Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sky's The Limit, If You Say So

When issued the latest topic for their blog carnival - "I Can Do It: something you thought chronic illness would never let you do until you mustered up the courage and went for it" - my first thought was travel. I fell in love with seeing this world many years ago and, although Spondylitis has made it significantly more challenging, I've still done it. There are ways around illness, especially if our hearts are in it. I've also been lucky enough to have a family that not only values travel, but has been able to give me these opportunities over the years. 

When I wrote the post abut my grandfather's life, I recalled first visiting Europe with him and my grandmother. Together, they took our entire family on an incredible trip to Grindewald, Switzerland and Annecy, France. Not only did I get to meet my European relatives for the first time, but I also remember my love of travel taking hold on that trip. I took a million photographs and collected everything I could to bring back to the States (including a wide array of sugar packets). I loved everything about being in a new country: being surrounded by new people, listening to new languages, and just being immersed in such a different culture. Everything was fresh and exciting and there seemed to be adventure around every corner. From then on, travel was in my blood.

Attending Colby College also afforded me all kinds of opportunities, particularly in the way of travel. Through the Colby College chorale, I was able to prepare a year's worth of music and travel to Vienna, Austriaand Prague, Czech Republic in 2005 during my freshman year! My favorite moments were busking in random archways, streets, and cathedrals as impromptu crowds gathered around. Surrounded by friends, new adventures, and beautiful music, it was one of the most amazing trips of my life. 

As the years passed and my disease progressed, travel became more difficult. I was placed on a strict regiment of weekly Enbrel injections , so I couldn't just take off for weeks at a time without really considering the logistics. During "Jan Plan" at Colby (a month-long semester during January in which students must participate in something...a class, a trip, etc.), the Spanish Department was offering language credits for studying and living in Quito, Ecuador. What better way to learn the language? I signed right up!

Since I would be gone for four weeks, I had to consider how I could transport and receive my injections while I was there. Luckily, Colby was able to set me up with a wonderful 
family of four. Both parents were doctors and could administer my injections! This certainly put my mind at ease. They also had two awesome kids, their son Juan Carlos and their older daughter Maya (incidentally, I would affectionately be called "Maya numero dos"). I attended school in Quito during the week and used the weekends to travel. A few friends and I also volunteered at a local orphanage, which planted the seed in my head for adopting my child one day. Another highlight of the month was a four day trip to Banos - a town known for being a holiday centre, both for Ecuadorian families and for backpackers. It’s a great place for cycling, hiking, white water rafting and the hot baths that give the town it’s name. I remember taking a pretty wild bus tour around winding mountain passes, driving from waterfall to waterfall and hiking to get closer to them. It was an incredible month and like nothing I'd ever experienced before.

In 2007 when I was a junior at Colby, I had the opportunity to study abroad for an entire semester! My brother had studied in Sydney, Australia four years earlier and loved it. As the second child, I've always had an innate drive to do everything just a little bit differently from, instead of Sydney, I decided that Melbourne, Australia was more "me." It was an awesome choice, and I spent the majority of those 5 months having new and extraordinary adventures. My favorite part was, of course, the plethora of adorable animals that live in Australia. As you can imagine, it was my heaven. Getting there with my injections (that had to be refrigerated) was easier said than done. I remember my grueling trip to Melbourne like it was yesterday: a 5 hour flight to Los Angeles, a 7 hour layover in the airport, a 14 hour flight to Brisbane, 2 days of orientation, and finally a 2 hour flight to Melbourne. Somehow I managed to protect my precious injections throughout all of it - a feat that still baffles me. 

While other American students arrived in Melbourne and immediately set out to explore the city, my first order of business was to head to the local hospital (Royal Children's Hospital) and ensure that my medication was refrigerated. Each week I would travel to that hospital which took nearly 2 hours roundtrip via public transit, but it was more than worth it. While the regimen wasn't easy to maintain, I felt great for the majority of my time down under. I was able to travel to the Great Barrier Reef over spring break which was one of the best experiences of my life! Since visiting the reef is typically a once in a lifetime sort of thing, I decided to try scuba diving. It was just as beautiful as I anticipated and I could hardly believe I was so close to this incredible, colorful sea life I'd always seen in photos. However, while I was underwater I scraped my shin on a local species of coral. Before I even reached the mainland, it promptly got infected and started to burn. Since the bacteria was so foreign to my body, the infection didn't respond to antibiotics and soon my Spondylitis reared its ugly head. I had to stop taking my injections since they suppress the immune system and soon I was in the worst flare up I'd experienced up until that point. The infection spread up my entire leg and sadly I spent the majority of my final month in bed. 

As soon as the semester was over, my parents and my brother Josh met me in Melbourne! It was amazing to see them. We travelled around Australia for several days and I was able to take them to some of my favorite spots (including the 12 Apostles). Then we were off to New Zealand! We drove around the country and made some incredible memories, experiencing  both the north and south islands. We visited AucklandChristchurchQueenstown (home of the first bungee jump), gorgeous Milford Sound, and Mount Cook (the highest mountain in New Zealand, reaching a height of 12,316 ft.) The beauty of both Australia and New Zealand is truly impossible to describe in words.

During the spring of that same year, I was also able to visit Italy for the first time with the Colby chorale! We travelled around the country, stopping in RomeFlorence, and Lake Como for various concerts. We sang in awe-inspiring venues, including the American Embassy in Rome, The Duomo in Florence, and St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City! These are experiences I cherish and, just as we had done in Prague and Vienna, my friends and I often busked along gorgeous cobbled streets. As long as I live, I will never forget those 10 days. Although I was able to extend the time between my injections by a few days, I certainly began to feel the inflammation returning by the end of the trip. As much as I wanted to stay, it was a relief to get home to my medication.  Three and a half years later, I would be lucky enough to return to Italy with John and the Ferrarones ! This time, I received two Humira injections the week before leaving and it seemed to make a difference. 

What's the reason for sharing my travels in such detail? To show that, even with chronic illness, you don't have to give up on your dreams, especially if you have some awesome support. I'm sending a huge thank you to my incredible parents who gave me that little extra help and courage to make these journeys, even when they seemed like more trouble than they were worth. They were and always will be worth it...



  1. wow, maya. i must say that i am extremely jealous of all of your travels!! you've been to so many amazing places!

  2. I am jealous too! I think it's awesome you took so much time and planning to make those trips! I also went to Ecuador in college for a study course over winter break. :)

  3. Betsy BakerMarch 18, 2011

    miss maya, world traveler! you have been so blessed to have the resources and support to attain your dreams. lucky girl! xo

  4. Wow what a great read! And good on you for getting out there and seeing so much, not letting illness take anything from you. I think it makes us more stubborn and determined, right? :)

    Still kills me that you were in Melbourne for so long and we never knew each other!! xx

  5. Wow..what an incredible priviledge to get to have done so much traveling! I am thrilled you posted this, because my fear of traveling to other countries is always that I will have some serious health problem & be unable to find help!

    So far I have only been to the Bahamas & Barbados. I dream of going to Europe!

  6. Wow - such amazing adventures! Way to persevere and make them happen - and post the pics to prove it! Cheers to you and yours!
    Headstrong with Lupus

  7. Thank you all so much for taking the time to read this and for your lovely comments. I recognize how truly blessed I am to have had the opportunities I've had. I hope it's a reminder that, given the right mentality and support, you can reach your dreams.

  8. So amazing! Don't ever stop traveling! This should be an inspiration to all who have let their illness hold them back from these great adventures.