I really enjoyed reading Elizabeth Snouffer’s article “Eating Abroad with Diabetes–Hong Kong,” Catherine Price’s interview with world traveller Bridget McNulty, and Catherine’s posts describing her own trips to Tokyo and Hawaii. So I thought I would follow the trend and write about my own first experience traveling with diabetes.
This summer, I went on a two-week trip to Estonia and Latvia to do research about my grandfather’s family. I had originally been given a grant to do this last summer, right after I had graduated from college, but then I was diagnosed with diabetes in early July. At that point, I couldn’t imagine traveling to a foreign country–I panicked even when trying to estimate the amount of carbohydrates in a Cosi sandwich. Luckily, the people at Penn who had provided the grant were understanding, and allowed me to wait a year before taking the trip.
I’m convinced that a major reason why Estonia and Latvia aren’t bigger tourist destinations is because they were behind the Iron Curtain, and so remain unknown to many Americans. They are both beautiful countries. I spent the first week of my trip in Riga, the capital of Latvia. Riga’s medieval old city is surrounded by rings of parks, constructed after the city’s medieval fortifications were razed in the late 19th century. Beyond these parks is Riga’s truly unique feature–a sprawling art nouveau district that UNESCO has declared a world heritage site. You can walk for blocks and blocks and only see incredibly rendered art nouveau facades.
Before World War II, Riga was home to a large Jewish population that included my great-grandparents and their children. By coincidence, I found out that the hotel where I was staying was in the same neighborhood as the apartment buildings in which my great aunts and uncles lived. I walked to each one and took photos–the building in which my great-uncle Isak lived is now a Ramada Inn!
I also got to see some of Latvia’s countryside. For two days I went to Sloka, a town about an hour away from Riga by train. Here, my great-grandfather’s family once owned a farm and raised horses. Architecturally, Sloka is now an incongruous mix of small wooden houses and looming Soviet-era structures. Although quite a few of the Soviet-era buildings are crumbling and dilapidated, many of the town’s inhabitants have no other option but to continue living in them. As I took the train back into the city, I looked out the window at the fields passing by and caught glimpses of people picking flowers to make into wreathes to wear on St. John’s Eve the next day.
After all my worrying, my diabetes-related challenges in Riga were few. Since I was only going to be traveling for two weeks, I brought all my supplies with me, in addition to prescriptions from my doctor in case I misplaced the supplies I had and needed to buy more. (I’m happy to report I never did.) My parents, who were curious to see the places their ancestors had lived, came with me for the first week of my trip. It was reassuring to know that, in case of an emergency, I would have two people with me who knew what to do. In addition, many people in both Latvia and Estonia are at least reasonably fluent in English.
Unlike some of the other ASweetLife travelers, I didn’t do anything especially physically strenuous. But I was walking all the time. Our hotel was half an hour away from the Riga’s center, we’d inevitably make the trip back and forth more than once a day–retrieving maps, going out to dinner, etc. And once we reached the city center, we would have to walk somewhere else. It felt great to get so much exercise without even trying, but then my blood sugar started to go low more and more frequently. Finally, I decreased my dose of Lantus, and the problem was solved.