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Laura's Travelling Through It

My better late than never gap year

Why Travelling Through It?

The thought started forming in October and it didn’t end. I couldn’t escape it and it seems that things were aligning to make it happen.

Some dramatic life events happened in 2016 – some good, some great, and some the absolute worst. When my apartment was put up for sale then sold, I had no choice but to move out. So instead of looking for a new place, I followed through on my decision to go travelling.

My news was met with mixed reactions, most of them as I’d expected. When telling mum and dad, the obvious parental concerns came out: Where will you go? Is it safe? What about your house deposit? Friends were supportive and excited for me. Work colleagues were excited yet disappointed I’d be leaving them after such a short time.

At that stage, I wasn’t too sure about the exact where or when, but I knew I had to do it. As my sister pointed out, I will always have the opportunity to save money again, but I won’t have the opportunity to travel with no responsibilities again.

So the next few months passed, and here I am. Sitting in a hotel in Bangkok with the next 20 days planned and then nothing. I’m telling myself that I’ll be away for three months but I’m not sure. It’s a start. I’ve tried not to give myself any expectations or commit myself to anything except letting me be me.

In life we have many regrets, but travelling isn’t one of them. After a tumultuous 2016, I’m ready for a more relaxed and rewarding 2017. That’s how I’ve come to be Travelling Through It.

 

 

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We are all F*#^ing Awesome

I’ve recently finished reading Dawn French’s Dear Fatty. I knew it would be funny and eye opening, but I had no idea just how much I would enjoy it, or how much it would speak to me.

I loved how she made jokes throughout; her ability to tell a story is amazing. I love how she describes her love for and the inner workings of the people she holds dearest. I love how she is so accepting of herself, of others and the world. She is so open and down to earth and doesn’t take anything for granted. This is a strong woman anyone and everyone could, and should, look up to.

I wasn’t going to write a post specifically about or for International Women’s Day – there are far more who can put ideas and actions into words much more effectively than I. But I’ve been itching to write and there is a resounding theme I’ve had stuck in my head that seems somewhat appropriate to write about today.

I’ve mentioned how when I was travelling, I was strong, independent and apparently empowering to women around me. I built myself up by building others up. I took on a maternal role with my African tour groups and ensured we all had fun. I tried to be inclusive of all and get to know everyone, trying to spend some private time with each of them. I apparently took this role quite seriously fairly early on, when I ‘trapped’ a few of my travelling ladies in the bathroom and screamed at them for a short period of time (an hour I’ve been told…. whatever) that we were ‘f*#^ing awesome’.

It ended up becoming quite the catch phrase and I’ve had requests for an empowerment speech numerous times since the tours ended. I’ve mentioned the lovely Anika before – my favourite little one. She was tearing herself apart for whatever reason and I just had to stop her. At only 19 I can certainly understand what she’s feeling – at that age I was exceptionally low in self-esteem and had no idea who I was or where I fitted into the world.

I immediately told her to stop it – to stop putting herself down. I said I’d done it myself which ended up ruining my 20’s. And I totally did. I had some incredible experiences in my 20’s, I started an amazing career, I met my beautiful bestie and I started independent travel. But I had no body confidence, no self-esteem and doubted myself at every single turn.

I do not want anyone else to go through that – we all talk about how 30 is the new 20. Why should it be? Why can’t we actually enjoy being 20 and going through this incredible part of our life? Why does it take ten years for it to all sink in?

I caught up with a friend last week, the first time I’d seen her since my miscarriage and I was honest with her. I felt like shit. I’d had a rough week and I really couldn’t see much positivity ahead of me. I was back to where I was over a year ago. I had effectively allowed two months to undo the good the last year had provided.

She scolded me (in her gentle-but-harsh-to-the-point-Mel way) and asked if I was truly going to let everything I’d gained and learnt last year just disappear. I said that perhaps I would. Today marks 5 weeks since my surgery and also what would have been my (almost) 13-week mark. Things are looking grim – I can’t see the light.

What has resounded in me since reading ‘Dear Fatty’, and more so since seeing Mel, were some powerful words that Dawn wrote. I actually took a photo of the page so as I could refer back to it.

She was talking about her own lack of confidence (Dawn French?!?!?) and how she was able to get things done. How when she was in a new environment, she reinvented herself: “These people didn’t know me, there was no shared history, so I could be anything or anyone I wanted to be.”

I feel like I’m the same – I am a different person around different people, I am a different person in different situations, I am a different person when I’m by myself, when I’m running, when I’m shopping, when I’m at home or out.

I was a different person when I was travelling. I had an empty slate and I could fill it in in any way I damn well pleased. When I get to know people, I mention that I’m actually quite shy – most don’t believe me. But in certain situations or around specific people, I know what needs to be done, so I set about making myself do it. I become the person required for that situation, for those people. Much like when I found out about my second miscarriage, I knew what needed to be done, so I set about doing it. When I was alone, I fell apart. When I was with friends, I held myself together.

When I was travelling, I knew we needed someone to help rally the troops, to help get the party started and to be the empowering woman constantly telling the other women that ‘we are f*#^ing awesome!’ So I did it. I’m not saying I’m not that person – I can only do something if I truly believe it myself – but I let those parts highlight me more than the self-doubting parts, the quiet reserved parts, the responsible, budget conscious and safety-aware parts. I had to be someone who was enjoying herself, so I was.

When I resigned from my last job, my HR Manager who knew what I’d been through was surprised when I told her I wasn’t coping with my miscarriage, that I needed to get away. She told me that I’d hidden my feelings and struggles quite well. My direct manager, who only found out when I told him as I resigned, was also surprised; he’d had no idea. I’m sure many others in the office had no idea either. I had to go to work and do my job – I had to set the team and I up for success. I couldn’t be the bumbling, grieving mess I was outside work to be the person I was at work.

The same happened when I had a job interview rescheduled a couple of weeks ago. It was a simple reschedule, nothing else. Yet I wanted to fall apart simply because I was able to. I didn’t have to be the perfect-for-the-job person that afternoon. I could just be the not-happy-with-life person I was at the time.

So, on this day of International Women, let’s not beat ourselves up. Let’s be who we are and not be ashamed of it – don’t hide away from others or yourself. If you want to have a cry, have a cry. If you want to have a drink and yell at those around you that you’re all f*#^ing awesome, do it. As the lovely Mrs French says: “It’s a process of having faith in the self you don’t quite know you are yet… Believing that you will find the strength, the means somehow, and trusting in that.”

I’m feeling happier today than I have in awhile – I’ll let that person shine through. I also know that when I need to, I’ll let the unhappy, grieving mother inside of me shine through. After all, we’re all f*#^ing awesome. Myself included.

