Boats, Buses, and Blood Work: The Winding Journey to AU

Boats, Buses, and Blood Work: The Winding Journey to AU

At times, our lives take unexpected turns, and at times, the choices we make during these moments will change the trajectories of our futures forever.  Over the years, my life has taken many of these winding paths, some leading to narrow escapes, such as my terrifying near death experiences on a congested Guatemalan highway intersection, others, full of incredible joy and hope.  Enrolling in AU was one of these unexpected twists, a choice made in 2017 that has proven ideal in surprising ways, time and time again.

With a family history of deportations and resettlements, immigration and migration, it was only fitting that I spend the majority of my life moving from place to place, in search of an elusive purpose.  At last count, I have lived and worked in approximately fifty cities from coast to coast, as well as worldwide.  I spent my twenties and thirties in a variety of small oil and manufacturing industry towns, my years a blur of dilapidated roadside motels and mold-filled rooming houses above country bars, with more than a lifetime’s worth of 20-hour Greyhound bus rides and weekly flights as the norm.  My increasing heath issues made a typical lifestyle, including a 9 to 5 job, as well as a traditional path to a degree, impossible.  Before AU, I had been a full scholarship student at York University, but I was forced to make the heartbreaking decision to withdraw as my health deteriorated.

Content with my unconventional life, I ignored the signs that had periodically appeared during the previous five years, signs that seemingly warned me to slow down, to consider another road.  Foolishly, I plunged ahead, stubbornly refusing to deviate from my chosen path, despite omens that repeatedly made it clear I no longer had a choice.

From freak workplace accidents and regrettable encounters to multiple hospitalizations as nurses stared at me in amazement, the absurdity of these years have become a source of anecdotes for those closest in my life.  “She’s got nine lives,” they’d laugh shaking their heads.  Although in hindsight, many of these incidents resulted from an exhausted body and mind, the foreshadowing was undeniable.  It was as if some type of magnetic force was repeatedly tugging me away from my journey, and, as I scratched and crawled my way back time and again, losing pieces of myself along the way, “This is no longer for you,” it whispered.

Although I had unexplainable symptoms since my early teens, including severe back pain and hospitalization for heart trouble, on a 2017 road trip through the Badlands, something snapped deep within my spine.

Despite my better judgement and to the bewilderment of chiropractors whom I terrified with my bloodcurdling screams, I flew to Guatemala for a long-awaited vacation.  A lifelong learner, I had planned to spend two weeks improving my Spanish.  Unfortunately, my spine had other plans on the winding road to Quetzaltenango.  What began as a two-week trip turned into a four-month long ordeal in a hilly Guatemalan town, as my knowledge of medical Spanish terms now rivals most medical professionals.

“How have you possibly managed to live this way for so long?” my physiotherapist cried as she examined my MRIs.  “The doctors told me I was just depressed,” was the only answer I could give after years of fruitless ER visits.  What began as one of the most terrifying times in my life, has also become one of the most cherished, as I gained what I now consider a second family.

Unfortunately, as I slowly improved and made plans to return to Canada, the absurd struck again.  I was hit by a car.  Or, more accurately, my body collided with a car and somehow won.  Bruised and scraped, my mind still refuses to piece together the fragments of what truly happened on the highway that day.

The signs had become undeniable; it was time to reconsider my life.  Among the many choices made in the following months, the one I am most proud of is enrolling at AU.  A chance link to AU popped up on my phone screen, as I lay resting in bed, watching the volcanic ash raining down on the city, known locally as Xela, which had welcomed my broken body with incredible warmth.  Although by mid-2017, I was finally given medical approval to fly home; my body still refused to heal, and I was forced to limit my work hours, my life reduced to a series of doctor’s appointments and heating pads.  It was time to enroll at AU.

A few months later, I flew to Panama City, armed stubbornly with a small backpack consisting of essentials: countless bottles of medication, a back roller, heating pad, and a back brace.  As a continued down the coast on a four-day ocean journey to Colombia, I planned out essays and assignments for ENGL255: Introductory Composition, developing critical thinking skills amidst ochre shades of crumbling casas in Cartagena, the stunning greenery of Medellin, and down to the sweltering streets of Cali, the salsa capital of Colombia.  However, the signs were ever present, as a giant storm hit on the first night of our journey, and fierce winds plagued the small sailboat.  My back brace was futile as the waves tossed me from wall to wall.  As the swells felled even the most seasoned crew, dripping with sweat and battling agonizing nausea I re-evaluated my life choices from the fitting vantage point of a toilet bowl.

Returning to Canada, I continued to travel for work, completing assignments for classes in a variety of northern oil, mining, and fishing towns, including Yellowknife, Fort St.  John, Smithers, and Price Rupert.  I studied for exams in Williams Lake surrounded by blackflies and deer, wrote essays in Cranbrook marveling at Bighorn sheep, and stressed over assignments in the frigid winters of High Level.  I also cried from the pain every single day.

In increasingly failing health but in my typical stubborn fashion, I booked a two-month trip to Central America.  Predictably, the series of unfortunate events continued, as my life spiraled out of control.  Beginning in one of my favourite places, El Salvador, I had planned to spend a few days at the beach before heading north into the mountains of Morazán department and onto western Honduras.  Instead, three days into my journey, I developed a high fever and severe vomiting.  I was finally hospitalized when my balance and vision became severely affected.  Through those hazy days in San Salvador, I struggled to complete my readings for SOCI339: Sociology of War and Armed Conflict, while hooked up to an IV.

