Caring For My Mental Health While Traveling

Traveling brings out the best and worst in ourselves and our partners. Long distances, changes in nutrition, and sensory overload can disrupt all semblance of a life balance. At the same time, there is often a drive to “get everything in” which leads to personal neglect and a lack of self care.

I tend to see most experiences through the “chalking it up to experience” point of view and some people might even say I see the world through rose-colored glasses. While my last months have been filled with abundant gifts, most people don’t know I have also lost my phone, been in a small motorcycle accident, had my taxi involved in a hit and run, and gotten an unsuspecting bonk on the forehead by a passing woman. In all cases, I was quite fine, and these things happen when you are out and about all day – even at home. But, as a long-term traveler, I have learned that my positive mental health relies on actively making it a priority and that if any of these things happened when I was feeling particularly challenged, the personal impact may have cut deeper than it did. What works for me has been learned by hitting a wall after neglecting the important aspect of self awareness and care and finding myself negatively impacted by situations that arose.

During this journey, I realize that I can’t share messages of hope with others if I am not preparing my body and mind to do so. Rest is key for me. While I know this isn’t the case for everyone, I just can’t book a full day and night of events and have learned not to feel guilty about that. There was a day when I felt like time to read and recover each night was a waste of time and was kind of embarrassed by my 8:30 bedtime while in exotic locations. Experience has taught me that these aren’t things to be ashamed of. I enjoy people and experiences with heightened pleasure when I have also had quiet time to myself. Sometimes, a day of quietness by the pool is the best thing I can do and the most valuable way to spend a day.

In my experience, nutrition changes – especially the inability to eat most fresh produce adds an element of strain to a long term trip – and a little bit of guilt that I am privileged enough to include so much food variety in my daily life at home. Sometimes, tagging recipes that I plan to make someday makes me feel hopeful. Drinking water is not something I love – but it’s necessary for reducing unfamiliar illnesses encountered in new places…so I carry a Camelbak water bladder that I fill each day and carry in my backpack. I drink the water I carry because it lightens my load. I am always on the hunt for ways to add fruit and veggies into my diet. While I love trying new sweets, I try not to overindulge in sugar. It’s easy to believe that it’s important to TRY EVERYTHING while away, but moderation still reigns across the globe.

Preparing financially for a journey reduces my stress about doing the extras when I arrive. Before I left, I spent three years saving with one full time job and three side hustles. Using the Dave Ramsey mantra of, “If you live like no one else, later you can live like no one else,” got me through some hard seven-day work weeks and allowed me to take this trip. Sometimes, when I get where I am going, I tend to still be very budget-minded – which is great. I am not willing to spend a lot on accommodations or food because that isn’t where I take great pleasure. However, I have learned that spending money wisely includes just that – spending on experiences that bring great joy. Personally, it might seem silly or shallow, but I love buying dresses in new places. The experience of buying or having dresses designed just for me offers a fun relational experience – and I love when I am home – and my morning routine of getting dressed elicits memories of far away places and people. I will spend on local spa treatments – always reasonably price – like massages – because it improves how I feel. Achieving a balance between spending and conserving is key to reducing my anxiety about running out of money.

People connections are the reason I travel. Sightseeing is not a big thing for me – but I have learned that when people are brought together for a short amount of time – friendships gain a sense of urgency and depth. Staying focused on being relational and not missing opportunities to be engaged are key for bringing value to my travel experiences. I have met some of the most wonderful friends while traveling. There is a genuine filter of loving new places that builds instant connections and easy rapport.

I realize that personal care is just that – personal. There is no magic wand for mental health – and I never think that what works for me is what is best. It’s just that I know the power of self awareness and self care matter for me. Others may be challenged by some logistics and pressures of travel that typically don’t faze me…but knowing that the message that “it’s ok not to be ok” also applies on the road – is liberating. Taking time to weave self care into travel experiences is a valuable use of time. I would love to hear how others make this a priority.

