THE REAL STORY BEHIND OUR TRAVELS
Hi! My name is Gina and I am an avid traveler and escape artist! I have been in love with travel all my life! Here is the real story behind my travel obsession – I hope you enjoy it!
I was born with a very rare bone disease called Olliers-Mafucci which only about 200 people in the world have. It affects the growth in my right leg and left arm – leaving them up to 12 inches shorter than the other side and makes many of the bones throughout my body twisted and very fragile since they are covered with benign and potentially malignant tumors. I spent all of my childhood in and out of hospitals to lengthen my leg and fix other ailments associated with my disease. I would spend months and sometimes a year recovering from numerous surgeries (a total of over 35 surgeries to date), unable to walk and confined to a hospital bed or stuck at home. During these times, I would feel trapped and wanted to be like the other kids who got to run and play outside. Since I couldn’t physically run and play, my imagination would take me places and soon I was escaping on imaginary adventures that sparked my love for travel.
When I was about 10, my doctor told me that with my disease, I had a very high chance of having bone cancer by the time I was 40. At that moment, the clock began ticking in my head and I was on a mission to enjoy my life while I still could!
Not only was I having to deal with the physical pain of my surgeries, the stress of knowing that cancer was looming, and the feeling of being trapped and unable to escape, I also had to deal with the emotional pain of looking very different from everyone else. I would get teased and bullied at school for my strange shoe with a 6 inch “lift” to help me walk and for my short and curved “baby arm.” I would be stared at by strangers, young and old, who would often make faces of disgust as they looked at my scarred and “different” body. Also, due to not being able to exercise at all, I was battling chronic weight issues – gaining over 40 pounds from ages 11-13 and feeling terrible about the way I looked. And through all of this, I would be surrounded by everyone, at school and at home, who I thought was perfect and beautiful.
In those darkest of times, I would escape from my world by dreaming of far away places and adventures I would love to take. I became obsessed with ancient history and archaeology and dreamed of one day excavating in Egypt, Greece, or Rome and finding a treasured artifact or undiscovered pharaoh’s tomb. I would craft my visions of the future even down to the smallest details and would feel like I was actually there, experiencing these adventures. I would write stories about my future life of exploration, read history books with a passion, and watch as many travel documentaries as I could. These dreams sparked my spirit and helped me get through many very difficult years.
But probably my greatest epiphany happened after I saw “Raider’s of the Lost Ark” at 13 years old. It felt as if this movie was speaking directly to me! It was like the heavens opened up and a choir of angels began singing while the sun shined brighter than ever before. There was no doubt in my mind that I had found my calling in life – to be an explorer, finding the greatest treasures the earth had to offer and meeting the most incredible people along the way. A spark lit up inside me like never before and I was determined to follow my dream and EXPLORE THE WORLD!
From that moment on, my life became centered around all that the world had to offer and planning my imminent escape into it! I began focusing on the health of my body and lost all the extra weight I had gained. I studied like crazy and learned everything I could about the ancient world and all the cities and sights I would one day visit. This passion kept me ALIVE and EXCITED about life and helped me look past all my current circumstances and look toward my future. My confidence soared and my life became exciting and full of surprises.
In university, I met my husband and we immediately bonded over our love for travel and our dreams of escaping our normal lives and traveling the world. After we were married 5 years later, we bought one way tickets to Europe and went on a year-long honeymoon exploring 8 countries in 4 months and then settling in Barcelona, Spain.
We scraped by on as little as $20 per day so that we could stay abroad as long as we could. When our money finally ran out, we returned to California with a new goal of living and working in Europe. After one year of working in San Francisco, my husband was hired to work for an IT company in Amsterdam, and off we went!
Two years later, our daughter Kaitlin was born and we felt guilty for having the only grandchild in both our families so far away. So, even though we had the most amazing life and jobs in Amsterdam, we moved back to Los Angeles to be with our families.
Well, after only being back for 3 weeks and just settling into our new apartment in my hometown, something so devastating and frightening happened to me, something that left me questioning humanity but gave me no doubt that I was being protected by something greater than myself. After this event, I no longer felt safe in our home, so we moved in with my parents so I could slowly piece myself back together. After 8 long months, my husband was offered a job in Europe and we practically sprinted for the border, ready to go back to where I loved and felt safe. Soon we were living in Germany, then France, and then back in Germany.
When our daughter, Cassidy was ready to be born, we returned to Los Angeles again to “settle down” – because that’s what people do when they have 2 kids, right? Well, this time we made it almost 2 years, but when my husband got offered a job in Rome, Italy, I immediately began packing up our home and within 3 weeks, we had moved our family to the Eternal City – a lifelong dream of mine!!
We spent 4 incredible years in Rome, then moved to Paris for 6 months, and then to Venice, Italy where we spent 7 years. During our second year in Venice, our son Trevor was born and we were enjoying the benefits of finally getting our Italian citizenship and melting into Italian life.
When Trevor was one year old and I was 40, my dad, who had always been my rock, died of lung cancer, and 10 days later, I got the news I had expected, but hoped would never come – I had bone cancer in my left shoulder blade. I hadn’t even had time to process the death of my dad and now I had to deal with my own cancer and all its implications. Yes, you can say that this was one of the most difficult times in my life.
