Not too long ago, Heidi was a thirty-something, married, globetrotting professional who seemingly had it all.
Then, in one fell swoop, a tree limb knocked her out cold, breaking her neck, and stopped her hectic juggling act of a successful career, marriage, and life instantly.
During a slow, yearlong recovery, Heidi lost her career and divorced, but thankfully regained her health.
Through the loss and change, she gained priceless perspective. In order to solidify her lesson learned while honoring her second chance on life, Heidi went traveling.
Let’s get to know Heidi Siefkas, author, blogger, and most importantly an inspirational survivor…
Interview: South America Travel
Can you give us a little background of your accident?
Although I would like to say I was attempting some amazing feat, I was taking out the trash on a normal, fall Sunday afternoon. I loaded up the garbage with the previous night’s pizza box dressed in my workout gear ready for a jog.
The next thing I remember was waking up five days later in the ICU of St. Francis Hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York.
A tree limb, about a thousand pounds, fell on me, knocked me out, and broke my neck. I had neurosurgery within a week of the accident to repair my broken vertebra. Afterwards, I was limited to a full chest, back, and neck brace, no showers, no driving, and no traveling for nearly five months.
Gratefully, I fully recovered after an additional six months of therapy.
Did the tree cause your life-change?
The tree didn’t cause my life-change.
However, it did impact almost every aspect of my life. Given time to reflect on my path, including my relationships, career, and passions, I reevaluated who I really wanted to be, what was important, and what I had to change. It was the forced pause of various months that caused my life-change.
With the result, a gained perspective, I prioritized everything from then on: health, relationships, and independence.
Why did you decide to walkabout?
I went through a painful recovery period filled with much fear and anxiety. I had to learn to do many things again starting with walking then driving.
After I was fully recovered in the eyes of my doctors, I wanted to test myself with a walkabout.
Similar to the aborigines and their coming of age journey, mine too was a rite of passage. My walkabout was a physical, mental, and emotional challenge to prove to myself that I was fully recovered.
Why did you choose to travel to South America?
I spoke Spanish having lived in Madrid, Spain in the 90’s. Also, I called South Florida home. I brainstormed new destinations that would combine my love of language, food, and wine with adventure and the great outdoors.
I selected Chile and Argentina. Within forty-eight hours, I booked a three-week trip starting at the Straight of Magellan in Chile and ending in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Can you provide any details about your walkabout?
Because a part of my walkabout was to challenge my body physically, I wanted to hike.
So, I picked my start to be in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. Prior to the accident, I had worked in the travel and tourism industry as a marketing and pr executive. Through my promotions, I stumbled across an ecologically friendly tour operator in Torres del Paine. I contacted them for a three-day hike as well as lodging.
I used that as my anchor for planning; thus, I flew into the nearest airport, Punta Arenas, Chile.
From there, I progressed to the capital, Santiago, continued across the Andes to Mendoza, Argentina’s wine country. I ended my walkabout in Buenos Aires.
All of my accommodations, minus in the park, were hostels that I found online and booked prior to leaving. I always chose a private room to get all of the benefits of a hostel, other travelers and tips, without the minuses, snoring, stinky backpackers, and drunks.
In both, Mendoza and Buenos Aires, I planned my fun, cultural activities after my arrival and getting the lay of the land. I asked the hostel staff for recommendations as well as help in booking all my adventures from wine tastings and whitewater rafting to horseback riding and tango lessons.
Were you scared?
I was excited and nervous, but not scared. Although the whole walkabout was a test, it was something attainable that would be unforgettable.
What were the most memorable moments?
My most memorable moment was hiking to the summit in Torres del Paine. It was a 22km hike. Over the course of a day, it felt as if I walked through all four seasons: 105 kmph wind gusts, snow, sunshine, 70 degrees, and even rain.
Another highlight was my first glimpse of a glacier, Grey Glacier. Since, I have seen many glaciers having lived in Alaska, but your first time is the best and etched in your mind.
Although Chile was epic, I also fell in love with Argentina.
In Mendoza, I lived like a gaucho by horseback riding in the Andes. Although not a fan of horseback riding, it was a YOLO moment. I had to do it. If that wasn’t enough, after getting off my moody horse, I braved the Mendoza River and whitewater rafted with a group of Brazilian travelers. To celebrate that same evening, I shared the best churrasco steak meal washed down with a bottle of Malbec from one of my various wine tastings with newly found friends, Australian lasses at my hostel.
Then, in Buenos Aires, I walked and walked stopping to do two of my favorite things, eat and people watch. Porteños (people from Buenos Aires) have great style, amazing food, and lots of dogs.