Reason for it All?

Unsurprisingly, I’m still full of questions and doubts. So many doubts. Lots of whys. Lots of what ifs.

I can’t help but wonder if maybe the what if’s played a part in it all. I wonder why the world has to be so cruel. I wonder if I’d done anything differently would the situation be the same? If I’d been happier, would I still have an additional heartbeat thumping through my belly? If I’d not been so scared of what others would say or how they’d react, would my baby have kept on living?

A friend told me that things happen for a reason. I told her that I used to believe that too. What could be the reason for hardship and heartbreak and pain and grief? I used to believe that things happen for a reason too.

But, what could the reason be for me falling pregnant not once, but twice, unexpectedly? What could be the reason for me going through not one, but two, miscarriages? What could be the reason for me having to live in hope, immense hope, not once, but twice, to then have it all taken away from me?

What reason can anyone give for me having not one, but two, babies die inside of me?

My bestie has been tremendous (der). She’s checked in on me daily, she’s made sure I’ve got out of the house and has made plans with me, offered me support and advice and a caring, listening ear. But she was also honest – she can’t know what I’m going through. She’s had not one, but two, successful pregnancies. She has not one, but two, incredible children. Children who light up her day, her night, her week, her life. Not one, but two, children whom I adore.

I’m not asking for anything when I talk about what I’ve been through. No one can ever truly understand what someone else is going through unless they themselves have been through it. I’m not asking for understanding, sympathy or even empathy. I’m not after anything.

I just want – need – to share. Last time I bottled most of it up – I did reach out to one person, but he was not equipped to help. The one person who may have had some inkling as to what I was going through. Obviously not in the end.

This time, I don’t want things to be the same. Clearly, I can’t reach out to that one person who may feel the same – because they know nothing. They get to go on living their life completely unaware of the pain and heartache, and brief life they helped create. I’ve chosen not to tell them, I can’t reach out, and I can’t be bitter with them. I’m trying hard not to be bitter with myself, with life.

How can I not be bitter? When something is given to you not once, but twice, something that you didn’t think you would ever get, something that you didn’t realise how much you wanted – needed – until you had it taken away from you; how can you not be bitter?

I went through counselling last time; I’d previously seen a psychologist to help with self-esteem issues (yes – I had self-esteem issues), so went back to seek help with what I had thought was depression. Turns out, I was grieving. Heavily grieving.

She helped me work on self-care and gave me tools to help me through. Instinctively, I’m using those same tools this time. The biggest tool I had was to write. I started up another blog last time and kept it personal. I told only a couple of friends about it – it was immensely private and raw. But it helped.

This time I don’t want to shy away from anything – I don’t want there to be any secrets and I don’t want others to be nervous around me, to shy away or hide their own happiness. I want things to be different. I want people to feel comfortable giving me a hug; smiling at me; sharing good news. I want to be a part of others’ happiness. I want to keep on living.

Last time I shut myself away in my lonely apartment and went to and from work, the supermarket and my psychologist. I had far too much time on my own. I was driving to and from work, left alone with my thoughts. I had a big secret inside of me I wasn’t comfortable sharing with anyone. I had to act happy and nonchalant when asked about my own family; when jokes were made about me clearly not having kids, as I didn’t drink coffee; when others were excited about their own families expanding.

This time I’m not going to shut myself away. This time I’m working on my fitness and getting outside in the sun; I’m trying to maintain a ‘healthy’ diet; I’m not hiding within myself.

This time I’m not going to keep my heartache a secret. I’m not going to shout it from the rooftops (just share it in a public blog….), but I’ll be honest about how I’m feeling. I don’t want to be uncomfortable about what I’m going through. I want to be comfortable in my own skin and I want to show others that I’m okay. I’m doing it tough and still don’t understand, but I’m doing okay.

I’ve been commenting a lot about missing travel and the person I became. I’m happiest when I’m in love; I was immensely in love with my ex, I was immensely in love with travelling. I was falling immensely in love with myself. Last time I ran away to find myself. This time I can’t run away. I can’t see myself feeling immense love in the near future.

I’ll always miss travel when I’m not doing it. I can always look forward to my next trip, my next overseas adventure. I can save and plan and book and explore and I’ll be ready. Travel will always be an option. There will always be places to explore, people to visit, drinks to be drunk and experiences to be had. I can always know what, where, when and how. I can plan for that and prepare for any setbacks or obstacles. I can save and know ahead what is going to happen. I can have insurance for the unexpected and work on back up plans. I can’t do any of that with pregnancy.

I’ll always miss my two babies. But I’m scared to look forward to a safe pregnancy; doubt will always fill my mind. I can’t know how it will go; I can’t plan or prepare for any setbacks. How can I possibly prepare myself for a third or subsequent lack of heartbeat? How can I alter my thoughts and plans of being a mum and picturing what my child will look like? How can I prepare for more grief? I can’t get an insurance policy for losing a baby. I can’t go to a back up or have contingency plans in place. I can’t right now in all honesty, look forward to pregnancy.

As much as I want to, I don’t know if I can look forward to another baby. What if after all of this, the mothering and nurturing I love, isn’t supposed to relate to my own actual real life baby? What if I’m actually not meant to be a mother? What if the reason I fell pregnant was to see if I truly was happy… and then have them taken away as I was happy enough without them?

I do know that life would be very different had I given birth one year ago. I wouldn’t have spent last year overseas on an epic adventure. I wouldn’t have made the friends I made, met the people I met, or did the crazy things I did.

If this baby had stayed with me, where would I be a year from now? Would I still be living with mum and dad? Would I have found a job? Would I have an involved father for my child? Would I be happy with myself as a person? Would I be longing for more travel, more overseas adventures?

Did my second baby hear these thoughts and make up my mind for me? Did they hear the doubts and the fears running through me? Did they mistake my fear and nerves at telling people about them as shame?

At the end of the day, I am a responsible woman. I know how to look after myself and about consequences and living with decisions made. Had this baby’s heartbeat continued, I would have loved them beyond anything possible, I would have cared for them like my life depended on it and I would have rocked at being a mum. Their mum.

Can I look forward to that now? I don’t know. To be told twice that miscarriages just happen, that the pregnancy, for whatever reason, isn’t viable. To be told that the next pregnancy should go full term, that there shouldn’t be any issues. Why should I believe any of that?

People joke about how travel is their baby. Well, perhaps for me it needs to be. I can always look forward to travel and make plans around that. I can go away and come back. I can save and spend and save again. I can have the world at my feet and not be held back. I can travel endlessly and aimlessly. I can look after travel as if my life depends on it. I can be the world’s best traveller.

