The phone call
Flashback to 2016—4 pm March 1, moving day. In the parking lot outside my apartment, I Tetris-ed the last cardboard box into my Corolla. At 27, I’d just finished my contract marketing job, given up my room and was about to transport my few possessions to store at my parents’ several hours away. My flight from Vancouver to Bangkok took off in two weeks—a five-month solo backpacking trip across Southeast Asia I’d been planning all year, returning just in time for my best friend’s wedding. Then my phone rang.
I glanced down, distracted. Why was my oral surgeon’s office calling me? Had they finally deciphered my weird X-ray from three months ago? I answered the phone. It wasn’t the front desk—it was the surgeon himself.
“I’m so sorry to tell you this, but we think you might have osteosarcoma.”
I blinked. My brain went completely numb. “Okay,” I said.
“That’s… well, it’s bone cancer.”
I gazed blankly at my car, full of my entire life. “Okay,” I said.
Later, that three-hour drive to my parents’—them waiting for me to arrive, making my childhood bed and cheerfully baking carrot cake, me pulling over halfway to sob to my best friend on the phone in a Winners parking lot—was the longest ride of my life.
Osteosarcoma had a 13% survival rate. I cancelled my flights. I wondered vaguely if I was going to die. “But my trip,” I kept saying, that night and for several days afterward, focusing intensely on the one thing that felt real. “What about my trip?”
I should explain. Travel means more to me than it might for the average person—it’s my passion and my priority. Since I finished university, I’ve essentially structured my life around it. Working contracts meant I could save, backpack extensively and then return home to do it all over again. Since 2011, I’ve been lucky enough to complete several long trips—Europe, South America, Europe again, East Africa and now what I’d imagined would be my last before “settling down,” Southeast Asia.
I’d had a silly goal in mind: I wanted to visit every continent before 30. Now I just wanted to turn 30.
For most of that cool, rainy spring, I moped around my parents’ house in my tiny hometown, visiting hospitals for tests. I don’t know, said the doctor, and the oral surgeon, and the specialist, and the tests. I don’t know, but don’t go anywhere. There was a hole in my jawbone and nobody knew why. Inconclusive. Inconclusive.
As the months dragged on, my sense of impending doom gave way to frustration. I’d given up my work and city and home and now I was grounded, stuck in limbo, with nothing to do but wallow in my own situation. I started to flip through travel deals just for something to do. The idea was only half serious, but it stuck. And then I found it: a 47-day Intrepid trip called Central America Explorer, not too far away, somewhere I’d never been and leaving in three days.
I normally backpacked solo, but the idea of salvaging some travel on short notice—no planning or Spanish abilities required—won me over. I hit the “Book” button with fierce stubbornness.
Life, back on
On the plane, I started having doubts. What was I doing? I didn’t like organized tours. It’d been two years since my last backpacking trip—did I still remember how to do this? Was I too old? Was Mexico City as dangerous as the news made it out?
24 hours on the ground and all that evaporated like smoke. I was in my element again; I lit up. I met my group for the first three-week stint—we were a like-minded bunch, mostly in our 20s and 30s with a couple of young-at-hearts.
The next seven weeks traversing a continent from Mexico City to Panama across mountains, jungles and two oceans were an exhilarating blur of sunshine, mosquito bites, guacamole, turquoise water, lasting friendships and an unexpected romance. I forgot that I was supposed to be dying. I’ve visited 57 countries, but that trip brought me back to life.
There were a lot of “bests”. A day discovering three secret cenotes, the cool mountain hipster hangout of San Cristobal, swimming with a manatee in Caye Caulker, hiking volcanoes and devouring cake in Antigua, climbing forest temples in Tikal, sloth-spotting and flying across the world’s longest zipline in Monteverde.
Our leader for the first three weeks, Rafa, was amazing—his passion for tacos, tostadas and enchiladas made every meal feel like a private food tour. “This is the best, my favourite,” he’d proclaim emphatically about every dish after leading us into a winding alley, nondescript tent or smoky haunt with questionable slabs of meat hanging in the sun—places we’d never have found or dared try on our own.
Marial, our Guatemalan leader for the last two weeks of the tour, was running her very first trip, but you’d never know it. We got on fabulously, and she even joined a few of us after the tour ended for a day trip to Costa Rica’s Manuel Antonio National Park for swimming, lounging and sharing a prized 18-year bottle of Flor de Cana rum.
About a boy
There was also, well, a boy—met in our first three-week stint in Mexico. Vacation flings happen, but this felt different.
Neither of us had participated in group tours much before, but were both there by happenstance. He was on a shorter trip, so after Mexico, he went home to London. But we kept in touch—and soon after my trip ended, he was flying out to visit me in Canada.
For the next year and a half, as I kept traveling and then returned home again to refill my bank account, we met up every few months—in Malaysia for the holidays, a Banff roadtrip, a camping trip up the California coast. He loved travel just as much as I did. It was unusual, to be sure, but maybe we were unusual, and it worked for us.
I’ve since been given the all-clear on health and re-visited eight former trip-mates in their countries—Switzerland, Australia, Holland—and in mine. I re-booked my cancelled Asia trip and spent six months there last year (even longer than the trip originally planned, just to spite the cancer).
I also moved to London in January, and we’re now living together—two years later. And if I’d never had the health scare, I’d have never have been on that trip.
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(All images courtesy of Vanessa Stofer.)