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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/)

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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/)

How microbes may influence our behaviour – The Scientist, September 2017

Stress, anxiety, and depression are emotions we all feel at some point in our lives, some people to a greater degree than others. Part of the human experience, right?

“It may seem odd that my research focuses on the gut if I’m interested in the brain,” says  John Cryan, a researcher at the APC Microbiome Institute at University College Cork in Ireland. “But when we think of how we express emotion in language, through sayings like ‘butterflies in your tummy’ and ‘gut feeling,’ it isn’t surprising that they’re connected.”

In a recent study, Cryan and his colleagues reported a link between the microbiome and fear. By examining mice with and without gut bacteria, they discovered that the germ-free mice had blunted fear responses (Mol Psychiatr, doi:10.1038/mp.2017.100, 2017). Their findings may pave the way for the development of novel treatments for anxiety-related illnesses, including posttraumatic stress disorder.

Researchers at Kyushu University in Japan were the first to show, in 2004, that bacteria in the gut can influence stress responses, prompting many subsequent investigations. Yet despite mounting research, scientists remain uncertain about exactly how the gut microbiome affects the brain. While some bacteria influence the brain through the vagus nerve, other strains seem to use different pathways. It is known, however, that the population of the gut microbiome begins in early life, and recent research suggests that disruptions to its normal development may influence future physical and mental health (Nat Commun, 6:7735, 2015).

Researchers are finding that this gut-brain connection could have clinical implications, as influencing the gut microbiome through diet may serve to ameliorate some psychiatric disorders. Together with University College Cork colleague Ted Dinan, Cryan coined the term “psychobiotics” in 2013 to describe live organisms that, when ingested, produce health benefits in patients with psychiatric illness. These include foods containing probiotics, live strains of gut-friendly bacteria.

While there are many rodent studies linking probiotics and mental health, UCLA biologist Emeran Mayer and his colleagues were the first to test them in humans, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to assess the results. After administering probiotic yogurt to a group of healthy women twice a day for four weeks, the researchers found that the women had a reduced brain response to negative images (Gastroenterology, 144:1394-401, 2013).

“We reanalysed the data several times and convinced ourselves that it’s real,” Mayer says. “You can almost say it was a career-changer for me.”

Having conducted this study on healthy participants, Mayer is reluctant to conclude that probiotics can cure mental illnesses such as anxiety. “It’s a complex emotion, not just a reflex behavior like in the mouse,” he says. However, Mayer says he’s very supportive of the potential of prebiotics—fiber-rich foods  that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.

Researchers at Deakin University in Australia recently trialed a Mediterranean-style diet, which is predominately plant-based and fiber-rich, in a group of adults with major depression. They found that one-third of the participants reported a significant improvement in symptoms after 12 weeks on the diet (BMC Medicine, 15:23, 2017). One of them was Sarah Keeble from Melbourne. “I’ve suffered from depression for 17 years. At the start of this study, I was right at the bottom of the barrel,” she recalls. “After a few weeks, that sinking feeling slowly lifted, and my motivation and enthusiasm improved.”

Just as activity in the gut seems to affect the brain, mental stress can lead to intestinal problems. Scientists have demonstrated this in research on irritable bowel syndrome. For example, a study by Mayer and colleagues linked early-life emotional trauma to an increased risk of developing the bowel disorder (Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol, 10:385-90, 2012).

As data on the brain-gut axis accumulates, many scientists are taking notice. Trinity College Dublin researcher Shane O’Mara says that there is “great potential” in this area, but cautions that it’s too early to say whether targeting the microbiome will play a role in psychiatric treatment. University of Manitoba gastroenterologist Charles Bernstein also feels the research is promising but believes we are “far from manipulating the microbiome to treat mental health disorders.”

Those spearheading this research are equally aware of the need for more studies, particularly in human subjects, but they are hopeful that change lies ahead. “I’m almost certain that in several years, diet will be considered one branch of therapy for many mental illnesses, alongside medication and psychiatric treatments,” says Mayer.

“People with severe mental illness will still need something very strong, but this is a useful adjunctive,” agrees Cryan. “I think when we go to our GP in future, we will not only have blood tests, we will have the microbiome tested.”

“Within five years, I hope to see more clinical trials that demonstrate the efficacy of prebiotics and probiotics on mental health disorders,” says University of Chicago microbial ecologist Jack Gilbert. “There needs to be a revolution in how we deal with mental illness in our society.”

