I’m Elena Axinte, a motorcycle rider for 6 years, and I’ve been traveling the world with my bike for 3 years. I’m Romanian by origin, have lived in Milan for more than 12 years, and I’m a theatrical actor and drama therapist. Three years ago I made a spontaneous decision to change home and transform my life – from Milan to the world! And so Elena Axinte transformed into Hele Biker, a traveler together with her beloved, slightly unorthodox motorcycle, a Harley Davidson Sportster 883. Compelled by the call of the World, by a sense of universal belonging and by the conviction that “home is everywhere”, in August 2019 I set out to live my life on the road, in the world, anywhere, indefinitely – with no projects or set plans.
In summer 2019, when I’d almost finalized the plans for my world tour, I made a last-minute decision and changed my course. Till then, I was sure I wanted to go back to Africa and complete the tour I’d started the previous summer, when I visited seven African countries in four months. But, all of a sudden, just before setting off, I felt that this time I had to go East, particularly to the Middle East. I didn’t exactly know why, where or how, I just felt drawn to those regions.
While traveling in Africa, someone had told me about Saudi Arabia and its people, how wonderful it all was, so that this country was lingering in my thoughts before setting off. However, at that time, the rules for traveling there were still very strict and it wasn’t possible for a woman to enter the country by herself on a motorcycle – it was actually forbidden. I knew about these restrictions, yet I was sure that I’d manage to visit Saudi Arabia, I didn’t know how, but I was absolutely certain I’d make it there. I allowed my yearning to grow inside me without thinking too much about it, and then embarked on the next stage of my incredible life journey.
After a few months, when I was already on the road, I got the big news: Saudi Arabia had introduced an electronic visa and had relaxed restrictions on women traveling to the country alone. I smiled – now I was sure I could fulfil and harmoniously reconcile my dream, though with a challenge: I actually had to make it there.
I was in Turkey at the time, desperately seeking a gateway to the Middle East. Lebanon, Syria... Countries I wanted to visit at all costs. The borders between Turkey and Syria were – and still are – closed, due to the war in Syria and the conflicting relationship between the two countries. As such, the only way left was by sea. After a lot of research, I finally found the only ferry that traveled from Turkey tor Lebanon – my gateway to the Middle East. The ferry is still in operation, the only one to do so, though it belongs to a company that’s very difficult to get in touch with and that charges extortionate prices.
But there I was, finally on board the ship, a few days after Christmas 2019, just before New Year’s Eve. Lebanon – a country unknown to travelers, whose borders, at the time, were almost impossible to cross. All I knew was that a revolution with endless street protests had been going on since the summer, and that the country was suffering a general crisis.
Getting there wasn’t easy, but once arrived I absorbed as much as I could from this incredibly rich land. I only spent a month there, but I felt as if I’d lived in Lebanon all my life. I identified so much with their zest for life and really felt for their hardships and troubles but, above all, I related to their ability to always get up again and start anew, to live life to the full despite all the difficulties.
I managed to explore most of the country, from its snowy mountains with their renowned cedar forests, valleys and monasteries, up to the famous and beloved city of Beirut, as well as Baalbek, the largest Roman archeological site in the Middle East; the restricted borders with Palestine; tourist sites such as Jbeil, or Byblos; and the famous Jeita Grotto or Notre Dame du Liban. You will always discover something new in Lebanon. I crossed the country during a difficult period, in the midst of a revolution, through roads blocked by demonstrations, clashes with the police, fire barriers and much more, yet I never felt I was in danger. I met some extraordinary people.
As I explored the country, completely in love with it, I was also looking for a solution to go further. Before I got there, my contacts in Lebanon told me that I could enter and cross Syria without any problems, but once there, however, I found out that this was only true for Lebanese people, not foreign tourists. After a lot of research, I learned that the only way to enter Syria at the time was via airplane and with a tour operator. I didn’t give up and kept on looking. The embassies repeatedly turned me down and my visa request was rejected.
After much research, I found an agency that offered me a solution – I could enter by land, and with my motorcycle too, but only via the agency and with the constant presence of a tour operator. This is still true today. The guide waits for the traveler at the border, takes care of all bureaucratic matters – including the visa, which can only be obtained this way – then you can explore the country together.
A peculiarity of my journey, which makes it a real challenge, is that I want to complete my round-the-world trip without ever staying at hotels or other commercial accommodation. But in Syria, although thanks to Lebanese friends I knew some people who’d been happy to host me, this wasn’t going to be possible, as the agency that brokered the visa was responsible for me. I had to stay in a hotel.
Not to break the promise I’d made to myself and follow my dream of building a universal network of human connections, I had to take a very important decision: Cross Syria in a single day and give up on exploring the country. Not an easy choice, but I was determined to explore the world on my own terms only. Staying and visiting the country with a guide would have turned me into a tourist, which was the opposite of what I had set out to do. My travel motto is ‘HOME IS EVERYWHERE’ – I explore the world to identify with places and people.
I crossed the border with Lebanon very early in the morning, and after sorting out the paperwork, the guide and I headed toward Damascus. There, to my great surprise, I was welcomed by a large group of motorcycle riders and friends, who took me on a short tour of the city. We spent a couple of wonderful hours together and I was invited to a traditional lunch, then, still with the tour operator, we set off to the border with Jordan.
