Fueled by a mission to protect the wild, Janelle Kaczmarzewski leads her life on the cornerstone of community outreach and educational reform. Charting unknown territory, teaching conservation and health awareness to children and adults, and joining the fight to dig up lost UXO bombs are upon the extensive resume that consume the daily life of the ‘Moto Gypsy’. Armed with the knowledge of wildlife conservation and ecology, and a heart filled with compassion, she aims to equip all those who walk her path and beyond with a better understanding of how they can contribute to a more positive global impact - from paw to footprint.
Here at Daughters of the Road, we constantly seek inspiration from the multitudes of movers and shakers across the world. Janelle (@motogypsy) caught our eye from the get-go. Her daily conversation boasts of light and love, a positive angle that isn’t expressed nearly enough in the motorcycle community.
She has been riding her enduro through Laos over the past several years, dedicating her life to multiple projects benefiting humanity and wildlife at large. From teaching children about the importance of their local wildlife, to charting unknown territories on her motorcycle to dig up missing UXO bombs - every day is an adventure and an opportunity to leave a lasting impact on not only the communities around her, but the world at large.
We loved how Janelle told her story throughout this interview, so we decided to let her tell the story this time..
We’ve been following along with your journey and are inspired by the work that you do in the motorcycle industry, but also wildlife/humanitarian activism at large. Can you expand on how you chose this path to fight for these causes on two wheels in a foreign country? Why Laos?
Sometimes in life our path chooses us! I’ve been inspired by animals, our planet, and the universe since I was a very young girl. I always knew I wanted to explore far off places and such adventures are inspired by the animals that live in those places.
I first learned about wildlife trafficking while studying evolutionary biology and ecology at the University of North Carolina in Asheville. It ignited this flame inside my chest and I just knew there was no question of whether or not I would devote my path to ending this dark trade. I chose Asia because it is the heartbeat of the illegal wildlife trade.
What (if any) apprehensions did you have before setting out on your trip?
I was terrified when I first set out to leave the US. I had never been on the other side of the planet and I was going with no plans to return and not much money in my pocket. Stepping away from security is hard, but I’m pretty good at pushing myself through my fears because I’ve only ever felt more alive and become a better person by doing so.
What was your life like prior to your travels?
I feel as though I’ve lived multiple lifetimes already! Back in school while studying endless hours for my science degree, I was also married to a Brazilian with a heart-of-gold and living a very domestic lifestyle. I prepared our meals and mowed the lawn. But I ended up with a longing that I couldn’t really articulate. Now, seeing the lifestyle I’ve chosen for myself now, it is no surprise why I felt so discontent in my routine.
Did you ride motorcycles before traveling to Laos? If so, what model? Which motorcycles do you tend to find yourself more attracted to?
I didn’t come from a family who was into motorcycles; I became infatuated with them as a teenager, wanting to go as fast as possible. The first loan I ever took out was for a Kawasaki Ninja and I rode it all over the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
I love the contrast from riding an enduro in Laos on endless dirt roads to my higher displacement pavement cruisers in the states. However, I currently love tracker/scrambler style bikes and at the same time have fantasies of riding a chopper through the deserts of the American SW.
What is the two-wheeled culture like in Laos? How would you contrast it to the moto culture of westernized societies?
It is so different! Everyone rides motorbikes there, so in a sense the roads are safer. People are used to seeing them on the road and the law states that if there is a collision, the larger of the vehicles is at fault. However, “big” (175cc and over) bikes are pretty rare, especially in Laos. In fact, Laos just lifted the ban on the importation of motorcycles over 250cc in 2014. Also, there isn’t so much in the way of driver education and driving school… you generally just purchase your license. So people do some pretty crazy things, especially because there isn’t enforcement of traffic laws outside of the handful of cities there are in Laos.
What is it like riding a motorcycle in Laos? What specific obstacles have you encountered while riding/owning a motorcycle in Laos? Do you maintain your own motorcycle while traveling?