(First published in The Scientist magazine September 2017. Also available online at: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/50146/title/How-Microbes-May-Influence-Our-Behavior/)

Driving Down Pests – The Scientist, August 28 2017

 A computer model estimates that gene-drive technology could wipe out populations of an invasive mammal on islands. 

The government of New Zealand has a goal: to wipe out the most damaging introduced predators in the nation by the year 2050 through the Predator Free 2050 program. At present, rats, possums, and stoats have pushed native species such as the kakapo to near extinction and cost the country NZ$70 million (USD$50.5 million) in pest control measures and NZ$3 million (USD$2.2 million) in agricultural losses annually.
Acknowledging that the existing pest-control methods are not going to be enough for this ambitious project, scientists involved in the program have placed their hopes in engineered gene drives: a technology that involves meddling with the rules of inheritance and increasing the likelihood a deleterious gene will be passed to the next generation of a species. With the advent of the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9, which allows scientists to alter DNA at precise locations using a single guide RNA and a DNA-cutting molecule called Cas9, the idea of using gene-drive technology to turn populations on themselves is now within reach.

In a study published August 9 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers at the University of Adelaide have provided modeling evidence that gene drives could indeed be an effective means to wipe out entire populations of invasive vertebrates on islands.

“The most obvious potential advantage to using gene-drive technology for this purpose is species specificity,” says Luke Alphey, a genetic pest management expert at the Pirbright Institute in the U.K. and a cofounder of Oxitec, which is commercializing other genetic-modification methods to control insects. “Genetic approaches are transmitted through mating, so the direct effect is only on the target species.”

“That aspect alone is phenomenally powerful if we are talking about working in an ecologically fragile environment,” notes Alphey, who was not involved in the study. He says the current approach for managing invasive species consists predominantly of “harmful mass poisoning.”

In this recent study, the scientists chose to test gene-drive strategies on a simulated island population of 50,000 mice that they constructed in silico. Invasive rodents are likely responsible for the greatest number of extinctions and ecosystem changes on islands, according to a 2006 study. The house mouse (Mus musculus) in particular has been shown to have a devastating effect on seabird colonies in places such as Gough Island in the South Atlantic and New Zealand’s Antipodes Islands.

“We also focused on islands because in the long term . . . if this technology is deemed a good idea and acceptable by society, islands will be the first place it is carried out as it is easier to control,” explains coauthor Paul Thomas. “There’s a long way to go before we think about using it, but we wanted to conduct this study to see if it could be a possibility.”

Using a mathematical model, the scientists tested four CRISPR-based gene-drive strategies that could be readily developed based on what is within the current literature. The “heterozygotic XX sterility” strategy, also known as the “daughterless strategy,” involves using the gene drive to spread a male sex-determining gene so that all carriers develop as males regardless of their sex chromosomes. As a result, there will be a deficiency of females and the population will eventually crash.

“Heterozygotic XX sex reversal” is a similar technique, but contains additional genetic cargo that enables XX males to transmit the gene drive. “Homozygotic XX sterility” achieves population suppression through the infertility of homozygous females. The final strategy, “homozygotic embryonic non-viability,” causes embryonic fatality through gene mutation. All of these strategies were based on the basic CRISPR-Cas9 system using a single guide RNA.

The heterozygotic XX sterility strategy failed to present itself as a viable method, the researchers found, as carrier XX males are infertile and therefore unable to pass on the gene drive. The paper notes that this method would only prove effective on the basis of a continuous release of gene drives into a population, a process that would be costly and time-consuming.

The remaining three strategies proved capable of causing rapid population decline to the point of elimination. The researchers conclude that a single introduction of just 100 mice carrying one of these gene drives could destroy an island mouse population of 50,000 individuals within four to five years.

The researchers acknowledge that, for all of these strategies, the potential for the formation of resistant genes poses a problem, as has been observed in laboratory studies of mosquito gene drives. However, by conducting further tests that involved targeting several different DNA sequences with more than one guide RNA, they found that the possibility of this resistance is reduced.

Michael Wade, who studies population genetics and mating at Indiana University, is not convinced that this solution to resistance comes without consequence. He says that by using multiple guide RNAs as the authors suggest, one could increase the risk of targeting the genome at unintended sites, which may lead to other problems.

