Today, I’m excited to introduce you to one of the most inspirational people I’ve met in years: activist, author, and adventurer Eirliani A Rahman.
I originally connected with Eirliani (Lin, for short) on Instagram. She was training for a ski trip to the South Pole at the time. So in many of her photos, she was skiing in Steamboat, Colorado, dragging a tire or sled — FOR HOURS.
I was especially intrigued, because she’s originally from the tropical island of Singapore. Seriously, how did this happen? I had to know more.
Well, she didn’t disappoint.
When you get to know Lin, you realize that her drive comes from a very genuine desire to help oppressed women, children, and others without a voice.
Of all the people I’ve ever met, she’s probably been the most successful at marrying her love of adventure with a higher cause.
A few years ago, she left her lucrative Foreign Service Job to become a full-time activist in the fight against childhood sexual abuse and trafficking. She co-founded the NGO YAKIN (Youth, Adult survivors & Kin In Need), co-authored the book Survivors: Breaking the Silence on Child Sexual Abuse, and has written extensively on the issue for the Huffington Post and other publications.
I wanted to tell Lin’s story today because she is currently planning an arctic expedition to raise awareness of and funding for childhood sexual abuse.
From April 13–25, she will ski 100 miles to the North Pole — all while dragging a 100-lb. sled and enduring subzero temperatures (as low as –40F). If she reaches the North Pole, she will be the first Singaporean to do so.
Read the interview below to learn:
- How a woman from Singapore became an arctic explorer
- What it’s really like to ski across the Arctic pulling a heavy sled
- How she trains for her expeditions (spoiler alert: step No. 1 was learning to ski!)
- Her advice on dealing with anxiety before an expedition
- What you can do to help fight child sexual abuse and trafficking
Let’s dive into Lin’s story.
Tell me a little about you growing up. Did you always know you wanted to be an Arctic adventurer? What originally interested you in these polar expeditions?
I loved reading as a child.
When I was ten, we had a small library at the back of the classroom where we were allowed to read once we had finished our class assignment. I would hurry through my work, hand it in to the teacher, skip happily to the back and plonk myself down. Sighing contentedly, I would pull out a dog-eared book from the shelf and read.
It was here that I, a girl who had not once left tropical Singapore, discovered snowy Antarctica and read about the ill-fated expedition by Robert Falcon Scott in 1912. What struck me then was the ultimate sacrifice made by Captain Lawrence Oates, walking out of his tent into a blizzard, aware that his gangrene-infected feet were slowing down the team’s progress and his team mates’ chances at survival. His words, as immortalized in Scott’s diary, haunted me: “I am just going outside and may be some time.”
It was the noblest thing I had ever come across.
When I became a diplomat with the Singapore Foreign Service and from my dealings then with the media, I learnt that people love a kooky story. And what stranger a story than a former diplomat from a tropical island wanting to ski to one of the Poles! I announced it by writing about it in my usual column in the Outdoor Journal, where I wrote about my adventures rock climbing and mountaineering in the Himalayas, and was, quite frankly, taken aback by the reaction.
Several former colleagues in the Singapore Foreign Service immediately shared the post on Facebook, and friends in the Singapore media picked it up. I was interviewed by Channel News Asia, an Asian cable news agency which broadcasts in some 22 countries, and The Straits Times, Singapore’s main broadsheet. Berita Harian, a Malay language newspaper carried a story on me, while the Singapore Magazine, published by the Singapore International Foundation, which seeks to strengthen cross-cultural ties, did a feature story.
Tell us a little about your previous expedition to Frobisher Bay. What were some of your favorite moments? Not so favorite moments?
I trained with Matty McNair, who holds the world record for the fastest ski expedition to the North Pole, completing it in 36 days. Her daughter, Sarah McNair-Landry, who is in her early 30s, was the first woman to be recognized by the International Polar Guides Association as a Master Polar Guide. In 2007, Sarah, along with her older brother, Eric, was nominated for the National Geographic’s “Adventurer of the Year” Award and named one of the “Top Ten Women in Adventure” by National Geographic Adventure Magazine.
