Former Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School student Phoebe Howlett is travelling the world in an attempt to visit every country around the globe.
But that is not the amazing side to her story. Phoebe, 24, suffered from myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) and postural tachycardia syndrome (PoTs) for several years, affecting her nervous and immune systems. In early 2016 her condition was so bad that she was in constant numbing pain. After her recovery she decided to do what she had wanted in life, which was to travel. And while travelling she is also educating people about the illnesses she suffered and about gender equality after many people asked her if she was travelling alone.
Phoebe is currently travelling through South America. She told the Journal about the journey so far.
She said: “The trip so far has been amazing! I have met so many great people along the way and done so many things I genuinely never thought I would be able to do. In terms of countries, yes I have stuck to my plan exactly and since deciding on my goal I have travelled to 13 countries.
“In terms of travelling and experiences I’ve fit in, I feel like I have done more than I thought; I really thought my body wouldn’t allow for it. I was worried about pushing it too far and facing the consequence of knockbacks health-wise. I mean, I did a 16km trek through Colombian jungle that was pretty much all uphill and then slept in a hammock on top of the mountain. I was so worried about how this would knock me back in the following days but actually, while I know I suffered more than the girl I did it with, my body was essentially fine. I think despite minor health scares along the way my body is actually only getting stronger, rather than weaker. This was something I was very worried about setting off before I started on this journey. But this thought in the back of my mind has arguably made me a healthier traveller, so it’s a good thing.
“In terms of giving back, I still really want to do more; it has been summer holidays so I couldn’t speak to any schools all through Central America. Now, going into South America, I really want to talk to as many as possible while I’m travelling through, but sometimes logistically it just doesn’t work out. I have learnt to change my expectations for this first leg of my journey and if I can speak to any of the younger generation it’s a good thing. Making that decision, I now beat myself up less over schedules of schools I have zero control over.”
Phoebe has already had some incredible experiences on her travels in South America, including swimming with sharks and witnessing smoking volcanoes.
She said: “Outwardly I am not an excitable person. I don’t often show a lot of emotion to activities I do or experiences I have. However, since having PoTS and ME I have found the words of my diagnostic doctor ringing in my ears – ‘it’s highly unlikely you will be well enough to ever travel’ – before welling up with happiness. I have no control of it! It happens everywhere and anywhere; on top of a ruin in Mexico, swimming with sharks, seeing a volcano smoke in Nicaragua, seeing a lion fish in Honduras and swimming in a waterfall while trekking in northern Colombia.
“It’s the opposite of my normal character, but it just shows how grateful I am to have my health and how I will never take it for granted again. That said there are things I have missed, not hiking a volcano for altitude sickness, not swimming with dolphins because of such low blood pressure and people feel sorry for me. More sorry for me than anyone did when I was ill at home in bed it seems, which to me is just baffling.
“Just being here travelling is nothing short of a miracle and yet I’m getting sympathy now. It just seems crazy getting sympathy while I’m travelling the world, but it’s why I’m doing this and trying to make a difference.
“There was both a highlight and low of the trip combined together a week or so ago. I was meant to be travelling to Brazil at the end of September. However, one overnight bus journey to Bogota, Colombia’s capital, and a night of waiting for a delayed flight before collapsing into a hotel bed at 4am with a sore throat later. I woke up to body aches, migraines making my eyes stream, fevers that were easily over 40C, agonising stomach cramps and a swollen throat. I could hardly even move my body and putting a water bottle to my lips I felt so weak. I have had dengue and I have to say, waking up, if anything, this felt worse. Whatever I had smacked me around the face and hung me out to dry.
“It would take me an hour to build up the willpower to walk to the bathroom two metres away to fill a water bottle up. I didn’t even know the number to call to go to the hospital and my hotel phone next to me wasn’t working. Luckily, my sister happened to facetime me at around 4pm and I asked her to tell my parents who were on holiday at the time about my situation; even facetiming was too much energy.
“Within two hours of my sister telling my mum how bad I was, a friend of my family living in New Zealand had contacted his uni friend in San Francisco, USA, who contacted his partner in London who contacted his cousin in Bogota, who then contacted his English speaking friends who all arrived at my hotel. All five of these people who did not know me, were in my hotel calling my airline provider to arrange reimbursement and emergency medical services. I was blown away by their willingness to help me...and on top of it all? It was a Saturday night and they were missing a friend’s birthday meal for me.
“I still can’t believe my luck that this loose connection of people were helping me. It just seemed second nature to them to help, frankly, a complete stranger.
“Forty-eight hours of drips and regular injections later I was eventually told I was diagnosed with a tropical gastric infection/virus (I am still not 100 per cent) and tonsillitis. I am on the mend now but it showed me how hard, what would appear to be simple infections, can knock me down. I do think it is because my body is in remission of chronic illnesses that I go down so hard.”
Phoebe has had the chance to go into schools and talk to youngsters about her trip and why she is doing it.
She added: “I’ve spoken to a few schools now about my trip and the goals of it all. It is an incredibly rewarding element and probably my favourite part of what I’m doing. I get such lovely feedback from pupils and staff alike. Adults that see me present are just as interested as pupils, I find. But after what I have to offer I feel I have been given just as much back. In Ireland a pupil told me it was possible to go to Syria and gave me the route. Similarly, in Panama, a half Venezuelan student told me the best way to go to Venezuela, a country that because of political corruption, the majority of travellers currently don’t visit. I have had a few pupils where my presentations have hit home hard and they come up to me afterwards, whether it be that they or someone they know are suffering things similar to what I discuss. In those circumstances I try my best to help them find a good path forward to managing those circumstances.
“I find it incredibly rewarding being able to offer my help because while in that moment they’re in the midst of what feels like a hopeless situation, there are ways to manage it. I am proof of that.”
Phoebe is currently in Ecuador, still feeling the affects of the illness she picked up. But she will carry on down South America and is looking forward to sailing to New Zealand.
She said: “At the moment I am in Quito, Ecuador’s capital, still recovering from my illnesses last week. They left me weak and because my body still isn’t 100 per cent due to being in remission from the chronic illnesses I had, everything takes longer to recover. From here though I am making my way down South America, so Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Chile. From Chile I am flying back up to Ecuador to meet a yacht I am sailing on over to New Zealand. While sailing that way I intend to tick off the small islands within the pacific, examples include Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Micronesia. I made this decision because sailing compared to using flight is both more economically and environmentally friendly.
“There are 11 independent countries in the Pacific sea but the collected population of all of them is 2.3 million. Manchester has a population of about 2.55 million, but the islands in the pacific are about 15 per cent of the world’s surface, compared to Manchester 0.00000023 per cent, so they are very scarcely populated. I am really excited about visiting all of these and soaking up all the differences island life has compared to life back at home.”
Phoebe has no fixed plans for the future except to make sure she steps foot in every country. She thinks this could take up to five years.
She said: “Lots of people always ask about North Korea, but you can go quite easily with a visa! My issue at the moment will be organising visas in the correct order at the right time, particularly in the war-torn areas. Just this year another woman finished visiting every country in the world, so it can be done.”
To find out more about Phoebe and her travels go to www.the chanceofchoice.com, www.facebook.com/thechanceofchoice/ and Twitter @chanceofchoice