Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Perspective #5

To the child whose parents are fighting, I hope these words help you.

You are not alone

I know it may not feel like anyone can understand the burning feeling in your heart right now; that no one has had to live through the same pain, sadness, anger and frustration that you are going through. And that may be true. Everyone’s family situation is different and even if you have siblings, your experiences of the same trauma may not be the same.

But what many of us have been through is the fallout- the disillusionment and disappointment that come with realising that our parents are not infallible. We have looked up to them as idols and they have proven themselves deeply flawed humans, just like the rest of us.

We lose hope and look at our friends’ families, who seem to always have it together, to always be happy. It is our shameful little secret and we can’t talk about it- we have to protect our parents. Besides, the world wouldn’t understand anyway.

What I would like you to know is that all of us put up a front. We hide our deepest secrets and pain from the world. You would be surprised at how many of your friends and random strangers on the street have felt as you feel today. Some, like you, have recently had their world crash down. Others have been living with this reality since they can remember. And all offer camaraderie.

Talk to them. Your friends, siblings- anyone that you have wanted to confide in but have felt that you could not. There is no shame in admitting your worries. You are brave to be seeking help. They may not be able to offer all solutions and you don’t need to feel obliged to act on any of their well-meaning advice. Simply wash in their concern and understanding of your dilemma. Take comfort in their stories of shared distress.

You have been hurt by the people you love the most but that hurt is not a cross you alone must bear. Share your vulnerabilities and you will feel stronger for it.

It isn’t your fault
Many times, we take the blame on ourselves. It must have been the added stress of children that made them fall apart. If you know of something that you are doing that is contributing to their conflict, then, by all means, stop it. But most of the time, their quarrels have absolutely nothing to do with us. If you look at the crux of the fights, their unhappiness usually stems back to an age-old contention, something that they have not been able to reconcile from the start. It could be incompatible principles, upbringings or world views, but whatever it is, it has been brewing since the ‘I do’. Nothing you have done or could have done would have brought these 2 people down a different path than they find themselves on today. They have advanced each step through the choices they both have made and you cannot give yourself the credit of having made those decisions for them. Free yourself from the undeserved guilt.

Their happiness is not your responsibility

The urge is there, to fix it, to make everything better again. The duty is strong too- I am their child, I should help. These are all valid emotions. Naturally, we hate to see people we love at odds. Naturally, we want to pull out the thorn that is causing our own distress. But the situation is often much more complicated than that. At times, there seems to be no amount of mediating, paraphrasing, affirming and setting straight that can save this drowning ship. Just when you think the storm has settled down for a while, another wave crashes in and topples the whole boat. It is maddening. It is disheartening. All these failed missions eventually begin to affect your mood. You can’t concentrate in school/ at work, every happy moment seems to be tinged with sadness and there is just an overwhelming feeling of helplessness and despair.

You dream of packing your parents off to a marriage counsellor, of pulling a ‘Parent-Trap’ on them and making them see that they do still love each other. Of doing one last, final, desperate act- something, anything- to wake them up from this nightmare, to have them hug and laugh and admit they were foolish, that it was all a mistake.

But it never happens. And slowly, you begin to lose hope that it ever will. This stalemate has become your new reality and there is a dead feeling of resignation where there used to be hope. You have failed in your mission. You don’t even try anymore. Your tired, glazed eyes take in scene after scene of dissatisfaction and something begins to glow from the embers in your chest. It is quiet at first but will soon grow into a raging furnace. It is resentment. At the two people you love the most, whom you gave your hopes to for protection and who have thoughtlessly ripped them apart. Why can’t they just grow up? Stop being so selfish. Can’t they see what this is doing to the rest of us? If they are so unhappy maybe they should just- just… why should I have to deal with any of this? It isn’t fair. You come to the conclusion that your parents are utterly irresponsible and that you must be the martyr that will spend the rest of his/her life trying to salvage them.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. You don’t have to go through this torture of bubbling hope, herculean strain, crushing disappointment and weary resentment. It is a toxic cycle bound to repeat itself into oblivion. Instead, admit from the start that there is nothing you can do. This is difficult, because it means also admitting that you have no control over what is happening. But that is the truth of the matter. You have no control over your parent’s actions and decisions. They are two fully autonomous adults- when they choose to wound one another in harsh words and thoughtless actions, they do this in full awareness of the consequences. Sometimes, we must accept that other people’s battles are their own to fight, no matter how painful it is to watch from the side lines.  As our parents did for us, we must trust in the necessity of letting them learn from their own mistakes. Their struggle is their own and it is unrealistic to think otherwise.

