Riding the conflict zone
December 30, 2012
In October 2010, Breckenridge resident and cyclist Shannon Galpin loaded up her supplies, hired a support team and set out to summit a 14,000-foot peak on her single-speed mountain bike.
For two days she pedaled on a dirt road along the banks of a river, surrounded by rugged mountains on all sides, into the depths of an ever-more remote valley. At the end of the second day, hours after leaving the last signs of human life behind her, Galpin reached the base of her ascent and was met with bad news.
“We were told there were gun runners up in the mountains,” Galpin said. “And it changed from an adventure … to something quite different. That would have been reckless to continue.”
A humanitarian and women’s rights advocate, Galpin had been trying to summit not one of her own state’s famous Fourteeners, but Anjuman Pass in the heart of the Panjshir Province in northern Afghanistan, a country where women aren’t allowed to ride bicycles.
Though dangerous and difficult – Galpin rode in 80-degree heat covered from head to toe out of respect for Afghan culture along the sole road at the base of the Panjshir Valley, exposed to threats from above and in the villages ahead – and ultimately cut short, Galpin says the trip was valuable. Men picked up their own bikes and rode alongside Galpin as she and her team passed their villages; young boys tried to race her and a group of construction workers repairing the road at one point along her route took turns riding her bike.
“You’re much more trackable,” she said. “People can drive by in cars and let the village ahead know you’re coming. But at the same time, the reactions we got along the way were so incredible.”
For the last six years, Galpin has pedaled her message and her mission – to create voice and opportunity for women and children in conflict zones – across Afghanistan, from one-on-one conversations in villages to a massive street art exhibition of life-size photographs depicting the many dimensions of daily life in a country usually perceived first and foremost as a place of violence.
“If there’s no public art, people don’t think that things like that can happen or should happen. Like you shouldn’t be able to mountain bike in Afghanistan because it’s a conflict zone,” Galpin said. “But you need to do these things more because it’s a conflict zone. If you just cut off an entire country and take away art and community and sport, all those things that tie us together … you don’t have a country.”
Last month Galpin was recognized for her humanitarian work by National Geographic as one of 10 Adventurers of the Year for 2013, alongside extreme explorers and sportsmen and women who include Felix Baumgartner, the BASE jumper who completed the highest free fall in history earlier this year.
Among Afghans, her work has inspired mixed reactions; some are amazed, others curious and many surprised at what she’s doing. In some of the villages she passes through, the locals have never seen a woman on a bicycle before.
“I had one man say to me, with this very shocked look on his face, how impressed he was, that it takes a lot of intelligence to ride a bike, alluding that that’s why women don’t ride bikes,” she said. “It became an interesting conversation starter.”
Galpin’s story began years before she founded her organization, when violence touched her own life. At 19, she was raped and nearly killed while returning home from work.
“The defining thing was, I was petrified of being labeled a victim,” she said. “If you treat someone like a victim, they will remain a victim. If you treat someone like a leader, like a change-maker, like an activist, they will rise to that.”
More than a decade later, Galpin’s daughter was born. Wanting her child to grow up in a safer and more peaceful world, Galpin decided the time had come to “enter the fight” against gender violence. As she considered how to do that, she found herself drawn to a country that is consistently ranked among the worst and most dangerous places in the world to be a woman.
“Afghan girls have asked me, why are you here? Why do you care?” Galpin said. “What I tell them is, you deserve the same opportunities as my daughter. You don’t deserve less because of geography.”
When her daughter was a toddler, she quit her job, sold her house and dedicated all the resources she had to founding Mountain2Mountain, an organization dedicated to promoting women’s rights, in Afghanistan and in the U.S.
“She went all in and sold everything to make this happen,” said Barry Reese, a member of Mountain2Mountain’s board of directors. “I always ask people at events if there is anything they believe in enough to risk everything. Few ever respond.”
Galpin, now 38 and a single mom, knew when she founded Mountain2Mountain she didn’t want to do what others had done. It wasn’t enough to raise the money to build a school, see the project through and then congratulate herself and move on. She wanted to find ways to facilitate the social change that can take place after the school is built.
In 2008 she funded her first trip to Afghanistan with a photographer, and discovered a country that was far more complex than the one usually depicted in the western media.
“I found a country where the people are incredibly sweet, and incredibly generous and living in devastating circumstances,” she said. “Forty years of war have drastically changed that country. It’s more conservative, more polarized, there is extreme poverty and extreme oppression and yet there are amazing people just wanting to rebuild and move forward.”
Four years after that first trip, in October, Galpin completed a project – one of her organization’s most significant to date – that both captured and explored that initial impression of dimensional and complicated beauty at the heart of conflict.
The photographs were 10 feet tall by 17 feet across. The images lined public streets, showing the bustling streets of Kabul, rolling green hills, a barefaced child in a crowd of burqa-clad women. Confronted with startling images of their own country, Afghans stop to admire the images, touch the fabric on which they’re printed and even take their own photographs alongside them.
Galpin staged five shows, from the edge of a valley on a hilltop in Panjshir to the Kabul Zoo. Thousands of Afghans of all ages gathered to view the photos of their country.
“In the end the goal was to show that art has a place in conflict zones,” Galpin stated on the Mountain2-Mountain website. “That Afghans deserve the same access to art and beauty that we all crave. That shows like this can be done safely and publicly in Afghanistan, and should.”
The public art exhibit took four years to bring to fruition, and was a risky undertaking. Galpin and her team kept plans for the exhibitions secret for security purposes. There was a suicide bombing that killed dozens of people nearby the day they set up one of the exhibitions in a remote village in northern Afghanistan.
Getting the large photo prints into the country was challenging as well.
“The customs agent was hassling her, telling her that she needed to pay a fee for bringing them into the country,” Galpin’s friend Anna Brones, who accompanied her on her most recent trip, remembered. “Shannon threatened to zip open all of the bags and put up all of the photos so that the customs agent could see them. He let us through. I don’t know how many people would challenge an Afghan customs agent, but that’s the kind of attitude that allows her to get a lot done.”
Today, Galpin’s work is focused on empowering women who, like herself, might be perceived as victims, both domestically and internationally.
“Everyone has to put their drop in the bucket,” Galpin said. “But when you’re dealing with the fight for women’s rights, you have women who believe they don’t have a drop to put in. That’s essentially the basis of what we’re doing going forward. That same belief that voice matters, that victims can be the catalyst for change in their communities.”
And at the heart of it all is mountain biking.
Galpin’s next project, set to begin in 2013, is a series of mountain bike camps designed for women who have experienced gender violence. The weeklong excursions, one of which will be held in Breckenridge, will combine mountain biking with evening film showings and lectures.
“It’s not just women in Afghanistan that are abused and violated,” Galpin said. “We have our own urban conflict zones.”
The goal of the camps is to empower a core of women who will be able to return to their respective communities and become women’s rights leaders and advocates, Galpin said.