing it on Twitter so that the women who were out fighting for their right to ride their bikes could see that people around the world were supporting them,” she says.

She might’ve been campaigning for the rights of women who wanted to cycle on the other side of the world, but it didn’t mean her time for women in South America - another notoriously suppressive region for women’s rights - was lessened.

“In Bolivia there’s a women’s strike movement just now,” she tells me. “It’s awful - it’s in the early stages, and it’s about a women’s right not to be raped.

“When I was in Bolivia I was hanging out with rights groups specifically for that… for murder too, because women were being murdered and the men who were doing it would just have to disappear for a month and when they came back they wouldn’t be charged.”

And suddenly we’re back discussing the Middle East again, a mile-a-minute, cycling along the Syrian border, where Syrian war brides line up to be “sold for $100 to be the second or third wives of Turkish men.”

For a lot of them, she tells me, “there wasn’t even any money - it was just in exchange for shelter and food.”

It’s hard to see a positive to this level of desperate situation, despite Ishbel’s generally hopeful demeanor.  

“When we talk about women’s rights;” she reminds me, “the women in Bolivia, they genuinely are fighting for their right not to be raped.”

Maybe awareness, and listening to campaigners and aid workers that have witnessed war-time and atrocities and day-to-day injustices firsthand, and sharing the stories of survivors, is the first step.

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Rescuing animals

“I only ever had one murder threat,” Ishbel tells me, “in Turkey. It was actually quite a serious threat I had… but,” she continues, cheerfully, “it only happened one time. The rest of the time people receive me so well. I’ve always got loads of invites. Everywhere I travel now, local animal groups are always in contact before I even arrive there.”

The interest in animals, and the mission to rescue them, appears to have come somewhat out of the blue - although as she tells me later there may be callbacks to her childhood in Scotland and her experiences of being fostered, and running away from foster care, as a teenager.  

What she learnt from rescuing animals across the world led Ishbel into public speaking - and realising that the numbers of stray animals she was encountering were rarely down to careless owners.

“I was being asked to give talks about the street dogs and what I was learning in other countries,” she tells me. “A lot of the problems come down to population control - they genuinely do care, they just don’t have the resources to deal with it. In a lot of these countries the people don’t want to kill the dogs, but they’re looking at programmes, which is more long term. In the meantime you’ve got higher numbers of dogs on the streets, which can cause problems… Obviously if they pack up they can be aggressive.

“I’ve had some amazing experiences. Human kindness! I was sitting on a pavement in Brazil outside a vet’s because I had arrived with two dogs in my trailer and the vet’s was closed - and one of the dog had been shot. I didn’t know he had been shot at the time - I knew he had extensive injuries and I was sitting on the pavement, because what else could I do? He just had so many fleas and ticks… I was sitting on the pavement overnight with these two dogs, and one of them started going around the locals, and the locals started coming with blankets. And a lot of them stayed.”

Ishbel explains that she never thought she’d actually adopt a dog, because of her semi-nomadic lifestyle, but “fell in love” with a sick dog called Maria who had ringworm (and passed it on to Ishbel herself). Ishbel’s followers rallied around to raise money for Maria’s treatment, and since then they’ve walked the west Highland Way and cycled between London and Glasgow for a book tour. As we speak, they’re moving into their new house - splattered, decoratively, in white paint.

Now Ishbel volunteers at shelters and goes out with frontline animal rescue groups, alongside her photography and social media teaching.

“Rescuing that first street dog on that first journey (in Turkey) was the first time I’d experienced unconditional love in my life,” she says. “That was the first time I’d identified with another soul. When I was 16 I’d been homeless in Scotland, and I’d spent some years homeless in Scotland. I’d been in foster care, I’d run away from foster care, so that for me is why I am where I am today. That was the start of everything.”

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Finding solace

Ishbel might have faced many challenges - depression, homelessness and escaping jail in Iran being just a handful of them - but being 20 minutes from death, 5000m up the Andes on the second biggest glacier in the Southern Hemisphere, in a freak snowstorm with a faulty tent and a large asthma problem, might top the list in terms of pure, gruelling perseverance.

She had a fool-proof tool to get push through a situation that could’ve taken her life, though.

“I’ve always had a bike by my side, for my whole life,” she reminds me. “I just knew that if I could get back on this bike I’d be ok, it didn’t matter how sick I was. My body would just know how to peddle, even if it was really slowly.

“When I set off to cycle the world it was never about how far I was going to go; it was never about how fast I was going to go. It was never about that.

“It was always about me using my bicycle as a means to really experience the world and the cultures and really get into the countries, because for me a fully loaded bicycle as a means of transport is the best way I’ve ever come across to break down the barriers from being a tourist to the actual local people.”

And essentially, it gave her a lifeline when she needed it desperately - on more than one occasion.

On solo adventure, she advises “every woman out there to try it once”, citing the hospitality that women face around the world and the protection often offered to female travellers in countries where it might be least expected. Start small, she says - wild camp close to home, in a place where you know you’ll have full phone signal, and where everyone you love knows where you are.   

“There’s a reason why we’re doing it,” she says, “and it’s because there’s a huge difference in experiencing a country by yourself or with a group. Even with one other person, you’re never going to get the experience that you get with solo travel. You’re so enveloped within the culture.”

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Me, My Bike and a Street Dog Called Lucy  is out now, priced £9.99, from www.stanfords.co.uk    

Ishbel Holmes will be speaking at Stanfords’ Travel Writers Festival at Destinations: the Holiday and Travel Show, 31st January – 3rd February 2019 at Olympia London.




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