As in all things, we only have control over one person- ourselves. We may not be able to choose our circumstances but we can choose our response. We can decide that no matter how bad the chaos gets around us, we will strive to remain calm. We can set boundaries as to how much we are willing to get involved. This is not selfishness. Give counsel when it is sought, gently steer them when the opportunity arises, but do not expect to be able to rescue them from capsize; do not be affronted if your advice gets lost in their old ways.

This distinction between their responsibility to their marriage as a couple and your responsibilities to them as their child will save you a lot of heartache and headache. There will still be times of emotional fluctuation when they hit a rough spot, but you will no longer feel as though you too are at risk of drowning every single time. 

They don’t love you any less

This is a question that floats in our subconscious, afraid to breach the surface. Most times, we may not even be aware that we have this fear. If they are so unhappy, do they regret getting married? Perhaps they regret having us as well. Are we stopping them from pursuing their own happiness? These are the worries that pile up in our mind long before the D word is ever mentioned. It makes us hold back when speaking to our parents, hesitant to look them in the eye, afraid to know the answer. In everyone’s flurry to reconcile the two warring parties, the third internal battle often goes unnoticed.

We build our identities on ‘stable’ structures- our family, friends, religion, work etc. When any of these begins to crumble, so too does our sense of self and self-worth. We need assurance from our parents that though the bond between them is changing, their love for us as their child has not. It is something most parents would rush to assure once asked, but may neglect to emphasise otherwise.

So if you are in doubt, just ask. It is better than the uncertainty of not knowing. But chances are you are worried over nothing. 

They may or may not still love each other
This is a something we may blurt out to one party or the other in the lull of a silence. Do you still love Mum/Dad? It seems vital that we must know because if the answer is yes, there is still hope. If the answer is no, then all is lost. But the reality is far from that simple. They may still love each other and choose to separate, or they may no longer feel any love, yet stay in the marriage.  Emotions are so convoluted that they may not know at all. Or perhaps they have been avoiding this issue and your question has forced them to re-evaluate their relationship. When we as children ask this question, we must understand its limitations and be prepared for the consequences.

It’s okay to talk about divorce

The D word is scary. When thrown out in a fit of passion, it is meant to wound- and it does. But more terrifying still is when it is spoken in seriousness. It means a whole other world that is mutually exclusive to the one you now reside in. It is final. When Divorce happens, your current reality ceases to exist.

Except that that is not entirely true. Divorce does not have to be a mythical horror, spoken about only in shadows. If we do that, we accord it more power than it should have. It is a big decision, to be sure, and one that should not be approached lightly. But precisely because it is such a big decision, we should discuss it properly with all parties involved. And that includes us, the children.

Often times, parents are afraid to broach the topic because they do not want to make us worry. But we can see exactly what has been going on for months or years and the toll that it has taken on all parties - we are not blind.

We love our parents, we don’t want them to be miserable- we want them to be happy. And if this means discussing ALL the options that are on the table, then so be it. Just because divorce is discussed does not mean it will be taken. And just because we are open to talking about it does not mean that we have given up hope on their marriage or on them.

Sometimes, all people need is the knowledge that they have the freedom to choose if they so wish. Or perhaps the offered reality of an alternative they have long viewed as their ‘escape’ will not appeal as much as they first thought. Whatever the family decides, it should be done as a whole, with everyone upfront about discussing all options, including divorce.

You are not doomed to repeat their mistakes

It’s not true. Not all marriage has to be like this. Just because your parents have lost the thread at the moment does not mean they were never happy together, that they will never be happy again. Marriage has hope- Love has hope.

It is easy to be demoralised about your own potential, to watch the power couple that has always held centre stage tear each other up and think- what’s the point? If we all end up like this, then what the hell is the point.

Do not allow yourself to fall down this pessimistic, fatalistic well. You are not your parents. You are a different person entirely and you will choose how you behave in the future.

And despite how fruitless it all seems right now, there is a point in all this suffering. You have just had an excellent case study in what not to do. Every little thing that you wish you could make your parents see- store that up in your mental inventory. It is a promise to yourself and to your future partner that you will never repeat these sins against each other. Look into your own heart at the sorrow that is there and swear to your future children that you will never put them through this pain. Mister Auguste Rodin was correct when he said ‘Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely’.

