Life’s challenges come in many forms. Be that the loss of a loved one, rejection in the world of work or illness. When they do come along, we’re often told to suppress feelings of grief, anxiety, frustration or helplessness. Ideally, as quickly as possible. Or, alternatively, stay put and wallow.
But what if you didn’t? What if instead of stiffening that upper lip, you embraced those feelings and harnessed them as a force for positive change? Here, we speak to three inspiring everyday adventurers to understand how they used so-called negative emotions to steer them towards a position of strength.
Mya-Rose Craig is one of the most impressive 19 year olds you’re ever likely to meet. The British-Bangladeshi teenager and keen ornithologist set up the Birdgirl blog when she was 11 – detailing her love of birds.
It’s since had six millions hits, she’s campaigned alongside Greta Thunberg, protested in the Arctic with Greenpeace and championed the cause for improved diversity in her field via her charity Black2Nature. Oh, and she’s also met David Attenborough, been awarded an honourary doctorate by Bristol university and achieved her goal to become the first person to see half the world’s birds by the time she was 17.
But this stratospheric success wasn’t without its challenges. Her mum had long suffered from mental health issues and was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder in 2010. As anyone knows who’s been ill themselves, or supported a family member or friend through illness, it can bring feelings of helplessness fluttering to the surface. But instead of allowing them to take hold, Mya’s parents retired and the family took off on adventures around the world together.
After my mum became ill, we needed to be outdoors and separate from everything – that was the appeal of travel
“We’d always used birds and birdwatching to keep us together as a family,” Mya says. “After my mum became really unwell, we made the decision that what we needed was to be outdoors and to be very separate from everything going on – that was the appeal of travelling,” she says.
“The process of travelling to another country and completely immersing ourselves in the wildlife – often not having any internet – it was incredibly helpful for us. Until the pandemic, that was still something we were doing every year. Through really quite difficult patches, it’s what kept us together.”
A favourite trip saw the family travel to South America for six months – ticking off Colombia and Peru. Mya has now written a Birdgirl book about her experience which details her family’s journey from seismic shocks through to one-step-at-a-time stability.
We all know the frustration that comes with feeling stuck. Stuck in a job that doesn’t fulfil us. Stuck in a relationship that’s no good. Stuck on the relentless hamster-wheel of life.
Back in 2015, Lauren Hill was a full-time mum whose family life looked chocolate-box happy on the outside. But in reality, she was just trying to keep her head above water with two children under three, a hectic schedule of playdates and baby groups, a fledgling refugee-support charity to set up and 100% of the domestic load, due to her husband’s full-time IT job that demanded long hours. “To top it all off, we had a new dog – and puppy training was pushing me to the edge of sanity,” she says now.
“I was frustrated on so many levels. Frustrated with being constantly tired, frustrated at not being a good enough parent, frustrated with the mundanity of endless housework, frustrated that my husband’s job was so consuming, and most of all, frustrated that I couldn’t see any change to this trajectory for the next 10-plus years. We were on the conveyor belt of adult-life-with-kids and I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay on it”.
With no sailing experience, we quietly started a five-year plan to learn to sail
Looking for a way out, her husband Tom started researching hobbies they could take on as a family – which led them to sailing and YouTube channels that introduced the Hills to a life on water.
“With no sailing experience, we quietly started a five-year plan to learn to sail, gain experience, save for, buy and upgrade an offshore sailing boat, purge our life of the countless stuff we’d accumulated, rent out our house and move aboard. We did this while working full time and home-educating the kids”.
They left the UK in 2020 on their trusty boat Gambler and spent a year sailing around the Mediterranean, detailing their adventures of traveling as a family by boat. They then crossed the Atlantic in 2022 and are now sailing around the Caribbean.
“We hope to continue sailing for as long as we can,” Lauren says. “Next stop: Central America to practice our Spanish.” But that’s not all: they’ve also schooled their kids on passing marine life, ancient Roman civilisation in Pompeii, astronomy on starry-night passages and the slave trade while crossing the Atlantic – things you won’t typically find in a school curriculum. And all because they refused to let frustration get the better of them and instead used it as a powerful force for positive change.
Losing someone is often seen as a time to stop, stand still and take stock. That old adage about never making big-life decisions after a major event. But what if you ignored that and did what you felt was right for you? Disproving the notion that travel is running away, journalist and author Helen Ochyra decided to take flight after the sudden loss of her mother.
“My mum died unexpectedly in 2016, leaving me parentless and heartbroken. The grief shocked me with its intensity. Life is short, I realised, and so there was no better time than right now to take the trip I had always wanted to.”
Instead of sitting around at home and waiting for the grief to subside Helen upped sticks and went to Scotland for three months, alone and self guided, eventually writing a book about her experience, Scotland Beyond the Bagpipes.
I knew Scotland’s landscape could heal me – dwarfing even the largest internal monster
“I’d always found Scotland warm and welcoming and I knew that there was something there that could heal me. It was partly the people – who love their country with a passion and are always keen to share advice on their favorite remote beach or whisky. But it was primarily the landscape: so timeless and boundless that it can dwarf even the largest internal monster.”
Helen spent her time hiking to windswept beaches and summiting serious peaks, including Schiehallion in Perthshire.
“Like my grief, it had seemed insurmountable, had tricked me into feeling powerless, and yet here I was, on top of a mountain, still standing. In that moment, I knew I was going to be ok.”
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