Love In The Time Of COVID-19: The Flu Shot

Love In The Time Of COVID-19: The Flu Shot

TLDR PSA (look how serious I am); Get the flu shot.

While getting the shot may not entirely prevent you from catching flu, it’ll still dramatically decrease your chances of accidentally infecting or killing others (like grandma), or ironically dying from flu yourself.

Before COVID-19, patients with flu symptoms would overwhelm ERs every year, all infecting one another (and us) in tight indoor spaces. While NYC’s current behavior of ubiquitous face coverings could ironically obviate a bad flu season this time 🤞 (calling it!), why take the chance in a year like 2020? We may still expect no different — or worse — as we now know you can be co-infected with BOTH COVID-19 and FLU at the same time (they both have similar symptoms!). “FLUVID” is real; fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

 

 

Here’s the bottom line: While the flu shot isn’t as good at preventing flu, it is remarkably effective at decreasing the SEVERITY of symptoms and preventing DEATH if or when you get the flu. This means while you can still get sick with the flu despite having gotten a shot, you’ll LESS likely feel so gross that you’d leave home, overwhelm ERs, exchange a greater viral load of COVID-19/flu/countless other hospital diseases, and then infecting your loved ones back home.

Worried about if a shot could ruin your life? Allergic to eggs? Egg-free or preservative-free formulations exist and/or you can arrange to be monitored (and then treated) for potential reactions that are still mild at their worst. For what it’s worth, you also have greater chances of winning lotteries, being hit by a car, or dying from the flu than dying from the flu shot itself. So if you’re worried, at least talk to your PERSONAL doctor (doctors on social media DO NOT COUNT, nice try 😉) about your risk tolerance because there are ALWAYS other options if you simply ask for them.

As for myself, since 2006 I’ve timed getting a flu shot every late September to early October in anticipation for when flu season begins to peak around mid-October in NYC either from local pharmacies or at work (and sometimes 2x in a year just because I was too lazy to find the proof of paperwork 😐), and in that time I’ve traveled 190+ countries, graduated college, med school and Emergency Medicine residency, and now can do 30+ one-arm pushups on each side. Perhaps those flu shots did or didn’t do all that for me but regardless …must be something good going for me here? Just sayin’…

 

What 20+ flu shots look like
Knock-Knock-Nakh-chivan On Heaven’s Door: 2 Days In Nakhchivan

Knock-Knock-Nakh-chivan On Heaven’s Door: 2 Days In Nakhchivan

 

It’s time to shift monsooning back into higher gears — today we’re visiting Nakhchivan!

A landlocked exclave separated from Azerbaijan by Armenia (or as some say, physically located within Armenia), but an otherwise autonomous region under the control of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Nakhchivan is similar to exclaves like Alaska (thanks Alan Sedgwick!) and on a level less extreme than Transnistria and Kurdistan, in that this region has its own elected “federal” government that largely functions independently and yet remains a dependent within another sovereignty. Whether you count it as a separate country depends if you think places like Alaska should be considered separate from the USA (aka if you visited Alaska, can you really say you visited the USA? Or if you visited Hong Kong, can you really say you visited China?). 

Nakhchivan first gained international recognition in January 1990 when it became one of the first “nations” to declare independence from the USSR as it was collapsing. Unfortunately, despite being one of the pioneers of independence from the Soviet Union as well as the birthplace of Azeri hero and president Heydar Aliyev, Nakhchivan could never keep up as it has continue to suffer from the turmoil of the Armenia-Azerbaijan War as well as a mass exodus of its locals to Baku and Turkey. Whereas Baku is teeming with growth and wealth, Nakhchivan has remained forgotten in stagnation since the 1990s.

FYI, Nakhchivan’s pseudo-counterpart in Armenia is Nagorno-Karabakh (aka Artsakh) — although that region physically lies in and internationally recognized to be part of Azerbaijan, it functions as an “independent” state that Azerbaijan no longer exerts political control over since the Karabakh movement in 1988. For many travelers Nagorno-Karabakh can be accessed easily but illegally overland via Armenia, and such an action will lead you to being banned from future travel to Azerbaijan if they ever found out.

On the flipside, Armenia does not care if you visit Nakhchivan; so if you have any wishes to visit both regions either head to Nakhchivan first, or enter Nagorno-Karabakh legally by applying for permission from the Azerbaijan government.

 

 

Beginning our journey, Brandon, Elizabeth and I got up at 5:30am and hailed a 10 manat Uber ride to the airport to catch our 8:10am Azal Air flight from Baku to Nakhchivan.

Make sure you get dropped off at Terminal 2 and not the fancy International Terminal (or Terminal 1).

You can tell the difference because where Terminal 1 is super fancy and won 5 stars from Skytrax…

 

 

….Terminal 2 has seen better days.

 

 

If you end up at Terminal 1 anyway, it’s about a 5-10 minute walk through the parking lot. 

When you enter Terminal 2 at the main entrance, turn left. Flights departing to Nakhchivan has its own board and separate terminal. 

 

 

At this point staff and locals will try to usher you to the other terminal thinking that you’re making a big mistake. Reassure them or pay them no heed; insist that you’re going to Nakhchivan and you’ll get a variety assortment of looks ranging among confusion, amusement, bafflement, and dismay.

Either way we were initially confused too; we went through security checks 4 different looking for the right desk to check in (it’s hidden in a corner somewhere upstairs) until we decided to be assertive and insist on flying to Nakhchivan despite protests from the staff.

Once at the right check-in desk, the agent didn’t think I was serious. However, I had already booked our flights on Azerbaijan Airlines’ website prior to the trip as the option of purchasing them remotely had just became possible last month. The only catch is that you have to have the physical credit card you used to purchase the flights on you when you check in. So when I showed the ticket agent my confirmation and passport, he relented and asked if I had that credit card on me.

After checking us in and being relaxed with the baggage restrictions, we had to remind him to print us our tickets. He insisted he had no clue what we were talking about…eventually, he got it. What is going on here?!

 

 

Nothing much else to do otherwise; they do have a business lounge posting a sign that allows Priority Pass holders to enter, but it was closed when we were there.

 

 

Boarding began promptly at 7:30am and we took off without delay at 8am. A legion of officers in military fatigues boarded with us; they may shoot you quizzical looks as well as remind you where you’re going is a war zone. Oh well. I guess you can thank them for their service.

The whole flight takes about an hour. It would’ve otherwise been much shorter if it were not for the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan; our flightpath had to be redirected around Armenia and through Iranian airspace to get to Nakhchivan:

 

 

We landed at 9am.

 

 

Disembarking was quick as we were in arrivals within 5 minutes, hailing a cab to our hotel in the city center for 5 manats (apparently this is the morning rate — it can be up to 8 manats later in the day) without any haggling needed. Love this place already!

 

 

We got to our lodgings at Tebriz Hotel in 10 minutes, quickly checking in and then scurrying up to their rooftop restaurant to snag their free breakfast before it ended at 10am.

 

 

After settling in for a bit and vegging out after a whirlwind morning of traveling, we headed back out to explore the rest of the city at noon, beginning with signing the guestbook at their cozy but empty tourist information center. 