It will pass
I know some days it seems like it will never, ever, end. Either make-up right now or get a divorce already- don’t go putting us through this crap any longer. That is the worse part- the uncertainty, the dread that it might go on forever. But I am here to tell you that nothing remains unchanged. For better or for worse, your family will move forward from its current situation. Whether it is because time has grown over old wounds, age has mellowed them, other priorities have stepped in, they have finally learnt to communicate better or have called it quits, there will be an end to it. Change is inevitable but we are human- we will adapt. 

When the ashes have settled and the smoke has cleared, look out- we will build our worlds again, together.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Everyday Inspirations #4

Today we have the chance to speak to Dr Mo Yin, a senior resident in Infectious Diseases, about the work she did with the World Health Organization in Liberia during the Ebola outbreak. If you are interested in doing overseas aid work, read on to find out about the obstacles she faced and how she stays motivated despite everything.

1) Tell me about your experiences in Liberia  
During the Ebola outbreak, I had the opportunity to work with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Liberia for 1 month, doing policy work on infection control and prevention.

On our first day there, we were woken at 6am for an emergency meeting. A man had escaped an Ebola treatment centre. He was very sick and hence he probably carried a lot of virus. On his way home, he fell off a cab and 2 young men helped him. They later fell sick but not before getting involved in a gang fight where a lot of blood was spilt. The outbreak had just been beginning to settle at this point and we really wanted to contain the area.

Later we visited the surrounding clinics and were surprised to find that despite being 1 year into the outbreak, they still had not implemented proper triaging and quarantining measures. I saw a man who was supposed to be in isolation take a seat amongst a group of women holding their babies.

In Monrovia (capital of Liberia), there is only 1 main road. There are no postal services and no addresses. Only 100 doctors that serve a few million people. An entire hospital of 700 beds may have only 1 doctor!

There were about 70 Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on infection control alone and as you can imagine, the situation was chaotic. Comunication and coordination of efforts were difficult despite the best intentions.

This was the kind of setting that we were met with. Our question was how could we unite everyone’s effort?

With guidance from my supervisors, I came up with an electronic database. We used a very simple online platform- google sheets. The idea being that every time an infection control specialist visited a clinic, they had to have their data entered into these sheets. This allowed us to compare the different areas such that we could easily spot and immediately target what they were lacking eg. personal protective equipment or better training. We could also keep track of how the different clinics were progressing and published this data to the NGOs to make sure they didn’t end up doing double work. All in all, it helped us decide how to allocate limited resources and directed the NGOs where help was needed.

I remember when I first presented it to the NGOs, people came up to me saying that they had been waiting for something like this.

Facilitating an infection prevention and control course to the Liberian county representatives 

Doing a simulation exercise with the National Infection Prevention and Control in-charge at a clinic in Monrovia
“These are the kinds of things that you can only pick up if you are there to see the situation on the ground- it can never be learnt through textbooks.”
2) What made you decide to serve overseas?

I am a big believer in equality. I feel that the most valuable thing to a person is opportunity- the freedom to choose. Regardless of where you are born or who you are born to, it should not limit the opportunities you have and one of the foundations you can never argue with is health. You can argue that they don’t need computers in the mountains but they need basic health care. With good health come opportunities. This was one of the most direct ways that I could offer life to people, so I decided to do medicine. Naturally, I am interested in developing countries because I feel there is a lot of room for empowerment there.

3) How did you decide which niche of overseas work to focus on?

Post-tsunami visit to Yogyakarta, Indonesia, doing post-trauma therapy with the children

Before medical school, I had gone on a few missions trips to China, post- tsunami Indonesia and aboriginal Malaysia. The longest of these was to China for 2 weeks. The main issue I have with these trips is the sustainability or the lack of it. There has to be a long term commitment to be physically there and for me, this is difficult.

So I am trying to fulfil [my desire to help] through other means, like training to be an Infectious Diseases (ID) physician and doing a PhD in infection control research. I believe that influencing policy leads to the most sustainable healthcare outcomes.

4) How can people working on the ground make their trips more sustainable?

