Shannon Galpin has worked and traveled in Afghanistan for 9 years. In this time she’s been a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, as well as launching Combat Apathy and the non-profit Mountain2Mountain which has spearheaded dozens of projects in Afghanistan for women’s rights. In 2009 she became the first person to mountain bike in Afghanistan, and she now supports and trains the first Afghan Women’s National Cycling team who have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She’s authored two books, her memoir, Mountain to Mountain: A Journey of Adventure and Activism for the Women of Afghanistan, and a photography book Streets of Afghanistan.
Where are you right now, and where are you “at” mentally at this current moment?
I’m at home in Breckenridge, Colorado. Exhausted and contemplative. Just back from an amazing roadtrip around Ukraine that was topped off with 4 days at Burgest in Hipoltstein, Germany. After nearly a decade of working in Afghanistan, coupled with a recent brain injury that I’ve recently recovered from has knocked things for a loop, I’m changing some things dramatically in my life.
In the wake of my brain injury, and increased corruption and violence in Afghanistan, I’m scaling back my work in Afghanistan to re-focus on the next generation of activists. Specifically I’m creating a mother-daughter project with my 11-year-old daughter, Devon, called Endangered Activism.
What is your earliest memory of travel?
Camping roadtrips with my family to the Badlands and to the Little Bighorns. Lots of dirt, lots of wildlife, no technology, and no plans beyond campfires and smores each night.
When did you start writing, taking pictures?
I started both more seriously in 2007 as I was divorcing and starting my work in Afghanistan.
Who is your biggest mentor (living or dead)?
In a single sentence or phrase, how would you define your travel style?
Describe your routine, what you did today, and will be doing for the rest of the day.
Coffee is the only constant. Mixed in on a nearly daily basis are; raising my daughter, emails, writing, mountain biking or trail running, brainstorming world domination.
What’s the hardest trip you’ve ever been on?
I think most people would assume one of the 21 trips to Afghanistan. But honestly traveling solo through Syria was my hardest. I traveled there before the conflict, and before I started working in Afghanistan. It was the trip that challenged me the most and inspired me to travel deeper.
How do you choose where you want to go next?
It’s a very fluid process that evolves quickly and generally involves little to no serious planning. I hate structure, even if sometimes I need it. If it excites me and the timing is right, then the rest will work itself out.
What is the trait you look for in travel partners?
What is your biggest guilty pleasure when you travel?
Really great food, I’ll spend the majority of my budget on food. I think the best memories I have of places have food memories attached to them and I love the way food connects you to a place, through its culture, its community, and hopefully the people themselves.
What is the most overblown illusion people have about travel?
That its more complicated that it is. Traveling should be about exploring and experiencing the community and culture, not schedules and timelines. Just go with the flow, make mistakes with local language, get lost, don’t be afraid to just point at a menu and take a chance with what comes at you.
When have you lied as a traveler?
I tend to lie a lot when I travel. I’m a woman, often traveling solo or with my daughter, and am extremely cautious about what information people have about where I am going or what my plans are. It’s more of a trail of misinformation that outright lies.
What would you change if you could go back 10 years ago?
Absolutely nothing. Life is far from perfect, but I’m grateful for where I am at and the lessons I have learned.
What project / photo / travel moment are you the most proud of so far?
Streets of Afghanistan was a life size photography exhibition that I created as a collaboration between Afghan and foreign photographers. It launched in the US, but I took to Afghanistan as a series of pop up street art
installations across Afghanistan.
Who are the heroes you’ve met traveling?
I think we need to redefine ‘hero’ from its narrow label. The biggest heroes I’ve met traveling are just everyday people doing everyday jobs, loving, living, and believing that their community and the world at large is basically good.
Where would you like to be in 10 years?
Living overseas again for large periods of time. I lived overseas for my entire 20’s but my 30’s have been spent living in Colorado. I’m itching to be semi-nomadic again.
What languages do you speak?
German, French, and Dari in a descending scale of ability. My daughter is fluent in Spanish so I’d better get on that train immediately.
Name 3 books (any genre) that have influenced the way you’ve thought / written?
Faery Tale by Signe Pike, A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, Headscarves and Hymens by Mona Eltahawy.
What are you most afraid of?
Dark water. Totally petrified.
What are the words/expressions you overuse?
“Fuck”, “motherfucker”, and “what the fuck”.
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
Coffee and a really old map.