Once all the travelling is done, will I still want that baby? Will I still want to be a mum? Will I still want to experience that nervousness and excitement at reading a pregnancy test? Will I still want to overcome my fear and hear a heartbeat on an ultrasound monitor?

Yes. The answer is yes. I love travel and who I am when I travel. But it’s not everything. I can have both. I deserve both.

What reason could there be for me not being able to have both? If everything happens for a reason, there has to be a reason for me wanting – and deserving – both. There has to be a reason for me experiencing the early feelings of motherhood. There has to be a reason for me wanting – deserving – to be a mum.

Highest of Highs; Lowest of Lows

This post is going to be extremely revealing and raw. I’m going to tell you how it is and I’m doing it without holding back. I’m not going to apologise for what comes out and I cried for most of it. I’m not going to apologise for the manner in which people find this, and find out what I’ve been through. I’m writing this for me and this is how I’m choosing to talk about it. How I’m choosing to help myself heal.

***

I had some incredible personal achievements in 2017: I overcame my fear of financial security by quitting my job and taking a career break; I overcame my fear of loneliness by boarding an aeroplane and travelling solo for six months through South East Asia; I overcame my fear of falling over and did three multiple-day treks in the rain in Vietnam and Myanmar; I overcame my fear of letting go by doing a zip line course in Chiang Mai, Thailand; I overcame my fear of being underwater and completed my scuba dive certification in Koh Tao, Thailand; I overcame my fear of permanence and got a tattoo in Malaysia; I overcame my fear of bridges and did a tour and bungee swing off Victoria Falls Bridge in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe/Zambia; I overcame my fear of small aeroplanes and went sky diving in Swakopmund, Namibia; I overcame my fear of my body and embraced short shorts and a bikini throughout Africa.

I found out who I was as a woman and a person. I am strong, independent, confident, funny and supportive. I am a problem solver and a people builder. I am sexy and attractive and I can put myself out of my comfort zone.

I’ve recently suffered through my equal first biggest failure. Equal only to the exact same failure of approximately 18 months ago.

I accomplished so much in 2017, yet I can’t celebrate any of it, as all I can focus on is this incredible failure. This second failure of my body that has no rhyme or reason. This failure that will never have a cause or an explanation. This one big, fat negative that will eat at my heart and soul for years to come, if not forever.

I came home from Africa pregnant. Even with all the precautions taken, my body somehow fell pregnant. I hadn’t made myself prime for baby making – hell, I’d been partying and having more fun than I’d ever anticipated or had done before. I was not in a routine and above all else, I was careful. Yet something didn’t work and I conceived naturally, against all odds.

I will admit that I suspected I was pregnant for a while, yet didn’t believe it to be true. It was normal for me to be late, and with an unsettled diet and life, periods can be delayed. I wasn’t too concerned. I came home tired and seemed to sleep a lot, but I had just spent two months camping and partying and was no doubt suffering severe jet lag.

I’d made an appointment with my GP for a week or so after I got back – I was due for a follow up pap smear following a change in my results from a year ago. I also wanted to get myself checked over and make sure all was well. I bought the pregnancy tests simply as a way to rule out pregnancy before seeing her. I’m irregular. I have polycystic ovaries and there was a reasonable explanation as to why I may be late.

When two tests both revealed positive, I didn’t really believe them. But there’s no way for a false positive to occur. There’s no other way for HCG levels to appear.

“You’re pregnant.”

My GP was very matter of fact, much like last time. She asked me about the father, and told me not to be embarrassed when I shied away. I am a grown woman and know about safe sex. I said was confident of who the father was and that we were still in contact. I also reassured her that I would tell him*, but I wanted specific dates first.

So, much like last time, I completed the urine test, had oodles of blood drawn (let’s be honest, as much as I was safe, something didn’t work so as well as testing for pregnancy levels, I also had to be tested for STIs – all negative) and booked myself in for an ultrasound. Due to being unemployed and in a small amount of debt following my incredible year of achievements, I elected to go for the generic ultrasound at a local hospital – fully covered by Medicare.

I told a few friends of my situation and gained their immediate support. I elected not to tell my family until I knew more – I wanted to be sure of dates and that everything was going to be okay. I did manage to get my sister aside and revealed the news to her. She was of course shocked. I’d already told her about my time in Africa and how safe I had been.

I then went on to say that I had to go for a dating ultrasound and how scared I was and didn’t want to go alone. We managed to work out a way for her to come with me – mum and dad needn’t have known as they were heading off on holiday that same day. I didn’t want to worry them or distract them before going, so we agreed that I’d tell them when they returned.

Then the day arrived and she couldn’t come with me. She had to take them to the ferry terminal and short of revealing my biggest secret; I had no choice but to go alone.

I had told my friends about my appointment and asked them all to think happy, healthy heartbeat. That’s all I wanted. I just wanted to hear and see my baby’s happy, healthy heartbeat on the screen.

I got to the hospital and the radiologist was running half an hour late – I was lucky to have to sit for an hour with a full bladder and panic. The last time I’d had a scan, the results hadn’t been good.

Finally, I was called in. He placed the gel on my belly and proceeded to run the machine over me. After a few minutes, he said that he was concerned with the size and couldn’t see clearly enough. He wanted to do an internal scan.

He left to have a female staff member join us as I got changed. I went into auto pilot mode, knowing that this was going to be the same. I had tried telling him as I first went in that I was nervous, as my last dating scan had revealed I’d had a miscarriage. As much as I’d wished for a happy, healthy heartbeat, I knew. I knew I wasn’t going to hear one.

The images came up on screen once more, a little clearer now and he showed me my sac, where the baby was. How small it was in comparison. He showed me the heat and blood flowing around the sac, not inside. He said that there should have been a fluttering movement for the heartbeat, but there was nothing.

I froze – how can this happen again? Why is this happening again? Surely this is a mistake?

I had an appointment with my GP immediately after – there was no report ready due to the timeframe but I told her what he had said. She said that we didn’t need to lose hope yet. My bloods had come back and showed the right hormone levels for my approximate dates. She referred me back to the original radiologist I’d seen last time – they were specific for obstetrics and would show a more accurate result. I had more blood taken and booked in to see her the following afternoon then was on my way back to the radiologist.

The appointment was brief. He confirmed what the other radiologist had said and showed me again my sac and the foetus. How it was smaller than it should have been and that there was no heartbeat or movement or blood flowing through.

I was told of my failure. I was diagnosed with my second missed miscarriage.

I was alone for all of this. My friends thought I was with my sister. My sister thought I was with a friend. I wasn’t. I was alone. I had to deal with this and then drive home from the city.

