Pushing Past Boundaries
I had been accepted to medical school, hard work and careful planning had paid off, and I was ready to start the next chapter in my life. I learned that one of my parents had been diagnosed with a terminal disease. I thought about all of the times they had passed on opportunities to travel the world, always putting work over all else. There was always “tomorrow.” Shattered, I needed to do something drastic to learn to cope with this unexpected news.
I had always been made uncomfortable by the unpredictable. I knew medial school would prove to be demanding. Combining that with the devastating thought of losing a parent during that process would be the greatest challenge I ever encountered. I realized I could not control my parent’s illness, but I also couldn’t let it consume me.
After an hour of research, I decided to join a trip of 9 strangers for a week to backpack through Luxembourg, Malta, and Tunisia. As a New Yorker, I had learned to be wary of strangers. I had never backpacked anywhere except to class and had certainly never gone camping. So, I packed a backpack and threw myself into a situation so far outside my comfort zone, that even my closest friends thought I had lost my mind.
The trip was led by an ER Resident and TED Talk speaker with the specific goal of pushing past boundaries and provoking self-discovery. Number 1 on the trip’s planning page was the quote from Life Doesn’t Start Tomorrow stating, “Momentum comes from pushing, not from planning. Confidence comes from scars and risk, not from indecision.” The key aspect of the trip was that our guide researched but did not plan any activities ahead of time. Instead, we landed at the airport and from there everything was impromptu. We did manage to see the sites, but we were not bound by an itinerary. This allowed us to explore the possibilities revealed by the present moment.
Our first stop was Luxembourg. Luxembourg is divided into two distinct areas of the city: New and Old Luxembourg. Old Luxembourg is built in a spiral around a gorge and ancient city center. We spent the day walking down the spiral and taking lots of pictures. That evening, ING was hosting a night marathon, so our group joined in walking around in large orange sombreros banging on orange tambourines. Once night fell, we joined the local marching band and runners as they headed out to the race course. The music played for hours as we danced and cheered with the crowds.
The following day, our group started a guided tour throughout Old Luxembourg on a bright green, little trolley. We saw many of the historic tourist sites but finished at the Casemates du Bock which were underground tunnels weaving down 5 stories that Luxembourgian fighters used to protect their citizens against foreign invaders for hundreds of years. We decided to climb throughout the underground tunnels which were just barely taller than me… quite an adventure for someone who has always described herself as claustrophobic!
The next day, we headed to Malta — a beautiful Mediterranean archipelago. We began in the city, Valletta. If you are an old architecture junkie… this is the place to go!
The following day, on a whim, we decided to take a couple taxis to Mdina to see the ever so famous "King's Landing" from Game of Thrones. After spending the morning strolling through the tiny city enclosed within the walls of the Mdina, we decided to adventure to Gozo the more rural island of Malta. On our ferry ride to the island, we were approached by an older gentleman, resident of Gozo, offering to take us on a tour of the island. We gladly accepted. We saw the citadel and an old fisherman village where a local took us out on a small motorboat to see the Blue Lagoon and remains of the now collapsed Azure Window. The Blue Lagoon was not only beautiful, but literally the brightest blue sea I have ever seen.
The next day we headed to our final destination: Tunisia. I would have to say that this was the most controversial of our destinations and the one causing the most anxiety for the group. No one knew what to expect of Tunisia– none of us had ever been before. We were also slightly terrified of the looming threat of ISIS in the southern part of the country, past violence against tourists, and several travels warnings against travel to Tunisia.
We arrived in Tunisia and were greeted with chaos at the airport. Our group, clearly a bunch of tourists, stuck out like a sore thumb. No one spoke Arabic, so arranging a taxi to the marketplace area in Medina of Tunis was a bit of a struggle. We were dropped off at the Tunis Clock Tower about a 10-minute walk from our lodging. With all of our luggage, we weaved throughout the maze of the marketplace until we finally reached our home for the next two days.
After dropping off our luggage, and having some of the traditional sweetened mint tea, we were back on the streets exploring the maze-line alleys of Tunis. Although in was mid-day, there was no food in sight because the majority of the locals were celebrating Ramadan by fasting from sun up to sundown. We decided respect our hosts' traditions and to observe the holiday like the locals. Walking around, I was amazed by the beauty of this country that I had been so afraid to visit. I took a million pictures (to the point that my family and friends at home asked if I had been tasked by google maps to capture every inch of the city.)
On our walk, we serendipitously stumbled upon the old residence of the Grand Mufti of the Kingdom of Tunisia which had been converted into a 5-star hotel and spa. The staff, desperate for visitors because the sudden decline of tourism in Tunisia, welcomed us with open arms giving us a tour of the palace where we saw each room with walls made of delicately hand-painted tiles and gold leaf trim. It was stunning. The manager arranged a Turkish bath for the following morning and a 5-course meal in their grand ballroom for the following evening. Imagine, the entire grand ballroom for the 6 of us! The following day, we hopped a train and explored the ancient ruins in Carthage.
I learned many things while on this trip. First and foremost, I came away from this experience with a greater sense of adventure and openness to trying new things. I also reflected on some of my past behaviors in which I would get stuck in routines out of comfort and push off plans to "future dates" which never wound up happening. Although I will always be a "planner", I have become more comfortable with the idea of going with the flow and seizing the moment. I no longer feel the need to be in control of everything. But most importantly I have come away with a new mantra that I have been incorporating into my everyday life: If not now, then when? I believe this will allow me to not only live a more fulfilling life throughout my medical career, but will also remind me to take full advantage of opportunities presented to me and carve out free time for myself during these next four years and beyond.
Group in Luxembourg
Group on motorboat in Gozo, Malta heading to the "Blue Lagoon"
Steph in Carthage, Tunisia, at the ruins of the Roman Baths