How Travel Literally Saved My Life

My travel worldview

To most people, travel means “vacation.” It’s a temporary break from reality, often to someplace warm and exotic; a time to relax and recharge. The word “vacation” sends chills down my spine, like nails on a chalkboard. I guess it’s the implication that people only deserve to travel when they’ve worked hard and earn their “vacation.” I see travel very differently, almost as an extension of my soul.

At a very young age, my parents brought me and my siblings to different developing countries- on “vacation.” Each experience taught me infinitely more than I would ever learn in a classroom. Most importantly, I avoided growing up in any sort of ethnocentric bubble, oblivious to the whole-wide-world surrounding me.

Travel not only shaped me as a person, but it became an intrinsic part of my very being. I sought out international volunteer opportunities and study abroad programs, attending the fall 1999 Semester at Sea voyage (10 countries in 100 days, circumnavigating the globe).

Travel was important to me academically. I double majored in Anthropology and Geography and went on to get a masters degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. I moved to Spain to become fluent in Spanish (via teaching English), and I found locals to live with on my own. Culture and travel were my life, my soul- completely and inextricable.

There were many travel experiences along the way, both big and small, that were transformative and inspirational. I can easily point to one year in my life, though, when I almost didn’t make it, and travel saved me. It sounds dramatic, and maybe it is, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

When my word crumbled

A little over two years ago, my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. At the time, I had no idea that it was a “death sentence.” I only knew that cancer was bad, and she was in for an uphill battle. When she called me in April 2011 to give me the worst news, I was already going through a tumultuous time in my life. If I’m completely honest, I was in a pretty dark place. I’ve battled depression and anxiety off and on throughout my life, and it just so happened that a few terrible things happened to pile one of top of the other. Then came the cancer.

My family is very close. Being the oldest of five, my mom was also one of my best friends. I was her co-captain, helping whenever I could with my younger siblings. She leaned on me, and I needed her emotional support and love more than I truly realized.

The doctors were able to diagnose her very early and remove the tumor with clean margins. They were very hopeful with her prognosis. Six months after her pancreatectomy, Mom started having complications from her treatment. She couldn’t hold anything down for a week and started receiving nutrients intravenously. All of this was outpatient care; she was pretty adamant about not going to the hospital. Eventually, her hand was forced, and the doctors insisted on surgery. The “routine” surgery would allow them to remove the scar tissue they believed was causing a blockage in her intestines, a fairly common side effect of the radiation treatments, according to the docs.

Despair

She went in to surgery on a Wednesday night in 2011. It was the night before Thanksgiving, a day that most Americans celebrate by spending time with, and giving thanks to, their families. Less than an hour after she went in, the surgeon returned with the worst news anyone can ever receive. The cancer had spread all over Mom’s abdomen. It was inoperable.

Mom

There are no words to describe the endless pit of despair you feel when discovering that someone you love most in the world has- at the most – two weeks to live. It’s worse than the prediction of your own death. Mom passed away ten days later, in our home, surrounded by her children. Dad and I even tried to resuscitate her. It was the most horrible situation imaginable.

Life instantly lost all meaning to me. My mom was this gregarious, positive force. Her spirit was one of pure love. She made everything grand and wonderful. She showered her children with affection and let us know that everything would always be alright. With her gone, I just didn’t see the point of continuing on.

I struggled for months… for a year…. heck, I still struggle. I didn’t feel like I was able to grieve freely around those surrounding me who didn’t really understand what I was going through. I didn’t know what to do or where to turn. Sometimes I would jog in the streets and find my mind wandering to dark places. If a car hit me, would it be quick? I was literally in so much agony that the thought of not living anymore seemed like a viable option. But I’m a fighter and a survivor. I have four siblings, a dad, a husband, and plenty of friends I consider family- people I loved intensely. At the very least, I wouldn’t put any one of them through another tragic loss.