I was surprisingly calm throughout. I knew the steps needed and what had to be done. I became extremely pragmatic and stopped to buy pads. If I started to bleed, I couldn’t use tampons. I kept a focus on my belly and checked for cramps. I tried not to tell myself that this was my fault. I tried to remove all emotion and just get it done.

I cried when I got home. I allowed myself moments of pain and tears then got myself together. I made myself a cheese sauce, as I no longer had to worry about the fat. I ate ice cream, as I no longer had to worry about the sugar.

The next day, I had to go to a job network appointment as part of my conditions for receiving Centrelink payments. I had to focus on moving forward and being practical. I then stopped by my bestie’s and told her what had happened. I needed to fill in time before my GP appointment. I said I was doing well, “better than last time”. Last time it wasn’t just the baby; last time it was also my relationship I had lost.

This time it was ‘just’ a baby.

I went back to my GP and received the same look from her as I had 18 months earlier, sadness and devastation filling her face. She asked how I was, and I again said, “better than last time”. She arranged for me to go to the Women’s Hospital the next morning and confirm my next steps. I said that I wasn’t keen for surgery this time and wanted to know more about medical assistance.

My friend told me that she’d come with me and I had no say in the matter. So, next morning we catch the tram to the hospital and again, I’m numb inside. I know where I need to go but don’t want to seem knowledgeable on the area. I hated being here last time. I hated being here again.

Eventually I was called in and spoke with a gynaecologist. She wanted to know why I didn’t want surgical assistance. I knew all options were horrible, but I didn’t want to wake up in a room again full of other women recovering from IVF treatments when I’d just had my dead baby removed from my body. I didn’t want to go through it again. I didn’t think I’d ever have to make this choice again, yet here I am, 18 months later in the exact same scenario.

In the end, she did convince me that a surgical D&C suction was the best – it would remove the tissue in one go and I wouldn’t have to go through as much bleeding and cramping.

My friend again told me she was coming and I was to stay at her place that and the next night. I went home and packed some things, including my teddy bears – always there in my moments of need.

I’d only cried a couple of times by this stage and honestly thought I was doing “better than last time”. I knew what was involved this time, there was nothing to be scared of – I’d done it all before.

The next morning I went back into the Women’s day surgery and spoke with multiple medical staff. I was matter of fact and understanding with all they were telling me; I didn’t have any questions. Apart from the obvious.

Why? Why again? Why the same time frame? Why a missed miscarriage? Why can’t I keep a baby? Why has my body failed me again? What have I done to deserve this?

There is no explanation for any of it. My baby simply stopped living. My body simply didn’t realise my baby’s heartbeat had stopped. Only when you’ve had three miscarriages do they undertake further testing. I was only at two, so there’s no need to test. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t fall pregnant again and go full term. No reason at all. Exactly like I was told last time.

It was as I walked into the operating room that the tears started. It all hit me. The emotion I’d been holding back for two days came out. I couldn’t stop. The nurse held my hand as the anaesthetist gave me gas to relax and then put me to sleep; I squeezed her fingers tighter than I’d ever squeezed anything before.

Once again I was crying, tears falling down the sides of my face as I woke up. The nurse was lovely and immediately wiped them away and gave me a handful of tissues. She gave me meds for the pain and I nodded as she explained that my itchy nose was due to the pain meds. I remembered that from last time. The stupid itch of my nose and face. I didn’t want to have to know or remember anything from last time. I didn’t want to have to have gone through it all again.

An odd thing to be reassured about, the recovery room wasn’t full of women who were talking about IVF. I suspect there was one lady in there like me – she had my look of devastation about her when I’d seen her earlier in the waiting room. I didn’t come out to a ward full of happy women this time.

I wanted to sleep for hours – I didn’t want to leave the bed or the ward at all. But the nurses didn’t let me sleep. There was so much activity going on and then after my cup of tea and sandwiches it was time to go. I was discharged and told to take it easy and follow up with my GP.

I went back to my friend’s house and after some catch up TV, we both had afternoon naps. I had to go back on living. I stayed up that night and did research for a job interview I had the next day.

I had to go back to auto pilot mode and turn myself numb. I had a life I needed to get back in order and set myself up for.

I’ve cried most days since and keep telling myself it’s not fair. And it’s not.

I had a year full of achievements and highs. Accomplishments and happiness. I was nicknamed ‘Mama Oz’ on my tour. I looked after the group, while also leading them astray. I built others up, while building myself up at the same time. I loved who I was and who I was becoming. I was no longer dwelling on the pain of my lost baby. I had come to accept that I might not be a mum. That perhaps I would build and inspire in other ways, not in a direct motherhood way.

Not long after I got home, my six-year-old niece asked, “Aunty Law, when are you going to have babies?” I responded that I didn’t know, that perhaps I wasn’t going to. And I was happy with that.

But to have this second baby taken away from me, that’s not fair. That’s not my choice and not something I want to have to accept. It’s not fair. Why fall pregnant against the odds, only to have it all taken away again? Tell me what’s fair about that.

My year was full of highs, nothing but the highest of highs. I know real life has to go on, and for me it will. It has before and it will again. I wish I had tens of thousands of dollars so I could run away and travel again. But I don’t. So, for now, I’ll focus on one day at a time and will slowly start going through my pictures and remembering and sharing the highs. Until then, I’m going to take some time out and be kind to me.

2018 will also be filled with highs and accomplishments. We’re only one month down – eleven to go. I can achieve great things in that time frame. This year doesn’t have to be about this failure. It can – and will – be about more.

*I haven’t told the father about the baby or the miscarriage. Considering what has happened, nothing can be achieved from telling him. It will simply cause me great pain and discomfort having to tell him and there’s nothing he can do.

 

 

 

 

Removing the Wristbands

A week ago it sunk in further. Sunk in that I’m back home. Sunk in that I need to get a job. Sunk in that I’m no longer travelling.

I had to remove my travel wristbands. I was so excited when I bought my first one at a market in Hanoi almost a year ago: I posted it to Instagram and everything. I was so proud of it and felt like I’d turned into a real traveller. Two days later was when my tour finished and I was on my own. It was a significant event for me.

It was even more significant removing my collection last week. I’d lost two along the way but had quite a collection. I loved telling the stories of when I’d got them, who I’d been with. They may not seem like much, but each wristband had a story and I did labour over each and every one.

