My Mid-Life Crisis Brought Me to Micronesia (The Federated States of Micronesia, The Marshall Islands, & Palau)

I was lying in bed with Tony a few days before I left for this next jaunt of my journey.  We were talking, well I was talking, about what my future looked like, where we should live, what I should do for work, and so on.  He calmly said, “Don’t worry about it now.  Just let this mid-life crisis pass and then figure it out.”

A few days later, as I was sitting in the Marshall Islands, my mom asked me, “Do you think you’re just trying to find yourself?”

I’m not sure if I’m the next star on the Truman Show and it’s become so blatantly clear to everyone else in the world that I’m going through a ‘mid-life crisis,’ or if I really am just trying to live my life.  I, of course, think it’s the latter and I’m just trying to embrace the gifts I’ve been given.  But, perhaps I am going through the alleged middle of life, trying to figure myself out phase.  I suppose if I am, I’m doing a pretty damn good job and maybe others can learn from me…

~~~

I had six weeks back in America while I waited for my passport to renew.  While it was a wonderful six weeks with my family, it was an oddly difficult time for me.  There were a series of events – a difficult visit to the town I grew up in, some pushback around my trip to Antarctica, and just general directionless – that launched me into a bit of a depressive state.  I have these periods in life, like so many people do, where I just feel blue.  I know what they are and I have been very good about getting myself out of them, knowing that exercise, diet, and loved ones are key to it all.  But this was strange.  I was living my dream…I shouldn’t be feeling ‘blue.’  I promised myself I would let it pass, feeling it and trying to figure out what might be causing this circling and emotional distress.

In the meantime, I spent almost a solid week collecting evidence for my Guinness World Record attempt.  Yes, I am in the running for a Guinness World Record to be the person who has traveled to the most countries using a wheelchair in one year.  I had to backtrack on about six months of my life and organize boarding passes, train tickets, hotel and food receipts, GPS data, photo and video evidence, credit card and bank statements, and finally witness statements from anyone who can attest that I was in fact in their country.  This last piece will take a lot of coordinating as I attempt to electronically communicate with guesthouses, tour guides, and so on to get electronic statements.  It will be fun too, to re-connect with people from around the world who have truly altered my life in such profound ways.

I haven’t written about this much but I am also working toward a doctorate degree in business.  I’ve been intermittently working through the program as I travel but needed to spend some dedicated time doing some research and putting together a presentation that is due in March.  Since I had the time at home in America, I spent a solid few days dedicated solely to this.

And then there was the fun part – planning the next jaunt in my journey!  I did, after all, have a world record I was chasing.  This part of the journey would be long, grueling, and oh so worth it.  I was heading to Oceania, a part of the world that was closed just six months ago when I ventured off, but has since reopened for tourists!  For those that might not know, Oceania is the area around Australia.  There are fourteen island countries in the Pacific and my goal was to visit as many as possible.

The logistics of planning this trip took an immense about of time and logistical skill.  These islands are so small – and just recently opened – that the tourist infrastructure is limited.  There are flights in and out of each island only about twice a week, and in some cases, just once a week.  Trying to plan the travel logistics was a challenge, but alas, I never say I can’t and the trip eventually took shape.  I plan to visit 11 countries which means I will take 25 flights and spend over 81 hours flying, all in about a month’s time.  Needless to say, about half of my bag is full of books, which I plan to read and ‘gift’ to the next person, hoping I have gifted them all when I return to America.

In many ways, I had been dreading this trip.  I always, always get a bit anxious when I’m heading out on the road all alone.  There are a ton of resources available for solo travelers, but the information for solo disabled travelers is limited, and I know I’m jumping into parts of the world that no one like me has ever been to before.  It’s daunting and intimidating, and I have to constantly remind myself that someone will be there to help me when I need it.  To this day, that reminder has never failed me and I believe the kindness in people is what keeps me traveling.  I believe it’s part of what I’m searching for…the genuine nature of human beings that we so often disregard.

My flight leaving Atlanta was delayed, which meant I would miss my connection, which meant that I would miss my flight to my first island.  I had this portion of my trip – all 25 flights –planned out so precisely that one missed flight meant the entire trip would have to be scrapped.  I panicked quite publicly as the gate agent worked her computer system and found a way to get me to Honolulu, where I would spend a few hours ‘napping’ in a questionable hotel before I ventured off.