It has to be about teaching skills and capacity building. If you are going there to build a school, you might as well teach someone how to build a school instead. It takes a lot of preparation to study what the socio-economic-political setup is in the region before you can deliver what is actually needed. Also, establishing a relationship with the local people is extremely important.

For every overseas trip that you make, it is important to assess the goals first. What can we contribute to the local community? How will it benefit them and ourselves? It is important to build up the skillsets before making the decision to help.

5) Did you have to make any sacrifices along the way?
Doing this PhD is taking time off my training and going out of my comfort zone. Sometimes I wonder what kind of career support I would get if I decide to focus on developing countries and not doing cutting edge science. And my mom is always worried about me being an old maid!

6) What are some challenges you faced on your trip?
It was very difficult to even get to Liberia. I was originally thinking of volunteering with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) but the day I applied, their first international staff got infected with Ebola- so they started declining all international staff. Then the WHO opportunity opened up. I had to convince WHO to take me even though I was not that experienced and had to get approval from all levels- my residency committee, my immediate supervisor/programme director, the hospital CEO, the Ministry of Health…(laughs) my family. Then there were the questions of what if I import the disease? What if I fall sick there? In the end, I was very lucky- my head of department had been there twice and said he would supervise me.

On the trip itself, implementation can be very difficult. The education level and concerns are all different. Cultural differences are subtle but can make a project fail terribly. For example, during the Ebola crisis, vaccines went in to help them. But when we were there, there were signboards saying ‘it’s a conspiracy, they are coming to jab Ebola into us!’ A lot of this suspicion is based on the history of the country.

How do you bridge this gap?
You have to build friendships and trust. You must find the key person, whom the people trust. In certain communities, it may be the religious leader, in others the clinic leader.

7) What keeps you going despite the difficulties?
“I feel that we are all here because we are meant to contribute something. We need to find a sweet spot between what the world needs, what we are good at and what we like. Only when we find that sweet spot can we really contribute.”
I haven’t completely figured out what my role should be. But for me, I like to narrow things down. I first decided that medicine was something I wanted to commit to and then that ID was something that could open doors for me. Going on to do a PhD is simply a further exploration of something that I may be good at.

Of course, there are a lot of obstacles along the way. The more you expose yourself to opportunities, the more fatigue and burnout you face. Many days you have no time for yourself and you will begin to ask- ‘What am I doing?’ But you have to learn to re-prioritize- it is all part of a learning journey.

“What makes a person great is not how successful you are at one thing, but being able to tell yourself at the end of the journey that you haven’t given up- that you are still moving towards your goal.”
8) How do you balance your work and personal life?
Someone once told me- ‘find something you enjoy doing and do more of that’. I really enjoy working with my patient population. Because work makes me so happy, I can put my interests aside for a time and focus on my patients. When work is getting tiring and I need to focus on something else for a while, I will do that.

I used to tell myself that I needed to do one run and one reading session each week but it is really difficult to stick to that. So just do whatever keeps you happy.

9) What advice would you give to someone who is considering doing overseas humanitarian work?
To me, helping people is not about going overseas or doing a project.

“It is about brushing up your communication skills, making a connection with another person or spending that extra hour with a patient that has the potential to change his/her life. It is a lifelong commitment.”
Before committing to overseas work, you need to know yourself, your limits and your family situation. You need to know what the needs of others are before contributing. There is a lot to do everywhere. Even for the people right beside you.

Thank you for sharing your experience with us!

If you would like to find out more about Dr Mo Yin’s time in Liberia, you can check out this article or this publication

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Everyday Inspirations #3

Today we speak to Ms Norma and her family about end-of-life care decisions and what it means to live life to the fullest. We hope that sharing their story will help others begin to have these important- yet often overlooked- conversations with their own loved ones.

At 90, Ms Norma was diagnosed with uterine cancer during the 2 weeks that her husband, Leo, was dying. Faced with treatment options or a stay in the local nursing home, Ms Norma chose instead to embrace life, embarking on an indefinite road trip with her son (Tim), daughter-in-law (Ramie) and their dog (Ringo). In the 9 months since, they have travelled to over 60 different campsites across America, and their story has inspired countless others. You can read about their adventures here.

 "SMILE!"- Image by Driving Ms Norma

Q1) How did you broach the topic of end-of-life planning with Ms Norma?
Tim and Ramie: We were scared to death to broach the topic. Every summer we would drive across the country to visit with Leo and Norma for a few weeks. Each time we talked about how this was going to be the year to talk about their wishes and the reality that someday they wouldn't be able to live independently in their rural home. 

