© Copyright 2014 - 2019 The Unsung World | Alexandra Ola Walsh | All Rights Reserved. 

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My story

THE EARLY YEARS

I was born and raised in South East London to a Polish mother and English father. My parents divorced when I was a toddler and my mum, being a full-time nurse, enlisted the support of Polish relatives to care for me and my older siblings while she worked. Every summer mum would pack up the car and drive us to Poland for the 6-week holidays and Easter breaks. When I turned 13, I was considered old enough to make the journey alone by coach.

Off I went with several oversized suitcases stuffed with second-hand clothes and tins of Quality Street (gifts for family and friends). I boarded the ferry, crossed over to Holland and spent the next 28 hours travelling across Europe. The drive was excruciatingly long and border control along the Eastern bloc (where inspecting passports with the barrel of a gun was a thing), intimidating to say the least.

However, as I arrived in Warsaw, there on the station platform waving me in were my Polish family. Aunties embraced and kissed me as I stepped off the bus. My bear of an uncle took me in a headlock, pinched my cheek (every time), and spun me round in the air. I was held, fussed over, loved.

Summers were spent with cousins swimming in lakes surrounded by pine forest, fishing, foraging for mushrooms, blueberries and fresh mint, camping and cooking sausages on sticks over big open fires. Butter beans and seeds from freshly picked sunflowers were my treat.

I was always excited about going back home to England. I missed the language, the food, my bed, my dog and all my home comforts. But going back was never easy. Greeting me on my return were grey streets, noise and an unpredictable, volatile home.

FINDING MY WAY

With my brother and sister no longer at home, I was pretty much left to my own devices, manoeuvring my way through challenging teenage years. Following a short spell of depression and driven by the need for independence, I left home for university. I spent 3 amazing years studying, partying, and working as crew and bar support for a boat company in Surrey. After graduating I relocated back to London and started work as an events and marketing officer, earning enough money to support myself and enjoy my youth.


The idea of becoming a ‘professional’ was exciting. I was driven and ambitious, keen to learn. I very quickly made my way up the career ladder but I got to a point where I started to wonder what was waiting for me at the other end. Another promotion, a house, kids, holidays. All perfectly reasonable things to aim for but none of them excited me. The work itself was no longer as fulfilling as it had once been. The more senior I became, the more exposed to the politics and stress that came from working in middle management for a large organisation.

I looked back and saw the carefree, ambitious, adventurous young me. The me that used to paint, take photos, climb trees, run barefoot through the woods and swim in lakes. Where did she go? I had this feeling that if I carried on the path I was on, I might lose that side of myself altogether.

I was 28 when I met my husband Seamus. He had left New Zealand to live and work in London and was planning a 6-month solo trip to South and Central America. With Europe at his feet he was always on a plane, exploring other cultures and when he wasn't travelling, he was out on his bike with friends or camping at festivals. Everything about his lifestyle and adventurous spirit appealed to me. Seamus reminded me that life was to be lived.


YOU DON’T CHOOSE A LIFE, YOU LIVE ONE

 

The time came for him to embark on his big South American adventure. I admit, the idea of him being away for so long was daunting, especially so soon into the relationship. I was worried that with distance and time, we might grow apart, so I decided to join him in Costa Rica for 3 weeks to test the waters. I was pretty scared about going out there alone. 3 months had passed; what if we didn't feel the same way about each other? But my curiosity about long-term adventure travel, outweighed any reservations I had.

Picking up from where we left off was easy, like we’d never been apart. The adventure, more remarkable than I had imagined. Hiking through tropical jungle, boating along alligator and snake infested rivers, swimming in the big blue of the Caribbean. This was one of the best trips of my life!  A new continent, a new love, the possibility of living life differently.

Over time I wondered whether long-term travel was possible for someone like me? I'd suffered from anxiety and depression so would it be a step outside my comfort zone? Would I even enjoy it? 