The staff there was very surprised at our presence and it seemed their guestbook entries were spaced out from every few days to weeks at a time.

 

 

While walking around, I couldn’t help but notice how the streets are nearly always empty, wide avenues have not seen cars in days, and there is a calm, pervading silence wherever you roam. 

From the tourist information center we walked south, entering a large park and walking past what seemed to look like an outdoor movie theater.

 

 

We then headed downhill from here towards Maiden Fountain, an esplanade with a pleasant footbridge leading around to a natural spring and small waterfall.

 

 

 

We then headed back upstairs and into the southern half of the park to visit the Momina Khatun Mausoleum, one of many you can find in Nakhchivan:

 

 

Each mausoleum has one entrance for its basement crypt:

 

 

…and a regular ground level entrance that usually hosts an exhibition about the burial grounds:

 

 

Next door to the mausoleum is an open air museum and sculpture park:

 

 

Down the steps from the mausoleum will lead you to the former Khan’s Palace, now converted to a simple carpet museum:

 

 

Afterwards we headed out of the park and walked southeast to the Mausoleum to Yusif İbn Kuseyr:

 

 

Unlike the previous mausoleum to Momina Khatun, this one is completely empty:

 

 

We then walked further south from here, entering the huge city cemetery from the north. 

The goal was instead of walking around the entire cemetery to our next destination (as Google Maps would indicate), we hoped that there would be a shortcut via an exit on the south side of the cemetery…however, we instead made due with what previous like-minded souls had created for us:

 

 

Much to our dismay, later on we’d found out just steps away is a legitimate southern gate. Oh well. Fences are meant to be overcome, rules are meant to be broken.

 

 

Our shortcut through the cemetery nevertheless saved us 15 minutes of walking in the midday sun, as parked right by the cemetery is the Naxçıvan Qala Tarix Memarlıq Abidəsi fort complex:

 

 

It was completely empty and devoid of souls when we entered through the open door. No guards, no security, no tickets, and totally open. It felt like I was playing a game of Myst/Riven.

 

 

You can go inside the central dome structure for a free exhibition on the excavation findings in the area:

 

 

You can also climb the fort walls for an elevated view of the fort and its surroundings, as well as the cemetery we just strolled through:

 

 

We then exited from the fort from its southwestern gate and walked a few steps down to the Mausoleum to the Prophet Noah.

Yes, that Noah, of Noah’s Ark fame. It is believed that the ark had finished its journeys in this area where Noah then settled until his death. His assumed remains were found right in this spot and thus, a mausoleum was fashioned over his tomb:

 

 

The mausoleum closes from 1pm-2pm for lunch so we waited about 30 minutes outside for someone to arrive and show us in. We didn’t come this far to give up so easily!

At around 2:05pm a girl came by and opened the door for us, giving us a great rundown of the history of the mausoleum. Totally worth the wait.

 

 

You can head down into the basement crypt; right beneath is Noah’s tomb.

 

 

With that, we were done with our entire tour of Nakhchivan City! We then walked 20 minutes up Heydar Aliyev Street north back to our hotel, where we had lunch at the adjacent Zumrud Restoran and recharged for 2 hours.

At 5:30pm we returned to the lobby and hired a driver to take us to Alinja Fortress for 40 manats.

 

 

About a 35 minute drive outside of Nakhchivan, the 2,000 year old Alinja Fortress — or “The Machu Picchu of Azerbaijan” — is inexplicably unmentioned in any travel guides to Nakhchivan, but don’t be fooled: this was the main event. 

Dating back to the 1st century, the fortress was formerly known as an Armenian fortress called Yernjak and was one of the most impenetrable in its time. It currently now exists as an open park that local villagers and their families venture to freely in the evenings. 

 

 

Why they would choose this spot as a place of leisure baffles me — it’s a 1600+ step climb up 100+ flights of stairs! That’s not what I call fun with the family on a Tuesday evening! But alas, we found tons of kids with their families running around when we climbed back down.

 

 

Take your time, drink lots of water, and know that the end result will be worth it. If that doesn’t help, some of these views will mitigate any effect of the battery acid pumping from your muscles during your long climb up:

 

 

Don’t be surprised if local families next to you ask for a photo — months to years can go by before they see another tourist in these parts!

 

 

One even added me on Instagram.

 

 

About 2/3 of the way up you can walk around and through the fortress “ruins” themselves, although it now feels more like a renovated public park than a sacred historical site.

 

 

Views from the fortress:

 

 

Climb up a little more and you’ll know you’ve made it when you see this:

 

 

But why stop here? More stairs await you.

 

 

Even when you’ve reached the last step (which ends suddenly and arbitrarily), you can climb up some more up a well trodden hill. Because why not? You’ve gone this far already and when will you ever be back here again?

 

 

This is physically as high as you can get:

 

 

Photo credit: Elizabeth Silberholz

 

We spent about 20 minutes here taking it all in and hanging out with a local villager who came up with us, before heading back down:

 

 

And from here we admired Alinja in all its majestic beauty as the sun began to set behind it (more photos here). Linger a little longer and Alinja lights up suddenly in the night at around 8:10pm:

 

 

Take it all in and take your time; like every other thing we saw today whether they be mausoleums or museums, Alinja is free to enter. Moreover, Alinja is open 24/7!

We headed back down to the car park at 9pm, rendezvous’ed with our driver who waited for us patiently all this time, and had dinner back in Nakhchivan city at Deyirmanci Kafe, where they were so shocked and grateful to our presence they gave us free tea and dessert when we asked for the check.

After a workout like that where we walked 22,700 steps over 12 miles up 102 flights of stairs (thanks Apple), it was a dinner well worth the wait.

 

 

We then returned to our hotel at 11pm and crashed, hard. I woke up about 8 hours later for the free breakfast and enjoyed a few hours using up our hotel’s basement gym, spa, sauna, and swimming pool.

After check-out at noon, we decided to make a run for the last thing to see in Nakhchivan, Duzdag, a massive salt cave converted into a sanatorium. And like every other place we’ve been to in Nakhchivan, it’s free to enter.

Built in early 20th century, Duzdag was designed to house various clinics/hospital beds for any patient eager to treat (or cure, as they say here) their chronic bronchitis and asthma from the salt emanating from the mines. It’s much like how you go to a fancy spa featuring sauna rooms that have been built with salt lining the walls.

 

 

The similarities otherwise end here, however, as it’s not exactly a full on spa where you pack a swimsuit on you, change, and lounge around. Rather it’s more of a place to stop by, walk up and down, and spend as long as you like. Whether you chill in the café or sit on the various benches parked along the path, imagine as if your lungs are being cleaned out.

 

 

It’s about a 10 minute walk up and down. You’ll know when you reached the end when a bunch of staff members cross their arms telling you you’re being too loud or that “patients only” are allowed through.

 

 

From here we walked back and with the rest of our hour we had some tea for 2 manats total at the indoor café.

 

 

After that we headed back to our hotel, had dinner back at the adjacent Zumrud Café, and hailed one more cab ride back (whereas it was 5 manats when we took a cab from the airport yesterday morning, this time we paid 8 manats for a cab to the airport at some kind of apparent afternoon/evening rate) to the airport for our 8:40pm flight back to Baku.

