Exploring East Africa with Gretchen and Paul Otte
Exploring East Africa with Gretchen and Paul Otte
We catch up with this brother and sister pair who just returned from Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya to learn about their work with Type 1 Diabetes and their favorite moments on safari.
World travelers and siblings Gretchen and Paul Otte just returned from home from Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya. While they visited some of our favorite outposts and guides on the continent, it was the people and purpose behind a life-changing auto immune disease, Type 1 Diabetes, that made the most impact on their time in Africa. We learn more about their work and how people who are battling similar challenges can and should follow their dreams.
Q: Gretchen, you just returned from an epic trip through Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya with your brother, Paul. Can you tell us about what you were doing there?
Gretchen: It was an unbelievable, humbling, life changing trip. In many parts of Africa, a Type 1 Diabetes diagnosis can be a death sentence. Access to insulin and diabetes supplies are limited and expensive. Marjorie’s Fund is an organization “established to provide patients with Type 1 Diabetes in resource-poor settings, the medication, equipment and education needed to live long and healthy lives.” Marjorie’s Fund created the only Type 1 Diabetes Center for locals living with Type 1 Diabetes in Kasese, Uganda. Paul and I were brought onto the project to document and shadow the work of Marjorie’s Fund. We took photographs and filmed the center, health clinics, consultations, and interviewed patients to show how these people care for this disease in Uganda. We got to see first-hand how a person in Uganda, Africa has to deal with having this autoimmune disease without having any of the resources and supplies that I personally have in the United States. It was completely eye opening and puts everything in perspective. We also went on a few home visits where we documented how these people with Type 1 Diabetes live and deal with the life-threatening disease.
I had the great pleasure of working with Marjorie’s Fund in both Kigali, Rwanda and Kasese, Uganda. In Rwanda, Marjorie’s fund supports five individual students, all with Type 1 Diabetes. The fund helps these students not only with the cost of medical supplies and treatment, but with general education and teaching of marketable skills such as sewing and jewelry making. In Uganda, Marjorie’s Fund has created a physical center for people with diabetes to receive medical attention and education. I witnessed about 50 people who received help or were involved in some way. It was an incredible experience to document the story of Marjorie’s Fund and the people whose lives they were helping. I hope the content we created will help reach other people and bring awareness to this issue and ultimately help more people live stronger, healthier lives.
Q: You were diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes while traveling internationally. Can you explain your motivation to continue your trip?
Gretchen: Yes, four years ago I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes while traveling abroad. I will never forget that life changing day. In the summer of July 2014, I was traveling in Europe for the summer with my mom right after graduating college. We mapped out this month-long European trip to explore around the Mediterranean Sea. I was so excited to visit all of these new countries and anticipating the many adventures we would have. After two weeks of touring Spain, my mom and I slowly started to realize I was getting sicker and sicker. I could barely keep up with her walking around the city. I was exhausted, frequently using the bathroom, rapidly lost unhealthy amounts of weight, extremely thirsty, the symptoms were visible. We knew something was wrong. After a few more days, we finally board a cruise ship to sail around the Mediterranean Sea. I had been looking forward to this trip for so long, there was no way I wanted my health to get in the way of it. However, my mom then convinced me that we needed to see the cruise ship doctor immediately since I was looking like skeleton. We visited the little medical center in the belly of the cruise ship, where I thought it would be a quick trip to the nurse, but I was very wrong. They immediately pricked my finger testing my blood sugar. My blood sugar was reading too high to calculate. Right then and there on July 5 2014, I was diagnosed with the incurable, unpreventable, autoimmune disease—Type 1 Diabetes.
You would think that I would immediately want to return home to the United States. However, I thought the complete opposite. The urge to keep traveling and going saved me, my sanity, and proved to myself that I am way stronger than this disease and that nothing can hold me back from achieving my goals.
To read more about Gretchen’s story please visit her site, Type One Type Happy.
"The urge to keep traveling and going saved me, my sanity, and proved to myself that I am way stronger than this disease and that nothing can hold me back from achieving my goals."
Q: How do you stay active and inspired to travel today?
Gretchen: I stay inspired to travel to this day because of the pure joy and happiness that the unknown adventure brings. I’m always on the search for something new to discover. The experience of new surroundings, new culture, new food, new people brings so much energy and joy to my life. I am also the type of person that can’t sit still for too long because my adventurous spirit wants to take over. Travel gives me life! It’s crazy, over the years since I have started my Instagram (@TypeOneTypeHappy), where I share about my adventures with having Type 1 Diabetes, the response has been overwhelming and it has grown a following from all over the world. It has been truly amazing because I have been able to visit so many places that I’ve never been to before and spontaneously connect with other local people living with the same disease that I do. Many people don’t even know another person with Type 1 Diabetes because it is rare. So, when someone sees that I am coming to their city, I get asked to create a meet-up as a chance for us to finally connect. When I am able to meet a person who has never known another person with Type 1 Diabetes, we instantly bond to create a magical friendship. It proves to me and to many other people that where ever we are, we are never alone in this. Connection and support are so important to remember when the weight of the hard times associated with this autoimmune disease can leave you lonely and upset. Meeting people like that, exploring new places, seeing new things...that’s what fuels and inspires me to keep going and explore as much as I can.
Q: Can you give us five tips for people who face similar obstacles to help inspire them to follow their dreams?
1. Know that you are in control.
When I was able to get grounded through my research, medicine, and knowledge, I was able to gain my confidence back in knowing that everything is okay and that everything will remain okay. I had everything I needed (like medication, prescriptions, doctor’s notes, back up medicine, etc.) that comforted me to continue on. I think knowing that and being grounded allowed me to spring forward and take those little steps to further my travel dreams. When you can feel rooted and safe with the aspects of your life (even generally with being physically prepared with packing the necessary items), it can allow you to focus and empower you to feel good about making risks and following that dream.
2. Take each day as it comes.
In my circumstance, and most circumstances in life, rushing to get to the end of your goals as fast as you can is almost impossible. It helped me so much to take each incident and each learning opportunity to sit and listen to what my body was telling me. You miss so much if you rush the little steps and, in my case, it can be deadly.
3. Always keep a positive mind.
This was a major one for me. There were many, many, many days where I (and my mom) would break down and cry because it would get hard to understand my new disease, or we wouldn’t understand something that was happening, or we just wanted someone to talk to that understood our problems. There were many dark times, but there were probably more positive times that outshine those bad times. I specifically remember sitting down in a local restaurant in Sorrento, Italy. A couple waved my mom and I down to join them at their four-person table. We both sat down and immediately broke down in tears. We were a mess. The poor couple looked at us (and I felt so bad for ruining their lunch), and tapped me on the shoulder to ask what was wrong. We told them my story, and it turned out that the man is a doctor vacationing from Florida, USA. I was just so happy to talk to someone that truly understood me. He told me something that I would never ever forget. He said “Gretchen, everybody has a ‘Something.’ Everyone is dealing with something in their lives that they struggle with. This is your ‘Something.’ It just depends on how you act with that ‘Something’ that matters.” Right then and there, my face lit up and I smiled. Since then, I have never thought of my Type 1 Diabetes the same again. It is my “something” and it’s how I view it and deal with it that matters. I could let it get in the way of my day, or I could try my best to make the situation better, think positively, and take that next step. That’s exactly what I did. I took each problem as I came instead of overwhelming myself with the big picture, dealt with it the best I could, and continued to get to next amazing destination.
4. Mistakes will be made.
Whether it’s by mistakenly taking the wrong dosage of insulin or missing a flight to somewhere, mistakes can and will happen. At first there’s always that freak-out moment, but then it’s crucial to find that calm space to say that it is okay and then find the solution to the problem. It is fixable and it happens to everyone!
5. Lastly, support.
I think support from family, a friend, or even a friendly foreign stranger that gives you that spark to continue to light your fire. Reaching out to someone when you are in need gives you the empowerment to keep going. When you have someone in your corner cheering you on to succeed, overcome a fear, get over a hurdle, to push you outside of your comfort zone...it’s amazing what can evolve from within by just those little pushes or encouragement from somewhere.
"When you can feel rooted and safe with the aspects of your life, it can allow you to focus and empower you to feel good about making risks and following that dream."
Q: Paul, we love your photography, especially your portraits. What was it like capturing moments in time with the local people in Uganda?
Paul: Thank you! It was an absolute joy. I feel as though the language barrier played to my benefit when photographing some of the local people living in Kasese, Uganda. At first, I was just going to select a few people to take their portrait and when the translator announced this, everyone wanted to have their picture taken, so I ended up with 20 or so portraits. Secondly, because communication was difficult, there was not much room for me to direct or pose the people, yet I believe this made for stronger images because I wasn’t trying to manifest something out of the subjects, they just expressed their natural being, and the photos reflect that in more raw and natural state. I was fortunate to find great natural lighting seeping in through one of the doorways and a lighter background that created a beautiful contrast with their skin tones.
Q: One of our favorite questions for recent GO travelers—what is the one story you've found yourselves telling friends again and again since getting home?
Gretchen: One story that we keep nonstop talking about is the first day we set out on safari with James in search for a lion. It was one of our goals to see a majestic lion in person, after always being obsessed with The Lion King as little kids. After a long day of driving around seeing unbelievable animals, we still hadn’t caught a glimpse of a lion…until James took us to his favorite spot for spotting lions, and of course, there waiting was a beautiful lioness. There she was sitting, looking out into the distance, almost like she was waiting for us to see her beauty. We stopped the vehicle to watch her as she gazed over her land. She was so close, we could hear her heavy panting. As we sat there for around 15 minutes, she got up and started walking toward us! Paul and I looked at each other with so much excitement as we clicked away with our cameras. She continued to walk right in front of our car, literally only feet away from us. As she walked, her tail hit the car making loud thumping sounds. She got to the other side of the road, and crouched down as she got ready to hunt for the zebra she spotted in the distance. This was probably one of the coolest moments we have both every experienced—a moment we were looking for all day. We got to experience it all for ourselves in the silence of the Mara.
"It was an unbelievable, humbling, life changing trip."
Q: We heard you really enjoyed your guides in Kenya, Jackson and James. Was there a particular story they told that stands out?
Paul: There’s no doubt Jackson and James had the most incredible stories. We would sit up late into the night under the stars after an incredible dinner, laughing away at some of the most amazing stories. They are both the best storytellers, filled with so much enthusiasm and happiness. One of the funniest moments to us was listening to how important cows are to the Maasai culture and comparing it how we view our dogs in our culture. To them, the dog was just another animal that would maybe get food scraps here and there, nothing special. To us, dogs are true family members that sometimes get treated better than humans! They went on to point out some of the absurdities people go to like putting sweaters on dogs and brushing their teeth—it was hilarious! But then, they began to express the importance of the cow and how it ranked just below God in their culture. (We obviously don’t think of dogs as this high and mighty, but you get the picture.) They are really amazing people and we can’t wait for the day we go back to hear more brilliant and funny stories from them.
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