Juliana Buhring Grew Up In A Religious Cult Then Became The First Woman To Cycle Around The World
By Kim Constantinesco
There aren’t many people who decide to cycle the world on “a whim,” or frankly, six months after learning how to ride a bike in the first place.
Then again, there aren’t many people like Juliana Buhring, a 35-year-old British-German cyclist, who lives outside of Naples, Italy. On her 18,000-mile expedition in 2012, Buhring became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe by bicycle, and her record (152 days, including flight transfers) still holds strong today.
She rode unsupported from east to west with relentless headwinds, covering 19 countries and averaging about 124 miles per day. Her bike broke down more times than she can count, she was extremely low on money, and she didn’t have the correct clothing. You’re probably wondering what the big draw was for her. That’s an easy answer: Freedom.
Buhring grew up in a religious cult called Children of God, which was founded in 1968 in Huntington Beach, Calif.
“They were training us to become Jesus’ little soldiers,” Buhring told us. “It was an uncertain childhood because I never knew where the next blow was going to come from or what we were going to get punished for next. Everything was taboo. We couldn’t express our own thoughts or opinions, we couldn’t question, and the rules changed from day-to-day. If you weren’t doing things right, you would get extreme punishment. We weren’t allowed to be kids.”
Buhring escaped that life long before she decided to cycle the world, but it was her grand adventure that led her to greater heights and finding her life’s purpose.
“It was life-changing,” she said of the ride. “It taught me what I was capable of; not just that but what a beautiful world it is that we live in, and how much we take life for granted. I rediscovered the joy of living, of new experiences, of new cultures, and of finding myself in uncomfortable situations.”
‘A Baby In The Woods’
Buhring was born in Athens, Greece. Her parents were dedicated members of Children of God, and when leaders from the group separated her from her parents at just three years old, she was fostered to various guardians. Growing up, she lived in almost 30 countries across three continents.
“It was a very isolated and frightening existence for a child to grow up,” Buhring said. “I lived in different training centers, which is kind of like military training camp.”
At 13 years old, Buhring started to express her desire to leave the group. Her older sister, Celeste, made an escape after working closely with the cult’s leadership.
“I thought if she left from there, she must have seen something wrong and that’s when I started to question everything seriously,” Buhring said.
However, she stayed so she could help care for and protect her younger brothers and sisters. Eventually, she reached a stage where she realized she could do more for them on the outside in terms of cultivating change.
The tipping point for Buhring’s departure came when one of her sisters committed suicide in the “outside world” due to depression and drug addiction. Within two days, the cult leader’s son also took his own life. The reaction of the group, or lack thereof, made Buhring so angry that she packed her bags.
The Children of God, later known as Family International, were happy to see her go because she was causing dissension in the group and spreading doubt. So, there she was at 22 years old in the middle of Uganda with nothing but a few of her possessions.
“I had no money and I was dropped into the middle of the world with nothing and no idea how anything worked,” Buhring said. “I had no formal education and I basically didn’t exist in society. I was like a baby in the woods.”
And that’s precisely what kept people in the group. With no resources on the outside, members were fearful of leaving. Usually with freedom comes power, but when you don’t have anything, that changes the scope.
Writing It Out
Buhring got a job and an apartment in Uganda because she wanted to stay close to her younger siblings. She would even take them for sleepovers on the weekends. Celeste was living in the United Kingdom at the time with their other sister, Kristina. That’s when an idea for a book emerged.
“I wanted to make sense of everything for myself,” Buhring said. “I wanted to work through it as my own kind of therapy. Celeste and Kristina said, ‘We’re thinking of writing a book, too, so why don’t we join forces.’ When we got a book deal is when I moved to the UK and spent a couple of years there with them.”
Not Without My Sister was published in 2007, and became a best-seller in the UK, Ireland, and Australia.
“The book, together with the website MovingOn.org, various documentaries and media appearances by ex-COG kids, shed a spotlight on the abusive practices within the cult, which helped to bring down the group,” Buhring said. “It brought awareness to our whole generation of children, and the Family International were forced to disband in 2010, which forced my parents to cut their ties with it.”
Today, Buhring is in contact with her parents and sees them at least once per year. Her mom worked through the psychological trauma and is living happily in Vietnam. Her dad and his youngest six children live in Uganda.
During the book launch, Buhring and her sisters set up a charity called RISE International.
“We didn’t want the cult saying that we had written it for money,” Buhring explained. “The moment any money came in from the book, we put it to set up this charity that would provide kids with education and opportunities to help them make their way in the world once they got out.”