“Release of this type of construct raises the risk of reducing the target specificity of CRISPR-Cas9 and increasing the possibility of it jumping to a different species, possibly an endemic relative of the invader species targeted for eradication,” he writes in an email to The Scientist.

Concerns have been raised by members of National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in a consensus study report about the potential consequences of using gene drives for species eradication, including the unintentional spread to other populations, unpredictable negative effects on the ecosystem, and ethical implications. Thomas and his colleagues are “very conscious” of these worries, he says.

“I think this method definitely has potential but we do need to do more studies, have the conversation around whether it is safe to use, and see if the benefits outweigh the risks. We are keen to engage with all members of the community,” he says. His team has now begun conducting a mouse-based gene-drive experiment in the laboratory.

 

T.A.A. Prowse et al., “Dodging silver bullets: good CRISPR gene-drive design is critical for eradicating exotic vertebrates,” Proc Royal Soc B, doi:10.1098/rspb.2017.0799, 2017.

 

(First published on The Scientist online on August 28 2017. Available online at: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/50180/title/Driving-Down-Pests/)

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/)

I survived a bus crash in Vietnam – Zafigo.com, July 11 2017

Vaccinations? Check. Passport? Check. Visa? Check.

After months of route-planning and preparations, the countdown is over. My boyfriend and I are ready for our long-awaited backpacking trip around Vietnam and Thailand, and everything is finally sorted. But I soon learn that no matter how organised you are, or how many travel guides you skim through, there are some things that you just cannot prepare for.

It’s day four. We have just checked out of our room on Cat Ba island, and laden down with backpacks, make the sweaty trek to the bus stop. Our next stop is Hoi An, where we will finally experience the vibrant lantern festival that I had been gazing at online for months.

Before my trip, people had warned me off mopeds, drinking tap water or swimming at certain beaches. But buses? Nobody mentioned them. As far as I am concerned, the bus is safe territory.

I throw my heavy pack underneath the now-packed coach and settle into my seat, sandwiched between two couples at the back. “This is going to be a cosy ride,” I think to myself, as I wave at my boyfriend who is perched beside the driver. Except it was anything but.

Within several minutes of rolling off the car ferry, the deafening honk of a horn suddenly drowns out my music. I had been in Vietnam for four days and know that car horns are basically background music here. So I choose to ignore it…until it grows louder, more urgent, more frequent. I try to steal a glimpse out the window but the dated curtains conceal my view.

And then I feel it.

The powerful force that hit the left side of our bus and sends it crashing over. Beeping is replaced by screaming and the screech of steel against concrete as we toss and turn, like a blender full of bodies and luggage.

Some say that when you’re in an accident, life flashes before your eyes. But the only thing I have running through my mind at that moment is, “This is where I die…”

When we screech to a halt, I look around to find absolute carnage. Broken glass. Crying children. Blood. I still don’t know what had happened when, leg throbbing, I clamber out through the emergency exit. The heat is the first thing to hit me. Then reality. A huge articulated truck is responsible for knocking us off track and sending us sliding for about 40 metres. Looking back, it’s a wonder that we all survived.

Other passengers find their way off the bus on their own or in the arms of another. Some are much worse off than others. A distraught man screams for help as he crouches over his unconscious, blood-soaked wife who he soon lifts into a hospital-bound taxi.

I find my boyfriend and hug him close, speechless but relieved that we are alright. Soon, we too are rushed off to hospital, where we are surrounded by doctors and nurses, speaking to us in an unfamiliar tongue while examining every inch of our weary and shaken bodies.

Several hours of prodding and broken conversations later, we are discharged with two souvenirs: A swollen purple leg for me, eight stitches for my boyfriend. In our torn and blood-stained clothes, we make our way to the nearest hotel and await word about our luggage.

We spoke long into the following nights, questioning whether we should continue our trip. In the end, we decide to keep going. The following six weeks are a struggle as we lug bruised legs and egos around Asia. Yet, choosing to get back on the road is the best decision we ever made.

Before our accident, I felt invincible and to be honest, took many things for granted. The accident, albeit terrifying, brought me quite literally crashing back down to earth. For a while, I became cautious, too afraid to try anything that felt even remotely dangerous. Those feelings soon cleared, making way for a sense of understanding, an understanding that some things in life are outside of our control. But we shouldn’t let this stop us from living. If we can’t always be in the driving seat, we might as well sit back and enjoy the view.

(First published on Zafigo.com on July 11 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/survived-bus-crash-in-vietnam/)