 

 

Despite what other travel blogs say about this airport being so basic you shouldn’t arrive early lest you’d be bored to tears, my recommendation is to either arrive early before the crowds or risk the stress and come at the very last minute: Checking in at Nakhchivan for Baku can be a shitshow; when we arrived to check-in there was no semblance of a queue as dozens of families mixed in to drop off a huge number of goods for their folks back in Baku. 

 

However, there does exist a separate section all the way to the right for people without any check in luggage, as a helpful local directed us there (the sign displaying this is in Azeri and not in English, so we wouldn’t have known). Either way, even when we switched over and waited in this particular line, we still had to assert ourselves and fight our way through the stampede to get our tickets.

After receiving our boarding passes, we then had to present those and our passports to a separate “Migration Desk” by security for a recheck and verification. They then give you a tiny sliver of paper that you have to hold onto for security to let you through. Looks like a wifi password.

 

 

Once you’re go through security, it’s another stampede at the gate to board your flight.

 

 

Despite a chaotic ending to an otherwise ethereally pleasant 48 hours, I’m going to miss you Nakhchivan. 

For the record, everywhere we went we’ve been showered with overwhelming hospitality by everyone, as well as having the rare opportunity to explore a gorgeous land filled with beauty and awe-inspiring sights totally alone — it felt like we had this place all to ourselves with not another tourist in sight. And despite the border conflicts around this region, we never once felt like we were in danger.

 

 

We landed back in Baku at Terminal 2 by 10pm, where we were picked up by an Uber driver who initially refused to take us and instead took another passenger right in front of our faces. Oh boy, this was the moment when I knew I was far removed from the hospitality of Nakhchivan and back in the hustle of Baku.

Knowing that it can take up to another 30 minutes to get an Uber to come to Terminal 2 (most are parked outside Terminal 1 and refuse to move, making you walk to them), I responded by showing the driver that he was supposed to pick me up, with his license plate number displayed on my phone/Uber app. He then asked me to cancel, and when I refused, he asked again. Eventually the other passenger got out of the car and we were begrudgingly driven back to our lodgings at Stay Inn Hostel. That was pretty weird.

This otherwise concludes the official itinerary through Azerbaijan! We now have a full free day tomorrow in Baku before Brandon and Elizabeth head out on night flights and I depart for Japan early the following morning for the next monsoon!

 

- At time of posting in Nakhchivan, it was 24 °C - Humidity: 34% | Wind Speed: 36km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny with periodic clouds

 

How I Visited 150 Countries During Med School+Residency & Still Became a Doctor

How I Visited 150 Countries During Med School+Residency & Still Became a Doctor

June 23, 2018

6:46pm: Counting down the last 14 minutes in my last shift of residency and the rest of my life.

6:47pm: In 13 minutes I am about to graduate as an attending physician.

 

It’s remarkable to look back and realize all it took was losing a bet to get here.

4 years of college, 4 years of med school, 4 years of residency, and 150 countries later, ever since my fateful trip to Egypt in 2010, and I’m finally about to graduate. To think I had almost failed out and got kicked out of school/residency more times than I could imagine.

Anyone remember Dr. Greene’s last shift on the show ER? The scene reminds me how every July 1st residents join and say goodbye to hospitals without anyone seeming to really notice. But people always notice.

 

 

I’ve been watching that clip a lot on these last few shifts of residency. Cheesy, I know. Sentimental, I am.

 

“Words really don’t teach but it was you being an example that help me realize it. I know you would be an amazing doctor and traveler. I really didn’t know how you did it as a world traveler and a med student, but now I know for sure there is no excuse and anything is possible if you have the passion and the love and it is thanks to you.” – Iran, 2011

 

Travel is an investment, NOT an interruption.

 

As my last shift in residency comes to a close, I look back on 8 formative years that pushed me to limits I could never have imagined.

 

 

I survived 4 years of one of the toughest med schools in NYC — while having traveled to 70 countries during that time — the likes of which included places like North KoreaIranAntarctica, and Pakistan. I then overcame 4 years at one of the oldest and most challenging Emergency Medicine residency programs in the country — while having traveled to 80 more countries during that time — the likes of which included places like Iraq, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Tibet.

And I never skipped a single day of class or missed a single shift during that time.

(Well, I once was an hour late because of a delayed domestic flight from Arizona, but that was for a visiting rotation and nobody really noticed).

Adding it all up I took 46 trips to more than 150 countries in 7 continents, received international recognition beyond my wildest dreams, met hundreds of monsooners, and made countless more friends around the world. 

I did it my own way, skeptics be damned. And it’s hard to believe that travel would be what actually saved me from the oblivion that is medical school and residency.

 

“‘A bit of madness is key

To give us new colors to see

Who knows where it will lead us?

 

And that’s why they need us.’

So bring on the rebels

The ripples from pebbles

The painters, and poets, and plays.

 

And here’s to the fools who dream

Crazy as they may seem.”  – Audition, La La Land

 

 

 

And before all any of this, I remember writing a post on my first day of medical school upon the conclusion of my first monsoon trip, not knowing if that very post would herald a premature end to my travels.

 

2010

 

Med School

That blogpost belied a complex intersection of feelings: fear, doubt, insecurity, and guiltfear over whether I would travel as much ever again, doubt in pursuing medicine, insecurity whether I would ever become the doctor I was never sure I was going to be, and a guilt to even consider reserving any part of my life for travel while I was just starting to buy textbooks and take out hundreds of thousands of dollars for student loans.

Those were rational feelings, so I did what I knew best — confront them with irrational actions. When you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, sometimes you just gotta look upwards and shoot for the moon instead.

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” – John A. Shedd

And so I did just that, irrationally beginning my medical school journey by flying across the world twice on the eves of my first two medical school block exams. One was 22 hours for San Diego (for a wedding) and another was 22 hours for Hong Kong (for my brother). 

Although physically tired, I was emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually recharged. I felt less mentally hungover during med school, and less distracted when I returned home. And I didn’t fail those exams (well, I almost did). Something was working.

 

2010 - San Diego

2018 - Chicago

 

 

OK — Med school can be on an extreme of intense for many people, right? Since we must strive for balance in our lives, I hypothesized that trips of equal intensity could be the cure.

I needed to test my theory and save up for more travel.

 

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, 2014

 

 

“I Don’t Have Enough Money”

The first obstacle was money. So I had my travel fund add up however it could:

  • Sublet my apartment for $$$ whenever I was away
  • Accumulate miles for free economy, business or first class flights
  • Pay for big group dinners with friends with a credit card that gives you 3x miles for dining (such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve, for example), and then having them all venmo/paypal/zelle/pay me back…I would accumulate up to 40k miles a month this way!
  • Ask for upgrades every time I check in at the airport, and at the boarding gate desk. I found that you’re more likely to get it if you look really jet lagged and exhausted, turn up the charm, and go in with the confidence that you lose nothing by asking; I’m currently at a 50-60% success rate
  • Before I became an attending, there was a time where I accumulated too many miles via manufactured spending (the legit/legal route). I still have hundreds of thousands of these unused miles!
  • If any of my flights were delayed, it was always worth a shot to file a complaint with the airline and get airline credit for a future flight, or via AirHelp and get hundreds of $$$ back…so far they’ve been really good and refunding some of my flights!
  • Perform a variety of odd jobs: I DJ’ed for private parties and bartender on some weekends and holidays for overtime pay
  • Sign up for paid tutoring at my med school
  • Get paid for public speaking on the very topics I was learning about (aka how to save and make money to go on trips)
  • Skip out on paying for gas, car insurance, that nice TV, cable, video games, fancy dinners, and nice clothes
  • Identify all free food events on campus and in the city, even bringing Tupperware to stock up on uneaten food, allowing me to not spend money on food for weeks!
  • Throw potluck parties at my place where people would bring more food that any one person could handle, so I would throw everything in the fridge and ration my meals, allowing me to not spend money on food for weeks!
  • . . . eventually this all adds up.