I had to have my entire shoulder and part of my collar bone removed and was virtually unable to use my left arm. The top of my arm was basically sewn onto what was left of my collar bone, which meant that my already short and curved arm was even shorter and more disfigured! And because the new attached area was so delicate, I wasn’t unable to lift anything heavy on my right arm either! No more lifting or carrying my 1 year old son, doing everyday chores, normal beauty maintenance (like putting my hair into a ponytail), carrying heavy bags on my adventures, or a hundred other things we all take for granted!
Needless to say, I was overcome with grief and the “Why Me?” that had overwhelmed me as a child came back in full force. My greatest passion (besides my family, of course!) was traveling and how was I supposed to go on these grand adventures with 3 kids without using my arms to lift anything heavy?
Also, my husband had to give up a great job in London (where he would be gone all week) and take a much lower paying job to work from home and help take care of the kids. Living in Venice, Italy where there are no cars and bridges are everywhere with a baby in a stroller is VERY difficult, and now here I was unable to use my arm! My husband had to do everything – work, kids, shopping, and emotional management – all with the added stress of barely scraping by financially.
Because my husband and I were drowning in immense stress and negativity and were carrying the emotional baggage from all the past events and situations we never learned to deal with, our marriage began to unravel. Soon everything else began to fall apart. Todd’s work opportunities began to dry up, soon we couldn’t pay our rent and had to ask family members to help us survive financially, and it seemed like every bad habit and influence could sense the inevitable destruction of our family and wanted to get in on the game. This devastating time in our family’s history lasted for 2 long years, the longest years of my life.
Miraculously, our marriage survived, work began to thrive again for Todd, and little by little things got better. I was able deal with my new reality and climb out of the hole I had been living in and we began rebuilding our marriage and lives with a stronger foundation than they had before. We took the time to learn new and invaluable life, marriage, and parenting skills that were truly life-changing.
Life became bright again and full of possibilities. I learned to live only using one arm and realized that I could still do quite a lot thanks to my little helpers who I had raised as travelers. Soon the adventures resumed and we were enjoying the amazing sights in and around Italy.
However, now that I had become a cancer survivor, my passion to enjoy my life multiplied by a million! I wanted to do MORE while I still had the chance! Living in Italy was incredible, but what about all the other countries and people I had yet to see and meet? I became restless and wanted to escape and explore the world – ALL OF IT!
So, in 2013 we packed up all of our life into a storage unit and embarked on an indefinite journey around the world! Since our journey began 6 years ago, we have visited over 90 countries on 6 continents and we are just getting started!
We have learned so much from the world and our kids are having the best education possible – having the world as their classroom and all the people we meet as their teachers! We have found our passion for helping those in need and now volunteer regularly with refugees. I have been blessed with sharing my love of life and my compassion for those who are struggling – realizing that my struggles were a great gift – opening my eyes and heart to the less fortunate around the world. And… I am living my life-long dream of exploring the world!
I am so grateful that my parents and I didn’t listen to the doctors and other cynics who said I would never be able to live a normal life or have kids or do many other incredible things I have done in my life. I realize that my disability has actually become my ABILITY – creating the strength and perseverance that I may have never had if I had been born without it.
Although I still struggle daily with over 50 tumors covering my body, limited use of my left arm, fluctuating energy levels, and having to be extra cautious because of my fragile bones, I have learned new ways to send love and healing to my body and focus on appreciating all of its wonders, which has transformed it completely! I now live virtually pain free and take no medications (which is crazy awesome because I had been living on major painkillers my entire life!). I have become so inspired by my body, filled with so much gratitude for the adventures it has taken me on and all the adventures I have yet to take as we continue to travel full-time around the globe and reach for my lifetime goal of visiting at least 150 countries.
Now, as I look back on my life, I realize that I had to climb to the summit of life’s tallest and most difficult mountains in order to truly grasp the meaning and power of dreams, perseverance, patience, presence, forgiveness, and self love. I am so thankful for all the challenging experiences I have faced because they made me who I am today and showed me, my children, and everyone who hears my story that we are all strong enough to overcome life’s most harrowing challenges if we believe in ourselves and never give up. Life’s adversity gives us a window into humanity – showing us that everyone is struggling with their own challenges and imagining their own dreams coming true. And it shows us that we should all live with a compassionate heart because only through giving to others can we live a truly triumphant and joyful life.
Finally, as I think back to myself as the little girl stuck in the hospital dreaming of magical adventures that seemed so out of reach, I realize that I never, not once, gave up on my dreams. I feel like I had a knowing in my heart all along. And even when I sometimes took the long, arduous way to get to my destination, I never stopped dreaming. It’s as if my dreams, my body, and my experiences worked together and encouraged me to live everyday to to its fullest – never knowing how long I have to enjoy my health, my family, and all that life has to offer. They taught me to always look for the best in others, for I do not know what they are going through. And they inspired me to take on life’s challenges with courage and excitement – trusting that the journey, even with its ups and downs, would be so worth it because it would lead me to somewhere beautiful and amazing!!