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Thanksgiving from Afar

It’s almost Thanksgiving. While I am dreaming of dinners gone by and craving the sweet mix of mashed potatoes and cranberries, my thoughts are focused on gratitude. I often ponder how people I’ve met on this journey practice explicit thankfulness for things I take for granted. Is there is a connection between dissatisfaction and excess and is it possible that scarcity intensifies gratitude?

While dining at Queen of Sheba DC restaurant, I met the owners and was smitten by their vibrant personalities and outgoing charm. I love watching people in their element, especially entrepreneurs who overtly share so much of themselves as they provide for others. Over delicious injera and vegetables, I learned a bit of their life stories including their recent return to Ethiopia after years of living in Washington, DC. I shared how I aimed to learn about projects that share hope with Ethiopian people. Queen suggested we visit St. George’s Cathedral as one of her customers speaks highly of their work serving elderly people.

While touring the church, we learned about an effort to provide medical and financial support to over 160 women. We visited a small room that served as a lab facility where volunteers diagnose ailments and often treatment options. We also met Yamerot who lives on the church grounds in a humble home she says meets her needs. After her husband died, she found herself facing financial hardships, but felt blessed that the church provided her with a living space. While you could see that Yamerot carried burdens from life, even with our language barrier, I sensed her genuine pride in sharing her home with us. There was a great grace in her pride – but also a sincere warmth in her appreciation for our time together.

Queen brought a huge circle of humbasha bread that we happily shared after it was blessed by the local priest. We sat and enjoyed this meal with great joy and thankfulness. Even without an abundance of multiple courses and endless food, it felt like a celebration of gratitude…a thanksgiving so far from home.

As I continue to understand and share about mental health, I am finding through research and interactions with people that a doggedly focused attitude of gratitude can promote positive mental health. While it’s not the only answer, the benefits of focusing on what we have, instead of what we want can be powerful.

During this busy week, I wish you all a bucket of time to make Thanksgiving an authentic opportunity to enjoy the abundance of joy granted by thankfulness. I will forever be reminded that people all over the world practice faith and gratitude with less.

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Skateboarding is Cool…Especially in Rwanda!

There is no magic wand for providing effective proactive mental health education. Support for each person is an unique mix of self and community care. As a teacher, this can be hard because we often ask, “What should we do about…?” while relying on tangible data to determine our next steps and progress. When we work on mental health strategies, results are often more internal and hard to quantify.

In the midst of this intricacy, there are a few things I know for sure. I know that providing children with a sense of belonging matters. Setting, monitoring, and achieving goals establishes a sense of purpose with eyes cast on the future. When children know they are important to others, they can gain a sense of their individual value within a larger community. Helping young people find their personal valves of self-expression promotes positive self-care and awareness of ways to decompress during stressful moments.

The skateboard park at SOS Children’s Village in Kigali, Rwanda is a breathing example of a mental health prevention network. From 3:00 – 6:00 PM each day, children converge from all directions on this colorful play place. Led by Skateaid volunteers, hopeful skaters take brooms in hands to clear dust from the previous day and prepare the park for the whooshes and rolls of flying decks. A collection of boards and donated shoes line the entrance ramp as eager children anticipate their moments in the spotlight and dream of floating through the air with varied levels of expertise.

Some of the smaller children, tentatively stand on boards, soaking in the support of the volunteers and the shouting encouragement of their peers, as well-versed senior skaters practice flips and dips along the curving ramps.

On one special Saturday afternoon, I arrived at the park for the highly-hyped skateboard competition. When market-shopping for gifts on the previous day, Tim (from Skate Aid) and I anticipated attendance of about 100 children. We confidently carried our load of shopping bags away from the market, filled with clothing, toothbrushes, toys, candy, and other treats. As the afternoon proceeded, cheering grew to a fevered pitch – well beyond the screams of 100 and my confidence in having gifts for everyone began to wane.

The Skate Aid volunteers, Tim, Maxim, and Pat kept this wily crew organized with their bullhorn, shouting names of competitors with high shouts of directions and praise.

For hours, kids stayed focused, as they watched others – ranging from youngest to oldest – take their turns swooshing across the steep curves and ramps of the park. Big tricks received an uproar of screams and raucous name-chants. Big falls received silent moments of fear that quickly turned to laughs and cheers as the skater dusted off and jumped back on the board – seemingly trying to convince the crowd that the blip never occurred.