We trained on Frobisher Bay, off Baffin Island, in Nunavut, Arctic Canada. After five days of intense training, comprising workshops on survival and navigational skills during the day, and camping out on the ice on night, we were ready to head out for a week on the ice, skiing out of Frobisher Bay which is like a cozy inlet, and out to the Hudson Strait, which is off the province of Quebec.
I remember crossing the Hudson Strait under gale force winds and thinking, Oh boy, I’m not sure I’m prepared for this! The wind was roaring right across my face; we couldn’t hear anything above its roar. I just wanted to ski as fast as possible out of the winds but was dragging a sled laden with food and gear as part of my training, and so it slowed me down. It was March 2017, and it was my first time being harnessed to a weighted sled, and it took some getting used to.
I think witnessing the beauty of the aurora borealis makes up for the tiredness and the frigid cold. I would always head out of the tent at 10 p.m. every night for a last toilet break, and Eva, my team mate would say to me, “Look up, look at the sky!” And teeth chattering, I would look up for a few seconds and think something along the lines of: gosh-this-is-just-incredibly-beautiful-but-I-am-frozen-solid, so would quickly shuffle back to the tent.
How do you train for your expeditions? I’ve seen you on Instagram dragging tires …
First of all, I had to learn how to ski! When I moved to Colorado two years ago, I had no clue how to do so. I fell a lot, but I was surrounded by friends who were warm and extremely supportive. After two winters training out in the Arctic, I feel more confident. But I am constantly trying to improve my cross-country skiing techniques. This winter, I’ve been focusing on skiing downhill, which is no mean feat for an islander like me. Where I come from (Singapore), our highest hill Bukit Timah is only 537 feet high!
I take HIIT classes. There’s a gym in town called Manic Training, which is amazing. From pulling a miserly 50 pounds on a sled when I was out training in the Canadian Arctic in March 2017, I was able to pull 190 lbs on a sled the following year after taking their classes two or three times a week. I also train by pulling a metal sled weighted down with weights with a combined weight of up to 175 lbs, and pull that on a road uphill behind the gym. The gym’s owner, Graham Muir, and his staff have been incredibly supportive.
What’s the hardest part physically of traveling in the Arctic? Mentally? And what’s the most joyful part?
For me, ironically, it isn’t the cold but the sheer monotony of seeing white-on-white with hardly any distinguishing features in the landscape. The most challenging days are when the sky is cloudy, and there aren’t that many shadows or depth visually, and so it is hard to discern what’s ahead. If you’re lucky, you might see some kelp or seaweed through the frozen ice, which jolts you into realizing you’re skiing on a frozen ocean.
If you’re nearing land, the sea ice would get broken up into large mini icebergs and it gets rough. That’s when I’m most mentally engaged as I try to negotiate a path through smooth ice where my skis would slide, and large chunks of aforementioned ice. My sled would get stuck behind a rock of ice, and I would heave and pull to get it out of that spot. It is hard work.
I love it when I see wildlife. Once, in March 2017, an arctic fox ran alongside my teammates and I for a while, but I wasn’t enthralled when I learnt later that arctic foxes typically run towards polar bear kills to scavenge for food! I wasn’t in the least bit interested in meeting a live polar bear. I did meet a dead teenaged one pulled by an Inuit on a snow mobile. He had driven up to us, concerned that we hadn’t known that there was a blizzard coming. We were aware, we told him, we are out training. The poor man drove away, puzzled.
Do you feel nervous before your expeditions? How do you handle it?
Yes, I do. I try not to give in to my fears, telling myself that I’ve put in the training and the mileage and therefore, my body is trained and ready.
It is all really a mental game. The tediousness of pulling a sled through a white-on-white landscape which does not vary for about 10 hours, sometimes 12, each day. I try to do visualization exercises while on the move, visualizing my finishing at the end of the day and rewarding myself with a hot cup of chocolate every evening before dinner.
What does your family think about your expeditions? Do they worry about you?
