I’m sitting in a travel clinic getting a typhoid shot and a prescription for anti-malarial pills. Today this is what work looks like as I prepare to visit Zambia in October. It’s a Tuesday morning and I am talking typhoid, Twinrix, safety precautions, Canadian embassies and Malaria. Not my average day in the office.
A few weeks ago I learned that I was one of the lucky journalists who received a Fellowship with the UN Foundation and an advocacy group called Shot@Life. Together with 2 other bloggers and a doctor with a regular column in a US newspaper, I will travel to Zambia. The itinerary is evolving, but it mostly looks like this: visit hospitals, and medical clinics, infant clinics, and rural villages to discuss health care innovations and obstacles in a developing country like Zambia.
There will be translators along the way. There are about 80 languages spoken in Zambia. Some people speak English and some do not, so a translator will be important.
The Zambia Shot@Life learning trip is the kind of deep storytelling activity I love. Plus it’s my first fellowship. I am proud of myself for earning this. I run through a range of emotions from excited, ecstatic and hopeful to worried. A warm, tense, knot of energy takes up residence in my stomach and propels me through my days. Some nights it keeps me awake wondering what can I expect to find in Zambia? Is it currently safe? What is the political situation? What is happening globally right now with respect to terrorist activity? Carry on or checked luggage? This is pretty much how I felt before leaving for Colombia with World Vision Canada in 2014. One hundred things to do and 101 emotions.
When I first learn I have been chosen from a pool of hundreds of applicants I am exhilarated. I am grateful and overwhelmed with the excitement of such a big journey. Glad too that I switched majors in first year university and dropped any pretence of wanting to be an accountant. (Hilarious that I ever thought that would be an option.) There are many things to do before I leave for the Zambia Fellowship. Get all the vaccinations. Gather a doctor’s note for medications, just to be safe. Pack. Make sure my husband can adjust his schedule so that the kids are taken care of. My initial thrilled reaction becomes anxiety, but I am not an anxious person so this is new.
I am a list maker by nature. It is the way I cope when I am overwhelmed, and it’s also the way I run my business. So I do what I always do to help follow through on a big travel opportunity – I start a list. Things to pack. Posts that need to be finished and scheduled to run on my site when I am away. Tweets that must be scheduled for clients. Things to do. Things I still need to buy. One by one I chip away.
Googling Zambia repeatedly every morning in the weeks before we leave, I find there is not as much information as I would have hoped. I go old school. The library near my home has a great resource travel guide to Zambia and Malawi from The Lonely Planet. It is my Zambia travel Bible. I research history, safety and accommodations as well. I also study the map of this small landlocked country bordering Zimbabwe on one side.
The flight to Zambia is intimidating. It will be well over 15 hours on the one flight alone. Zambia is Sub-Saharan Africa, so that’s south. We have most of the continent of Africa to fly over before getting there. Plus there is the flight from Toronto to New York, a lengthy layover and the two hour van trip down Highway 401 to get to the airport for the first flight and of course wait time too. I am ecstatic, but this this will be 20 plus hours of travel to get there and then also to return home. The longest flight I have ever taken prior to this was 8 hours to Paris, so I try not to think about it too much. I begin to build on what I know about Shot@Life and about Zambia as well and the tension in my stomach is eased a bit.
At least until I visit the travel clinic and get the run down from a travel doctor who is not nearly as enthusiastic as I am. He calls up a map and checks are there any travel warnings or advisories? Zambia is marked safe according to the Canadian Government’s international travel site. But travel with “a high degree of caution,” it advises. I note to myself that this same status is assigned to the Dominican Republic where I have been easily 4 times and never had issue greater than a stomachache from seafood I shouldn’t have eaten.
Zambia is landlocked and the travel doctor goes on a small tangent about the current president. He is promising, he says. But then he warns me – there are at least 3 neighbouring border countries that are not safe to visit. The Canadian government warns on their web site about international travel: Do not cross into areas like The Democratic Republic of the Congo. “Carjacking and armed assaults also pose a risk. Landmines present a risk in Zambia’s border areas with Angola and Mozambique.”