Sea-change

So, what did I do? I turned to the only thing I knew would revive my soul. Travel. I knew in my heart that in Africa, I would find the will and strength to go on. I would learn to love life again. I knew this because in 2009, I spent a couple of weeks in Kenya and Tanzania with my dad. I fell in love with Africa, with the raw beauty of nature and the unbridled wildlife. I loved the people, too. They seemed so inexplicably happy, in the simplest and purest way. I wanted to recreate these emotional connections to people and the earth, to feel that hope for humanity- for life.

My first trip to sub-Sahara Africa, with my father, brought us to Kenya and Tanzania. My Masai friend here was just as tall as me (almost 6 feet)!!

My first trip to sub-Sahara Africa, with my father, brought us to Kenya and Tanzania. My Masai friend here was just as tall as me (almost 6 feet)!!

I booked a flight and set off for six weeks in southern Africa. I unintentionally crafted my travel plans into three distinct phases: time with family (my sister), alone time, and an epic journey with strangers into the unknown. I like to think of these separate yet spiritually congruent periods as three therapeutical phases that my soul needed to heal and move on with life.

Travel therapy: Phase 1- Family

During the first ten days, my sister and I did a self-guided road trip along the Garden Route in South Africa. We rode ostriches and held baby lions in Oudtshoorn. We challenged ourselves on a multi-river crossing hike in Tsitsikamma National Park. We were almost stampeded by the most adorable elephants in Addo Elephant National Park. We stayed at B&Bs with the most stunning scenery and freshest, tastiest food. In Stellenbosch and Franschoek, we sampled the very best wines in the country. In Cape Town, we dined, shopped, and met the most amazing locals and travelers. South Africa quickly became one of my favorite countries. I was starting to feel that it was possible to enjoy life again.

This one almost got us!

This one almost got us!

 

 

Storms Mouth River

I was traveling in a strange, new land with a mission of healing and processing intense emotions, so it was essential for me to ease in to the experience with the comfort and familiarity of family. My sister provided the emotional support and empathy that I needed, validating my feelings and my decision to start the hard process of healing. Her companionship at the beginning of the journey helped prepare me for the difficulty of the next phase: standing alone and focusing inward.

Loving South African wine with my sister, Chandler.

Loving South African wine with my sister, Chandler.

Phase 2- Standing alone

After Chandler left, I spent about four days alone in Capetown- wandering, exploring, reflecting… even being a recluse at times. I had moments of absolute elation, accompanied by a sense of boundless freedom, a feeling that comes from unwrapping an exciting new land on your own terms. Amazing moments unfolded: hiking to Table Mountain on the one cloudless day, dining alone in a delicious Belgian restaurant at the V&A Waterfront, exploring the cultural medley of the Malay Quarter Bo-Kaap (somewhat uncomfortably).

There were instances of loneliness, longing, anxiety and sadness. Sipping warm rooibos tea, I reflected, wrote, and most importantly, let myself feel the pain, uncertainty and anger. I was free to do that here. Absolutely FREE. No one could judge me or pity me or disagree with the way I would handle my emotions. A fresh change of scenery helped new mind-lenses focus on different and important aspects of my psyche. I wasn’t aware in the moment, but reflecting back, it was one of the most therapeutic times I’ve ever had with myself.

Phase 3- Touching love

The essential solo-time was a perfect transition to my four week, overland adventure with complete strangers. I joined a G Adventures group tour from Capetown to Johannesberg via Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe (essentially a big ‘ole circle around southern Africa).

Our overland route

Our overland route (Photo credit: G Adventures)

During those four weeks of (mostly) camping in Africa’s untamed wilderness, feeling closer and more connected to nature than ever before, I befriended folks from Germany, England, Italy, South Korea, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Ireland, Canada, and South Africa, who essentially became my life-line during the most transitional stage of this grieving/healing process. I can’t find the words to describe the humility, grace and gratitude that I feel for encountering these very special people during such an amazing and difficult time in my life. We experienced Africa together; the beautiful, raw, unforgiving and magical continent where (many argue) civilization started!