I spent another month in Jordan, with many new friends and families, exploring all the major sites such as Amman, the capital; the Dead Sea and the Jordan River; world-famous Petra and Aqaba; the Wadi Araba Crossing and Wadi Rum, falling hopelessly in love with the desert.
Finally, at the end of February 2020, I entered Saudi Arabia – the first woman to enter the country alone and on a motorcycle after decades of restrictions. Can I take all the credit? Not really, I was in the right place at the right time, and I’d had the courage to keep on dreaming, to believe in and follow my principles without letting particular circumstances compromise them.
Entering the country I felt incredibly emotional, as I knew I’d reached an important milestone. I started exploring as much as I could and, after just a couple of weeks, the terrible event that affected the whole world occurred: The pandemic. So, I was stuck in a country that, only a few months before, I couldn’t even have entered – I stayed there for exactly one year, two months and two weeks. An incredible story, an experience that can only be fully recounted in books. In theory, I was stuck, yet it never really felt like that. Saudi Arabia had become my home and for over a year I explored it far and wide, and every little part of it now feels like home. I know it better than my country of origin, Romania, and my adopted country, Italy.
Here, too, I went ahead with my dream – ‘HOME IS EVERYWHERE’ – always finding locals who would be happy to host me. A unique chance to genuinely know a people, to immerse myself in their life, their culture, their existence. I became a little Saudi Arabian myself... Before the pandemic broke out, I spent the first weeks exploring the northern part of the country and the coast of the Red Sea. I had entered the country from Jordan at the Haql border. My first introduction to Saudi Arabia was the Tabuk region, I headed toward the incredible oasis of AlUla and was completely astounded by Mada'in Salih, the remains of the Nabataean Kingdom – an archeological site very similar to Petra and dating from the same period. I continued toward Umluj and Yanbo, to discover the beauty of the Red Sea.
And then on to Jeddah, my most favorite city in Saudi Arabia. I spent five months there, forced by the curfew for the first three months and then for another two months, as I’d caught Covid and had to wait until I had fully recovered to resume my journey. Jeddah is my go-to place in Saudi Arabia. That’s where my beloved Saudi family lives, who hosted and welcomed me without knowing me at all. Oh, how can I describe those feelings? Who would have thought? I was supposed to spend only one week with them, but when the borders shut down and while I was trying to find alternative accommodation, the whole family huddled around me and offered me to stay for as long as I needed – a week, a month, two months, a year or more – their home was my home. Just like that, without ever having met before. These are the Saudi Arabian people I encountered throughout my journey. They all opened their doors to me as if we’d known each other all our lives and I never had to make any effort – those doors opened all by themselves, as if in a magic puzzle of which I was a mere spectator.
Once lockdown was over and I was fully recovered, I resumed my journey. All borders were closed, but traveling within the country was allowed (following pandemic regulations, of course). I took advantage of the opportunity and decided to explore each and every corner of it – this was my new goal. There’s no place, region or village in Saudi Arabia that I haven’t reached with my motorcycle.
I explored deserts – the famous Rub’ al Khali, or Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert in the world – astonishing green mountains with hairpin turns to delight even the keenest motorcycle rider, breathtaking islands in the Red Sea, surprisingly cosmopolitan cities, traditional villages, Bedouin tribes, rocky valleys and endless date plantations. I learned to paraglide in Saudi Arabia and, still there, I fell enormously in love with camels.
I explored all kinds of things. Every region, all possible roads – I went off-road through deserts, beaches and mountain trails, in scorching temperatures or perfect weather, under the pouring rain and in unexpectedly cold spells. I spent a whole week in a tent on top of the mountains, in the middle of a coffee plantation, cut off from the rest of the world but surrounded by magic mountains and the so-called “Flower Men” (in this region, men’s traditional dress includes a wreath of flowers worn on the head). I even had a wedding – without actually getting married – organized by an extraordinary family who hosted me for over two weeks in a southern town. They wanted to show me the traditional celebration, so they literally organized a wedding for me – a bride without a groom – with all that it entailed: Traditional wedding dress, flower decorations, traditional henna tattoos, music and dances, typical food, guests and a lot of mirth.
I had the chance to cross the country’s famous desert on my motorcycle, in the middle of nowhere, everything still, the narrow road surrounded on both sides by beautiful and enchanting sand dunes. I pushed on to the far North, in the Arar region, where you can see the remains of the beginnings of the oil era, with the famous “tap pipeline” built to transport oil from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon. Still in the middle of the desert, I was welcomed by an authentic Bedouin family and I spent a few days with them, in their tents, in the middle of nowhere, amid camels and sand storms, living a life from another time, eating dates and drinking camel milk.
I spent a whole year like this, and in the last two months I traveled around a second time to keep my promise and say goodbye to my friends and families, all of whom will remain in my heart forever. The generosity, unconditional hospitality, readiness to love and embrace strangers of Saudi Arabian people makes them unique. Wherever I was, I made sure to feel as if I belonged there. I lived like Saudi Arabian people do and tried to integrate their culture into my way of being. After one year, two months and two weeks, my stay in Saudi Arabia came to an end. I found a way to continue the journey and finally crossed a new border, at the discovery of the entire Arabian Gulf.
The next country was the UAE. Happy to finally get across a border after more than a year, I started exploring the United Arab Emirates. The journey continues, and you can keep on reading about it here: From the United Arab Emirates to Iraq by motorcycle.