There was always a to-do-list when we arrived. We would trim trees, power-wash the deck, make repairs. We would do all of these things and then it was time to go. We would put the talk off for another year.

It wasn't until we arrived to an absolute crisis that the topic was really talked about. Leo was dying and Norma had a large tumor, before Norma was ready to talk about it. 

We had not received Norma's diagnosis yet, but had a feeling it was coming when we finally brought up the topic at the kitchen table. 

Q2) What went through your mind in making your decision?
Ms Norma: I knew I couldn't stay at home by myself without Leo and I didn't like the idea of going into a nursing home. When Tim and Ramie asked if I wanted to come along with them, I thought that would be best.

Q3) What does having a good quality of life mean to you?
All: We all enjoy good food and being outdoors. We also like to see new things and are interested in the diversity the world has to offer. Now that Norma is not experiencing the side-effects of the many medications she was previously taking, her quality of life has improved tremendously. 
"She lives in the present moment and has taught us to do the same."
Enjoying the view at Niagara Falls Canada/ USA

 Tim and Ms Norma take a walk

Getting her feet wet at Hilton Head Island Beach
- Images by Driving Ms Norma

Q4) In your opinion, what is the best way to go about doing end-of-life planning?
All: We certainly are not experts in this area. This trip came about in a panic to do something that made the most sense to our family. We have learned that our story has helped other families start that difficult conversation much sooner than we were able to. With that said, the circumstances of every family are different and can change at the drop of a hat. If end-of-life talk becomes part of a normal conversation way before anyone falls ill, it will likely be much easier to modify the plans when the time comes. 

Q5) How did the medical community react to Ms Norma’s decision?
All: That is an interesting question. One of Norma's doctors begged her to undergo the standard treatment for her type of cancer, saying "Don't you want to live to be 95?" Another doctor first laid out the standard treatments (surgery, then chemotherapy and radiation in some order) assuming that we would make an appointment for surgery upon leaving his office. Once Norma told him she wasn't doing anything for the cancer and instead was traveling with us, he immediately encouraged her and said, “As doctors, we see what cancer treatment looks like every day: ICU, nursing homes, awful side effects. Honestly, there is no guarantee she will survive the initial surgery to remove the mass. You are doing exactly what I would want to do in this situation. Have a fantastic trip!”

Since our story has gone viral we hear from medical professionals every day. They are all in support of Norma's decision and wish that more elderly patients would make similar choices for themselves.

Q6) What kind of support would you have liked to have gotten from the medical community?
All: It amazes us that the choice of doing nothing is not offered. It takes a strong person with a medical advocate to overcome the pressure to continue to treat a condition, especially when the treatment could very well lead to a much poorer quality of life. 

Q7) How has Ms Norma’s condition been since hitting the road? 
Tim and Ramie: We have taken her off all her medications (there were several) with one exception (thyroid medication.) We have noticed an increase in her energy and her brain function. She had many side- effects that impacted her quality of life that have now gone away. She is quick to smile and is in no pain.

 Getting a kiss at Georgia Aquarium

  Giving it a go at NC Therapeutic Riding Center

Tim suprises Ms Norma with a lobster
- Images by Driving Ms Norma

Q8) What has been the most rewarding part of your journey thus far?
All: Never in our wildest dreams did we think anyone would care about our family's simple solution to a common issue. Many people take in their parents at this stage of their lives. Our home just happens to have wheels. 

We started a Facebook page so that our friends and family would know where we were in the country. We have since gone viral and we hear heart-warming and heart-wrenching stories from our many followers, and they also give us love and support. 
"People from all over the world are now saying "yes!" to living, not just to life. That is rewarding."

Q9) Do you have any regrets?
Ms Norma: Oh, no. I can't think of anything.

Ms Norma fulfills her dream of riding in a hot air balloon!- Image by Driving Ms Norma

Q10) Looking forward, where do you think Driving Ms Norma is headed?
All: Right now Norma intends to travel with us for the remainder of her days. She would love to see the redwoods in California, so we will probably head in that direction later this year.

Q11) Do you have any advice for others who are facing end-of-life care decisions?
All: We certainly aren't in the business of giving advice. We believe this is a very personal decision and we hope that everyone has the strength to be clear about the ones they make. 