 

 

On the flip side I would budget my travel into costing no more than $500 all-inclusive for a trip that could last as long as 2 weeks:

  • Constantly look up flights on budget airlines such as WoW Air or Norwegian Air Shuttle to get ridiculous deals such as $60 from NYC to Dublin, $144 from NYC/Chicago to Norway, or $496 from NYC/Chicago to the other side of the world in Tokyo or Beijing.
  • Skyscanner is my favorite search engine for ridiculously low-priced flights. Close seconds are the Google ITA Matrix, Google Flights, Kayak, Hipmunk, and Skiplagged
  • If you do a multi-city search on those search engines (especially Skyscanner and Kayak), changing a single date or switching the order of destinations can dramatically lower your cost by a few hundred dollars. Compare this multi-city itinerary of 5 flights in Europe for $3600 side-by-side with the exact same itinerary (but in a different order) for $400. WTF?!
  • It doesn’t cost any money to search for flights, therefore finding such a deal above with any of those sites is worth your time
  • Stay in $5-$10/night hostels and guesthouses
  • Or stay for free doing Couchsurfing
  • Kill 2 birds with one stone and forego paying for any lodging by taking overnight buses
  • Get group discounts by taking others with me (my spot for Antarctica was free after I spent a year finding 20 people to go with me!)
  • Bring a student ID to get discounts on all admission fees
  • Acquire free flights by accumulating thousands of miles (whether by sign-up bonuses or getting 3x points on travel and dining — pay for your friends’ dinners and have them Venmo/Paypal/Chase Quikpay you back!)
  • Befriend people at my hostel so when we went out to explore, we’d split a cab/meal/bus tickets/train tickets/admission fees/etc etc. instead of paying for the whole thing alone
  • …eventually this all adds up.

 

Uzbekistan, 2015

 

“I Don’t Have Enough Time”

As money trickled in, I needed to handle the issue of time to travel.

So I made time: If I had 2 consecutive days off from school or work, I would try not to see those 2 days as another regular weekend to recharge, but rather an opportunity to make an international trip possible:

For example, if you can get on a flight out on a Friday night, you can reach almost anywhere in Europe, the Caribbean, Central America, or South America by Saturday morning. Then the next 36 hours anywhere is enough to explore most medium-sized cities and towns before you have to return Sunday night.

Our recent trip to Ireland with 7 people best exemplifies this. Even The New York Times has an entire column on how to maximize “36 Hours” for a trip. We’re not the only ones.

But there are those of you who feel like it might “not be worth it” and “I’ll wait until I have more time.”

Then is it fear that’s stopping you from moving? For fear never gets us anywhere unless we reframe it as another challenge that we use to push our limits: The biggest risk you can take is to take none at all. Or rather, what I usually say, strive to fail  — meaning, if I’m not pushing myself to one step away from figurative failure, then I’m not doing enough.

We all feel fear — what matters is what each of us does with that fear. Perhaps fear shows us what the next step is to push our limits, existing also to motivate us to achieve things we never thought we could.

 

Mostar, 2017

 

Give us the benefit of the doubt and consider looking at 36 hours differently than what we had been brought up to believe: can you leave the country for 36 hours? Sure you can (and many of us have), so isn’t it better to travel a little bit than none at all?

 

Now let’s take it a step further: An analogy with food

Think of a buffet and it’s there right in front of you. You’re STARVING; you haven’t eaten and you would like to. So would you continue to starve, refusing to eat anything just so you can wait for a “full experience” that may not even happen? Wait long enough and you’ll be too old to travel, too old to eat any part of that “buffet” because by then you’ll have been diagnosed with hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and all that bad stuff. Some of the food might be gone by then.

You would miss out more than you could imagine.

. . . OR would you eat a bit of everything now while you’re younger, without all those ailments, so you know better which food to come back to for your seconds and thirds?

 

Lake Baikal, 2016

 

This logic propelled me forward. Similar weekend and blitzkrieg travels followed, such as:

This was my life in med school.

I did it. I did it all.

 

Leading a Mehndi in Lahore, 2014

Doing The Math

While it seemed as if I was pulling off superhuman heroics to travel every weekend, I took “only” 46 trips over 8 years. When you do the math, that’s 4-6 times a year during my 4 years of med school, and 6-8 times a year during my 4 years of residency. That’s an average of a trip every 2-3 months.

This can still be considered to be a lot of travel, but it certainly wasn’t “every weekend.” And if a 2-day weekend getaway can count as one of these “trips”, a weekend trip every 2-3 months can seem pretty manageable!

Soon this lifestyle drew me to other like-minded wanderlusters and strangers who — rather than choose either the life of a nomad or the life of a working professional/student — would instead choose both.

I was not alone.

 

“Thank you for these weekend trips. And for showing me they are possible.” – Mihaela K.

 

Cuba, 2014

 

Even when it seemed obvious that taking time and money off to travel would jeopardize the stability of our lives back home (let alone our professional futures!), we encourage one another to believe in the magic of travel. Whether it was just for a single day in Ireland, a 3 month epic from Turkey to North Korea, or just the magical eternity moment of complete strangers falling for each other, travel became an investment in our lives instead, not an interruption.

We were not alone.

 

“…Because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” – Jack Kerouac

 

Hyderabad, 2010

 

Reality Bites

However, the pipe dream seemed to fade: midway through my 3rd year of medical school, I had almost failed out twice. By the time I applied to residency during my 4th year I was:

  • ranked in the bottom 50% of my class
  • not only scored below average on my Step 1 Medical Licensing exam with a 212, I also passed by only a single point above failing in Step 2 with a 204 (furthermore, you’re supposed to do better on Step 2 than on Step 1, but obviously I didn’t)
  • I was called out for missing an entire month of potential residency interviews for that trip to Antarctica and Pakistan. 
  • I acquired $200,000 in debt to student loans, all of which payments I deferred and put into forbearance.

My advisers began to doubt whether to bother endorsing my candidacy for residency training at all. Perhaps I was never meant to do this.

The skeptics’ echo of “I told you so” started to become louder.

 

 

The universe will find a way to support you, as long as you believe in yourself

5 minutes with Dr. Salifu, the Chair of the Department of Medicine at my medical school, changed everything.

