The Importance of Self-Care: A Cautionary Travel Tale

This guest post is written by Nora Livingstone, a co-founder of Animal Experience International. AEI is a Canadian social enterprise that helps people travel around the world and volunteer with animals. She is a feminist who likes riding bikes in mountains as much as she likes sipping soy lattes in cities.  Her secret talent is being able to fall asleep anywhere: yurts in Mongolia, wadis in Oman, mountain summits in Italy, beaches in Sierra Leone and boats in Guatemala- napping ability is strong in this one. You can find AEI on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

When I left China in 2008, I was dealing with very severe emotional burn out and compassion fatigue. Instead of taking time for myself to recharge, I went deeper and deeper into the projects I was involved with. Instead of giving myself enough time to sleep or eat or even emotionally process things- I just kept on going.

Hoping I could be everything to everyone, I tried to solve everyone’s problems expect my own. I didn’t realize how mentally unstable I had become.

As I packed up my bags to go to Hong Kong, I checked my bank account online and found it was a little bit lower then I had expected. Okay, it was a lot lower. I asked my hostel manager to write out in Mandarin: Domestic Airport: Nanyuan. I didn’t want any confusion since Mandarin was my weakest language to date and I didn’t want to have to act out an air plane taking off. I gave my paper to the cab driver and asked if it was okay. He read it and smiled. I had looked at the domestic airport website, so I knew it was only about 9km away. I only had 100 RMB left in my wallet, but I knew it would be enough to get there since I had also checked the Beijing Taxi website and was informed the trip would cost 20 RMB. We drove and drove and drove. It was pretty clear that one of three things was happening. Either we were going to the wrong airport, my cab driver was trying to rip me off or an international body had changed how long a kilometre actually was and I hadn’t been informed. I checked the taxi metre and noticed I was quickly running out of money. I busted out the Mandarin that I thought I knew and mixed it with the English I hoped he knew: “Airport? Nanyuan? Domestic? Shenzhen (where I would by flying to) Where? Any English? NOT international! NO! STOP. STOP THE CAR. STOP!!!”

As we got further and further away from the Beijing city centre I became more panicky. I was running out of money to pay my fare; I was running out of options to get back to the airport I needed AND I was running out of time to check in and get on my other flight. I shouted everything and anything that I could think of so he could figure out that we were not going the right way and I needed to be somewhere else. His laughing continued while my heart rate increased.

We finally made it to the airport and the taxi driver asked me for most of my money- essentially stranding me at the wrong airport. My mind was racing to figure out what would happen next – obviously the only conclusion was that the airport would be my new forever home.

I went into the terminal and tried to find an ATM. It cost me 80 RMB to get to the airport. I would need another 80 plus another 20 to get to the airport I needed. I checked my watch- 2 hours. It was manageable, but it was going to take some serious good luck. I found an ATM only to find out my card was “unreadable”. I played this game 7 more times until I found a machine that accepted my card. I was only allowed to take out 100RMB. Not a lot but enough to get me to the airport. I ran outside and found a cab, the adrenaline pumping. I am Nora Livingstone! I don’t give up! I am going to fight and I am going to make this work!! I gave myself little pep talks as I ran around. “I need to go to …… here” I pointed to the airport name in my journal. The cab driver looked at me and smiled “It is very far.” I asked how much it would be and that’s when I suffered what I would call a nuclear melt-down. “300RMB” he giggled.

“WHAT? It should only be 100!!” I snapped at him in Mandarin. He told me again how far it was and laughed as he made eye contact with the cab drivers around him. Someone gave him a high five and I couldn’t handle it anymore. “I come over here to volunteer and to help. I don’t have time to be ripped off!!” I threw my journal across the airport road, I threw my wallet in the opposite direction, I threw my carry-on bag down and drop kicked it into a crowd of other bags. I threw my big bag on to the ground and kicked over a garbage can. I whipped out my cell phone to call a Chinese/Canadian friend and tell her the world was ending and I started bawling.

As the temper tantrum of the century unfolded, a fancy diplomatic car pulled up and a bunch of suits emptied out. I can only assume they watched me spiral into insanity because at the end of it all a very nice man came up to me and asked what happened. I re-accounted the story to him and felt absurd because really, what was happening was not THAT BAD. I knew as soon as the words left my mouth that my ‘being everything for everyone” was taking its toll and my compassion fatigue had made me a total monster. The man then to my shock handed me 300RMB, motioned his driver to come over and collect the items I had ‘dropped’ and place them in his car.

“Thank you so much,” was all I could say. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” was all that came out of my mouth. These amazingly kind and very generous people saved my sanity and I couldn’t say anything but that. I was in more shock than I realized. My mind was completely blank. I could not even string together a decent sentence of thanks. I collected my bags and tried to smile at them as I drove away in their very fancy, very diplomatic and very fast car.

I now had an hour and a half until my plane was due to take off and we had to go through Beijing at rush hour. I told the driver how much time we had and instead of getting stressed, he took it as a personal challenge. The maximum speed that I saw him hit was 180km and most of that driving was on the shoulder- whizzing around every vehicle in sight (including police cars). We got to the airport with 45 minutes to spare. After paying and thanking the driver I ran inside to a huge line. The computers were down and the check in was “a little” delayed.

Therefore, I had made it 1 hour early – exactly on time according to the domestic rules that tell you to show up 1 hour before departure!

Would I have gone to the wrong airport if I wasn’t suffering from compassion fatigue? Yes. Would I have kicked over a garbage can in a country where my personal rights are not thought of in the same way as in Canada? No. No I wouldn’t have, because that’s a terrible, irrational judgement call and could have landed me in a lot of trouble. I know now that I need to take care of myself. I need to take time off, I need to cry some things out and I need to deal with my emotions, because if I don’t- the flood gates open and my personal belongings get thrown around an airport in China. Self-care is important. Learn from my mistakes and take time to take care of yourself or your “self” will take over and lead you down an embarrassing and potentially dangerous road.

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