 

I was hitting 30 and felt like it was all a bit too late. I’d have to start again but I didn’t know who I wanted to be or what I wanted to do. I’d worked so hard to get to where I was and the money was really good. But I wasn’t happy – of that I was certain. I tried to find work in other industries, but it just wasn’t happening. I could stay put and wait for the answers to come along or take the opportunity to travel and embark on a life changing adventure. 

The decision to leave wasn’t easy but the need to do it felt urgent. So I saved, planned and left it all behind.

THE GREAT ESCAPE

 

My first world trip. I bought a new camera, built a website, blogged and spent 9 months road tripping with Seamus through South America, New Zealand, Indonesia and Japan.

 

We moved at our own pace and planned the whole route to suit us. We smoked cigars and drank rum with farmers in Cuba, danced with monks in Mexico, journeyed through the Amazon in a little boat, lay on the roof of an observatory in the Colombian desert and gazed at the Milky Way. We hiked the indigenous paths of Ecuador, cycled down one of the world’s highest, active volcanoes and swam with penguins in the Galapagos. We drove an old van across New Zealand and stayed in a Buddhist temple in Japan, before returning to the UK. 

I had an unbelievable time. Stepping out of the safety of my day-to-day routine and navigating through unexpected situations helped me to grow in confidence and conquer my anxieties. This was a hugely transformative experience.

STARTING AGAIN

 

My plan was to find a flat and get a temping job. After that I assumed life would just fall into place. I wasn’t expecting it to be so hard. Without an employer reference I couldn’t rent a flat and even a 13-week temp job required a 3-step interview process. I had to find a guarantor and part with every penny I had to secure a property, and with rent and bills looming, I couldn't afford to wait for interviews. 

So I went door to door in my local neighbourhood, dropping my CV off at pubs, cafes, shops, you name it. Eventually I was lucky enough to find an office job, not far from where I lived. It paid the bills and allowed me to save, while I figured things out. 

 

I dreamt of a life just outside of London - Brighton, maybe. Doing something with photography, maybe travel again. I loved London, it was my home but Brighton was smaller, more relaxed, a creative hub, and on its doorstep the South Downs, the Sea. It seemed like the perfect compromise – busy enough but surrounded by nature and the promise of adventure. I still wasn’t clear how I wanted life to pan out but a move to Brighton felt like a step towards the old me; the me I had been so frightened of losing.

However, anxiety had started manifesting itself silently in the background. Unresolved issues from my past, combined with the uncertainty and worry over my future brought everything to a head, and I became chronically ill. Everything changed.

“HARDSHIPS OFTEN PREPARE ORDINARY PEOPLE FOR AN EXTRAORDINARY DESTINY” - C.S. LEWIS -

I remember the day it happened. Walking down the road with shopping bags full of fruit and veg, congratulating myself on how healthy I was. I suddenly felt the familiar tingle in my throat signifying an oncoming cold. 'Typical!' I thought. A week later no sign of a cold but my head felt the weight of a bowling ball. Swollen, throbbing. The symptoms got progressively worse and were constant, 24/7. Pulsating temples, erratic heartbeat, swollen glands, vomiting, loss of balance, sight and a heightened sensitivity to any kind of sound. After a month I was terrified it was something serious. My symptoms were too complex to officially diagnose so I went for eye tests to check for tumours, MRI scans and blood tests. "Good news" the doctor said cheerfully, "everything's come back clear." I felt as though I'd been punched in the stomach, I bent over and sobbed. "Then how can I fix it? What's wrong with me?" 

After 4 months I decided to go the expensive holistic route and have medical acupuncture. My symptoms started to ease, and I had a few clear days. At 8 months a neurologist formerly diagnosed me with chronic migraine and told me I might never feel normal again. He prescribed me some drugs that my own doctor advised against, given my history of depression and anxiety, and sent me on my way.

I left the hospital feeling angry and alone but determined. I could either let my condition consume me or try and lift myself out of it as much as I could. I took control.