Getting that interview wasn’t special — we all got 5 minutes to meet and make our case with him to get a much coveted recommendation letter. However, as I introduced myself and presented my file, about to apologize and explain for my sub-par academic record, he put up his finger and motioned for me to stop talking; his eyes briefly glazed over my academic transcript but then furrowed his eyebrows on the part of my CV that mentioned travel.

He then asked about leadership, and what it took to lead. He asked about leading these trips around the world.

 

Machu Picchu, 2011

 

One hundred seconds later Dr. Salifu made a smile I will never forget, reached out his hand to shake mine, and remarked that I reminded him of himself, and that he wouldn’t be where he was today if it wasn’t for similar risks he took during his medical training. He never let fear stop him.

He said he would write me a recommendation letter that would “make everyone in residency pay attention.” Then there was a knock on the door — our 5 minutes was up.

Little did I know then that I would walk out a different candidate for residency than when I had first walked in.

 

Iran, 2011

 

Scores of interviews at residency programs followed afterwards, many accommodating my travel schedule. I would learn from my experience with Dr. Salifu by no longer apologizing for my academic record. I instead doubled down, shot for the moon, and intersected travel with medicine: You can teach any medical student clinical skill and knowledge, but not attitude and humility. I made a case for travel and how it helped develop cultural competence and empathy; my subpar test-taking abilities could never teach me that. I stuck to my guns and told the truth.

People listened.

When Match Day came a few weeks later, I opened up the envelope to find that I matched into one of the top Emergency Medicine residency programs in the country. wtf.

 

 

How life is ironic: Whatever got me almost kicked out of medical school would also be the very reason that got me into residency.

Travel was no longer the gamble; it became the investment that actually paid off.

 

 

Furthermore, on an ironic footnote of this experience I was asked to give my class’ graduation speech as the outgoing class president. So I bid my medical school adieu with remarks that implored my colleagues to think of themselves not only as doctors, but also

as activists, peacemakers, statesmen, ambassadors, innovators, philosophers, or engineers. And above all, that we become artists, always pushing the limits and our dreams of what medicine can accomplish.”

I believed we were graduating not just with new titles as resident physicians — it was an opportunity to remember that we’re humans first. We’re complex creatures. We can achieve that level of self-care and self-awareness than what others give us credit for. We need to be good to ourselves first so that we can be good to others.

 

 

Residency Woes & The Imposter Syndrome

About a month later I began my 4 years of residency.

As soon as it began, a horrible habit of learned helplessness soon had me back in a stranglehold — I began to doubt myself once more, believing instead I had been lucky this entire time and that my run of good fortune was about to end. I questioned whether I belonged among my colleagues; imposter syndrome kicked in (after all, I was the actual imposter that got in through the back door).

Worst of all, midway through residency I was asked to tone down my travels if I wanted to stay in the program given a perceived capriciousness in the way I carried myself and how much more I seemed to care about this blog. Another wave began crashing down.

 

 “. . . As you no doubt recall, you and I spoke at length last week regarding attending feedback and their serious concern for your genuine interest in the patient care mission. This theme has now been noted by patients, supervisors, and colleagues. The residency leadership has made you aware of such issues multiple times, paired you with Attendings for closely monitored shifts, and even revoked your moonlighting privileges. 

. . . I think it is time that we speak regarding your professional future. It seems to us that you need to re-evaluate your priorities and be honest with yourself about some tough decisions, not least of which needs to be, ‘Do I really want to be an Emergency Physician?’ and ‘Am I giving my patients the dedication they deserve – that which I would want the physicians of my most loved ones to get from their physicians?’ If you cannot give us and your patients 100% through June 30, 2018, I expect you to only give us 0%. Anything else is unfair and unsafe to all parties involved. 

Please let me know of your availability to speak over the next few days and have prepared a response to these questions. If you so decide, we can work with you to ensure a smooth transition out of the residency program so that you may pursue that about which you are truly passionate and at which you truly excel. Otherwise, please be prepared to redouble your patient focused efforts, even at the expense of other pursuits, while in residency. Thank you.”

– E-mail sent warning me about my medical residency status being revoked

 

 

But after a grueling road trip across the United States and Venezuela, I responded with a 2 year process of consciously developing new habits. I cut out the negative toxic influences in my life, let my fears go, surrounded myself by loved ones who supported me instead of telling me what to do, and accepted my own intrinsic faults by diving headfirst into self-reflection. I shared insecurities far and wide among my colleagues and they reflected back to me theirs. We made sure as residents to not be afraid to ask for help.

I soon realized the beauty of foregoing things out of my control, allowing myself to directly steer toward the places where I could make a difference. I began to renew my confidence, deftly bringing my studying from the passenger to the driver’s seat while I travelled. FYI – The NYT agrees: Studying becomes more effective when you’re traveling. I also started coming back from work everyday feeling that true fulfillment I always long sought, beginning to believe I had the best job on the planet.

After casting doubts into shadows, light shone in the overwhelming encouragement and support from my peers — several of whom eventually traveled with me, and sometimes, because of me.

However, I refused to stop traveling. I knew what was good for me and what wasn’t. Nobody else could tell me that. And sometimes, old habits die hard. In fact, I balanced the stress in residency with traveling even more, covering another 80 countries and reaching the coveted number of 150 before marking the end of my medical training.

 

 

And despite nearly stumbling out of the gate at the beginning of residency, I buckled down and took in the feedback that worked for me without giving up any of my core values or changing who I was.

“Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, martini in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming WOO HOO what a ride!” – Hunter S. Thompson

A few months later I was named as one of the program’s first 3 Residents Of The Block during my end of my 2nd year of residency. The imposter was no longer the imposter.

 

 

Coming Full Circle & Finishing Residency

Then a year later I was given the fortunate task to serve as the program’s first Director of Resident Wellness in my final year, which role would become the fifth Chief Resident position. I was also presented the Ramsey Rod Award, the only award bestowed upon 3rd year residents/PGY-3s for “marching to the beat of their own drum.” And just like how it was in medical school, last week I was grateful enough to give a small speech about its importance to me at my own residency graduation.

Again, how life is ironic: Whatever got me almost kicked out of residency would be instrumental in propelling me to become the doctor I was meant to be.

And now I’m graduating one last time, to embark on a lifetime of service onto others as an attending physician tomorrow without forgetting what magic and beautiful souls I have been blessed with along the way.

After all, graduation is also known as a “commencement” and it certainly feels like I’m about to commence upon another journey.

 

 

The universe has a fascinatingly lovely way of working out.

Since The Monsoon Diaries began in conjunction with the beginning of my medical training, it would be fitting to mark the end of one phase of my life before beginning the next. We mark our existences with milestones and this one’s no less deserving.

 

6:55pm: I give sign out and take a shot with my attending. I shake his hand. I feel tears coming on.

7:00am: I go over and shake hands with the family member of my very last patient. It’s time to go home.

 

Today I have become a full-fledged attending physician, mark my 150th country, and close a chapter to my life to begin another. Here’s to 8 years and 150 countries more, with and thanks to you

If not now, then when?

If not you, then who?

 

 

 

The 20 Rules Of Monsoon

(aka everything I learned the hard way these past 8 years in school that got me to where I am today):

1. No More Excuses. 

When presented a challenge, make it a habit to always think of solutions and always think in the realm of what’s possible (“how can I make this work”), instead of the bad habit of giving an excuse why you can’t do something.