Upon my discharge days later, with no concrete answers, and against my better judgement, I continued my journey, feeling that somehow it could be my very last.  From sprawling San Salvador, I decided to alter my trip into something less physically intense and headed to Southern Mexico, Belize, and, my final destination, Guatemala.  I wrote essays and submitted assignments on flights and old creaking school buses in the jungles, the vast highlands, and sweltering coasts, often participating in local language exchanges, called intercambios in parks and cafes, in addition to my homework for SPAN300: Intermediate Spanish.  I continued to deteriorate, until it became increasingly clear that it was no longer safe for me to continue as a solo traveller.  I found myself standing in the middle of a dusty border town separating Belize from Guatemala, desperately struggling to decipher the meaning behind Entry and Exit, my cognitive function impaired, my words disjointed and reversed.

“I have malaria,” my clouded mind informed me as the pressure in my skull increased.  Three weeks later, on a layover in Dallas on my way home to Vancouver, I found myself standing in the middle of the airport, as the crowds ebbed and flowed around me, desperately trying to understand the numerical progression of Gate 45 to Gate 47.  An intense feeling of emptiness settled over me.  Through sounds of crashing waves, I struggled to maintain my balance and hide my increasingly dilated pupils from the flight attendants.  Tears streaming down my face, I shut my eyes tightly, but nothing could stop the kaleidoscope of colours streaming across my field of vision, as my senses felt intolerably heightened.  For the first time, the world appeared too bright, too loud, and too overwhelming.

Upon my arrival home, doctors scrambled to diagnose my illness.  My travel history did not make this simple, as neurologists, rheumatologists, and infectious disease specialists argued amongst themselves.  Unable to take care of myself and forced to give up the life I had built in BC, I flew back to my family in Toronto, where I deteriorated further, slowly losing my ability to walk, as well as think, coherently.

After countless vials of blood, vector-based diseases such as malaria, chikungunya, and chagas are now familiar names.  With dilated pupils, extreme vertigo and balance problems, inability to regulate temperature, sensitivity to light, chest pain, difficulty breathing, hallucinations, vivid nightmares, increasing allergic reactions, and most worrying of all, dementia-like symptoms, I left an ever present trail of clumps of hair behind me, as my baffled specialists revealed that my blood tests had returned within range.

Over the years, I had been to so many disease-endemic areas, the source was almost impossible to pinpoint, coupled with often unreliable and outdated testing methods.  “Maybe you’re just depressed,” came the ever-familiar refrain, as if my mind were powerful enough to manifest the terrifying physical symptoms, with which they had been extremely concerned with one week prior.  As I have since learned, despite what Western medicine tells us, our complex bodies cannot simply be divided into separate parts without considering a holistic, interconnected approach.  Often, our multi-systemic symptoms do not fit neatly into medicine’s compartmentalized specialties.  “We don’t know what else to do,” they shrugged, “Come back when you get worse.” The word, “when,” not “if,” remains in my mind.

In search of answers, I left Canada in 2019 for medical care, taking my AU textbooks along with me.  Through Ukraine and Georgia to Turkey, Romania, Poland, Slovakia, and The Netherlands, my AU courses were my constant companion in a world that no longer made sense.  Although the trip was extremely risky in my condition, on a subconscious level I needed to return home to family, to where I was born.  Interestingly, some of my favourite memories from those months are tied directly to my courses: from speaking with a Uruguayan backpacker on a remote mountain top in southern Ukraine (Thanks SPAN330: Textual Analysis and Composition!), to finding myself standing in awe of The Hague, The Netherlands’ International Criminal Court, which I had just read about it POLI450: Globalization and Human Rights.  Although the Canadian medical system had failed me, a simple blood test in Ukraine unraveled part of the mystery that had been plaguing me for many years.  In October 2019, one month before I returned home, I finally had some answers.  I have been called an enigma, a Pandora’s Box, and I have lost count at the amount of doctors who shamelessly Google my diagnosis in front of me, congratulating me on being their “first.”

At times throughout our lives, it may seem that we are being guided by an unseen hand.  After a steady stream of accidents and misfortunes nearly ended my life, culminating in my body finally shutting down, I find myself in a safe place, increasingly at peace even amidst uncertainty and fear.  I try not to question the purpose, or even the deservedness, of my survival and second chances, when so many have lost their lives, realizing that these types of questions are beyond human understanding, falling into the realm of existentialism and beliefs in higher powers.  However, I remain incredibly cognizant of the privileges that have aided my continued existence on this earth thus far.  What truly became clear during my three months in bed was regardless why I remained here; it was time to slow down.

In hindsight, although it is now painfully clear that I should not have been travelling during these five years, it is, ironically, travel that led me to answers about my future and my health.  Additionally, my unconventional educational journey at AU, which has taken place on boats, on trains, in mountain villages, and countless hospitals, has taught me more than would have been possible in a traditional school setting.

Although I try to leave as little impact as possible while travelling, perhaps these events were also a signal to further contemplate the ethics of travel itself to countries negatively impacted by the Global North, as well as the ideas of movement, bodies, and borders.  The COVID-19 pandemic has stalled my plans for an exchange with a partner institution this coming winter, but I look forward to wherever I may find myself in the future, even if it means being still for a little while and even if my journey is a little different.  I think I have finally learned to heed the signs; it only took being hit by a car to do so.