2017’s most epic, talked-about travels – Zafigo.com, December 26 2017

Every now and then, you hear about someone who explored the world in such a way that it makes you want to book your next trip right away. As 2017 draws to a close, we recall six inspiring women travellers and their epic journeys.

Expedition 196

 

Cassie braved deathly cold temperatures at Paradise Bay in Antarctica.

Cassie braved deathly cold temperatures at Paradise Bay in Antarctica. (Photo Credit: Cassie De Pecol)

Hands up if you have a travel bucket list that grows by the minute? If so, Cassie De Pecol is bound to make you green with envy. In February, the 27-year-old American jetsetter became the first woman on record to visit every sovereign nation on earth. On completion of her journey in 18 months and 26 days, she also set the record for the fastest time to complete the global trip, beating the previous record of three years and three months held by Yili Liu, a professor at the University of Michigan.

Cassie’s trip, which began in Palau in 2015, spans 196 countries and saw her crossing through some difficult and occasionally, unwelcoming terrain. Her adventure wasn’t just about smashing world records and gaining passport stamps; as an ambassador for the International Institute of Peace Through Tourism, she promoted sustainable tourism through meetings with dignitaries, tourism ministers and students across the globe.

Worldwide wheeler

Tackling the chaotic streets of Hanoi, Vietnam is no mean feat but Jin takes it in her stride.

Tackling the chaotic streets of Hanoi, Vietnam is no mean feat but Jin takes it in her stride. (Photo Credit: Jin Jeong)

Unless you have been hiding under a rock recently (unlikely behaviour for our adventurous Zafigo readers!), you’re sure to have heard of Jin Jeong. When she was 24, this South Korean solo cyclist set herself a goal: To spin around the world alone on two wheels. Many told her it was an impossible feat, others warned her that the ambitious plan could prove dangerous for a woman on her own. Yet, despite discouraging opinions and setbacks ranging from accidents to sexual harassment, the bold explorer hasn’t looked back since setting her wheels in motion six years ago.

Sixty-seven countries and 62,000 kilometres later, Jin is as eager to travel as ever, and aims to inspire others to follow their own dreams. She certainly left many of us motivated to get pedalling after her talk at this year’s ZafigoX, an event dedicated to women empowerment and travel.

Turning tragedy into triumph

When the phrase ‘bad things come in threes’ proved true for Megan Sullivan, she bit the bullet and decided to embark on the trip of a lifetime. (Photo Credit: Megan Sullivan)

When the phrase ‘bad things come in threes’ proved true for Megan Sullivan, she bit the bullet and decided to embark on the trip of a lifetime. (Photo Credit: Megan Sullivan)

Receiving devastating news will either make or break you. For American native Megan Sullivan, a diagnosis of skin cancer was something that presented her with a new goal: to “live more now.” Her diagnosis, which occurred in the same month as a 50-feet fall in Yosemite and a road accident, encouraged her to embrace her wanderlust and embark on a long-awaited dream trip to the seven wonders of the world. Over 13 days, the 31-year-old made footprints in Chichen Itza in Mexico, Machu Picchu in Peru, the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, the 98-foot statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal in India, and the Roman Colosseum in Italy.

Documenting her journey on her personal website as well as her Instagram feed (@megthelegend), Megan invites the world to take inspiration from her whirlwind adventure. “The only regrets that I have in my life are from the missed opportunities that I never took a chance on. This year I took a chance and I will continue taking chances to experience the greatest adventure of all: My life,” she wrote.

Running for change

Claire getting to know some new friends in India before running together along the sandy shoreline. (Photo Credit: Claire MacFarlene)

Claire getting to know some new friends in India before running together along the sandy shoreline. (Photo Credit: Claire MacFarlene)

At the age of 19, during a stint in Paris, every woman’s worst nightmare became a reality for Claire McFarlane. Raped and brutally attacked on the streets of one of Europe’s most popular travel destinations, the South Africa-born Australian was lucky to escape with her life. But 10 years later, she was forced to confront the traumatic experience when asked by French authorities to identify her suspected attacker. She did, and followed through with the legal proceedings that helped to put him behind bars.

Claire’s appalling experience, coupled with her fighting attitude, inspired her to make a change in the world. The result? Footsteps to Inspire, a challenge that will see Claire run 16 kilometres of beach in each country across the globe, to raise awareness for survivors of sexual violence. Though her endeavour hit the ground running – literally! – in July of last year, it was in 2017 that it really took off as Claire became a regular feature on the airwaves and in newspapers. At time of writing, she has run 33 countries across five continents, carrying her message every step of the way. In February, she visited Malaysia, where she ran 16km along Batu Ferringhi, Penang. Read Zafigo’s interview with Claire here.