I think they got used to my packing up my things and moving ever so often to another part of the world. I’ve lived in Berlin, Delhi, Kazakhstan, London, Moscow, Singapore and now Colorado. But my wanting to ski to the North Pole is something they’re still trying to get their head around. Yes, my family worries about me, but they know that I train hard and prepare thoroughly.
I am so moved by the fact that you are using your adventures to raise awareness of childhood sexual abuse. Can you tell us how you got involved in this cause? If people want to join you in fighting abuse, how can they help?
I believe that everyone can do their part to get involved and prevent child sexual abuse. In the U.S., 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys have been sexually abused. According to the US Department of Justice, 100,000 to 300,000 children every year are at risk of being trafficked for sex in the US.
If you want to learn about how to keep your children safe online, and/or you are healing from sexual abuse as a child, or knows someone who is, please read my articles on Huffington Post. I also write about how to disclose to a loved one about your sexual abuse, or if you are on the receiving end, how to support your loved one after he/she has disclosed to you.
You can also pick up a copy of my book Survivors: Breaking the Silence on Child Sexual Abuse. I co-wrote it with Prof Daniel Fung, Chairman, Medical Board of the Singapore. It was published in November 2017 by Marshall Cavendish and is now in its second print run.
Tell us more about your book. Where did the inspiration come from? How did you go about gathering survivors’ stories? How have the readings you’ve arranged been received?
When I started working with adult survivors of child sexual abuse, I realized that their stories needed to be told. So I sent out an email in December 2014, asking friends to help put the word out. And they did.
These 12 survivors come from Germany, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Singapore, South Africa, the U.K. and the U.S. There’s a tale of two sisters who were abused by the same teacher in school. One sister later committed suicide. There’s a girl who was abused by her elder brother, another by her father, yet another by her cousin. There are men who were sexually assaulted by their mothers or grandmothers, priests, neighbors, uncles and family friends.
They are telling their stories, because they hope that what had happened to them, and their respective healing journeys will give hope to others, and also to their loved ones. And it is not all doom and gloom. There’s laughter and wit in there, and where there’s closure, there is also hope.
In the past year, I’ve had 12 book readings in 11 cities, from Concordia University in Montreal, to NYU Steinhardt in New York City to Yale University in New Haven, to further afield like Pretoria in South Africa, Bled in Slovenia and Dilijan in Armenia. The reception has been incredible. I invited the survivors who contributed to the book to read out excerpts from their respective chapters. They feel empowered, and more importantly, people in the audience have either spoken up in public about their sexual abuse as children for the first time, or come up to me afterwards to seek help for themselves or their loved ones. It’s powerful.
When you think ahead to your trip to the North Pole, what are you most excited about? Hopeful for? Worried about?
I’m excited about putting the word out and getting people to break the taboo about child sexual abuse. I hope to have a live tweet chat at Camp Barneo, where the Russian ice station is, with children and youth from around the world to talk about child online safety, and also polar exploration.
I’m worried about polar bears! Enough said.
How can people support your expedition? What does the fundraising cover?
I’m trying to raise US$15,500. The money raised will go towards the cost of the expedition to the North Pole. I have already raised US$35,000 by using my savings and surrendering an insurance policy.
Anything raised beyond $15,500 will go towards YAKIN (Youth, Adult Survivors & Kin In Need), a not-for-profit that I set up with Prof Daniel Fung in Singapore.
I hope to continue the book readings this year. I’m also working on a graphic novel project curated for children. I’m hoping that this would be a useful tool to help children disclose cases of their own sexual abuse to trusted adults. There will also be an accompanying guide for parents, guardians and educators.
I’ve done two focus groups on this in Singapore, and hope to do a pilot in Nairobi, Kenya and Kasur, Pakistan this year.
Anything else you’d like people to know?
Hope you enjoyed this guest post about Lin’s arctic adventure for an amazing cause.
How you can support her in the fight against child sexual abuse:
Contribute to her Arctic expedition fundraiser
Grab a copy of her book, Survivors: Breaking the Silence on Child Sexual Abuse
Download and share her expedition brochure to spread the word
Originally published Jan. 29, 2019.