A trip to Peru was the challenge I needed after recovering from cancer

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When I first noticed a lump above my right collarbone and a pain in my ear in 2019, I went for a CT scan and was told everything was fine. I was given some antibiotics and sent home. I went back to the same doctor a few times but was always dismissed.

I didn’t want to offend anyone, but I knew something was wrong. So, I went for a second opinion. It was then that they discovered a golf ball-sized tumour and took a biopsy. I was diagnosed with stage two Hodgkin’s Lymphoma on my birthday in June, three months after my first visit to the doctors.

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Group travel was not something I’d ever really thought about

After my treatment ended, I was riddled with anxiety. I had all these appointments, was trying to work and run my physical therapy business – and my marriage was struggling. Then, all of a sudden, the doctors said “Okay, you’re done.” It feels very much like you’re thrown back out into the world. I had my freedom but then there’s all this aftermath. My body wasn’t the same, I’d put on weight, I didn’t have my hair, chemotherapy had caused my skin to scar and I was exhausted. I felt in a very vulnerable place.

I then separated from my partner. I just started to get back on my feet when Covid hit in March 2020. I had always wanted to travel, but having worked for big corporations with limited holiday for years, I had never been properly able to. Now I had my own practice, I thought ‘Why not?’ Group travel was not something I’d ever really thought about, but I started looking into it after my break up and during the pandemic.

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We’d all joined the trip for different reasons

I was drawn to it for a couple of reasons. Firstly, lots of my friends can’t travel because they have families or work commitments. I’m one of the few divorced or single people in my age bracket. Secondly, one of my favourite parts of working for big companies was networking and meeting people.

I’ve previously been on holidays to Greece, Costa Rica, the Caribbean and Mexico. I liked beach trips where I could lounge by the pool or ocean and drink. But that didn’t seem like fun to me anymore. Instead, I wanted to experience different cultures, get to know other people, see how others live and explore more. So, I booked onto Flash Pack’s Peru trip in June, 2022.

I flew to Lima a day early to give my body chance to rest after the journey. The trip started the next day when we explored the capital, did some sightseeing and had a meal. We all introduced ourselves and shared our stories as to why we were there. We’d all joined the trip for different reasons.

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The hotel only had three walls – the fourth was the Amazon

After Lima, we headed to the Amazon for a couple of days. We took a little boat ride and saw different animals in a lake. We explored botanical gardens and saw which plants Amazonian locals used as medicine, such as their anesthetic. It was really interesting, especially from a holistic perspective. We also stayed in an amazing hotel, which only had three walls – the fourth was the Amazon. It was awesome.

A couple of days before we reached the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, we took a bus to the Sacred Valley, staying in another beautiful hotel. We did a 15-mile bike ride that was semi-downhill, but still tough. We had breaks here and there. Everyone was chugging water; whenever someone needed a wee we had to stop on the side of the road as there was nowhere else to go.

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People who saw me on their way up, high-fived me on the way back down

The itinerary said we’d go to Machu Picchu and explore. It was more a trek due to the altitude and so I wasn’t completely prepared. I had done some hiking in Colorado in the past so I knew my lung capacity was okay, although my chemo treatment had left me with shortness of breath and difficulty with some activities. Despite my initial concerns, everyone in the group went at their own pace. I was the very last one and Dennis, our Pack Leader from Cusco, waited the whole route with me. 

It took me about two hours to get up there, while somebody in our group did it in 45 minutes. It was hard, but I knew it was going to be something that I would be very proud of – and that I was going to complete. On the route, I talked to so many people going up and down. People who saw me on their way up, high-fived me on the way back. The group were super supportive, too.

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We took a really fun train called the Vistadome

On the way back to Cusco, we took a really fun train called the Vistadome. There were huge panoramic windows, food, drink and a band – it was fun. After achieving such a high together, the group were dying with laughter. My legs were sore and like jelly – I could hardly walk after the cycle and hike – but there was still some dancing.

A lady put her hand to my shoulder and said “It’s your turn.” So, I got shoved towards the floor. The group were singing “get low”. The music was playing and I couldn’t get back up. They had to pull me. It was so funny.

The next day was my birthday and we did a chocolate-making class and explored Cusco. The group surprised me with a cake in a bar of about 200 people who all sang ‘Happy Birthday’. Having a local guide like Dennis was great and meant we felt a little more connected to the community because he lived there.

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My goals in life have now completely changed

We all laughed so hard on the trip. I was really stressed beforehand, but going made me realise I have a lot to be thankful for. I’ll definitely do another. In fact, I’ve decided that every year on my birthday, I want to do a trip to celebrate my new life. I’d love to visit all seven continents. Africa or Southeast Asia are next…

I went in to cancer as one person and came out another – my goals in life have completely changed. They are less about living for what I think other people want me to do and more for doing what makes me happy.

I actually think going on an adventure after such a monumental life change is crucial. It takes you out of your environment and reminds you what life is like again. There’s so much that comes from a trip beyond just the travel experience. It’s about connecting with complete strangers, seeing how other people live, trying different foods, embracing different sites and remembering to appreciate it all. It really forces you to be in the moment – and I definitely was. 

Mary Grimberg is a physical therapist from Austin, Texas who’s traveled with Flash Pack to Peru.

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveler like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.

Images: Mary Grimberg

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