Skydiving with Suhyun (aka "Su"), my South Korean tentmate. We made a great team!

Skydiving with Suhyun (aka “Su”), my South Korean tentmate. We made a great team!

Heading to our 3 day island home in the Okavango Delta. That's my truck seat-mate Heidi (from Germany) throwing out peace.

Heading to our 3 day island home in the Okavango Delta. That’s my truck seat-mate Heidi (from Germany) throwing out peace.

We watched lions attack a buffalo while the herd fought back to protect it. We sang and danced with bushmen. We flew and bungee jumped over the magnificent Victoria Falls. We sandboarded the great Namibian dunes. We went skydiving over the Namibian desert. We slept amidst palm tree- shaking elephants, with a hole we dug for a toilet – for three days – on an island in the Okavango Delta. We sat out under the stars around warm campfires, drinking cheap wine and beer, sharing laughs and tales from home. We learned about one another, not just culturally, but on a hyper-personal level. We discovered and shared our stories. As we were all from completely different cultural backgrounds, the superficial differences that might impede bonding in a more homogenous “home” were non-issues. We all had one major thing in common: an unquenchable passion to know and see the world, to experience and learn from others, and to share our cultures- and our love.

South Africa

There was this electrical charge- a deep and soulful connection. I’ve only ever been able to replicate this experience- with complete strangers, in such a short amount of time- while traveling. This is why I travel. How beautiful to feel so infinitesimal in the universe yet so far from lonely; so connected, so understood on a fundamental “human” level. I’m left with a sense of One World … we share this planet… we’re in this together. It’s pure love. Some may say that is experiencing God – or whatever divine goodness you believe in.

THESE guys. Love these guys....

THESE guys. Love these guys….

This was how I started to heal. This was what I knew I needed. Touching pure love in that way, with all of the combining environmental factors intertwining to make it happen: the beauty and pureness of nature, the supportive and affirming time with family, the necessary inward reflection and expression, and diving in to the unknown and bonding with complete strangers over the love of all life… and living!

giraffe

Pumba!

Pumba!

This video of our enjoying caterpillars and beer in Namibia makes me smile from ear to ear; warms my heart. I loved these moments. Can’t wipe the silly grin off my face!

Thoughts

To say this journey was transformational would be a gross understatement. I was able to process my grief in a way that, until then, seemed impossible to achieve. I suddenly had an intense desire to live- really live.

This was my journey. Yours may look much different. When you feel like there will be no more sunny days, carefree or happy moments, or nothing left to live for, consider taking a healing journey. What do you have to lose? That might take you to Africa, Asia, Antarctica…. or it might take you to a local soup kitchen or charity. Maybe it takes you to a new city, a new job, or just a new outlook on life. Focus on your main passion: write a book, start a company, dive in to a group of supportive friends. My passions are travel and culture. I just jumped in and felt my way through, and it led me back to me…a new me; a healing and enduring me. I inadvertently taught myself to accept life- with all of its pain and tragedy. I taught myself how to go on….living.

If you ever lose your way, I hope you take a journey to find your way back. Love. Pure love…to you all.

Lindsay is a freelance writer and runs the blog The Traveluster. She’s spent a lifetime traveling and studying culture, with a degrees in anthropology and geography and a masters in international peace and conflict resolution. Currently living in Nashville, TN, she has previously called Baton Rouge, LA, Washington, DC, and Seville, Spain home. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+ and Pinterest.

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Thank you Lindsay for sharing such a moving and inspiring story. We know that it will help others through their own difficult situations. Has travel helped you through a difficult situation? Has travel made you a better person? Did you find the love of your life, your passion or your purpose during your travels? We want to hear your travel stories. Send your ideas to ThePlanetD.com and check out our writing guidelines for more details or read our call out to writersContact us here and we’ll get back to you. Write for ThePlanetD.


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