Ok, one minor airline hiccup in this entire journey isn’t so bad, I kept telling myself.  It’s just a small delay, it’s not how the entire trip will go.  I left Honolulu ready to go, albeit a bit tired from the already 18 or so hours of travel time.  I was flying on United Airlines UA 154.  This is a unique island-hopping flight that many aviation enthusiasts dream of taking.  The price of this plane ticket was outrageous, the most expensive plane ticket I’ve ever purchased…by a lot.  But, it would bring me to several countries and the views of landing on teeny tiny islands in the Pacific Ocean was alleged to be coveted.

I had specifically chosen my seat – 10F – based on numerous reviews from others who have done this.  Allegedly row 7 is better, but I was late to the game and had to settle for row 10.  We flew for five hours from Honolulu before making our first stop, a small island where several locals got off and a few locals got on.  The ongoing passengers remained on the flight for about an hour as the airport staff refueled the aircraft and safety measures were reviewed.  We had two more stops like this, one of them a private military island where photos were prohibited, before I got off at my stop.  In total, I sat in seat 10F for a little over 12 hours, going up and down, watching as locals got on and off, and taking in the stunning views from outside the window.

As I was getting off in Micronesia, the staff asked me to get into one of their wheelchairs, telling me that mine was inside the airport and I could get it there.  This is typical in many places, mostly due to customs regulations, so I abided.  As soon as I was down on the tarmac (there are no jetways in these little islands), the United Airlines General Manager advised me that my wheelchair was tagged inccorrectly and taken off at a previous stop.  She continued on to tell me that the next flight to the island would be in two days.

So here I was, 44 hours away from home, desperately needing to use the bathroom after 12 hours in seat 10F, with plans to leave the island before my wheelchair would even arrive, completely sleep deprived, and quite frankly, just devasted.  I lost it, right there on the tarmac in The Federated States of Micronesia.  My mind was spinning, immediately going into problem solving mode, as I was shuffled into the airport, through immigration and customs, and finally landing in the office of the General Manager.  I was sitting in a chair that didn’t have wheels to propel myself, so I was 100% at the mercy of someone pushing me.  I sat with my bag on my lap, just sobbing, feeling so trapped and scared.  What was I going to do?  How did I even know that it was at the other island airport they were referencing?  My freedom – my entire life – for all intents and purposes, was lost, somewhere in the Pacific.

The General Manager could say nothing else to me other than “I am so sorry.”  She said this as she helped me use the toilet, she said this as I asked how it could have happened, she said this as she typed up the report and put in my request for compensation from United Airlines.  A colleague of hers was assisting her and entered the room with a small hand mirror and a stack of tissues, handing it to me with eyes full of genuine sorrow.  I had been using a napkin found in my pocket from the airplane to dot my eyes, but once I looked in the hand mirror, I understood.  I was a wreck.

It took about two hours of paperwork, attempts to get a photo of the chair from the staff at the airport where my wheelchair was, and coordinating for one of the two wheelchairs that this airport had on site for me to take to the hotel that night.  I left with a wheelchair two sizes too big for me and completely non-functional for what I had planned to do.  The General Manager had called the hotel on the island – one of a few hotels there – and explained what happened.  They greeted me at the door and helped me to my room, making sure I could at least get to the toilet.  I hadn’t eaten for hours, so a young gentleman helped me across the parking lot to the nearest restaurant.

I laid down in bed that night, staring at the beast of a wheelchair sitting next to the bed.  A part of my soul was missing that night.  There is nothing that can replace my wheelchair.  It is a part of me.  I cried myself to sleep, so frustrated that this happened.

I woke up several times throughout the night as the electricity flickered on and off, triggering the air conditioning unit to loudly reset itself.  Each time, I would see that wheelchair by the bed and become so angry.  I knew that I wouldn’t get to see the island with that wheelchair, and I would be stuck in my room, attempting to connect with United for a resolution.

The next morning, an incredibly kind woman knocked on my door.  She asked so kindly if I needed coffee or water, knowing that I was essentially confined to my room.  She returned twice, each time full of graciousness and kindness.  I do not remember her name but her face will stick with me forever.

It rained the entire time I was in Micronesia.  And not just rained, abnormally rained, with strong winds and storms uncommon for that part of the world.  I suppose the sky was sending me a message that it was okay to be upset, that sometimes the world is upsetting.  As I was leaving the airport, one of the staff workers was telling me about the storm.  He somberly mentioned that there was a casualty in their community when a tree fell onto someone’s home.  Boom!  There it was, the reminder that my life could be worse.

