Sometimes people travel to get away from things they’ve grown tired of: the daily routine, a bad relationship, control-freak parents, the weather back home. But a long-term medical condition is not something you can simply leave behind, unpacked, purposely forgotten in the wardrobe, second drawer to the left.
Believe me, I’ve tried.
Ten years ago I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, the one that requires a treatment of daily insulin shots or an insulin pump. I was terrified of needles. Hell, I still am. However, once I found out I had diabetes at the age of 17, my biggest fear was that it would take away my freedom, my lifestyle. It didn’t, it doesn’t. And at the same time, traveling with diabetes has required I take special precautions.
At the age everyone is supposed to think they can live forever, I awoke to the fact I would not, that my life depended on a man-made replacement for a human hormone that is quite expensive. Still today, living my life and traveling with diabetes makes me reflect on power and vulnerability, dependence and freedom, gratitude and entitlement, disabilities and capabilities.
Back in 2005, I traveled abroad for the first time for a work and travel program in the US. My biggest fear was that, after 9-11, security wouldn’t let me transport my 400 syringes and pen needles. It turned out they couldn’t care less about the needles — apparently you can’t hijack a plane with a syringe, even hundreds of them. But oh my, they were very inquisitive about my reactive strips. When you have diabetes, you need to measure your blood sugar with these reactive strips that are, well, reactive. Imagine hundreds of them. It didn’t look pretty on the scanner.
I’d be lying if I said I don’t face limitations when I travel. But who doesn’t? I avoid traveling to places where the purchase of insulin would be difficult, like conflict zones or remote areas. I’m forced to carry extra luggage — my medical supplies usually take up more than half my carry-on, and there’s always a significant amount of carbs stashed in my bags. It’s also necessary to carry a medical note in English explaining my condition.
I would never travel without health insurance or spend time in a country as a “non-formal” worker — I need to be able to go to a hospital if I feel sick. I must eat properly and avoid getting infections; otherwise, my sugar levels could hit the roof. Everyone who’s been on the road can imagine how all this would be an extra burden.
But I’d also be lying if I said I wasn’t able to do things I wanted because of diabetes. In Ecuador, I jumped off a bridge in Baños and reached 5,000 meters above sea level on the Cotopaxi volcano — and yes, it was complicated comparing the typical symptoms of high and low sugar levels with the effects of adrenaline and lack of oxygen. I went on 15-hour hiking excursions in Patagonia, including a slippery glacier trek in the rain near Mt. Fitz Roy, and I spent the best month of my life in a summer camp in Denmark with 48 children and 17 adults from all over the world, despite the sleep deprivation and the non-recommendable sandwich “diet.”
So, okay, I always had to make sure to eat regularly and measure my glucose. But then, diabetes and all — who can take away from me the fact that I did it, I enjoyed it, I experienced all that?
Traveling with diabetes compels me to trust people and their willingness to help no matter their origins, like the Indian waiter who took care of my insulin during an 11-hour layover at Dubai International Airport. Or the now-forgotten faces of those strangers who once helped out when I urgently needed a glass of water and sugar.
Yes, sometimes we travel to get away from things we’re tired of, but often those things follow us wherever we go. Having diabetes on the road has taught me we can only make the most out of life if we learn to live with our demons, if we can accept our limitations as a first step to getting around them, beyond them.