Wednesday night, I drove myself for 30 minutes to a hospital in rural Taumarunui, New Zealand, where I collapsed on the emergency room floor in the most intense pain I’ve ever felt, in my stomach.
My nearest friend, Bobbie-Jo, was 5 hours away by car, in Auckland. My nearest family member was at least 16 hours away by plane, first to Auckland, then an additional 5 hours away by car.
I was, for all intents and purposes, alone.
I’ve received disrespect from some people for setting out on an adventure like this, which I don’t understand. I’ve also received vocal and positive expressions of jealousy from others, which I do.
Both parties, I think, miss in their own ways some important points of how hard it was to do this in the first place, and how hard it is, and can be, on a daily basis.
And that’s ok, because I haven’t shared either really, yet.
The thing is, I knew that getting myself to a hospital in an emergency was a strong possibility before I left. In fact, I felt it was almost a certainty in India or Southeast Asia.
Before I departed from San Francisco I also wrote my Last Will and Testament, and a Do Not Resuscitate order (DNR). I hope I never have to use either.
And I said goodbye to each and every one of my friends and family, knowing that it may be the last time I see any of them again.
So when people disrespect me for living my life, it’s I think because they believe I have it “easy” while they or others are struggling. Perhaps they project I had or have no major responsibilities or challenges like they do.
The reality is, of course, more complicated. I will write more about this later, as this subject has weighed heavy on my heart.
When the other group expresses positive envy – “I wish I had your life!” – I think it’s not so much my life they want, as what they imagine my life might feel like if they were living it: glamorous, adventurous, liberated.
Certainly it has those aspects. But the core projection, expressed differently, is that I am enviously free from responsibility or difficulty. Again, the reality is still more complicated. (Although to be fair, many times their sentence ends with, “… but I could never do what you do.”)
In both cases, I accept my own part of the accountability for not sufficiently sharing the darker side of what I face and have faced, and allowing that to be factored into the picture of me alongside my photography of stunning locales and events.
I have not done this in part because, despite my desire to be as open as possible, I wish to protect my privacy. And also because I try to find a place to express my challenges where I don’t sound like I’m complaining, which is important to me and isn’t always easy.
But to the latter group who so good-naturedly shares with me their jealousy, I wish to say one thing. It is the same thing I have been saying to people for 17 years now, though today expressed more directly:
Do not want my life. Want YOURS.
Ask yourself what is the one thing you would be willing to endure being alone, in excruciating pain, afraid of the terrible things that could be wrong, surrounded by strangers in a small rural town, to have?
Put in a bit less extreme and frightening way, what would you be willing to give anything to experience? What highest cost, that you are morally capable of paying (an essential point!), would you be willing to pay?
The possibility of this very situation was one of my answers to these questions for backpacking around the world alone.
ANOTHER HIDDEN COST
A less-sexy, but better title for the series is, “The Hidden Psychological Costs of Long-Term Traveling.” Events like this aren’t often talked about in the romanticized and heavily-marketed portrayal of travel. But they are real. And this is one of the many invisible costs I agreed to pay to be here, doing this, and to have experienced and seen everything I have along the way. It probably won’t be the last time, either, though I really hope it is.
So I didn’t complain when I laid in the hospital room bed, in agony, while a nurse filled out registration paperwork for me because I couldn’t stand or write or think. I didn’t complain when it took two hours from when I first stumbled in the door to get a dose of painkillers via IV.
I was courteous and patient, to the best of my ability. The helpful nurse, Leigh, and I chatted distantly about New Zealand politics and Ghandi. I told the doctor, the good-humored Dr. Graeme Bain, the pain was the size of a kiwi, and realizing the irony, I laughed as best I could. Then I groaned.
He asked, “The bird, or the fruit?” I said the fruit because I’d never seen the bird! And we laughed together. I groaned again.
Because I chose this. I stood up to live and be counted, and I take responsibility for when it all goes right, as I do when it all goes wrong. There is no one to blame. Not even God. For this wasn’t His dream but mine.
And besides, it never helps to be a jerk to a doctor, or a nurse.
I was discharged from the hospital the next morning with four prescriptions and much reduced pain. We still don’t know what it was.
I drank a fair bit the previous weekend, though not an excessive amount, and not at all before the pain really came on. Or maybe it was something I ate. Or maybe it was something else. Only time will tell.
But a few hours after leaving I could eat and drink water, which I couldn’t do before I went to the hospital, and the pain had receded to a 3 or 4 out of 10.
In the hospital, I was at a solid 9, which I’m saying because I wouldn’t want to imagine worse pain than that.
Compared to that sensation, driving at a 7 with gritted teeth, pounding my chest to keep going, felt like a dream. I’m only thankful I listened to my intuition to hit the road when I did, because 15 minutes later I don’t know if I would have made it.
Thursday night, I parked my campervan at a site close by the hospital, just in case. I took my medicines and went to sleep alone, in the cool air of the New Zealand autumn settling in.
Today, Friday, I am further south, in Wanganui. Physically, I’m fine. I almost feel like these events never happened.
Then we’ll see what tomorrow brings.
I don’t mean to imply by all this that what I’m doing is not amazing and wonderful. I am incredibly fortunate, and this is beyond the experience of a lifetime.
However, I am still a man. I’m still a real guy living a real life, who has perhaps traded one set of challenges for another. I don’t want anyone, including me, to lose sight of that in the distance.
And I share all this in the hopes that, no matter how you feel about me reading this, you understand that the reality of travel, not to mention life, is always – always – more complicated than the surface.