When I arrived at the airport, there was an employee waiting to greet me.  He introduced himself and advised that he would be helping me that day.  From there on out, every single employee greeted me with a big smile and a “Hi Ms. Bruns, can I get anything for you?”  I am not kidding when I tell you that at least two dozen airport employees approached me.  The airport VIP Lounge had been opened for me – just me – and I got to sit and chat with the airport COO for a period of time.  He, too, mentioned the rain and commented that it was an initiation for my visiting the island, telling me that rain for first time visitors means we are being blessed.  He held my hand in his for a few seconds, asking if there was anything else he could do for me and wishing me well on my travels, somehow giving me some peace.

I saw the General Manager again, who’s name I will keep confidential for now, and she again apologized – “I am so sorry.”  She was able to get a picture of my wheelchair and presented it to me, reassuring me that it would be at my next stop and the ground crew would be waiting for me.  I reminded her, like I did during our first encounter, that it was not her fault and she did everything she could.  I asked her to sign one of the witness statements I needed for Guinness, and she delightfully did so, giving me a giant hug as we parted ways.

When I landed in the Marshall Islands, their General Manager was waiting with my chair at the bottom of the stairs.  She made sure I got through immigration faster than most, and apologized again, for something that was not her fault either.  I thanked her as we parted ways, knowing I would see her soon when I departed this island.

Through all of this, on the other side of the world, I was able to stay connected with my loved ones.  There isn’t a group more supportive of me and my adventures than my family.  Immediately, they all kicked into problem solving mode and the messages about how to navigate through the situation started – both from a practical standpoint and an emotional support standpoint.  I count my blessings every day that I was given such a fantastic support system.  Every.  Single.  One of them.

The Marshall Islands are filled with some of the most incredibly kind people.  The island atoll is a whopping 29 miles long, and there’s just one road.  You cannot get lost.  Everyone knows everyone (the population is roughly 30,000 people).  The President will buy coffee or lunch for whomever he is dining with that day.  His security guard wears a uniform and carries only handcuffs.  There are no weapons on the Marshall Islands, there’s no guns, the crime rate is low, mostly consisting of an occasional drunk who over does it.  The driver and hotel employee joked with me that the President’s security guard is ‘just a man in a Halloween costume.’  I couldn’t have felt safer.

As I was checking into my hotel, the employee asked if I would be in my room in about 25 minutes.  He commented that immigration needed to see me and would arrive in 25 minutes.  I calmly told him, “Yes, I will be in my room, but what do they need?”  I was befuddled.  They couldn’t be deporting me, could they?  I did everything right!

I checked into my room and got settled for the night, waiting on immigration to knock on my door, still on edge wondering what they needed so badly that they were going to drive to my hotel at 10 pm.  How did they even know where I was staying?  I pulled out my passport, not sure what I was going to do with it, but assuming they would need it.  Oddly, there wasn’t an entry stamp on any of the pages.  Now I was super skeptical.

Lo and behold, there was a knock on the door.  I answered, passport in hand.  The young gentleman said, “Okay, you are staying here.  How many nights are you staying?  We just needed to confirm that you were actually here.”  I responded back and he said that it was fine.  When I asked him about the missing entry stamp, he said, “No problem, we’ll just put one in when you leave.”  He smiled, I smiled, and that was it.  Seriously, talk about a relaxed group of people.

I slept so well that night, until about 4 am when jet lag decided to remind me that I wasn’t at home.  I got up to get a snack, hoping it would put me back to sleep.  But right there on the wall, staring straight at me, was a spider about the size of my palm.  We had a stare down for about 10 minutes as I ate a rice crispy treat, debating about what to do with this creature, knowing I couldn’t just leave him be.  Suddenly it hit me!  “Just dial 0,” like the staff had told me over and over when I checked in.  “Just dial 0 if you need anything.”  And so I did.  And a young man came to my room with the proper bug disposal tools.  And if you can’t believe this, he laughed at me when I showed him the spider.  None the less, he killed the spider and brought me a coffee.

In the airport at the Marshall Islands – yes, I have a lot of airport stories from this trip, because, well, I’ve spent a lot of time at airports – I met two incredible women that I would be remiss if I didn’t mention.  The gate agent had signed my Guinness witness statement and we were taking a photo together when two other Westerners saw the Guinness logo.  They squealed with excitement as we started talking about what I was doing.  Our flight ended up being delayed over two hours, so we had airport beers and got to know each other.  One of these fantastic women has been to 118 countries and, like me, is on a mission to see them all.  We connected instantly sharing travel stories from around the world.