In our case, we supported Norma and didn't try to change her mind. Having us by her side when she was talking to the doctors gave her the strength to stand up to them without feeling pressured to do something she really didn't want to do. She knew we had her back, if you will.

Many have shared stories of their dying loved-ones who made the choice to artificially extend their lives just to please loved ones. Their final days were neither peaceful nor natural. The writers tell us they wish they had not pressured them to fight when those extra days, weeks or months were filled with pain, discomfort and strife. Fortunately, we were all on the same page.

Mother and son climbing Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park- Image by Driving Ms Norma 

Thank you for sharing your story!

Monday, June 6, 2016

Everyday Inspirations #2

Interview with a solo traveller

Today we chat with Jamie* about solo travelling and the 9 month mostly overland trip she took from Spain to Singapore. If you have ever wanted to know about the safety/ logistics of solo travelling or are interested in her takeaways, then do read on ☺

(*Note: name has been changed as she preferred the anonymity.)

Alone, but how could this be lonely? There are the mountains, the earth, the wind, the stillness, the history.”- Image by Jamie*

1) What made you decide to take your first solo trip?
This wasn’t my first solo trip, and by then, I had already been travelling by myself such that travelling solo wasn’t a question anymore.

I love travelling alone primarily because of the independence and freedom I have in every decision, and that it opens me up to many more people.

2) How long was the trip and where did you go?
9 months mostly overland from Spain to Singapore (see map).

Europe Leg

Asia Leg

3) How were the logistics?
I spent a total of SGD 2400 in the 9 months, including visas, flights, food, accommodation (or the lack of).

I took off with a 20 kg backpack, which included my DSLR and electronics, some food I emptied out of my fridge, and all the winter and summer clothes I thought I might need. I left everything else behind in Edinburgh.

The first 30min carrying this “monster” backpack (it was given this name by one of my fellow hosts on my journey) was heavy and long. I wasn’t sure if it was practical or possible to handle it for the next… year. It got lighter and I got stronger over the days.

I spent USD 2 on accommodation for the 9 months. $0.50 to a cute old lady whom I didn’t feel the need to explain what I was doing, and $1.50 at a place near the hospital where I refused to be hospitalised; both in Nepal. The other days I would have couchsurfed, stayed with friends/strangers, spent the night in a police station, been invited to my hitchhiking drivers’ homes, slept in a cave with a shepherd and his 200 goats… I had a roof over my head everyday, except for one night in an old town in Croatia. But even then the decision was voluntary (the roof offered to me was an hour in the other direction I was hoping to go to), and I took my roofless opportunity to experience the nightlife in the city. With my monster.

Dec 2014, Užice and Sevojno, Serbia, Hitchhiking in the fog- Image by Jamie*

For transport I mostly hitchhiked: with buses, cars, trucks, motorbikes, trains… It wasn’t so much a restriction I imposed on myself; I chose whatever the most convenient and comfortable way was. I snuck onto trains in India for long distance travels (without consent from the conductors of course, so you can't really call it hitchhiking.) I had to take a couple of flights due to visa problems (e.g. Iran, Pakistan, Myanmar).

Communication was never really a big problem. The basic words you really need like “water”, “food”, “house” can easily be communicated by a few charades. I am very interested in languages, so I try to learn the local language where I am. I also found out that learning the local language (even if very basic) will always open you up to a lot more people, their culture, and unexpected experiences.

For food- (laughs)- the best idea is to find families! There will always be a mummy (or occasionally, a daddy) who cooks the best local food, and will take care of you as if you were their child. I love cooking, so I try to learn recipes and go to local markets wherever I go.

4) Were there any points where you felt unsafe?
The first time I felt unsafe was when I arrived in India. I was told by every single person who had learnt about my plan to visit India alone as a female, that I was ‘stupid’ to go there alone. The sexual assault stories were all familiar to me by then. “Be careful and good luck,” they said.

Naturally, I was paranoid and on my guard the moment I arrived in India. But I realized that these views are not always true - India turned out to be not very different from the other places I had been. I soon felt safe again.

How would you advise solo travellers on unsafe situations?
Try to prevent any unsafe situation: 1) Don’t take unnecessary risks. 2) Respect the culture - do your research of the law and customs - eg. You can get arrested for not wearing the Hijab in Iran. In India, don’t wear shorts to attract unnecessary attention. 3) Make agreements with yourself about what you will and will not do. For me, I don’t (or at least, try not to) hitchhike overnight or roam the streets alone at night in certain countries.