There was my first one in Hanoi, bought with my Best of Vietnam girls; there were the two bought from young girls in the Sapa Valley – I bought extra to give to the kiddies (my eldest nephew wore his proudly for a long time – am assuming the rest have all been lost); there was the hand made beaded one from a small shop in Luang Prabang, purchased with ‘my girls’ from Canada; there was the one I couldn’t take off and was the most annoying from my hostel in Phong Nha in Vietnam – a nice memory of my Tatum; the blue and beaded band that Claire, Nancy and I bought as friendship bracelets in Botswana, celebrating our scenic flight over the Okavango Delta; there was the much worn and falling apart paper and beaded bracelet from Tanzania, over priced but a contribution to the disadvantaged in the area; and finally the last one, a simple beaded elastic bought from Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa, my only commercial purchase, yet it was raising funds for HIV research and support. They each have a story … and also left an incredible tan line on my wrist.

They all had to come off. I knew it was coming and had been preparing myself for it, but it was hard. I grabbed the scissors and asked my friend to cut off the Phong Nha one – it was a relief, no longer was a black tie and ball digging in or twisting around. But it was an added step to having to move on.

(I’m going to take a moment to be honest here – the bands didn’t come off due to my job interview. Removing them was actually a much more emotional moment, and something that increased the hurt all the more. But, you’ll read about that soon enough.)

I do like looking down at my wrist now and seeing my gold bangles – sorely missed when travelling. They’ve taken back their pride of place, and while they all have stories to them, their stories are not the same. They have a different significance. I love my jewellery; I really do. I love wearing simple gold hoops and a gold chain. But I loved wearing bright colours and fun items. I loved the freedom and allowance to show that part of my personality while travelling.

Removing the wristbands was like removing a part of myself. A part of me that was only there when I was travelling. A part of me that I don’t know if I’ll ever get back.

It was more than just having fun and checking out the sites when I was away. It was about learning about who I am. Learning what makes me tick. What makes me happy. What makes me smile and love. What motivates me. I learnt so much about the world, about other people, about myself and I’m scared that I’m going to stop learning. You can’t learn about the world unless you’re experiencing it. You can’t learn about others if you don’t share and spend time with them. You can’t learn about yourself if you’re too scared to.

I came to what I believed was a realisation when I was travelling. I realised that life doesn’t turn out as you expect it or want it to, and that’s okay. I realised that friends are always nearby and need you as much as you need them. I realised that people are people – at the core of each and every one of us is a want to help, a desire to see others happy.

I’ve had two job interviews now and a couple of phone interviews – fingers crossed! – and when reflecting on my year of travel, one recurring theme comes out. I want to help others. I enjoy lifting others up. I’ve had girls from my travel tell me that they were going to miss me as I lifted them up, that they needed a motivational speech from me to make them feel good about themselves, they needed a quick word to confirm they were sexy and worthy. I love being in a nurturing role.

I started 2017 running away; running from heartache and grief; running from me and my seemingly getting nowhere life. I was running from the possibility of never having kids, of never having my own family. I ended 2017 thinking that it was okay. Maybe kids weren’t on the agenda for me. Maybe I wouldn’t have my own family. And I was okay with that. There are other ways to motivate and nurture.

When catching up with one of my travel girls a few weeks ago, I said that I was okay with not having my own family, not being a mum. She didn’t necessarily dismiss that, but she told me I was meant to be a mum, that it would happen. I was the mum on the trip and it was who I was meant to be.

Removing those wristbands signified a big moment. It was removing the daily proof and memories of my trip. It was signifying my next step. The next step I wasn’t ready to take or accept. It was forcing me to move on. It forced it all to sink in.

Avoidance

Travel isn’t always fun and games. Sure, most of it is and when it isn’t, you usually find a way to turn it back into fun and games. But there are times when you’re lonely, alone, bored and broke as hell.

I don’t think there’s anything I would change about my year off last year and it is something I’ll be forever grateful for. But on reflection, while it may have been the best thing for me, it has made life all that much harder for me.

Two of my cousins each gave birth to her first son – both a deliciously gorgeous surprise. My friend gave birth to her first son, second child, another deliciously gorgeous bundle of joy. Other friends and family members did amazing things and went through tough battles of their own. And I wasn’t there to share in any of it.

Many times I only found out about things second or third hand. It does seem that out of sight out of mind does occur. I tried to catch up with everyone in my life when I was home for my two-ish months in August, between Asia and Africa, but you can’t fit everyone in. I’m not sure if I should have made a bigger effort, or if perhaps others should have tried harder for me.

I’ve been home for four weeks now and again, have only managed to catch up with a handful of people. It is hard coming home broke and living so far from many of them. It’s also hard, as I need to find a job, pay off my credit cards and get used to being back home. Get used to having a steady bed, a TV to watch at my whim and having to make all of my own decisions.

I always knew coming home would be hard and it was something I wasn’t looking forward to. I had a couple of days ‘break’ from finishing my first tour in Africa and starting my next one. I was dreading those days for the last week to ten days of my first tour. I had made some wonderful friends and I knew that when our time travelling together was over, it really would be over.

I wrote a post shortly after I started my second tour, when I finally had a chance to fall apart and cry. It was quite therapeutic and helped spur me on for the next two weeks. I made some great friends on that next tour, yet it of course wasn’t the same. The people were more varied and separate; the experiences weren’t there and the vibe just wasn’t quite right. Of course, I am still looking forward to a trip to Perth for an epic theme party and a big catch up.

The emotion then further hit me the day before I was flying home. I was at my friend’s place and it was time to start packing – I’d managed to scatter my stuff all over the place and needed time to fit it into my backpack. I looked at it all spread over the bed and it just hit me. I was immensely overwhelmed and the tears struck.

Tatum walked by at that moment and we had a big hug. It all started to seem too real, too close to the end. We had a big night out planned that night and then a recovery before I had to go to the airport. It was too much for me. So, like I usually do when emotionally out of my depth, I paused, I re-set and I took control. I turned pragmatic and got my packing done and stopped thinking about ‘the end’.

Since coming home, I feel I’ve mastered avoidance. When I have caught up with friends, they’ve asked how my trip was; I’ve given the appropriate adjectives and comments, saying that it was incredible and best time of my life. Said I can’t wait to go back and do it all again, encourage them all to have Africa on their bucket list. Then I turn the conversation and ask about them, what they’ve been up to.

I avoid thinking about Africa, Asia and my year at all costs. I keep saying that with all this time on my hands I need to go through my pictures, choose some favourites and share them with you all. I need to sit down and right post after post after post about everything I did and how it all made me feel. But when I have time alone (quite a lot of it actually), I avoid it.

I think I only managed to get a job interview as my friend sent me a link to what will be my perfect role. It’s in travel, it’s in customer service and dispute resolution – it’s what I’ve done and what I’m good at. We’re perfect for each other. But had that not been shoved into my inbox, I doubt I would have come across it. Don’t get me wrong, as soon as I saw it I did everything I could to perfect my application and reached out to all and sundry in the hopes for their guidance and assistance in reaching the top of the pile. But I wouldn’t have made the effort to find it otherwise.