The other woman works for the UN (United Nations) and is leading the office in the Micronesian Islands, heading up their five-year plan, and so on.  We exchanged contact information and she promised to send me the information for the woman working in Palau (my next stop) who has a history in disability advocacy.  We talked at length about disability advocacy, infrastructure around the world, cultural norms for those with disability, and on and on.  One of the most profound things she told me, though, was that if a plan or physical modification helps one person, then it is worth it.  She explained that this is how the UN views it, and she spoke so confidently about it.

I will be honest, as a disabled person, there are times where I learn to just accept that it ‘might cost too much to install a ramp for just a few people’ or ‘this country is poor, they can’t afford things like this.’  I justify it over and over, all the time, the reasons that the world isn’t accessible.  And here she was, factually and pointedly telling me that I was wrong.  Telling me that I deserved more.  She was telling me that what the rest of the world kept subliminally repeating to me was wrong and that I did deserve equal treatment.  Wow, was I intimidated.  I need her – more people like her – in my life.

I arrived into Palau around midnight, and as she promised, there was a message waiting for me.  I would spend the next day with her colleague exploring Palau.  It was raining the entire time – maybe another blessing for me? – but we had a lovely lunch and spent the afternoon at a local festival celebrating Palau’s independence.  I ‘wheelchair raced’ with a young girl from Palau, who was curious about my wheelchair.  She was so pure, so curious, so fun.  I couldn’t not teach her about what disability means, and that it can be fun!

The festival itself was so innocent.  There was live music, the people walked around the sandy grounds without shoes, no one stared at their phones, there were no security issues.  These were just people being.  I asked my new friend – who is from Australia – if the people in Palau were concerned with climate change.  “Of course they are, but there’s nothing they can.  They are not the people creating the issue.”  So, they build seawalls around the island, attempting to protect their land, but knowing that it is likely they will relocate in the next fifty years as their homelands become covered in water.

Late that evening, I finished the last leg of my United island-hopping flight.  Allegedly, the United flight does this path one direction only to turn around and do it the other direction when completed.  I’ve been told that the plane cannot be turned off or it might not restart, perhaps a rumor or perhaps the truth, but none the less, quite unsettling.  There is a mechanic that rides along on each leg of the trip, knowing that he is the only mechanic and there are no other airplane mechanics on any island.  At one point, while we were grounded, everyone on board, the floorboards in rows 8 and 9 were dismantled; some luggage in the belly had shifted and the only way to get it out was to tear the floorboard up from inside.  This is a flight where cargo takes priority over people (the flight is never full) because it is the only way for the locals to get food and necessities.  It really was a flight – an experience – of a lifetime.

At the end of my United journey, though, I was still angry about what had happened days earlier with my wheelchair.  The people on these islands were fantastic, some of the best, really.  I wanted so badly to ‘just let it go’ and let the kindness overpower the regulation.  But, at the end of the day, doing that wouldn’t change the process.  So, here I am, still working with United corporate.  I hope that the change can happen, that the airlines can start to consider regulations for disabled travelers so that they, too, can experience the world.  Because as my UN friend suggested, if it makes it better for one person, it’s worth it.

Through all of this, my family consistently told me that this was a growing opportunity for me, that I was becoming stronger and learning.  But I’m at a point right now where I don’t want to ‘grow’ or ‘get stronger’ when it comes to fighting for my rights.  I want the system to work, I want the rules and regulations to work.  I just want to be treated the same.

I’ve been pushing myself quite hard the last week or so, jumping from place to place.  I also am learning that that is who I am – I throw myself into whatever is at hand with full force and energy, embracing it to the max.  I’m learning to accept this about myself. So, I sit here and wonder, am I going through a mid-life crisis?  Perhaps.  But then, what’s so bad about that?

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2 responses to “My Mid-Life Crisis Brought Me to Micronesia (The Federated States of Micronesia, The Marshall Islands, & Palau)”

  1. Great post Renee!

    Like

  2. Great addition to your blog! I have a friend close to you (within 1000 miles) if you ever need anything. Not that you will. Keep posting photos of your trip please. We all live vicariously through you!

    Like

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