If you are already in an unsafe situation: stay calm and have a clear head- focus on finding a way out rather than feeling afraid.

5) Were there any times you felt lonely?
There is a distinction between lonely and alone. You can be alone and be perfectly at peace with it. Even though I was travelling alone, I was never once lonely. I was always meeting new people everyday. I am also very comfortable just being with myself. In fact, it is important to me to have some personal time.

There was only one time, at the eight-month mark in Nepal, that I missed home and being around the comfort of family and friends. It was when a few unfortunate events hit me at once - I had food poisoning, was on post-exposure rabies vaccination, had a very bad allergic reaction… and on top of these the Nepal earthquake happened. There was a moment I did feel that it would have been nice to just have someone telling me everything was going to be okay…

May 2015, Pokhara, Kaski, Nepal- Image by Jamie*

6) What did you learn?
I learnt so many things. I learnt about love, religions, humanity…

I also learnt that the ‘poorest’ people are often the ones that share the most. The less you have, the more you know how to share or give.

I was very lucky to experience many sides of some places, from staying in a rich uptown neighbourhood, to sharing a small living space with a family who had recently managed to get out of a slum. Even if the family did not have much, they would share whatever food they had with me. They would even pack lunch for me as they were worried about what food I would be able to find outside. 

7) The best moment(s) of the trip?
Everyday was really special to me… There were many moments I remember being driven to tears, seeing how lucky I was to have met so many amazing people.

To share with you one, I can tell you about my most romantic friend. I call him that not because we had romantic feelings for each other, but because what we did together was just so special. He was really so sweet.

I wanted to hitchhike to the mountains in Iran. It was winter. He told me, “No hitchhiking. Also no people go there, so cold. You no go mountains.” I shrugged it off and insisted that I would find a way. The next day, he told me he wanted to show me something. We got into a car with his 2 other friends -a girl and a boy- (in his religion in the country, a boy and a girl cannot be alone together). He drove off and I didn't even ask where we were going- I love surprises. And then I saw the mountains. I was so touched - he had taken leave from work, borrowed a car, called his friends and made all the plans, just so that his silly friend could get her wish to visit the mountains. We had a lovely picnic in the mountains with a spread of food and drinks (Man, Iranians sure know how to do a picnic.), and a lovely short hike in snow and ice. We picked and ate ‘ice lollipops’ along the trail.

We got into the car and I thought we must be heading home now, after such a lovely day. Until I noticed the rickety car driving over sand… and I saw many people paragliding from the sand dunes.

My friend. A pilot. You fly? With him?” he asked me.

We ended the day with climbing the sand dunes, watching the sunset, talking about life at the top, and sitting by a fire under the starry night in the desert.

It is the culture in Iran to give gifts to guests. I told him that I didn’t need any material items. So he gave me this wrist band. He wanted to remind me to fulfil my dream to rock climb.

8) Any regrets?

No (laughs). I wouldn’t trade anything for all the people I have met. Of course there is a bit of sadness. You meet so many amazing people that touch and shape your life but it is physically and emotionally impossible to share a life together all the time (or if at all). For some you may never see them again. Relationships are intense but fleeting.

I still keep in touch with some of them through the internet, but it will never be the same as being with them. And there are others where there is simply no way of keeping in touch - they may not have internet, or even an address in the village, or maybe we don’t speak the same language. But, at the same time, this has taught me the ephemerality of things. I am grateful we crossed each other’s paths, no matter how brief. I will always remember them.

9) Looking forward, do you think you will be taking more solo trips or travelling with others?
It depends on my objective of each trip. I enjoy travelling solo and will probably continue doing so, but I would also like to share the experiences with a selected few (e.g. my younger brother).

It’s also great to have a travel partner in many ways - 2 brains are always better than 1, you learn from and about your partner, he/she may see the same things in a different perspective, and sometimes just having someone with you adds a sense of security. It also makes it logistically easier- you share the load and costs. But it is extremely important that person’s travel expectations align with your own.

10) What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about taking their own solo trip?
Be open minded, respect differences.

Everyone travels differently, so figure out your own style. And bon voyage :)

Thank you for sharing your story!