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Choosing a Plan B

By Karina Dahl-Olsen

I was standing at a remote marina in the jungle of Costa Rica, looking out at the oily black water, illuminated only by the all-consuming fire, watching everything we owned burn to ash. My two kids were unraveling in my arms, crying as they watched their teddy bears, toys, and home burn. Isabella was 11, Sebastian was 9. Our family’s home of 3.5 years, the 48-foot sailboat Evy, had gone down in flames along with our dreams and plans for the future. I only just got out before the first explosion. Thankfully, nobody was hurt. Right there, I made a choice. This was not going to be the end of our travels. I chose a Plan B.

Life is about choices. Many of them are forced upon us by circumstances outside of our control, but we can still choose how we will react. These choices determine where life takes us from the moment we choose. Often, we find ourselves at a crossroads, trying to choose between Roads A, B, or C, not knowing what is lurking in the shadows down each one.

My life’s most defining crossroads presented itself 3.5 years before that night. A diagnosis. In 2017. “There’s no doubt about it,” the doctor told me, “You have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.” It’s a connective tissue disorder. A mental picture of my mother flashed into my mind. She was lying on her deathbed, skin and bones, with no hair or teeth left. She was 59 years old when she died from the co-morbidities of the syndrome. I was now 37. Was that what my future held for me?

One evening, not long after the diagnosis, my husband and I were talking about the future and what to put on our bucket list. He asked me again “Why don’t we just take off, leave everything behind and enjoy life?”

My body was deteriorating fast at the time of my diagnosis. I needed a wheelchair when leaving the house on longer outings, and I was on opioids 24/7 for the pain, just to function. Two years previously, my joints started dislocating; my fingers hurt, swelling painfully at the joints; and my memory and concentration were slipping, due to the chronic pain and fatigue.

One evening, not long after the diagnosis, my husband and I were talking about the future and what to put on our bucket list. He asked me again “Why don’t we just take off, leave everything behind and enjoy life?”

In an attempt to keep Torben happy, we’d bought a sailboat when the kids were small and pretended to be a family who sailed for a few years. Trying to keep the kids from falling overboard while not throwing up on them was a constant struggle for me. I hated sailing. Since then, every time he’d mentioned his dream of sailing around the world over the years, I’d shut him down.

This time his question made sense. It resonated with something inside me, telling me; yes, this is the perfect “revenge” on my condition. I was choosing not to let it defeat me, not to let it take over my life. I was going to chart my own course instead of the one laid out by being sick and the expectations of what that looks like to everyone else. “Let’s do it,” I replied. My alternative was laying on the couch in pain, while my body deteriorated like my mother’s. That was not the memory I wanted to leave my kids. I wanted them to remember their childhood as fun, adventurous, loving, and happy. I could sacrifice a few meals to Poseidon, and learn to love sailing, for my kids. We spent the next two years preparing for the trip: Navigation and sailing classes, advanced first aid, kids swimming lessons. We lived at the marina, on our boat, for those two years, saving up money and making the boat a safe space, a home.

That “let’s do it” was my most important crossroads moment ever, Though I never could have imagined where that choice would lead me.

Standing in that marina, watching my kids crumble, as our dreams were torn away from us, I second-guessed the choice I made three years earlier. Would staying home have been better than this trauma? Hugging my kids close, leaving sooty tears in their blond hair, I found myself facing a new crossroads. Do we go home now? Or do we keep going? Which path is the right one?

Going home was what friends and family would have expected us to do. We would be welcomed home with love and pity. Friends would feel sorry for us because we hadn’t succeeded. The blazing boat would be the defining memory of our adventure, despite all the amazing experiences leading up to that one moment. I could not let that happen.

Two weeks later, we made a Plan B. We rented a car and drove off to make better memories in Costa Rica, on a road trip to reach the Danish Consul in San Jose first to collect our emergency passports, then fly to the Danish embassy in Mexico to order new passports, as everything had perished in the fire. By now, my physical condition had improved a lot, to my great surprise. I never thought it would. I didn’t even miss my wheelchair. Warm weather, swimming, hiking, and the mental peace of leaving all expectations behind me had done wonders. The pain was still ever present though, reminding me of the stakes.

I discovered a love for writing and started my memoir about the journey. I learned to appreciate the little things in life and look for adventure in everyday moments.

After receiving new passports in Mexico, we flew to Texas where my husband spent two months rebuilding an old school bus into an RV to continue our travels on land. He had never driven a bus before, but he’s a quick study. I left the driving to him. The kids and I would sit at the dining table, play games or watching a movie together, as the landscape passed by outside. We traveled through British Columbia, 34 US states, and across Mexico from Baja to the Mexican Gulf in 1.5 years with the bus. Hiking, swimming, meeting the local people, and exploring the different cultures together. Roughly 1000 days after leaving our homeland by sailboat, we returned home by plane.

Three years of sunshine and tropical weather, snow, and mountains had come to an end.  Our traveling adventures had included everything from being arrested in Barbados, in a case of mistaken identity, managing a campground in Mexico, engine problems and a rescue mission in the North Sea, to Covid lockdowns, being caught up in a cartel war in Mexico with the sound of gunshots keeping us up all night, and almost being boarded by pirates off the coast of Venezuela. But we did it. We wanted adventure, we got it. It was amazing, horrifying, soul-cleansing, and gut-wrenching. Torben and I grew closer to each other, and we became closer to Sebastian and Isabella, too. Closer than ever before, bonding over the amazing world we live in, and the trials we overcame together.

I discovered a love for writing and started my memoir about the journey. I learned to appreciate the little things in life and look for adventure in everyday moments. It’s been a year since we returned home. We talk about the trip every day, the kids miss certain places or people, we remember all the fun stuff as well as the bumps. We now share these amazing memories that I dreamed of (even if we did pay a steeper price for them than expected). I learned to embrace life, to make choices, and to be open to adventure even if it doesn’t look like what you imagined. True adventure lies in the unknown.

About the Writer

About the Author: Danish Karina Dahl-Olsen, is mother to Isabella and Sebastian, and married to their dad, Torben. A former research laboratory technician at a large medical company, she had to give up her career as her Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome presented with symptoms. Her memoir, Plan B—I want to live before I die, about her diagnosis and family adventures, has just been traditionally published in her native Denmark, and the book is currently being translated into English. An avid reader, who loves nature and has an almost permanently green thumb, Karina feels the pull of the world calling to her always with the promise of more adventures ahead.


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