By 2008, RISE merged with the Safe Passage Foundation, a U.S. based organization that helps youth who are raised in isolated or high-demand communities. And that’s exactly what Buhring rides for today.
A Trip Around The Globe
Buhring certainly didn’t grow up riding a bike. Her entry into the sport actually came from tragedy.
In 2002, she met a man while she was living in Africa. The two connected on a deep level, but their lives steered them in different directions. Then they reconnected on Facebook and arranged to meet in Uganda in 2011. Just weeks before they were supposed to reunite, he went on a kayaking expedition in the Congo and was attacked by a massive crocodile. His body was never recovered, and Buhring was devastated. She went into a very dark place, but remembered a conversation she had with someone at his funeral about taking on big challenges.
At the time, she saw that no woman had circled the globe by bike. What a perfect challenge, right? So, she bought a heavy city bike and rode around Naples as she was teaching English. Six months later, she bought a lighter model made of carbon fiber that had “all the wrong parts,” and set off.
“I was kind of desperate at the time. It was a form of escape, really,” she said. “If I had known then what it would have involved, I think I probably would have rethought things, or maybe I wouldn’t have. I wasn’t really in the right state of mind. I certainly wasn’t thinking logically.”
Sometimes true grit outweighs logic, though. Her legs churned and brought her to some of the world’s most beautiful places.
“New Zealand just blew my mind,” she said. “It was out of this world. I’ve never seen those kind of land formations or that kind of nature anywhere else. Most of the time, my mouth was wide open. It really was like being on another planet.”
In America, the wide open roads and hospitality won her over.
“I loved it for the people,” she said. “I loved the generosity and the curiosity of strangers. Whenever I was stopped on the side of the road, someone would pull over and ask, ‘Are you okay? Do you need help?”
She was crazy about the food in Asia, a continent she spent some of her childhood. As for the most surprising location, Turkey threw her for a loop.
“I was surprised by how friendly and welcoming the Turkish people were,” Buhring said. “I’d go into the service station to use the restroom, and they’d be waiting outside for me with some hot tea. It was winter and cold, and people everywhere were taking such good care of me. I felt more safe there than half of the countries I cycled in.”
Upon returning to Naples, she stopped cycling for about four months. Then she got invited to take part in 2013’s Transcontinental Race, an unsupported effort from London to Istanbul through the Alps. She was the only woman in the field and took 9th out of 31 riders.
Since then, she has taken on many other ultra rides. In fact, right now she’s heading to Australia for the inaugural Indian Pacific Wheel Race, which travels from Perth to Sydney starting on March 18.
As for what draws her to the sport?
“It just gives you such a sense of peace and freedom on the open road,” she said. “I love that feeling of not knowing where I’m going to end up that night and what new sights I’m going to see. It’s become a passion I never would have imagined I would have had.”
She may not have had a “normal” childhood, but her youth and her perception of it has actually serve her fairly well.
“I had to grow up quickly. I had to take care of myself, but I can say, growing up that way did give me a kickstart in life,” Buhring said. “I learned how to be independent and flexible, how to read situations and people, and adapt to them. Going around the world, that helped me a lot. If you grow up in fair weather and nothing bad ever happens to you, you don’t get any kind of character strength or mental fortitude that you need to withstand things in life.”
In 2017, Buhring is cycling for women’s rights because as she enjoys her freedom, she wants to fight for others to have theirs as well.
“I know what it’s like to beat the streets begging for enough money to eat that night, of living hand to mouth, from day to day, unable to envision anything else for your future. I was deprived of an education that should be the right of every child. I suffered through every childhood sickness without ever seeing a doctor or receiving medical care. I know what it feels like to be trafficked from country to country, stranger to stranger, without parents to protect me, never knowing where and under whose care I would end up. I know what it is to have no home. To be the “immigrant” in every country because I had no country of my own. I know what it means to be seen as a second class citizen because I was born a woman. To believe my only purpose on this planet was to be a slave to the whims of men….
Today, I am free to do what I like and go where I please. I have all those rights that were once denied me. Millions of women around the world do not. I empathize with those women, because I know their suffering intimately. I am living in freedom while they are still denied theirs. (JulianaBuhring.com)
Buhring will ride with a pink hat on her helmet throughout the year and funnel money to organizations that support women’s rights. After all, the entire world is the limit.
If you’d like to donate to the Safe Passage Foundation, go here.
To make a donation to support women’s rights, visit the bottom of Juliana’s page.
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