The rapidly approaching sunset forced the competition to a close with the final, most advanced skaters wow-ing the crowd with their skilled leaps and tricks. As the judges deliberated, children gathered with anticipation in a large circle to learn who garnered the coveted prizes. Our hope was to provide gifts for everyone, but the rushing masses made it a challenge – with the judges quickly surrounded by a flurry of hands and bodies hoping to score some goods.

The final moments were a bit chaotic…with the Skate Aid volunteers masterfully managing to hold onto some of those treats for another day – while also being the kind of teachers who used the chaos as an opportunity for learning.

I used to pass skateboard parks with limited understanding of the positive role they can play in the lives of young people. Luckily, Skate Aid has a vision for using this method of self expression to build children up, help them to set and achieve goals, teach them that they matter, and show the power of community.

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Forgiveness & Umuganda

What strikes me about Rwanda is the way forgiveness is viewed as an active process without a concrete end. There is a general belief that forgiveness, while it is agonizing, in its deepest and more pure form, requires work both on the part of the perpetrator and survivor. At home, there can be a stigma about sharing details of traumatic events, so they are often reserved for a protective inner circle. In Rwanda, sharing stories is woven into the fabric of the healing process and is something many feel comfortable enough to do. While these ideas sound right, there was a moment when I sat in a front yard with a woman baring deeply indented machete scars on her head and shoulder next to the man who caused them, when I wondered if I was capable of this type of forgiveness.

As the woman talked, she told me she wanted to share her story. She wanted me to know that forgiveness wasn’t a gift to a her perpetrator, although they have a strong friendship today. Instead, she actively pursues forgiveness as a gift to herself and a legacy for her children. She told me that, “Our time on earth is short, and in the end, I will not be asked to account for his decisions. I will be asked to account for my own. The genocide happened, but I lived to tell my story. I was sick with trauma for years, but the only medicine that worked for me was forgiveness.” As the man shared, he talked about the difficulty of seeking forgiveness – and how even after he was granted leniency through the Gacaca courts by seeking formal forgiveness, it was essential for his healing to pursue deep relationships that fight for authentic forgiveness. While their life stories are very different, forgiveness is a healing climax with empowering benefits.

Another thing I have heard from many Rwandans is that to truly understand reconciliation after unimaginable atrocities committed during the Genocide, I need to understand Rwandan culture of interconnectedness and the very explicit post-Genocide reconciliation and healing plans that President Kagame continues to focus on today.

During his recent Humans of New York interview, President Kagame reflected on the challenge of pursuing justice for crimes that were so great. While he recognized the hardship of this path, he noted that, “Only forgiveness can heal this nation. The burden rests with the survivors because they are the only ones with something to give.”

One place where I saw this process in action was through participation in Umuganda which is Rwanda’s mandatory monthly community service held on the last Saturday morning each month. The word “mandatory” always has a negative connotation to me – so I suggested to Higiro Issa, who coordinated my role on this day, that this activity would be hard to sell back home – closing down all businesses and requiring every citizen – including leaders – to stop everything to serve others seemed out of bounds. Issa said, “People follow laws, right? If it was the law, they would do it. Eventually, people would understand that it was important and see the value of this time together.

I was able to see this value as I participated with an organization named “Truth Prevails” who understand that Umuganda can also play a role in the reconciliation process. On this Saturday morning, village members of Nyamata Sector, Bugesera District, Eastern Province Rwanda, continued their ongoing process of building six houses for genocide survivors. People worked hand in hand, often knee deep in rainy mud, both inside and outside the houses in progress, to cement walls and cover floors. From any distance, you would think this was a group of friends who have shared a lifetime of neighborly memories instead of a mix of people who live with cutting memories of how their lives were tragically intertwined.

Throughout the morning, people moved with the unison of a seasoned team – carrying each other’s supplies, sharing the workload, providing impromptu training, and participating in casual chatter. There was robust power in the way the village children and teens sat nearby casually watching everyone they knew working together for the common good of others. “We cannot not model.”

When I met with Elnestin and Patrick, leaders of Truth Prevails, during the week before our Umuganda service, they shared how they created this organization because forgiveness doesn’t just happen. They said it is a messy process and they have found shared community engagement as a key to success. Patrick, who spent ten years in jail for crimes committed during the genocide, talked about the deep guilt he felt about his role as a soldier in the defeated army. While he recognizes that many of his decisions were steeped in lies of Tutsi threats by leaders, he lived in shame during ten years in prison remembering the crimes he committed. He only smiled deeply during our conversation when he talked about how being forgiven was beyond his imagination. Being encouraged by Gacaca Courts to admit the details of his crimes was liberating, but still left him living with intense guilt. The relationships he has developed through Truth Prevails made forgiveness more than words to him. They give him an opportunity to build solidarity and actively fight the ideology of genocide that separates people and eases the pathway to discrimination.

Again and again, I have heard that genocide is not one abrupt event, but the culmination of many small actions and decisions made over a course of time. Forgiveness is the same…an active process that requires commitment and hard work.

Through the example of Rwanda, I have learned that the heavy burden of weaving cultural forgiveness for our past can be a roadmap to progress. What we do matters.

(Pictures shared with permission)

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Art Matters

Surrounding ourselves with beauty matters. Art Matters. I appreciate the way cities around the world are embracing street art rather than making it a battling ground that diminishes the powerful messages drawn from public displays of creativity and color.

During initial collaboration with Hope for the Day about our Hope Travels partnership, we talked about establishing a program that opens doors to informal, but global conversations about mental health. One tenet of promoting positive mental health was a focus on building a sense of connectedness, group missions, and a sense of larger purpose centered on messages of hope.

Establishing support for local artists to share this universal message seemed like a solid way of creating tangible conversation touchstones while also establishing positive relationships and enduring mental health partnerships. Our aim was not to push an agenda – but to establish conversation spots. Sure enough – plans continue to unfold beyond our hopes with the completion of multiple murals in varied locations and plans for more to come.

As for our initial murals, my role was limited to sitting in awe at the work of local artists and seeking donations for supplies. There is a bursting street art scene in Africa and I was proud to observe some of the talented hands who beautify blank spaces. As we traveled with Sparrow and Rach, I glimpsed firsthand how artists view the world with a lens I don’t own, as they noted empty walls left to fill and closed their eyes to “see” completed masterpieces before their work began.

This collection of Hope Murals can be found throughout Uganda and Rwanda. It would be amazing to have others visit these spots and even more amazing if we could continue this endeavor by supporting local artists in upcoming destinations including Ethiopia, Djibouti, Malawi, Mali, and more.

One of the greatest life lessons I have learned, is to “put ideas out there” and they often come to fruition with surprising, but guided hands. So, if you know any artists in these areas, or would like to sponsor a Hope Mural, please let me know.

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What I Learned from “The Rescuers” in Rwanda

I have never been tested…spoiled to traipse through life with the blissful belief that I am a generally nice person – without a forceful event to determine my commitment to kindness in the face of death. Most Rwandans over the age of 30 were deprived of this luxury. Between April 7 – July, 1994, decisions made during the Rwandan Genocide came with consequences to perpetrators and victims of atrocities, leaving scars still crusting in varied levels of healing. And then there are some – a small number – who made the decision that if forced to watch suffering and death of another – they would step up, step in, intervene, carry the load, and protect – with the full knowledge that it might be the last decision they made.

The complexity of the Rwandan Genocide is deep and my knowledge is basic. Each day I am here, I am taught about the events of this time – but also about post-Genocide mental health, trauma care, reconciliation, resilience, and forgiveness – led by people who persist in creating hope from the darkest circumstances. I can’t begin to detail the genocide or even act like I know enough to share. Even as a person advocating the importance of awkward dialogue – I fear tripping over myself in mistakes of my limited knowledge. What I do know is that the weight here is heavy – but the commitment to peace and progress is evident.

Trauma counselors will say that over 80% of Rwandan citizens alive during the genocide suffer with symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – so facilitating healing could not be limited to a trained few. Educating masses of people and providing exposure to trauma care was an essential aspect of the collective reconciliation roadmap. As time progresses, the impact of the genocide doesn’t diminish. There is evolving research on trans-generational trauma that necessitates continued focus on family and village support. Innovation in mental health education rules by necessity in Rwanda- and guiding all citizens toward mental health advocacy a significant priority of building One Rwanda that moves forward in reconciliation.

In the midst of all this – years later, people still yearn for role models of hope. While there are masses of people tirelessly treading into the most complicated stories and facilitating progress, there is a recognizable group of heroes – known as The Rescuers – whose stories serve as reminders that kindness can prevail. If you follow Humans of New York, you know that in recent weeks, Brandon Stanton has been sharing their stories. I was privileged that Higiro Issa, president of Good Change Rwanda, organized a lunch with three rescuers, two whose stories have already been highlighted on HONY – which I shared in the links below.

I’ve never been awed by celebrity, but as we settled at our lunch table, emotion overwhelmed. Sylas began telling his story about early signs of dehumanizing Tutsis- referencing his traumatic junior high memories of a girl, stripped and harassed as others watched. He described feelings of powerlessness during this haunting atrocity committed by students older than himself without any consequences from school leaders. Discrimination against the Tutsis was common in his youth – but Sylas remembers the increased intensity and growing “normal-ness” of harassment. He emphasized the genocide really started with dehumanization and intolerance toward this entire group of people and believes it was planned and propagated well in advance of 1994. As a young man, he wanted to know what it felt like to be Tutsi, so he randomly took this designation when applying for his first identification card. Losing job opportunities in the military because of this decision increased his sense of empathy, especially since he was able to easily change his “error” while others could not avoid the trauma of being a Tutsi in Rwanda at the time. All of these early experiences influenced Sylas when he secretly guided 23 Tutsis to Burundi border escapes. He found power – not in the military – but in the act of bringing others to safety, as did his friend Pastor Gratien.

While being human, acts of empathy, and consistency in love are expected tenets of a pastoral life, some of the saddest stories I have heard are of those who abandoned their congregations to save themselves or aided in their collective demise. Pastor Gratien and his wife were the essence of their beliefs as they stood outside their church, lined with crevices of 320 Tutsis, and insisted to killers that if others were to be taken, they must kill them first. Guided by his faith, he demanded that potential perpetrators consider their own spiritual fate if they fired the first bullet. Even in the midst of chaos, they stopped. I asked how his experiences have influenced his faith and belief in a loving God. He noted the solidity of his beliefs drawn from the ways he has been able to invite others in through stories of miraculous forgiveness and healing.

Christine’s story has not been detailed on HONY, but offers remarkable imagery of strength, and also weaves closely with the strength of her faith. Her father worked for Tutsis during her early years, and unlike many other parents, was quick to share the goodness of his friends. As the genocide began, her Tutsi neighbor and children rushed to Christine’s home when her Hutu husband returned from a day of killing and said that he must now kill her too. One young girl was shot multiple times in the escape, but made it to Christine in desperate need of care. Each day, a 34 year old Christine would secretly put the eight year old on her back to carry her for treatments to a hospital seven kilometers away. With the other children, she knew getting them into one of the few spaces in a UN orphanage was safer than her home, but they accepted girls more than boys – so she put the boys in dresses and carried them on her back to safety. Diverting roadblocks, climbing under bushes, and sliding under fences carrying another person has left her survivors indebted for life – still sharing maternal relationships and immense love.

While we talked about their lives, my teacher-centered questions often sought to quantify the characteristics that prompted their actions. I longed to know how we could replicate their values for ourselves while we instill them in the young people under our influence. They noted that some of the biggest perpetrators were youth because they were raised in ways that dehumanized Tutsis through misleading stories and propaganda.. “When people hear hate, they learn hate. When they hear love, they can learn that too.” They said many times that the genocide did not begin in 1994 – but was the consequence of years of discrimination and separateness. “We are to love all equally without segregation in our actions and words.” Or, as it has been said, we cannot not model.

The message of The Rescuers has global importance as we are all pushed to defend values in small ways each day. I pray to never be tested like this, but their stories and messages pulse in my heart as a reminder of hope in all circumstances and the power that one person has to be a hero. Thank you for being the type of people who strive to share yourselves and your stories so generously to influence others. I am grateful.

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Celebrating a Legacy in Senegal

The trauma of losing loved ones is universal and impacts mental health in everyone, but the cultural responses are so unique.  My own life and relationships have often been shaped by grief for lost loved ones, which gives me a personal interest in how others mourn, grieve, and honor legacies.I often wonder why there is so much stigma when talking about the long-term scars of loss. Personally,  I am comfortable talking about, and celebrating lost loved ones, but I have learned that this isn’t easy for everyone. When strangers ask typical background questions about my parents or sibling, I watch them suffer in the awkwardness of my responses. Often, in that moment, I feel worse for their discomfort than for myself. So, instead of deep conversation, changing the subject is the best distraction with people breathing an obvious sigh of relief.

Generally, after initial memorials and condolences fade, there aren’t often secular spaces for celebrating legacies of loved ones within standard American culture. As time passes, we hear that “life goes on” as new people enter daily life bringing fewer ways to naturally share enduring memories. So, they start to fade…leaving a mix of sadness and a bit of guilt at not honoring the lives of those deeply influential people. I would even say that there is an unspoken timeframe when people begin to feel awkward bringing up someone who has died, as if a mention will harm hearts with reopened wounds. Instead, there can be a degree of invisibility to everyone but the person silently suffering in grief.

These thoughts are inspired by the deep imprint of a recent celebration spent in Nguekhokh, Senegal where we honored my friend Adama’s grandmother, Ada Mariama Diallo in her village home. It was the six-year anniversary of Ada’s death and the local village remembers her with food and prayers each year.

Although I won’t ever meet Grandma Ada, throughout the preparation and events of the day we developed the kinship of dreamers. In 1982, Ada purchased a plot of land in an isolated village and built more than a house – she built a human oasis. While others teased at her remote choice of a property, Ada knew it would be a special place for creating her lasting legacy, so she purchased herself a plot of land. Others soon followed, likely drawn by the creation of memories unfolding before their eyes. As we toured the property, Adama nostalgically told stories of eating from the fruit trees, playing with the animals, and enjoying games with the other village children. “You should have seen it then,” was a common theme of the place where she learned much about life through the loving lens of her family matriarch.

On the day of the celebration, we arrived to find Ada’s lifelong friends stirring steaming pots of porridge and comfortably chatting in the back of the yard. Her inner circle watched the events of the day from a loving distance – spending time in fellowship honoring their friend while focusing on the preparation of celebratory sustenance. Throughout the morning, neighbors strolled in and joined the family at large rugs near the mango trees, where they gathered to share prayers and faith. Many were prompted to make the village trek by personal memories that included the young teacher who traveled each year to remember the woman gave him shelter and shaped the successes of his life.

After prayers and sharing by Adama’s father, we marked the day with a commemorative meal and time together. I asked Adama how they spread the word to so many people. She said there is really no need to send invitations because people just know the date and remember to come. That is when it struck me that I wished for the same. It’s funny because I am not a person who enjoys celebrations that feel forced. While I love time with others, surprisingly, something as simple as birthday recognition can be a struggle. I often forget and feel like I can’t find the perfect gift under pressure of a specific timeline preferring “just because” gifts in natural ways. But with death, it is different; finding the place for recognition is hard, so reserving this special day for Ada felt right. It served as a place to remember a loved one and invite new friends to meet the person who so importantly shaped so many lives. The party served as a powerful release, and to me, provided a space that reduced the stigma of grief.

After the celebration, the inner circle of family extended their time together with visits to local friends and a delicious dinner near the beach. With the foundation of honor set by morning events, everyone seemed tugged by the reminder of the power of one person and relished these precious moments of bonding. I know that I did.

While I never met Grandmother Ada, I am grateful for the time we spent together and will look for ways to instill the value of powerful legacies in my own life.

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