“Impossible is nothing.” “Just do it.” “Stay foolish.” These aren’t declarations of cliché, they’re evidence of experience.

2. Sleep well:
  • 7-9 Hours a night, 25 hour cycle
  • Moving forward (aka sleeping later the next night) is easier than back (sleeping earlier the next night)
  • Consistency & regularity is preferable
  • No alcohol, caffeine, or heavy foods 4-6 hours prior to sleep
  • Don’t ever study or lie awake for too long in your bed — you’ll begin to associate your bed with staying awake! If that happens and you just can’t fall asleep, just get up and do something productive and try again
  • That said only 2 things should happen in bed: sleep & sex.
  • Life hack: See rule #18b

The more you sleep, the more efficient your work will be, the more quickly you’ll finish your tasks, the more free time you’ll have to do more the things you enjoy, and the more time you have for more sleep. Positive feedback, baby!

 

 

3. Eat Well.
  • Stress = Overeating or Undereating
  • Fat + simple, & complex carbs = Decreased neurogenesis
  • Lesson: If you’re gonna eat, avoid fatty foods and complex carbohydrates

 

 

4. Exercise.

Exercise everyday. Your body is your temple. You only got one and it’ll be with you for the rest of your life.

 

5. Unlearn bad habits, while developing good ones.
  • Habits are unconscious, automated processes
  • It is difficult to change habits
  • Habits, however, can work in your favor — they carry you forward when your will to get something done fades (aka brushing your teeth)
  • Therefore your habits = You
  • You can incorporate good behavior into habit if you go about it in a goal-directed way
  • Habits usually takes an average of 66 days to form — Taking 2 months to improve the rest of your life is not that long!

 

6. Give yourself enough me-time for introspection, self-awareness, and ultimately, self-forgiveness.

 

7. Maintain quality relationships:
  • Stay connected to the people who truly matter
  • Cut out those who are toxic, aka anyone who add little value to your life
  • Stay away from negative people: They find a problem to every solution
  • The people who truly truly love you will support you in whatever you do, and never tell you what to do (especially when the advice is unsolicited). If they are telling you what to do instead of supporting you, then their “love” may not be right for you.
  • Learn to stop caring about what strangers and acquaintances think about you. Most people don’t even care that you’re alive. So when people don’t like you, nothing actually happens. Once you accept this, you’ll have total freedom to do whatever you want, especially choosing those who actually do matter to keep in your life. Aka, it’s time to stop giving a F#@$%*!
  • Touch. Aka hug your friends, kiss a loved one, cuddle, snuggle, pet a cat or a dog, make sure you give and receive enough love.
  • Talk. Dare to open up to both old friends and new ones, especially those who are not afraid to be both honest and kind with you — they are your mirrors who can reflect upon you what they see so you can better understand yourself (hence the concept of “Ubuntu” – A person is only another person through another person)
  • Your relationships with your friends are more important than any relationship with money: Money is a replenishable resource; friends, experiences, and the youth to enjoy those experiences are NOT.

 

 

8. Manage your expectations realistically without being negative.
  • Go into this knowing that this shit is hard.
  • Go into this knowing that this shit is hard and yet you’ve always risen to the occasion (See #1).

 

 

9. Don’t worry about things that haven’t happened yet.

All that stress might be devoted to something that might not even be worth all that stress. So save that energy for something more productive (repeating to myself “we’ll cross that bridge of despair when or if we even get there” has saved me a ton of grief).

 

 

10. Take productive and quality time off.
  • That means not sitting on your ass watching Netflix
  • Productive breaks can include cleaning your room, organizing an event, planning your next week — they all can play a role in better organizing in your brain whatever you just studied

 

11. Stay grounded and get out of the bubble.

Do one non-medicine (or whatever is your main profession) activity every day.

 

12. Don’t “give back.” Instead, give as you go.

Whenever the opportunity presents itself, teach those a year or two below you. You were in their shoes once. Their appreciation will motivate you and make you feel like you belong where you are, especially if you have the imposter syndrome.

 

13. Always do it your own way.
  • The first doctor, lawyer, entrepreneur, programmer, accountant, artist, designer, anything, traveler, explorer, philosopher, anyone…they didn’t follow a blueprint to get to where they were. Neither should you.
  • See Rule #7c

 

14. Humans are meant to be complex creatures: You can do more than one thing.

 

15. Let the imposter syndrome pass through you. It’s a normal feeling.
  • Everyone else feels the same way as you do
  • That said, fake it until you become it. This is not a sign of being an imposter — everyone else around you who seems more successful is and has been doing it too.

 

16. Avoid the psychology of postponement. 
  • You’ll never be as young as you are today
  • Your job will never love you back

 

17. Don’t be a dick.
  • Take 3 deep breaths before you do or say anything negative, especially with your personal relationships.
  • With all my advice above, especially with rule #13, there’s this one important condition: Make sure you’re not restricting someone else’s freedom to do the same (ex. don’t go on a warpath where you’re willingly hurting other people and creating collateral damage…aka, don’t be a dick).

 

18. Simple life hacks are “hacks” for a reason.

If they’re that simple, then do them all because they’ll add up

  • Feeling down and don’t know where to start? Give both your hands a good washing with soap for at least 30 seconds (real seconds, not rushed). Once you’ve dried them, you’ll suddenly feel a little better about your situation: 6 Purely Psychological Effects of Washing Your Hands
  • Can’t sleep well? Too much on your mind? Write a to-do list before falling asleep may help you sleep better: Write a To-Do List Before Bed to Fall Asleep Faster
  • Schedule the fun things FIRST. That way you always have something to look forward to and motivate you finish the boring things.
  • Adjust your body language;  it shapes who you are. For example, to gain confidence simply stretch out those limbs and take a confident stance (aka a “power pose”). “Fake it until you become it” and within minutes you start really believing you’re as confident as you look.

 

19. Be honest.

Communicate. Always tell someone how you feel as long as you can do it with love and kindness. And if you can’t, see #17. You can always find a way.

  • Don’t miss any chance to say “I love you” whenever you can if you mean it. You have so much more to lose by not saying it.

 

20. Travel. Often.
  • If it sounds easier said than done, see #1.
  • Remember, you’ll never be as young as you are today. And you’ll never get today back.
  • “Never let your work become your life. Live a little.”
Miran With The Mostest In Mostar

Miran With The Mostest In Mostar

 

To be honest, prior to this trip, I did not know much about Bosnia and Herzegovina and its history aside from the fact it was part of the former Yugoslavia and had been battled by war. Thus, heading into our bus ride from Split, Croatia, I had no idea what to expect except from Calvin’s Balkan’s Trip in Summer 2017 and seeing his photos of the Old Bridge (Stari Most)

Boy was I in for a surprise.

 

After catching a quick breakfast in NoStress Bistro, we went to the Split Bus Terminal early to catch the 10:55 AM Croatia Bus/Globtour bus to Mostar. After a 10-minute delay and 1 unexpected bus transfer, we arrived around 3:45 PM at Mostar (East) Bus Terminal. 