Watch out for the caca!
And, don’t you dare leave Buenos Aires without going to colorful Boca, dancing the tango, and eating a pizza.
Ok, my walkabout wasn’t all rainbows and lollipops. I did have a couple difficult points.
After my hike in Patagonia, experiencing wind, rain, sleet, and elevation change, I came back to Punta Arenas with a nasty, phlegmy cough, sore throat, and nearly no voice. Once checked in at my hostel, I went to the pharmacy for antibiotics, expectorant, and lozenges.
By the time I crossed the Andes into Argentina, I was better.
I think the wine tasting tours with Malbec and Torrontes helped, but then, I had second ailment, an allergic reaction to a bug bite. While hiking outside of Mendoza, a wasp stung me near my left elbow. By the time I arrived to my hostel late that afternoon, my left arm and hand were swollen and radiating heat. Then, my right hand started to swell, my fingers looking like stuffed sausages. It was scary that the inflammation had crossed over to another body part. I immediately went to the pharmacy for hefty anti-inflammatory drugs and steroids.
You would have thought that I wouldn’t hike again after those two experiences, but I have hiked hundreds of trails since then, including Hawaii, Alaska, Cuba, and Peru.
What was your overall experience?
It was liberating.
Without the 24/7 societal communications, whether Internet, media, or calls, I had time to enjoy each bite, each sip, and every step of the way. I loved just being. I had a skeleton plan with places to sleep and a return ticket to Miami, but I let the rest just happen as travel should.
I was in bliss.
What advice or tips can you give women who might be in need of a change?
Follow your own path and be prepared for changes in said path. Each of us has a different way of having it all or reaching a goal.
Be the best you, while having your all, on your path. In order to do so, surround yourself with people who will help you become who you want to be.
We all need a clan of supporters.
Did you face any challenges being a woman?
There are always challenges as a woman traveler and especially when traveling alone.
You have to be comfortable with catcalls, whistles, or whatever the local, “Hey look at me,” sound may be. I was recently divorced from a Latino; so, I was not at all interested in meeting another. In fact, the piropos (flirtatious compliments) were almost like repellant.
However, overall, I found both Chile and Argentina very welcoming and safe.
I was anxious at both bus stations in Santiago and Buenos Aires just like I would have in NYC or LA. They were very busy, a good place to pickpocket, and I stuck out like a sore thumb with a backpack, map, and guidebook.
I walked or ran alone both early in the morning and in the evening without hassle. I made street-savvy decisions and left South America with only good memories.
How did your South America travel change you?
Somehow by leaving everything that was home, comfortable, and normal solidified that I was on the right path. My walkabout reinforced my independence and confidence. It helped me confirm, like no one else could, that I was happy with the latest version of me.
Why is travel important to life-change?
Travel is crucial to life-change because it takes you out of your comfort zone. To find clarity and gain perspective, you need to remove yourself from the same old surroundings and thus the same way of thinking about your path and choices.
Getting uncomfortable fuels life-change.
What did this trip inspire you to do?
This trip inspired me to continue writing. I started writing a memoir while recovering, but I had set it aside as I returned to a more normal life. I made a decision on my walkabout to make sure to share my story and rekindle my artistic talents in writing. Although it has taken time, I plan to release my inspirational memoir this year to coincide with the fifth anniversary of my wake-up call.
Also, from this walkabout, I realized that travel was more than just a pastime for me. It was a long time coming, but travel needed to be a part of my life permanently. Through both choices, I have created a hybrid career as a writer/blogger and tour guide. Both are very synergistic and fulfilling.
Any other thoughts or advice for our women readers?
I believe that every occasion in life can be categorized as either a good time or a good story. That’s why I close most of my blog posts, “Here’s to more good times and good stories.” Isn’t it so true? The best, belly-laughing tales are from less than optimal situations like a transportation snafu or the ever-popular bathroom blooper.
Where are you off to next?
My next adventure is to New Zealand in March with a piggyback trip to Australia in April. I’m sure there will be many good times and of course good stories.
What did you think about this interview?
Join the discussion and leave your comments, tips, and personal experiences in the comments below.
Thank you Heidi for participating in this interview.
Heidi is an author and blogger originally from a hobby farm in smalltown Wisconsin. With an insatiable thirst for adventure and storytelling, she believes that every occasion in life can be classified as a good time or a good story. Heidi currently calls many places home, including Kauai, South Florida, and the Midwest. Connect with Heidi and her stories at www.heidisiefkas.com, Facebook, and Twitter.