ESCAPE TO EMBRACE

I continued with the acupuncture and herbal medicine and visited an osteopath and a psychotherapist. I meditated and slept. It took all my energy just to get out of bed and go to work every morning. I was grateful that I could do even that and I still managed social activities every now and then. I started practising gratitude and over time became more open to what was around me.

I found that the greatest opportunities presented themselves when I took the time to focus on what I already had - what I was grateful for.  Surrey on my doorstep. A forest, a river, a path. I bought a beautiful bicycle (excellent sitting down exercise) and had my first micro adventure. I cycled 30 km along the Thames path to Hampton Court Palace, followed by a wild swim in the river. When I wasn't strong enough to do anything physical, I switched on the fairy lights, snuggled down under the duvet with a book, and lost myself in someone else’s adventure.

I cast the net wider and looked for inspiration on the web. A year prior to the illness I heard an inspirational talk from adventurer, Dave Cornthwaite. Dave is the founder of a group called The Yes Tribe, a community who inspire people to find adventure in the every day. I joined the group on Facebook and found people like me. People who had come from a difficult place, who wanted to redesign their lives for the better and Say Yes More.

I didn't feel so alone anymore, and no longer felt like my condition defined me. If anything, my condition became my driving force. 

FROM EMBRACING TO GIVING BACK

 

After a year, my migraines stabilised and I became stronger. I attended the Yes Tribe’s annual festival - a weekend of talks, workshops and inspirational lectures. The founder of the charity Help Refugees gave an emotional account of how she started the charity and the work that still needed to be done in Calais. Despite the clearing of the refugee camp in 2016 more than 1,500 people still lived in the forests in Northern France, around 200 of which, unaccompanied children.

That night I went to sleep in my tent. The day had been warm – t-shirt weather, unusual for October. I’d only ever camped in the summer months and after a few hours of sleep I woke up. The temperature had dropped to 2 degrees and I had a season 1 sleeping bag covering me. I wasn’t even in it.

Every muscle fibre in my body felt twisted and in pain, my spine convulsed, uncontrollably every few seconds.  I'd never felt my entire spine do anything before. My temples throbbed and I became dizzy with thoughts and fear of all these new, terrifying sensations. I struggled to breathe and an aggressive migraine flared and steady panic attack set in.

 

The next day, recovering from the migraine, cold and anxiety, I sat on the grass, overcome with emotion and cried. I thought of the refugee families and children, sleeping in the forest. I had never experienced 'real' cold before, and it was probably just a fraction of what these people endured daily. I couldn’t get the image of the children out of my head; no parents to reassure or comfort them. No shelter. 

I had an overwhelming urge to help, to give. I composed myself and as I stood up, all the answers regarding what I wanted to do with my life just came spinning into focus.

Brighton, a future with photography, travel and adventure was back on the table but with a renewed focus.

"WE RISE BY LIFTING OTHERS" - ROBERT G. INGERSOL -

 

We are witnessing a humanitarian crisis on a scale unlike any seen in recent history. More than 68 million people around the world have been displaced from their homes, battered by the chaos of war and natural disaster.


As one of the privileged few I feel a responsibility to act, and like my Tribe, do some much needed giving. 

I’m building a life for myself where fundraising and conservation work take centre stage, and what better way for me to engage that work than through travel, adventure and photography! 

It’s me, my camera and a world of infinite outdoor adventures. My next expedition will start in June 2020. It will be an epic, challenge-based adventure across Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia, where I will be fundraising for the charity Help Refugees.


It will be the first of many challenge-based adventures. I may not know where this will lead me but I’m not fussed about that. I have one life and I’m going to live it. It’s as simple as that, and if I can make a difference to at least one person’s life along the way, well that’s better than any promotion I was destined for.

I still have my day job and I do want a house, a family, stability. But I also want to build a life that I don't need a holiday from. I want to be that girl again, the girl running barefoot and free in Poland all those years ago.

 

Read more about my current expeditions and follow my adventure via my Expeditions page.

 

For advice on how you can start your own life adventure, head to my Advice page.

Happy Adventure Making!