The travel clinic doctor has a job, I suppose, to warn me and inform me, but the knot in my stomach is bigger and it’s consuming my thoughts. I want to run away and wonder is this worth it? In the back of my head I keep hearing him repeat – carry the number for the Canadian embassy in your wallet, or on you at all times. Register your travel dates and location with the Canadian government. This Zambia Fellowship is a great opportunity, I tell myself over and over. My mantra.
The ritual of getting the vaccines helps. I will control what I can control. One by one, I talk myself through the vaccines and remind myself I will be protected from disease. That is why we are traveling. Shot@Life raises awareness and advocates for global support for funding childhood vaccines that save lives. Typhoid vaccine in one arm and Twinrix for Hepatitis in the other. This adventure begins and ends with vaccines.
As a child I received my vaccines in a timely fashion, without any obstacles to care. My mother drove my brother and I to get vaccinated at the health unit, or the doctor’s office on schedule as recommended by the government in our province of Ontario. It was a part of childhood and growing up in Guelph, Ontario where health care is accessible and affordable. Should you forget the timelines for vaccines, the school or public health board will remind you with a note home. My Mom, a school teacher, would have been horrified to receive a note home indicating that she had missed getting us a vaccine. To the best of my recollection that never happened, even when my parents divorced and chaos ensued. Our health care never suffered.
Our Canadian health care system, administered by each of the provinces separately means that we pay high taxes annually, but our health care is included in the taxes that we pay. Ontario residents are heavily taxed and so when people speak of free health care I balk and reframe. There is no such thing as free health care. Many in Canada also have private health care insurance to pay for things like medications and extra treatments not covered by the provincial health insurance plan. Make no mistake though this system works to keep people healthy.
There is a simplicity involved here in receiving the regular childhood vaccines that are necessary for us to grow into healthy adults and taxpayers. As a child I had no clue that families in other areas of the world might not have access at all. They might not be able to afford vaccines. Perhaps they live in a rural area of the world where maintaining the cold supply essential to keep the vaccine in tact, requires incredible planning and health care policy infrastructure that is simply not available. Maybe getting to the clinic requires a lengthy walk with children. There are many obstacles to getting vaccinated in countries like Zambia. I am about to find out more on this Zambia fellowship learning trip.
I will be ready physically to tell these important stories and to visit Zambia with this amazing team of journalists and UN advocates as long as I stick to the steps outlined in the travel brief. The anti-malarial drug starts two days before I enter Zambia. Mosquitoes are still a challenge to residents and tourists in many areas of the world. I have been reading and listening to TED talks about mosquitoes. Malaria treatment and management is an evolving area of study.
This Zambia fellowship is a chance to tell some important stories about children and families. It is a great opportunity to grow and share what I learn. I am honoured and grateful. Impactful travel opportunities like this matter and leave a lasting footprint. Even though I am excited and nervous I know I will do this. The need to tell the stories and the power of this remarkable opportunity is driving me forward. Excitement and nervousness, I have learned, are really just flip sides of the same feeling. They travel hand in hand with risk and reward.
Travel engages your mind and opens up new worlds and cultures. But, this Zambia fellowship began to impact my life the moment I received word that I was chosen to make the journey. One of the greatest rewards for me, when I embark on a learning trip like this one, is the way in which it alters the present and the future. Even before I board a plane, an impact travel experience changes the shape of my present. The moment I start considering the trip and the Zambia fellowship, I am reminded about my role in the world, the privileged position many North Americans are born into, and the things we take for granted. Impact travel gives me fresh perspective and that is a gift I strive to share with my family, friends and readers well before the trip begins, and long after an journey ends.
I travelled with Shot@Life and the UN Foundation as a recipient of the Zambia Fellowship this October. I received transportation, accommodations, excursions, and meals while visiting Zambia. My opinion is my own and my stories are always truthful. This was a remarkable opportunity I am grateful to have received. This is the first in a series of stories about Shot@Life and my trip to Zambia. Stay tuned for more all this month. This post contains one affiliate link because I thought it would help readers who also wish to visit the area.