Young explorer

Jaahnavi getting cosy midway through her climb up Mount Denali, the highest peak in North America. (Photo Credit: Jaahnavi Sriperambaduru)

Jaahnavi getting cosy midway through her climb up Mount Denali, the highest peak in North America. (Photo Credit: Jaahnavi Sriperambaduru)

Jaahnavi Sriperambaduru’s mountaineering feats have brought her more news headlines and world records than she has had birthdays. At only 15, the Indian adventurer has scaled the highest mountains in four of the world’s seven continents as part of her #Mission7summit challenge. She is the youngest girl in the world to scale Mount Elbrus, the youngest Indian girl to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the youngest person to have reached the summit of Stok Kangri in the Himalayas… the list goes on.

She encourages others to aim high through her TED talks, guided treks, and involvement in worldwide campaigns. Jaahnavi now has her sights set on the final three: Mount Aconcagua in South America, Mount Vinson Massif in Antartica and Mount Everest. She plans to conquer the ultimate peak in April 2018 and has set up a crowdfunding campaign to help her to achieve her goal.

Flying high with the family

The Zapp family flying high in Tibet. (Photo Credit: )

The Zapp family flying high in Tibet. (Photo Credit: Zapp Family)

It’s standard for most to plan their travels before we ‘settle down’, believing that footloose living and family life exist worlds apart. Yet when they hit international headlines this year, the Zapp family from Argentina proved to us all that it’s entirely possible to bring the whole family along for the adventure.

In 2000, inspirational couple Herman and Candelaria Zapp loaded their bags into their vintage car and set off on what they intended to be a six-month trip from Argentina to Alaska before starting their family. One might say that they took one heck of a detour, as 17 years and 80 countries later, the ambitious adventurers are still on the road, only now, with their four children in tow. Despite running out of money in the first six months of their journey, the couple have kept pushing ahead with their dream, thanks to sales of their paintings, their book Spark your Life and the kindness of strangers. In 2017, the family began the final leg of their journey across the Atlantic and will soon return to Argentina to begin the next chapter of their lives.

(First published on Zafigo.com on December 26 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/2017-epic-talked-about-travels/)

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What I learned from visiting Thailand’s famous elephant sanctuaries – Zafigo.com, November 22 2017

My first experience with an elephant was pretty artificial. Being from Ireland, it was unlikely that I would find these magnificent creatures while wandering the streets or playing in a field. Unsurprisingly, my first memory of elephants is the same as most of my peers’: Watching the movie Dumbo at the tender age of four.

I remember well how I cried when young Dumbo was separated from his mother. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine anything more traumatic, and failed to comprehend how humans can be so cruel towards an innocent creature. Of course, Dumbo is fiction. And as I grew older, I realised that acts of cruelty towards elephants are indeed very real. Across the globe, thousands of elephants are kept in poor conditions and forced to entertain humans through rides and performances.

Because of these realisations, I’ve long vowed to never support such acts, and I know I’m not alone. In recent years, there has been increasing awareness about the unethical treatment of elephants in riding camps, which has encouraged many tourists to avoid them.  As a result, numerous ‘ethical’ elephant sanctuaries have been established in their place.

While in Thailand, I decided to pay a visit to one and after much research, settled on a sanctuary I believed held the best interests of elephants at its core. The experience was unforgettable.

We learned about their former lives as logging and riding elephants, including the horrendous ‘spirit-breaking’ process they endured to make them submissive. We were informed about the work that the organisation are doing to give them a better life and their ongoing efforts to change public attitudes. And, apart from feeding one older elephant, we simply watched them from afar. I may not have left with hundreds of elephant selfies like most, but it is because of this that I left feeling certain that I supported a good cause.

Fast forward several months to when I was in northern Thailand with some friends. The idea of visiting an elephant sanctuary arose and I jumped at the chance of seeing these creatures again. We chose to visit another well-known sanctuary, where the elephants roam free and riding isn’t an option. Yet, while this visit was also preceded by plenty of research, the outcome wasn’t so positive.

Our arrival coincided with the approach of several elephants from a nearby hill. It seemed unlikely that this was a natural response to the arrival of loud, sweaty humans but I guess it was all part of the show to come.

Then, our guide introduced himself and apologised that he must give a quick safety talk, insisting that we would have plenty of time afterwards to “play with the elephants” and “take selfies.” “We want you to have fun” was their message, though not a mention was given to how the elephants felt, where they came from and why they were there.

We were then allowed to feed the elephants, which felt okay, to a point. The handlers then encouraged the elephants to do tricks, which we were told they still remembered from their circus days. While probably true, it felt wrong to encourage them to perform these charades for the sake of a photo.

After eating, the elephants were brought down to a mud pool, many of them being tugged in by their ears. Most of the visitors opted to get in with them for a mud bath, with some lying across their backs to get a selfie.

Elephants and humans alike were then given the chance to cool down in a river. “The elephants can leave the water when they like,” we were told, but the reality wasn’t so idyllic. Observing everything from the riverbank, I saw several elephants leave the water and head uphill. When one tried to take an alternative route, I noticed a handler slip a sharp nail from his pocket and prod his head. The elephant swiftly obeyed.

Following lunch, I witnessed another act of cruelty when an elephant attempted to take some leftover rice from a pot. A handler quickly ran over and led him away, but not without smacking him with a stick when he felt he was out of eye and earshot of us.

I left feeling uneasy and with many unanswered questions, despite my attempts to learn more throughout the day. Where did these elephants really come from? Unlike the first sanctuary, these elephants were allowed to breed. What will happen to their newborns? Was I just being paranoid?

Various conversations following my visit confirmed my suspicions that not all was what it seemed. While better than a riding camp, this place was definitely more concerned with entertaining tourists than helping elephants.

Elephant tourism in Thailand is not diminishing, but simply evolving. According to World Animal Protection (WAP), there’s been a 30 per cent increase in the number of captive elephants there between 2010 and 2016. People are becoming aware that most tourists won’t support animal cruelty, and so they are slapping labels like ‘sanctuary’ and ‘eco-tourism’ on their fliers. Yet, if the animals are still being controlled and sometimes hurt to please humans and keep us safe, what’s the difference?

Indeed, not all elephant sanctuaries are fake. Elephant Nature Park, Wildlife Friends of Thailand, and Kindred Spirit are three world-renowned organisations that are making a difference. They are worthy of and in need of public support.

I cannot turn back the clock or forget what I witnessed, but I can encourage others to research thoroughly before they visit an elephant sanctuary. Ask questions. Choose wisely. And if it appears too good to be true, it probably is.

(First published on Zafigo.com on November 22 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/visiting-thailands-elephant-sanctuaries/)

6 tips on becoming an earth-friendly traveller – Zafigo.com, November 11 2017

It’s normal to let routine go out the window while abroad. Leaving it all behind is what travelling is about, right? Yet, while it’s okay to ease up on your work and other grown-up responsibilities while you’re globe-trotting, it’s important to remain a responsible traveller overall. Taking a few steps to be more environmentally-friendly is one way to do just that.

1: Say no to plastic

You can easily accumulate hoards of plastic when travelling around Asia, where drinking bottled water is the norm for tourists and bagging fresh produce in the market is a given. You can quickly build a mountain of plastic rivalling Mount Kinabalu in size! Avoid this; it’s up to you to take charge of your consumer habits.

Staying hydrated is certainly important in the heat. To keep your water intake up and your plastic consumption down, why not purchase a refillable flask? In Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, in particular, clean water stations are quite common. In Kuala Lumpur, for example, you can find water coolers at some malls and at the airport. There are also vending machines that dispense potable water at a fraction of the price you’d pay for bottled water at a convenience store. So not only will you be saving plastic, but also some tourist dollars in the process. You can also use reusable containers for takeaway coffees, juices and street food.

Saying no to straws is another way to avoid unnecessary plastic – your fresh mango juice will taste just as good, I promise! In places such as Koh Tao in Thailand, many bars offer metal straws. Support these businesses when possible.

If you’re staying in one place for a while, it’s likely that you’ll be shopping in markets, so pick up some large reusable bags. They’re better for the environment and much easier to carry on a motorbike than dozens of plastic bags.

2: Repair and wear

As a long-term traveller, I make sure that my entire wardrobe fits into my backpack. Unfortunately, wearing and washing the same things again and again soon leads to wear and tear. The easiest thing to do is replace damaged clothes but are you creating more waste in the process?

Before you say farewell to your well-travelled shirt, ask yourself: Is this mendable? If it’s simply a case of a few holes or ripped stitches, take it to a local tailor to get fixed. Bags, hats, clothes and shoes can be mended in a matter of minutes. Maybe your shorts have a stain that just won’t come out? Why not buy a few colourful patches or badges to cover them? Of course, some things cannot be saved, but that’s not to say that they don’t have a purpose. Your old t-shirt can serve as a cleaning cloth, the strap from your worn bag can become a headband – be creative!

3: Make smart moves

Whether moving by road or air, travelling takes its toll on the environment, and it’s unavoidable. But we’ve got to get to places somehow, right? By being conscious of our travel choices when route-planning, we can at least minimise the effects that our explorations have on the planet.

Air travel is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to CO2 emissions, and cheap airlines make it tempting to fly short distances. While many international flights are necessary, travelling domestically or to neighbouring countries often doesn’t require a flight. Most sleeper trains and buses are extremely comfortable and will leave you with more stories to tell than a quick plane journey.

If travelling within a smaller area, research all public transport options. Trains and buses in Asia are extremely affordable, and in some cases, even free. Taking a car or taxi may sometimes be necessary; if so, try to carpool or share a cab. Even Uber and Grab offer carpooling options in many cities.

Travelling by motorbike is another authentic experience when exploring Asia, and there’s nothing like feeling the wind in your hair as you cruise along in the sunshine. However, if you aren’t going far, why not walk or cycle instead? It may be hot, but a little sweat never did anyone any harm!

4: Get involved

Taking part in a local clean-up allows you to do your bit for the environment while soaking in the sights and sounds of a new place. During my travels around South East Asia over the last nine months, I have been pleasantly surprised to see just how many beach and river clean-ups are organised by locals and expats alike. By asking around or doing a search on Facebook groups, you’re likely to find something similar in your area. These clean-ups are also a great opportunity to socialise, as those involved often arrange to go for some food or a drink afterwards. Some of the more adventurous outings even allow you to kayak as you clean! If you can’t find a clean-up near you, why not be a pioneer and organise one yourself? Who knows what it could lead to.

5: Eat your veggies

It’s well documented that reducing the global meat consumption can benefit the environment but you don’t have to go cold turkey (or should I say cold tofu?) to make a difference. Becoming a vegetarian isn’t for everyone, and I think it’s only fair to respect everyone’s choices. However, even having one or two meatless days a week is a positive step forward. Asian countries have a huge selection of delicious vegetarian dishes waiting to be tried, from pad Thai and papaya salad in Thailand to vegetarian spring rolls in Vietnam. Fresh tropical fruit and juices are also a cheap and easy vegetarian breakfast choice that provide great refreshment in the sweltering heat. It’s quite easy to request vegetarian food anywhere if you can express your needs; learn the word for vegetarian in various languages or better still, use Zafigo’s handy travel cards.

6: Reuse and recycle

Waste collection methods differ in every country, but with a little research and effort, you can find out where to recycle plastic, glass and paper in your area. You can also ask local food businesses whether they sanitise and reuse their packaging. Peanut butter is my biggest weakness, and while living in Da Nang, I found a local company that produces and sells their own. They were delighted to take back my (dozens of) empty tubs to reuse, and many other businesses are equally keen to do the same.

When it comes to recycling clothing that you no longer want, many charities are often crying out for unwanted clean clothes. Ask a local friend if they can point you in the right direction. Alternatively, find or organise a clothes swap party with others in the area – it’s all the fun of a new wardrobe without denting your bank balance.

(First published on Zafigo.com on November 11 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/6-tips-on-becoming-an-earth-friendly-traveller/)

5 ways to build your own writer’s retreat – Zafigo.com, November 5 2017

They say that everyone has a book in them. Unfortunately for most of us, it’s not always easy to find a conducive environment to put pen to paper and begin telling our story. While writers’ retreats have been established worldwide to give budding wordsmiths the time and space they require, most of them come with a high price tag. Why not create your own retreat, at your budget? Here are five tips to get you started.

Escape to nature

If you’re like me, spending time amidst nature is enough to cure even the most severe writer’s block, leading to a welcome surge of writing inspiration. There’s just something about the fruity chortling of birds and gentle rush of the wind that encourages me to pick up the pen again. Thankfully, nature is everywhere and comes at no cost.

In Asia, we’re lucky to have dozens of stunning national parks at our doorstep. Find yourself basic accommodation in or beside one of these natural treasures and check in for a few days or weeks at a time. You’re sure to have little distraction from your creative endeavours. I stayed in a quiet hut at the edge of Thailand’s Khao Sok National Park and found it to be the perfect location for reading, writing and developing ideas. As a bonus, all of my meals were provided for. I highly recommend finding a place that offers similar packages as it means you can devote less time to chopping vegetables and more time to writing.

Where you can go: National parks in Asia that serve as potential writing havens are Taman Negara in Malaysia, Kirirom National Park in Cambodia and Nakai-Nam Theun National Biodiversity Conservation Area in Laos.

During my upcoming travels through Vietnam, I personally hope to get some writing done in the mountainous region of Da Lat as well as stunning Ninh Binh in the north. For those who are easily distracted, or just prefer the sounds of the sea, perhaps it’s best to flee to an island. Koh Kood in Thailand is a winner for me, while Koh Rong Sanloem in Cambodia, the islands in Komodo National Park in Indonesia and Japan’s Yakushima island should be on any writer’s (and traveller’s!) bucket list.

Squad goals

Some people require a bit of a push and titbits of advice to get their creative juices flowing, and that’s why writing retreats have become so popular. If you find yourself in that bracket but can’t afford to fork out for an organised retreat, don’t despair! There are plenty of ways to get the support you need at little to no extra cost.

Most larger towns and cities have writing clubs that see novice and seasoned writers come together regularly to share their work and gain feedback. Why not book a cheap stay in a city you’re keen to see and hook up with one of these groups while there? A few days or weeks on your self-moulded writers retreat is sure to leave you feeling equally refreshed and inspired.

Check out: Hanoi Writer’s Collective and Hoi An Writers Group, Vietnam; MYWriters Penang, Malaysia; Chiang Mai Writers, Thailand and The Singapore Writer’s Group are among such active groups.

The word on festivals

Literary festivals usually offer both free and affordable events and workshops, and are also great opportunities to rub shoulders with established writers. Asia hosts approximately 60 literary festivals annually so you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to picking a destination and activities.

Make your way to: Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (25-29 October 2017), Singapore Writers Festival (3-12 November 2017), Hong Kong International Literary Festival (3-12 November 2017), George Town Literary Festival (24-26 November 2017), and Jaipur International Literature Festival (January 2018).

Walk in the footsteps of the greats

Asian cities have served as both the birthplace and the inspiration for some extremely successful authors. If you’re a budding writer, there are many Asian cities worth a visit. Who knows what inspiration you might glean!

Where to go: Tokyo has a rich literary heritage, with dozens of bookstores and libraries, along with museums dedicated to the writers that have roamed its streets. It was once home to Matsuo Basho, the founder of the haiku, and a museum in his memory sits there today. Though hailing from Kyoto, author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Haruki Murakami lived and based many of his books on Tokyo. There’s even a walking tour in his honour. Controversial author Yukio Mishima (Confessions of a Mask) was born here, as was crime novelist Hideo Yokoyama, whose novel Six Four famously sold a million copies in just six days.

The colourful and bustling city of Mumbai has served as the backdrop for many famous books, including Pulitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo’s multi award-winning book Beyond the Beautiful Forevers. Salmon Rushdie’s Booker Prize-winning Midnight’s Children, which focuses on India’s transition from colonialism to independence, also used his native city of Mumbai as its stage. The critically-acclaimed Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts was also based in Mumbai and is said to be inspired by real events.

Dozens of authors, including Jungle Book creator Rudyard Kipling and prolific Marathi writer PL Deshpande (Vyakti Ani Valli), were born in the city. If you fancy reading any of these for inspiration, head to Mumbai’s Book Street where you are sure to find something among the heaving stalls.

Check your backyard

After months of seeking out a destination where I can peacefully write and form new ideas, I found the park beside my current home in Da Nang to be the perfect spot. Though it had been right under my nose for months, I never considered it a place to find writing inspiration. Don’t underestimate the destinations on your doorstep.

Try these spots: Take a walk around your neighbourhood, try writing at various places and see how you feel. It could be that park around the corner, the nondescript coffee shop you always walk past without a second glance, the public library, the 24-hour coin operated laundry… any of these might be where your story begins. I urge you to grab pen and paper when you pay a visit!

(First published on Zafigo.com on November 5 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/build-your-own-writers-retreat/)

5 ways to make friends in a new city – Zafigo.com, September 12 2017

The initial stages of moving to a new city can be incredibly exciting as you get to explore a new place and all that it has to offer. Then, reality kicks in and you may find yourself feeling lonely and missing things back home. The first few weeks of living in a new city can be particularly lonely, especially when flying solo. While it’s easy enough to pack up your clothes, books and even furniture during a move, there are some things you just can’t load into a suitcase, namely friends and family.

A new group of friends won’t be handed to you on a silver platter, and forming new friendships at an adult stage in life is certainly not as easy as during your playground days. But it doesn’t have to be difficult – so long as you’re willing to make an effort and lean outside your comfort zone.

#1 Join a social group

No matter how lonely you feel, you are certainly never alone. Regardless of where you go, there are plenty of like-minded women seeking a friend to share a coffee and a chat with. It’s just a case of finding them! Thankfully, there are several platforms that have been established to help you do just that.

On moving to a new town in Ireland, I joined the local GirlCrew branch and it was one of the best decisions I made. This women-only social network, which now has 46 branches worldwide and over 90,000 members, allows women in the same area to link up online and organise meet-ups and events.

While the first meeting was a bit daunting (and felt a bit like online dating!), once I got to chatting with people, I realised that there are so many other women out there in the same boat as me. Bowling nights, lunch dates and nights out ensued, and I can definitely say that I formed a few lasting friendships as a result.

Girl Gone International is a similar organisation for women worldwide. I am a member of the local group in Da Nang, Vietnam and love meeting both local women and expatriates alike at the fun monthly meet-ups. Not only has GGI brought me brilliant new friends; it has also given me some memorable experiences (such as a movie night on the beach and a Vietnamese cooking class).

#2 Find a new hobby

Have you always wanted to try yoga? Or perhaps you fancy yourself as a guitarist? Whatever your interest, moving to a new place is the perfect opportunity to start something different and in the process, meet new people. Striking up conversations with strangers doesn’t come easy to everybody, but joining a class that interests you ensures that you will always have a conversation starter.

Personally, I find signing up for a full-term course to be the best option. Once your money is handed over, you are more likely to stick with your new hobby and hopefully, continue to develop new friendships along the way. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t the most talented person in the class; I recently joined a Zumba group in Da Nang and am certain that my moves are more akin to Bigfoot’s than Beyoncé’s! As long as you’re having fun and socialising with other people, that’s what matters.

#3 Work from a co-working space or cafe

Working on my laptop at home can feel pretty isolating. But I’ve found that it doesn’t have to be this way. If you’re lucky enough to work for yourself or as a freelancer, you can turn your work days into social opportunities by working in a public space. Many large cities and small towns have established co-working spaces where you can rent a spot to work and rub shoulders with others throughout the work day. Some of these spaces also organise social activities and events to allow people to get to know their ‘co-workers’ and share ideas.

A cheaper and easier alternative is to work from a local cafe. Find out where the most popular spots are (in my case, anywhere with strong WiFi, strong coffee and good air-conditioning) and prop yourself up with your laptop and a cafe latte. Stir up a conversation with the person at the table next to you if the opportunity arises. Chatting with the café staff could also turn into a chance to make a new friend. At the very least, working from a cafe will allow you to enjoy a change of scenery and some delicious coffee. Who can argue with that?

#4 Be a volunteer

There’s no point in wasting your free and alone time feeling sorry for yourself or pining for home. No matter where you are in the world, there is always an organisation or cause that is crying out for helping hands. Why not offer to do some work at a local animal shelter or get involved in a weekly soup run?

If you find yourself unable to commit to a weekly volunteer position, seek out one-off events such as beach clean-ups or charity fundraisers. Such admirable causes attract people from all walks of life, so you are guaranteed to meet a diverse range of people.

If you find someone that you click with, don’t be afraid to ask them out for a coffee afterwards. What’s the worst that could happen? Chances are they will only be delighted to wind down and chat after a busy day.

#5 Keep an open mind

Sometimes new friends can be found in the most unlikely places. For this reason, it is so important to keep an open mind and remain patient when you move abroad. That girl you’re chatting with on a long bus journey home could become a firm friend. During a stint living in Paris, I met one of my best friends there completely by chance when she approached me to ask for directions.

While asking me how to get anywhere is a grave mistake (navigation isn’t my strong suit), her decision to approach me certainly was not. It turned out that we have a lot in common. Not only were we both going to the same place and equally as lost as the other, we were also living away from home and enjoyed many of the same activities.

When we finally reached our destination, we swapped phone numbers and arranged to meet up for a drink the following week. Soon, a strong friendship blossomed, and over the next few months we explored the beautiful streets and sights of Paris together. Fast forward four years later and we live elsewhere, but we still remain in touch. And that’s how I know that each time I move some place new, I’ll always be able to find new friends.

(First published on Zafigo.com on September 12 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/tips/make-friends-when-move-new-city/)

Irish nurse finds her calling helping terminally ill children find a peaceful ending – Irish Examiner, August 3 2017

A 23-year-old UCC medical graduate, Sinéad Keane is part of a foundation helping terminally ill children in Vietnam, writes Amy Lewis

When medical intervention is not a viable option for a gravely ill child, palliative care is key to making their final days more comfortable. Thanks to a small team of dedicated volunteers in Vietnam, hundreds of terminally ill children are living out their final days in a loving and peaceful environment.

Kerry-born nurse Sinéad Keane is one part of this group of volunteers that form the NGO Little Feather Foundation. Established in 2013 by Ella James and Kate Loring from Australia, it has grown into a team of seven who are keen to make a difference. Despite their various backgrounds and nationalities, they all have one aim in mind: To provide and advocate for palliative and hospice care for terminally ill children in Vietnam.

Sinéad, who has been involved in the group since 2016, found herself working with Little Feather Foundation by chance. Having left her demanding nursing job in Cork to travel and teach English, the Tralee native stumbled across a Facebook post seeking a volunteer nurse in Ho Chi Minh City. She landed the role and now volunteers in the foundation’s government-run centre five mornings a week.

“Most of the children I work with have a condition called hydrocephalus which is caused by the build-up of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. Unfortunately, for a lot of them, their condition has gone too far for treatment so we just provide basic comfort measures and whatever other care they need,” explains the 23-year-old UCC nursing graduate.

A typical day for Sinéad sees her providing care and company to approximately 20 severely ill and disabled children alongside another nurse from the organisation.

“We arrive in the morning after the children have been bathed by their nannies. There are bouncers for all of the kids which allow them to sit up while we massage and comfort them. We use baby oil and moisturiser to prevent their skin from becoming dry and Vaseline to keep their eyes clean. A few of them have really bad pressure sores so we also provide healing measures for them. But, for example, one child has two very bad sores and for the past eight months we have been trying to heal them. Because he is towards the end of his life and is really malnourished, they aren’t going to heal so we just have to try to prevent them from spreading,” she says.

“In cases like this, you want to think you are helping but sometimes it can be stressful.”

Advocating for the children is another important role carried out by the nurses, who must communicate with the full-time staff in the centre to ensure children’s needs are met around the clock. “If a child is in pain, has a temperature, or has digestive issues, we communicate with the nannies and nurses in the centre regarding the provision of adequate relief from the symptoms. Because children with hydrocephalus are more prone to these problems, providing relief from these symptoms is extremely important in our role as palliative care nurses,” explains Sinéad.

In November 2016, Little Feather Foundation introduced a ‘hospice from the home’ service, which sees their nurses pay regular care visits to terminally ill children in their homes. These children, who are usually living in extremely rural and poverty-stricken communities, would otherwise struggle to receive the medical care that they require.

“Our first visit came about when our head nurse was doing a trek in rural Vietnam. She told somebody in passing that she works with a charity for children with hydrocephalus and a woman in her group mentioned a child with the condition in her community,” says Sinéad.

“Since then, we have been helping to take care of her. After we initially assessed her, we brought general things like a bouncer and pain relief. We also brought a high-calorie formula to prevent her from becoming malnourished as a result of her digestive problems.