I’ve taken the easy way out and applied for Centrelink benefits. The money is nowhere near enough to live on and will ensure that I don’t ever travel again or pay off my debts. But by going on to benefits, I have almost given myself free passage to sit and do nothing. To avoid life and living.

Common sense will and is prevailing, but at the moment, I’m taking the easy road. Sure, there’s no need to rush back into anything, but I need to do something. I need to sit down and go through the last 12 months of my life. I need to ensure it wasn’t all a dream that it did happen. I need to share it and love it and be happy to talk about it. I need to accept that it’s over.

But once that is all done, where does that leave me? I’ll have done it all and have nothing left to do. I’m avoiding it simply so that it’s not over. I didn’t ever want that year to end. I’m so glad to be back, to be near my little kiddies and my friends and family. But I also don’t want to be back. Life was hard before I went away and it’s going to be hard again.

One year of easy with moments of hard thrown in isn’t enough. We all deserve happiness and easy living and good things. I had that while I was travelling – and to be honest, the hard moments, the loneliness and being alone and not there for others, they’ll still be there. Just with less exotic backgrounds or activities.

It’s time for me to stop avoiding last year and time for me to start embracing. I can’t go back and get it to start again, extend it further. I need to move on. It’s just so hard when it seems that everyone else has already moved on. People I met while travelling, people I left behind, people I’ve come back to. Everyone is at different stages. I just wish I knew where mine was.

Tears in Africa

Right now, I just can’t stop crying. It’s been coming at me for about two weeks now – pretty much straight after my birthday. This year has been incredible – that surely has been the most used word of my vocabulary, especially these past 8-ish weeks in Africa. But it’s true – it has been incredible. I know it’s not over and I know I’ll never forget, but I’m in pain right now.

The pain is different to what I felt last year – that can’t be repeated – this pain is a feeling stuck in my gut that refuses to come up and exit. My eyes and stomach have wanted me to cry for two weeks, but as I tried lifting the emotions and tears from my belly, my throat keeps stopping them. I’ve heard of lumps in the throat and have likely experienced them. But this is unlike any other. It is more than a lump – it is a block. Like it’s telling me ‘no, you can’t be emotional. You have to be strong and happy and positive.’ I am a strong and positive person, but at times, you need a break from that.

The build up has me got so bad that on our way to Table Mountain a few days ago, I asked the girls to tell me sad stories to help me cry. They recounted the details from The Notebook, I went through Mufasa dying in The Lion King, and Hannah almost had me with the plot from Pay it Forward. Yet still, I couldn’t get the tears to form. I had just that morning said farewell to some beautiful people – the hardest being my little Anika, the little sister I never knew I wanted, yet was more like a daughter to me. I was an emotional wreck, yet even when seeing her tears and those of others, I couldn’t get myself to follow suit. It was like I had a heart of stone.

I’ve pretty much got a day to myself today – I’ve chosen not to hike around Drakensberg and instead chill at our accommodation. It’s the perfect setting for writing and feeling – all around creativeness. It’s the time I needed, yet even after the tears, my heart still feels stone like and my belly isn’t quite empty.

Africa has not just kept a piece of my heart; it’s stolen some of my soul. There is so much to see, do and experience here. How can you ever be done with it? Will it ever be done with you?

I am so happy with all that I have seen and done, and all whom I have met and bonded with, yet I still feel I’m missing something. I need more. I need closure.

Moving so quickly from country to country, campsite to campsite, activity to activity you don’t really process it all. You try so hard to take it all in and enjoy life in the moment – there is nothing like it. But when the moments are over, you realise that there is so much more to it.

I still have almost three weeks left and I will make the most of it… and based on this morning, I will probably spend the first week at home a miserable mess. But, until then, I am in South Africa – about to cross into Lesotho – and will enjoy and experience so much more.

I love life and I love what I am doing now, that I am able to do this. But the pain from losing so many beautiful places, people and activities behind… it’s hard. I’m glad I was able to cry some this morning – the weight in my belly is a little lighter – but there is more to come.

Enjoy the moments, but don’t be afraid to walk away from the moments and process. I’ve stopped crying now; let’s see what happens next.

First Impressions of Myanmar

The high praise and recommendations for Myanmar better not have ruined my experience. I’ve mentioned before how little I’ve known about the places I’m visiting, that I like to figure things out as I go along and go with an open and empty mind (within reason!).

Myanmar was not on my list when I left home, it hadn’t been considered. I didn’t know much about the country, hadn’t met anyone who had been and it just wasn’t on the radar. I think I also thought that it was still a no-go country and there simply wouldn’t be the possibility of going.

I realise that is not the case, the country has been working hard over the past few years to open up to foreigners and try and make good in the world again. I don’t know much of the history here, perhaps I never will. There are still vast areas that are completely off-limits to foreigners and I feel that even just wondering the streets of Yangon that there are still many secrets that will never be revealed.

Aside from all of that, I’ve come here because of the recommendation of people I’ve met on my travels. So many people have said that Myanmar has been their favourite country in South East Asia; that the people and culture are unlike anywhere else and you must absolutely go. I saw pictures of the fields and fields of temples in Bagan, golden pagodas and fishermen on lakes and I got caught up. This is a place I had to to visit.

I’ll be honest – I have only been here three nights, but the hype has yet to be lived up to. Yangon is the commercial capital of the country, and quite frankly, it’s a dirty, messy city. Traffic is chaotic and the footpaths are scrambled and falling apart. The buildings are a complete hodgepodge of old mixed with new, with wires hanging around all over the place. Satellite dishes hang from apartments, big spots of blue interrupting the grey and rusty colours of the concrete buildings, with yellowing air conditioning boxes filling in the other gaps. It does not look attractive.

There are some beautiful buildings – you can see they once were stunning with British facades and large columns – but they are in a massive state of disrepair. But the majority are just big, stark concrete buildings without character. At least the streets here make sense, they are in a grid like system (thank you!!!) so it is easy to walk around down town and find your way. Most of the lanes of traffic are one way, however that doesn’t stop the impatient drivers tooting their horns at other drivers, at pedestrians and anyone or anything else that gets in their way.

My hostel is on a main street in downtown and all day you hear the cars and buses rumble past – mainly the horns blaring and men yelling out of the buses announcing the route and stops. It does stop at 10pm, so getting to sleep is not a problem, but during they day – I may as well be back in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City!

It is also rainy season here. I’ve been a believer in not letting the weather disrupt your travel plans – we live on a planet that experiences all types of weather of which all are important for the planet. Some areas experience extreme weather, and others don’t. SE Asia gets extreme rain from May to October. It happens and it allows the land to regrow and refresh. Local people deal with this year in, year out. Why should us travellers allow a little rain to prevent us from visiting an area?

Yangon Buildings

I’m not going to say I regret coming here, as I absolutely do not. I’m not going to wish the rain disappeared, but I do wish it would back off a bit. There have been a few dry spells throughout the days, but the sun hasn’t come out. The city is covered in a grey haze, with the sky completely overcast by low rainclouds. I’m sure with a blue sky and bright sun the city could be much more attractive.

So, my initial response to Myanmar was a mix of awe and fascination with a big side serving of disappointment. My flight from Bangkok was uneventful and pleasant, the flight wasn’t full and there was a spare seat next to me. Immigration was quick and simple – we all fought for a space at the small writing counters to complete our customs and arrivals cards – then straight to an immigration officer to present my passport, visa and documents. I was stamped into Myanmar with a slight nod and sent on my way. Had the officer not chatted to the security guard a little way off, I’d have been done much quicker.

I took the opportunity while waiting for my bag to use the ATM and withdraw some cash, hoping that 300,000MMK (Burmese Kyat) would be sufficient for now – at just under $300AUD I should be fine for 10 days… hopefully! Then my bag arrived, I didn’t have to fight crowds to get to the luggage belt and I was on my way. I handed my customs card to the guard by the green nothing-to-declare line and exited arrivals.

There were a number of people waiting and I found my name on a piece of paper, having arranged an arrival transfer with my hostel. He was a lovely older gentleman wearing a white business shirt and longyi – a sarong worn by men tied with a large knot at the front. Many of the men were wearing these and I tried not to be too obvious at looking at them all. I was thankful I had covered my shoulders, but was aware of my skirt barely skimming my knees.

The drive into town took over an hour – it was only 20kilometres away. The traffic was ridiculous with cars pushing in front of each other and seemingly making up their own road rules. We seemed to be stuck at an intersection for an exceptionally long period of time – as we passed through, I noticed some local men waving their hands about – acting as traffic controllers as the lights were not working. This was going to be an interesting journey.

As we got closer to town, I people-watched. The women were wearing beautiful brightly coloured skirts down to their ankles with matching tops, their dark hair flowing; the look of elegance. Many had what looked like dried mud on their faces, yellow circles on their cheeks, lines on their noses and foreheads. I’ve since learnt this acts as a protector against the sun and also is a type of make up – it makes you look more beautiful I was informed.

On arrival at my hostel, I was greeted warmly by Suu and checked in with no issue. I was shown to my dorm room – a four-bed room where I was the only occupant. The room had the smell of fresh paint and was clean. Oh so clean! I was told that another girl might check in later that night.

Whilst the city is wet and unattractive, the people are anything but. They are friendly and kind and full of smiles. I’m trying to smile as much as possible, build a small connection with people as I walk by and nowhere have the smiles been returned like they have been here. People talking to each other, on the phone or sitting at their stalls – they all smile back at me. Their eyes crinkle and their cheeks spread. Thailand is known as the land of smiles, but I think Myanmar may soon take that over.

Whilst I have not warmed to Yangon as a city, I have warmed to the people, the culture. Ugly buildings in disrepair and dirty footpaths covered in cracks and holes do not make a country’s essence. The people do. And so far, the people of Myanmar have not failed.

My first impressions are just that – my first impressions. As much as I’ve listened to everyone’s impressions – which are yet to be lived up to – I do still have many blank holes to fill on my own. There is plenty more to see and do in this country. I’ve only been here three nights and am moving on tomorrow night, there are plenty more impressions to be made.

Please Don’t Rush Laos

I’ve left Laos.

I still had another week on my visa, but the time came. It was time for me to leave. It’s now the day after and I’m really not sure if I was actually ready to go. The country changed me. It had a power that I didn’t think existed and I fell prey to it.

My Facebook memories this week have shown me that eight years ago I was leaving for my first trip to Malaysia, six years ago I was in Spain and three years ago I was once again in Europe. In one of my posts, I commented on the surprising change in scenery between Germany and Austria. I’m glad I saw them before experiencing Laos – looking back, I imagine I would have only been disappointed.

I’ve been away for almost four months now and this is the first I’ve felt like this. I can’t even describe it – I’m a ball of emotions and they aren’t sure how to respond with each other.

I very nearly cried on Thursday – sitting in the car after leaving a waterfall, I felt myself get overcome with emotion. It was more than feeling surreal, it was more than joy and happiness, it was more than anything I’d felt before. But it was there and it was about to pour out of me.

I whipped out my phone and started making notes, I commented on the scenery, specifically the colours; the lush green, the white clouds, the dusty red roadsides and the blue sky. I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen anything like it. How could I possibly be here with all of these colours, using and truly meaning the word ‘lush’? The scenery was stunning and it was making me emotional.

Lush is the perfect word for Laos. I’ve done a fair amount of travel over the past 15 years and have honestly loved each of my trips – I’ve got an immense soft spot for Japan being my first trip and my only time working overseas. I’ve got another soft spot for Peru with the culture, the history and again the scenery. But I oddly feel that neither really compares with Laos.

I wrote a status update on Facebook about me leaving Laos and I commented that I was a changed person, that I’d learnt so much – about the country, about travel, about myself. All of this is true, yet it doesn’t seem enough. These words don’t truly capture what Laos has risen in me. What is still trying to claw its way to my consciousness.

It was time to leave, there are new places to explore and people to meet, food to eat. But as I was driven to the bus stop, I couldn’t help but keep looking out the window and wondering what else I should have done, where else I should have gone. What else?

I was the only western person on my bus and I was seated in the back row, right by the toilet. I wasn’t able to fully recline my seat as there were people sitting on the floor behind me. It should not have been a comfortable journey, yet I appreciated it for what it was. It was a $36AUD ride from Pakse to Bangkok – over 700 kilometres in distance. Who was I to complain about not being able to recline my chair? I had a chair and I had leg space.

No English was spoken on this bus – I don’t think I even recognised a sabaidee or kopchai. The Lao was quick and quiet and it was not intended for me. Yet without understanding a single word and feeling quite out of my depth on an international journey, I was calm and relaxed, albeit a little sad and quite pensive.

The ride to the border only took about an hour, I hadn’t realised how close to Thailand I actually was. I followed the crowd to the immigration for departures and paid my 10,000 kip then walked into Thailand. I was provided with an entry and departure card, which I completed and handed to an immigration official. I was stamped into Thailand and left the building.

There was no fuss or fanfare but as soon as I stepped outside, it was different. The air felt thicker, the people looked different, the atmosphere had changed. The market stalls were definitely Thai, there were banks and ATMs lined up and of course, a big 7/11. It was so typically Thai and so un-Lao – there was no mistaking that I was back in the land of smiles.