Riding in remote parts of Laos is like the wild wild west, only extremely different, culturally.
There isn’t much in the way of comfort or convenience – no temperature controlled rest stops, endless dust or mud (depending on the season), and no reliable communication services.
I maintain my own motorcycle as much as I am able while traveling in Laos, as it is pretty difficult to find someone who has ever seen the type of bikes I’ve been on. I have to carry my own spare parts or plan to visit the capital city, Vientiane, the only place in all of Laos where I can find the necessary parts and knowledge for my bike. On my Yamaha Serow, I had to replace the Cambodian Frankenstein-clutch, and I was able to find the part in Vientiane and had it done there (thank you, Fuark!).
I once had my sprockets and chain replaced in a city in the south of Laos and if I hadn’t kept my eye on the whole process there were a few things that would have caused damage over the long run (like not aligning the rear wheel). They aren’t used to these bikes so you have to be really careful and it is just usually better to do it yourself. They are pros at changing tires though and as long as you keep a spare with you at all times, you can have that done at any roadside shack.
What special programs have you been a part of in fighting wildlife trafficking? What do they focus on, and how do they accomplish their goals?
The fight against wildlife trafficking is multifaceted and therefore so is the approach to combat it.
I’ve been working with a wildlife conservation organization, Project Anoulak of Conservation Laos, founded by an incredibly dedicated and at woman, Camille Coudrat. Anoulak means conservation in Lao and this organization acts on four pillars: research, education, capacity building, and patrolling. Camille is a hardcore scientist and asked me to help with the education outreach program delivered to the schools within the protected forest.
I’ve been working on teaching resources that can be delivered by Lao teachers to their students and is therefore implemented into the existing curriculum. The key is to give the program longevity by empowering existing teachers, trainers, and classroom leaders to pass on the knowledge and make it a part of their learning agenda.
Often we’ve found that the locals within these remote forest villages are not aware of the global significance of specific wildlife found there. They’ve been surprised to learn that much of their wildlife is endemic, meaning it is found nowhere else in the world. This awareness brings them pride and respect for what they have, and I hope to pass along a hefty dose of curiosity and compassion, too.
We read that you had a personal encounter with UXO bomb exploding in Laos, what was that like?
This experience literally left me shaking in my boots. I was on this narrow, winding road in the mountains, looking for this mysterious archaeological site I had heard about while at some hi-so party I didn’t belong at.
One of my first days in Laos's capital city, Vientiane, I attended a fancy-lawyer-cocktail-party where I felt incredibly out of place in borrowed clothing. My hands were peeling from rock climbing and my nails dirty with engine grease (my bike had broken down on the way into the city). Unsurprisingly, I wound up talking with the most underdressed person there; a t-shirt wearing archaeologist from Oz. He told me about his very exciting, upcoming project to begin archaeological research at one of the seven (out of 90) Plain of Jars sites safely cleared of UXOs (unexploded ordinance, these ones are dropped by the USA). The Plain of Jars is an archaeological landscape in Laos, dating back to the Iron Age some 2000 years ago. They still don't know what these prehistoric, megalithic vessels were used for. They are theorized to be a part of burial practices, but myth has it that giants used them to store their rice wine.
I was asked if I could head there to do some reconnaissance to see if the project site, known as Site 52, could be reached by dirtbike.
There is nowhere in the Xieng Khwang province, where the plain of jars are located, that is safe to put a shovel in the ground unless it has been designated safe and cleared of dangerous explosives.
With approximately 300 new incidents per year (mostly farmers, though 40% of victims are children), Laos is still haunted by past conflict everyday. Thankfully, there are organizations like the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), helping to make people safe from dangerous explosives -- saving lives and building futures.
My time in the Plain of Jars started out utterly unsuccessful, as my hunt for Site 52 led me four different directions within a 50km radius. The sheer amount of conflicting information is still hard to fathom, even from local guides and reputable sources. On my second day of searching, I realized just how far I was going to have to push myself out of my comfort zone in order to find these mysterious relics. With the sound of bombs exploding nearby and the instantaneous hope that each boom was an intentional detonation, I carried a sort of nervousness with me that I haven't ever felt before. I stopped on the trail and took some time, listening to the insects, admiring the white blossoms on the trees, and eating some fruit I packed along.
I could turn back… I could return to the safety of the town and perhaps be more certain of my path. The landscape was beautiful in its vastness and simultaneously daunting in its remoteness.
Do I choose comfort in safety or do I move forward into the adventure?
I had a roasted coconut in my bag and became determined to crack into its sweet water among the ancient stone jars I was seeking.
What plans of action/programs are you currently taking/participating in to remove the UXO bombs from Laos?
With over 80,000,000 UXO still in the ground, this is a massive undertaking with multiple organizations working to clear UXO, and yet, even with all of these crews it has been said that it will take nearly 100 years before they are cleared.
The Mines Advisory Group (MAG) is the one organization that I would regularly see out hard at work. I almost always saw their trucks and teams alongside the road and I had learned about the education projects they were implementing to make children (and adults) aware of the lurking dangers. Unfortunately, children will often see something shiny in the ground and want to dig it up.
Have you experienced any backlash while traveling by motorcycle in Laos, or is it accepted as independent mobility for women as well as men?
I’ve had more than one older Lao woman tell me that my life was in danger and that a “bad man” would come and slit my throat and steal my motorcycle. This, however, isn’t anything I’ve ever heard of happening and never felt any man, despite his moral code, threatened my life in any way.
This isn’t so different from the fears expressed by those in the States, by people who watch the news too often and fear for my safety as a woman. I believe that love and compassion prevails and I feel welcomed in the world. I am safe and smart in the risks I take and would encourage any woman to travel and live the same way.
What is a typical day in Janelle’s life like?
You know those days when you’re covered in dust and riding down an endless dirt road, dodging pigs, chickens, and cattle, and a roadside fresh coconut stand feels like it manifested directly from heaven into your reality? Or when the map definitely shows a road but when you arrive, all you see is an expanse of river and are perplexed until a small bamboo barge pulls up and beckons you and your motorcycle to come aboard? Or when you get woken up by a farmer at dawn wondering who/what you are and why you’re hammock camping on his land (you’d hear “Sabaidee” which means “hello?” in Lao)?
A day in my life in Laos could certainly be like that…
There is no typical day, honestly. Some days it feels like I’m forever on the road, or I could be in the company of friends in tiny a Lao town in the mountains, or endlessly trekking through the forest with education supplies to reach schools in order to deliver our Wildlife Education Outreach Program, or even just hiding out near a cave, trying to stay cool in the heat of the day.
There are certain things that I make time for almost every day, such as drinking tea. I love herbal teas and am often ready with my own teas and cup to see where I might find the boiling water. Often it is from the large metal kettle that is sitting directly on the fire in almost every Lao home.
What pieces of advice would you impart on the next generation of women that are interested in fighting for a cause in a foreign country while on two wheels?
I would impart the eloquent words of Edward Abby:
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. ...where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you -- beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.”
At times, you may feel lost, weary, and scared. Know that you are not alone in this world and things will likely not work out how you’d planned or hoped. Your bike may chronically fail and/or you will likely not make it to your intended destination - but wherever you wind up is exactly where you are supposed to be. Open yourself up to those experiences and feel welcomed in the world. People are our mirrors, so sending out love and compassion will reflect that back to you.
What's next for you? Any long term initiatives or goals you are currently working towards?
I have dreams of exploring a different part of the world to learn more about the wildlife trafficking situation there and the solutions being explored and implemented to fight it. I would like to join their forces and gain more knowledge, experience, and skill to bring back with me to Laos.
To read more about the UXO removal and find out how you can help Janelle in her efforts, please visit
https://www.generosity.com/community-fundraising/uxo-in-laos-awareness-removal-hope. To follow along on the amazing day-to-day journey, follow @motogypsy on Instagram!