“Once a month, a nurse goes to visit to check how she is doing and also, to see if there is anything that the family needs. From the family’s point of view, it’s great that they have some support. They know that they are not forgotten about and that they have someone to talk to.”

While Little Feather Foundation is equipped to deal with a wide array of illnesses, it is predominantly working with children with hydrocephalus. The prevalence of this condition in Vietnam, which causes the head to swell and leads to a host of physical and neurological problems, is believed to be a lasting effect of the dispersion of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

Between 1961 and 1972, the US military sprayed some 12m gallons of this dioxin-containing chemical across Vietnam to remove dense foliage that provided enemy troops with cover and food. It was later linked to health issues such as tumours, rashes, psychological symptoms, cancer, and birth defects, spanning generations. Vietnam Red Cross estimates that, since the war ended in 1975, around 150,000 Vietnamese children have been born with birth defects due to dioxin found in Agent Orange.

While hydrocephalus cannot be cured, its symptoms can be greatly reduced with medical intervention.

“With proper treatment, their heads do not have to grow that much. Unfortunately, the healthcare system is so behind here that the children don’t always get the necessary treatment on time,” says Sinéad.

Working with the Little Feather Foundation is a far cry from Sinéad’s previous role as a nurse in Ireland, where she felt constantly exhausted due to long hours and lack of staff.

“Since being here, I have learned that I love providing nursing care. At home, you don’t provide care, you are just running around trying to get all of the jobs done. You don’t have time to be with patients. Now I’m spending all of my time with kids, one on one, reading, and talking to them, comforting and taking care of them.”

Her role is not without its challenges. “We want to make more of a difference here but it can be very difficult when there are no palliative care guidelines or auditing in the country. There’s nothing to keep the standards high,” says Sinéad.

“The nurses here also have different views on how problems occur. Some of it is down to superstition. For example, some nurses think if a child has a pressure sore, it’s from milk falling on their head. They don’t think it is from not turning the head enough. It can be difficult to try and communicate these things with the nurses, especially with the language barrier, but thankfully we have a translator.”

In order to provide children with medicine, pain relief, and comfort devices, Little Feather Foundation relies on donations. While this can sometimes add to the pressure of the team’s daily work, overall, they have been astounded by the generosity of people around the globe.

“For the most part, our work is extremely positive and you feel like you are truly helping. There are challenges and it is an uphill battle when it comes to trying to change big things. But if you keep it simple and keep in mind that you are helping the kids, that is the main thing,” says Sinéad. “We know that we are helping when we can see them smiling. Or when they start crying and and you lift them into your arms and they go to sleep, you feel like you are helping in that moment.”

(First published in the Irish Examiner on August 3, 2017. Available online at: http://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/features/irish-nurse-finds-her-calling-helping-terminally-ill-children-find-a-peaceful-ending-456235.html)

 

Four travellers who aren’t letting their disabilities stop them from seeing the world – Zafigo.com, July 26 2017

Even the best laid plans can go awry, and if regular travellers inevitably face that while trotting the globe, imagine how much more difficult it is for those with disabilities. But, as these four bloggers/YouTubers and intrepid travellers share with us, it’s no reason to not explore the world.

Dilara Earle and Justine Eltakchi @ The Pickle Sandwich

Dilaraand Justine of THe Pickle Sandwich in Madrid (Photo Credit: Instagram @ ThePickleSandwich)

Dilara and Justine of The Pickle Sandwich in Madrid (Photo Credit: Instagram @ ThePickleSandwich)

Jet-setting duo Dilara Earle and Justine Eltakchi are shining a light on accessible travel through their hilarious and thought-provoking YouTube channel, The Pickle Sandwich. The duo joined forces after meeting through AirBnB. Justine, an Australian, is legally blind while Dilara, a Scottish, is profoundly deaf. Since then, they have travelled across Australia, New Zealand, Spain, and Scotland together, documenting their adventures as they go.

“We want to raise awareness through sharing our experiences and through comedy. If one person out there realises not to walk away when talking, or not to downplay our disability when we’ve explicitly told them that it’s real and it’s serious, then I’ll be happy!” says Justine when asked about their goal.

Dilara and Justine in Spain

Dilara and Justine in Spain (Photo Credit: The Pickle Sandwich)

Biggest challenges “I have to prepare my equipment really well,” Dilara shares. “I need a million chargers and adapters to make sure I can recharge all my batteries on the road. I also have to try and remember to tell reception to come and get me if there is a fire.”

Recommended destinations Though unable to pinpoint a place that ‘has it all’, Justine and Dilara find that anywhere with big signs, warnings on the walls, step railings and good lighting are easier to get around. Streets that have lots of street art and musicians playing are always going to be easy on the eyes and ears! The secret to it is the locals though. If the people are willing to help you out and reach out to make your day easier, we never forget it,” says Dilara.

Top tip “Your disability can be a healthy part of your identity! The deaf culture and community is amazing, for example. But don’t let it define you. Let your curiosity and love for the world define your experiences of life instead,” says Dilara.

Jeanne Allen @ Incredible Accessible

Jeanne at the Alpine Meadows. (Photo Credit: Facebook @ Incredible Accessible)

Jeanne at the Alpine Meadows. (Photo Credit: Facebook @ Incredible Accessible)

With limited information about accessible travel online, planning a trip can be a feat in itself for someone with a disability. Jeanne, who has lived with Multiple Sclerosis for 30 years, learned this prior to visiting Chicago several years ago, when it took hours of online research and phone calls to concoct the perfect itinerary. “When it was over, I was about to throw away the itinerary that I spent hours putting together and thought, this is crazy, I could share this with others. So, I decided to start a blog,” explains Jeanne.

Biggest challenges On day one of her ongoing 66-day European trip, Jeanne was presented with one of her greatest challenges yet. “Upon landing in Oslo, the plane crew couldn’t find my chair. It was eventually found but the right arm with the controls was dangling off the side and it was broken,” recalls the US native. “Fortunately, it was still drivable but I had to bend forward so it wasn’t very safe.” Jeanne quickly took action by filing a claim and making contact with the wheelchair manufacturer. “They tracked down a manufacturer in Scandanavia and miracle of miracles, things were set into motion. A day later, the repair man drove to Oslo and fixed my wheelchair on the spot.”

Jeanne’s experience didn’t dampen her spirits but rather, gave her a renewed appreciation in the kindness of strangers worldwide. “While waiting to get my chair fixed, our hotel was tremendous. They found zip ties and duct tape and used them to bring the armrest to the right level. They then propped an umbrella under the armrests to keep them upright so I was going around Oslo with an umbrella across my knees. I felt like MacGyver!”

Kayaking lesson with Allie Ibsen at Achieve Tahoe (Photo Credit: incredibleaccessible.com

Kayaking lesson with Allie Ibsen at Achieve Tahoe (Photo Credit: incredibleaccessible.com)

Recommended destinations Having toured the United States (US), Canada and now Europe too, the city of Victoria, Canada currently tops her list of accessible destinations. “Our hotel there had something I had never seen before. My husband went to the room before me. By the time I got there, he was grinning at me like a Cheshire cat. He handed me the key card and said to open it. I did…the door automatically swung open, and stayed open long enough for me to roll in with my scooter.”

Top tip Plan in advance and be specific with your hotels about individual needs. Using all available tools is also a message that Jeanne tries to spread. “We all hate the idea of disability and giving in to it. But once I did, I found life so much easier. For example, I recently got a van ramp which allows me to travel completely independently,” she explains. “If the tools exist, don’t resist them. They really will change your life.”

Cory Lee @ Curb Free With Cory Lee

Cory and his mother on a hot air balloon ride over Israel (Photo Credit: )

Cory and his mother on a hot air balloon ride over Israel (Photo Credit: curbfreewithcorylee)

Despite being diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy at age two and getting his first wheelchair at four, Cory has never allowed his disability to restrain his wanderlust. “I started travelling at a young age in the US and that sparked my love of travel. I never saw any limits, even though I use a wheelchair on a daily basis,” he says. “When I was 15, I took my first international trip to the Bahamas. It was the first time that I saw a different culture and way of life and I decided that I wanted to go much further. I have since been to six continents, with just Antarctica to go.”

In 2013, Cory set up his blog Curb Free with Cory Lee to share his adventures with friends and family. He documents his experiences in faraway and unusual places, from hiking through the Amazon rainforest to soaring over Israel in a hot air balloon. Before long, he was being featured on the likes of Travel Channel and Lonely Planet. “People have contacted me to say that my blog has inspired them to travel to Africa or Israel. Some are travelling for the first time. For many people with a disability, it can be hard to get out of your comfort zone and go abroad. When I go out to different places and write about them, I’m testing the waters for these people,” explains Cory.

Cory in the Blue Lagoon (Photo Credit: curbfreebycorylee.com)

Cory in the Blue Lagoon (Photo Credit: curbfreewithcorylee.com)

Biggest challenges While Cory’s posts are brimming with positivity and snaps of enviable locations, he remains honest about the challenges that he faces. Air travel can prove particularly problematic and on several occasions, he has arrived at his destination only to discover that his wheelchair was damaged. “I’m always worried about it being damaged but I try to have a backup plan. It is important to know of wheelchair repair shops in any place you go to,” he advises.

Recommended destinations “Australia was great; Sydney in particular was spectacular. I could ride every ferry, see every attraction and all of the restaurants were accessible. Iceland also really surprised me. The Blue Lagoon even had a special chair to get into the water,” he says. “Also, the people in Iceland were really friendly and willing to help.”

Top tip Cory is constantly thinking about his next destination and when it comes to accessible travel, he believes planning is key. “Start planning as far in advance as possible. Reach out to other wheelchair users that have gone to the destination. Look for blog posts and get that first-hand perspective.”

(First published on Zafigo.com on July 26, 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/travellers-who-arent-letting-disabilities-stop-them-seeing-the-world/)