I wasn’t sure that I liked it.

I did duck into 7/11 – it’s the number on place to go for a refreshing hit of air conditioning and a cheap snack. I however felt a little like I was betraying Laos. My first purchase outside the country was to a massive commercial enterprise – a commercial enterprise I can and do encounter back home.

I’m still trying to work out what Laos did to me and why I’m feeling this way. Perhaps I’ll never know and I should just appreciate the feelings it brought out in me, the subtle changes it influenced. A part of me stayed in Laos, yet I took a big part with me. Laos has helped me appreciate travel, the world, history and myself.

I commented on Facebook that I was a changed person. I am. Laos makes you appreciate life and all it has to offer. Laos – Please Don’t Rush.

 

COPEing with Challenges

Today was a hard day. It started off with my having to farewell yet more friends and face the prospect of a night bus on my own. I posted a picture with the girls and hash-tagged ‘challenge’ in it.

There is no challenge with saying a temporary farewell to friends (yes Mog and Bog – it is a temporary farewell!). There is however a challenge in losing a limb, in being injured by an Unexploded Ordinance (UXO). There is a challenge in not knowing that help is available and therefore spending two years of your life crying on the floor, giving up on school and life.

Today I visited the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) Visitors Centre in Vientiane. COPE is a wonderful organisation that are working with international experts to train and educate local people on how to deal with loss of limbs, rehabilitate and educate, and provide support to those affected.

I visited the UXO Centre in Luang Prabang, and whilst the information was well presented, it was also quite clinical. There were lots of stats and information about the bombs dropped on Laos throughout the Vietnam War, yet apart from a short documentary, there was nothing else personal. I am exceptionally glad that I visited – even prouder knowing that as an Australian, my government has provided much needed funding to this great cause. After having travelled through Vietnam and Cambodia, I gained quite the insight into their histories and was curious to learn more about Laos.

Laos really is an unknown frontier. I’ve mentioned before how little I knew about what I was visiting on arrival and how I’ve been happily surprised by everything. When I visited a sweet café in Luang Prabang, I asked if there had been a war in Laos, if there had been a strong conflict here, similar to that in Cambodia or Vietnam. She said there had been small tribal conflicts, but nothing to the extent of other countries nearby.

What I have found out is that bombs decimated Laos. Per capita, Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world. Over two million tonnes of ordnance were dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973. This equates to a bombing every eight minutes for nine years. Every eight minutes a bomb was dropped over Laos. For a war they were not involved with.

The USA bombed Laos during the Vietnam War to cut off the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’ – the route being used for travel between the North and South. There seemed to be little to no consideration for the local people and the thousands of civilian lives lost. Of the 270 million ‘bombies’ dropped, it can be estimated that 30% of them didn’t explode – leaving anywhere up to 80 million left in the ground.

80 million unexploded bombs, waiting for children to find and play with, waiting for farmers to unearth when ploughing their fields, waiting for innocent bystanders to step on. The results are devastating. Children don’t recognise these ball type objects, so pick them up to play with. Teenagers get metal detectors to look for them and hope to make money selling them for scrap metal. If lucky, when the bombs explode, they’ll only lose an eye or an arm, or end up filled with shrapnel. The unlucky ones will die, and die painfully.

COPE is there to help these victims and the visitor centre has a short film on the story of 9-year-old Hamm. Hamm was playing with two school friends and following some ‘big people’ around who were looking for scrap metal. The big people recognised the bombs, so placed them in a pile to the side. The kids didn’t know why they were put aside. They picked two up, and Hamm’s friends banged them together. The result was instantaneous. The two boys died immediately. Hamm was injured, but survived.

Local villagers heard the explosion and went rushing for Hamm’s parents. They managed to get a truck to take Hamm to their local hospital. They were told that there was no blood or oxygen; Hamm couldn’t be treated. They made the journey to the next hospital – being bigger, they hoped for a better response. They didn’t get it. Again, no blood or oxygen. Hamm’s ‘guts were hanging out his side’.

The bigger hospital was too far away and the truck driver didn’t want Hamm to die in his truck. His mother and father were forced to make a decision. It was better for him to die at home. They got home and Hamm was thirsty, he asked for water. His mother told him they had none. He then passed away. Hamm’s mother broke down in the video, as did I. The film cuts to Hamm’s father ‘it was better for him to die at home’.

A nine-year-old boy died from a UXO in 2005 – forty years after the bombing stopped. A nine-year-old boy died because his country was bombed during a war that they had nothing to do with. A nine-year-old boy died because up to 30% of the bombs dropped didn’t explode.

I walked throughout the entire exhibition at the visitor centre with Hamm at the back of my mind. I have an eight-year-old nephew – the thought of him dying because of a bomb from 40 years ago – I can’t even begin to imagine. Yet this is a reality for so many rural villagers in Laos. There are steps being taken to clear farm land of any remaining bombs – it had been initially thought this could take up to 100 years to finalise, however due to a change in technology, it is hoped that the land will be cleared by 2021.

As much as there was a strong focus on the UXOs and the remnants from the war, COPE is helping not just those affected by explosions. Due to illness or accident, many people require replacement or support limbs, and COPE help with all of that. They use recycled materials as much as possible and are making a huge difference to the lives of many. They even provide financial support to those who can’t afford the surgery or rehabilitation – including board and meals for a support family member.

The visitor centre is filled with stories and images of recipients, and the smiles now on their faces, the joy radiating from them as they can now ‘go back to work/school’ and get on with their lives and support their families. It is so refreshing to know that organisations like this exist and are making a real life difference. They are training their staff to up skill and hope to stop relying on international aid and assistance in the future. For a country that is extremely poor and has seemingly little to no medical infrastructure, their accomplishments are outstanding.

Whilst I did cry today with Hamm’s story, and other children’s drawings of blood, body parts and bombs, I am heartened to know that through adversity there is help and support and kindness.

There is so little known about Laos and so much to be discovered. I was told that Vientiane didn’t have much going for it – well clearly those people hadn’t visited COPE or simply don’t know much of the history. Laos has made a huge imprint on my heart and I can’t see me seeing life and simple things in the same way when I get back home.

There is so much more to traveling than seeing a city and posting a picture to social media, than speaking with a few locals, to having drinks on a tube floating down a river. There are lessons to be learned and being thankful and grateful for what you have and who you are. We can all try to be half as helpful as the people of Laos to help those less fortunate than us.

Today did present some challenges, but nothing that I can’t easily overcome.

 

*stats obtained from COPE Visitor Centre, Vientiane, Laos
I urge you to visit them in person, or electronically: http://www.copelaos.org

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