Hoping to maximize our limited time in Mostar, we quickly walked to our hostel, Hostel Miran, which was a short 6-minute walk from the station. Signage to the place were helpful, making it super easy to find the hostel.

While booking for the hostel, I remembered that the host, Miran, offers a day tour visiting several sites around Mostar as well as the Old Bridge. Being that we arrived later than expected and most of the day was already gone, I thought the best we would be able to do was to visit the Old Bridge, the Old Town Bazaar and dinner. However, feeling ambitious, I decided to ask Maja (Miran’s wife) who checked us in if we could still do at least part of the tour. To our surprise, Miran said yes and for a discounted price of 25 euros per person (normally 30 euros per person from 10AM to 6PM).

Miran, the owner of the hostel, is a native of Mostar who grew up during the Bosnian War of 1992-1995. A very passionate person who is enthusiastic to teach others an important part of Bosnia and Herzegovnia’s history, Miran would go out of his way to make sure his guests were well attended to. Normally his tour includes visiting Blagaj, Pocitelj, Kravice Waterfalls, Medugorje, Mount Velez and a war tour with his own personal stories. However, he is very accommodating and willing to tailor his tour to what we wanted to see as well.

In the end, we decided to skip Kravice waterfall since we recently saw Plitvice Lakes NP and Krka NP in Croatia.

First, we stopped by Pociteji, a preserved, fortified Bosnian town dating back to 1383 with beautiful examples of medieval and Ottoman architecture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then, we stopped by Blagaj, a historic Dervish monastery built into the cliff along the karst Buna river which flows out of the surrounding mountains. Known for being one of the strongest spring in Europe, many will stop to drink some of the water after eating some pomegranate seeds sold at a nearby local stand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, we came back to pick up our friend, who couldn’t join because she injured her knee, to see the Old Bridge (Star Most) at night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Along the way, Miran stopped by several streets in town to show the remnants of the bombings and destroyed buildings with penetrating bullet holes from the war. In addition, Miran gave his take on the war, his perspective on socialism vs capitalism and much more. It was interesting to connect what we learned in the past coming from the US and the differences seen firsthand. It was a true learning experience.

 

Photo Credit: Miran, 1992-1995
Photo Credit: Miran, 1992-1995

 

 

Photo Credit: Miran, 1992-1995

 

While there were many places to eat for dinner (Urban Grill was suggested by many), Miran suggested Rota Grill a cheaper and better restaurant for Cevapi and Sudzukice (home-made sausages). It was by far one of the best authentic meals we ate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just while we thought we would have to end our night early to catch our 7AM bus to Dubrovnik the next day, Miran by chance told us he also offers direct transfer to our hostel in Dubrovnik. For about the same price (20 euros), it takes only 2 – 2.5 hours instead of the estimated 4 hours by bus. This is because the bus companies cross 2 borders and drive through the scenic route along the coast. Instead, Miran’s transfer drives through Bosnia, only needing to cross one border by passing through the town, Trebinje. Plus, you get to see the country side.

As a result, we got to sleep in and got to try some home-made jam and traditional Bosnian coffee (free breakfast) in the morning.

 

 

A true legend, who knows practically everyone in town, Miran was one of the biggest reasons why as a group we fell in love with Mostar, even though we were there for less than a day. His hospitality is unlike any other and he is a great guy with a big heart. Thanks again Miran and his family for hosting us and allowing us to be part of his family for the day!

 

It Must Be Aliens: Uluru

It Must Be Aliens: Uluru

 

Today, we flew a helicopter:
 

 

After spending 3 spirited days in the wettest part of Australia (Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef), the group got up early at 4:30am to catch our 6:50am flight to what probably is the driest part of Australia: Uluru.

 

 

The 3 hour flight from Cairns to Uluru was uneventful as we landed at AYQ airport at 09:05am local time. However, we happened to get in during a total communications system outage; no wifi or cell signal was coming in and out due to a failed tower (or satellite) which happens here once in a blue moon.

After all, we are in the middle of nowhere — this is Outback country where the closest semblance of civilization is Alice Springs at 500km (or a 5-6 hour drive) away.

 

 

While most of the group hopped on the free shuttle service from the airport to Outback Pioneer Resort to freshen up, Bryce, Donna, Taylan and I opted to take an optional 30min helicopter flight from the airport at 10am over Uluru and Kata Tjuta for $210 USD per person.

They can fit at most 3 people at a time (the 4th seat is for the pilot), so we went on 2 separate trips.

 

 

Our first approach was that over Uluru:

 

 

Uluru has been renowned as a symbol of Australia, famous as its iconic domed monolith rock rising from the middle of a desert 348m above the plain (862.5m above sea level), 5km below the desert plain and measuring 3.6 x 2.4 km at the surface with a circumference of 9.4km. The rock can go through dramatic color changes with its normal sandstone hue changing from blue/violet at sunset to flaming red at sunrise.

Most importantly, Uluru holds special significant to the Anangu Aborigines who considers Uluru their ancestral home filled with stories responsible for their very existence, as well as the space under Uluru containing the very energy source for their dreams.

 

 

After 5-10 minutes circling Uluru, we then headed 36km west of Uluru towards Kata Tjuta, a collection of 36 variously-sized rock domes may have once been part of a monolith that surpassed Uluru in size, but then eroded to the several separate rock formations we have today. It too holds special significance for the Anangu Aborigines that live here.

 

 

After the helicopter ride, the 4 of us then were picked up by our charming guide Kurt of The Rock Tours, who then reunited us with the rest of the group hanging out at Outback Pioneer. We then drove off towards Kata Tjuta for our obligatory hikes through the Valley of the Wind.

 

 

No joke, by the time we began our hike at 2pm, it was 46ºC (aka 110ºF) outside with multiple warning on our park tickets, our park maps, and posted signs that all hiking after 11am would be off-limits if temperatures were above 36ºC.

However, that didn’t deter Kurt from making sure we wouldn’t miss out. Armed with countless litres of water, we set off on our 30-40min hike around Kata Tjuta.

 

 

We then recharged back in our air conditioned van for 20-30min before setting off again for our 30min hike towards Walpa Gorge.

 

 

By now we were all suffering from what probably felt like first degree burns, so we ended our hikes for the day and recovered at the National Park Culture Centre. Built in 1995 to mark the 10th anniversary of Handover (when the Australian government formally handed Aboriginal land back to its rightful owners, and when Ayers Rock dropped its colonial name to became Uluru), the centre hosts and translates the aboriginal creation stories and articles about the history of the Pitjantjara. There are also shops here where you can buy local art and souvenirs. Photos of the cultural centre are prohibited.

After about an hour at the centre, we then drove to the sunset viewing point where we took as many photos to our heart’s content.

 

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Photo Credit: Sampson Lau

 

Kurt also cooked us up a delightful meal of noodles and meat as we waited for the sunset.

 

 

You’ll know when the sun begins to set as the rock begins to change its color.

 

 

After sunset we drove outside the park to Yulara, where we got our swags and sleeping bags to camp outside under the stars for the night.

 

 

We then got in our well-deserved sleep, being woken up by Kurt at 4:30am to get our last glimpses of the stars at night and to head out for breakfast as the sun began to rise over Uluru.

 

 

It was at this point Kurt realized he dropped some of our backpacks on the way to the sunrise viewing point (doh!), so some of us hopped back in the bus to retrace our steps only to find our bags waiting for us back in the middle of our campgrounds.

What made this experience even more hilarious was that someone’s 11 year old daughter had slept through the whole thing and was still passed out in the back of the bus by the time we got our bags — we had inadvertently kidnapped someone!

We quickly drove back with out bags to the viewing point, returned the daughter to her mother without asking for any ransom (it appeared the mother didn’t even care at all, hahaha), and took whatever photos we could of the last few minutes of sunrise.

 

 

Once the sun rose over the horizon, our group began a base walk around Uluru for an hour, split into two 30-40min increments. The surprising part was the amount of greenery and vegetation around Uluru, growing in an area that otherwise has been widely believed to be a totally barren and lifeless desert.

 

 

By the rock are various sacred watering holes crucial to the survival of the aboriginal people as well as the local wildlife and flora.

 

 

We also visited some of the sacred caves that the aboriginal men and women have used to pass on their knowledge to future generations.

 

 

We hiked a bit more around Uluru before Kurt decided it was finally time for our group to head back to the airport and catch our 11am Jet Star flight to Melbourne. Thanks Captain Kurt!

 

 

- At time of posting in Uluru, Australia, it was 46 °C - Humidity: n/a | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear, brutally hot

 

Angsty Anguilla

Angsty Anguilla

Angulla just got served

 

Ever have the most random parts of your distant past come up when you least expect it? Or when a feeling of déjà vu actually becomes verified by a very real memory? This just happened in Anguilla.

So after a whirlwind morning in Saba (which already feels like yesterday, but that was actually Saint Barthélemy that began with an 8:15am Winair flight, I begin this post — same day as the last one — at 12:15pm.

Right after I parted ways with Manish and Gil, with whom I just flown back from Saba, I stamped into Saint Martin’s at customs, walked out of arrivals and approached a “Funtime” Representative waiting outside, telling her I had booked a ferry to Anguilla on St. Martin Bookings

The roundtrip ferry to/from Anguilla, which cost me $80 total, would have me depart on a 1:45pm ferry from SXM/St. Martin’s to arrive at Anguilla at 2:10pm. I would then return 2 hours later on a 4pm ferry from Anguilla (arriving back at SXM/St. Martin’s at 4:30pm). Therefore, to see both Saba and Anguilla from Sint Maarten or Saint Martin in a single day is totally and easily doable no matter what anyone else is telling you!

She checked her list and then promptly directed me to a driver who took me to his car and drove me 3 minutes away to the local Ferry dock.

FYI before I go on, you should book these tickets at least 24 hours in advance if you want to pull off this itinerary, And Calypso is the other ferry charter company you can choose for more flexibility (but was also $10 extra).

 

 

When I arrived at the office, they checked me in and stamped my passport out of Saint Martin’s.

 

 

At around 1:40pm they began to shuffle us out of the waiting room towards our boat.

 

 

The boat was way way smaller than the one I rode back and forth yesterday to Saint Barthélemy!

 

 

But unlike yesterday’s rockily rough ride to and from Saint Barthélemy, the ride to Anguilla from Saint Martin is much smoother.

 

 

By 2:10pm we arrived at Anguilla; the ride takes only about 20-25 minutes!

 

 

You then have to fill out an immigrations form here and stamp your passport into Anguilla.

 

 

Then I headed to a taxi stand right in front of the exits, where I then booked a $55 USD 1.5 hour tour of Anguilla with a local Anguillan named Daron. But I would soon learn from Daron that a “tour of Anguilla” is really a “tour of all its 5 star hotels.” This obviously bummed me out, but I reluctantly obliged. What else was I to do?

But then he said the first stop would be The Four Seasons, which he then followed with, “used to be The Viceroy.” 

Now when he said “The Viceroy” a low pitched ding suddenly emerged from in the recesses of my hippocampus. And yet, I couldn’t quite put a finger on why “The Viceroy” would sound so familiar. After all, Anguilla was a last minute decision I made yesterday and I had no idea this place existed…except…

 

 

…hmm…what does this place seem so familiar? Where is this immense feeling of déjà vu coming from? I’ve never been here before!

Then visceral automatic kind of brain-muscle memory kicked in; a whisper that led me to suspect that the answer may be hidden within emails I haven’t looked at in 7 years, during the time when I was stranded alone in Egypt (yes, my first ever monsoon!).

So I did a quick scan of messages I had received during my time in Egypt, and within seconds I found an email that an ex had sent to me 7 and a half years ago that teased me of what her life was like at the time on the other side of the world — in a place called Anguilla…at The Viceroy — with a photo no less:

 

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Her photo: 01/08/10.

 

And where was I?

 

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My photo: 7/20/17.

 

Surreal. I soon inadvertently found myself sitting down in the very same chair she did when she took that photo, leading me to grasp, holy shit, how far I’ve come since Egypt.

And this wasn’t any random trip I was on 7.5 years ago . . .when I had received a photo of what “another type of travel” was like . . . Egypt was the first trip.

*cough* Anyways, the rest of the hotel is pretty nice, as you can see.

 

 

Yes, we shall move on; after all, the world works in such mysterious ways, it remains mysterious even when mysteries reveal themselves. Instead of paralyzing myself with a million theories, I’ll just appreciate what just happened as a sign I am exactly where I’m supposed to be. Needless to say, I was amusing Daron with this story.

Here’s another nice beach situated within another 5 star property:


We then drove down to the water and passed by what appeared to be…snow?

 

 

But it’s actually sea salt foam that blew onto land, thanks to a natural combination of intense sunlight, evaporated salty seawater, and heavy winds.

 

 

We then took a view below of Sandy Ground

 

 

…before driving into The Valley, which is the capital city of Anguilla and ask referred to as “Town.” It’s pretty dead and mostly commercial.

 

 

On its outskirts lies Anguilla’s only Catholic church…

 

 

…which sits next to the oldest building in Anguilla (also a church)…

 

 

…And a former cotton plantation built by slaves.

 

 

After that, it was time to head back to the ferry station. Once we returned, I bid goodbye to Daron and headed back inside.

 

 

Then my passport was stamped out again, and I went through the only security I’ve seen so far for ferry departures.

 

 

The ferry ended up being delayed by nearly half an hour, arriving to pick us up for boarding at around 4:25pm. But whatever, it’s island time.

 

 

Too bad when I boarded, I ended up sitting across from an angry American tourist who was evidently pissed and yelling about how someone had stolen her shorts. She had knocked out my phone charger that was plugged into the wall twice without hesitation, as well as being verbally abusive to her partner. He was taking all of this in stride and was apologizing to everyone in the boat on her behalf. 

Sandwiched between her and the partner on the boat, I realized the ride back was gonna be so real.

But luckily, the staff noticed my predicament and opened up the front part of the boat for us to escape. And half of the boat did.

 

 

This was a good call because we ended up getting a great view of our ride back to St. Martin/Maarten.

 

 

- At time of posting in Anguilla, it was 28 °C - Humidity: 80% | Wind Speed: 23km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy