Letters from a Friend

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I am happiest in moments when I feel like I am exactly where I need to be.

In those moments, when my heart feels at peace, I am able to fully enjoy the present and that in itself makes me happy. To be honest, these moments can be hard to come by at times. By nature, I am a worrier, always planning ahead, constantly organizing my life in my mind. Letting go is something I have to practice everyday.

Naturally, the people I admire the most are those who are carefree and genuinely positive. Those who seem rock solid even in moments of complete chaos. Those who still manage to take the time to appreciate what’s good even though the world around them is in utter turmoil. One of these people is my friend Alan.

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Alan on the UN base in Mogadishu, Somalia

Alan and I met 12 years ago when I did a six-month internship in Hawaii working for a tour operator as part of my German college education. While in my head I knew that I was only in Maui for a short period of time, my heart felt at home right away and I fell in love with Hawaii, the people and the energy instantly and all at once. A truly magical place! I could not believe it. How could this feel so right given this place was so different from where I grew up literally half a world away? Then Alan would always say: “If Maui is meant for you she welcomes you with open arms.” 

Unfortunately, my stay in Hawaii was brief and after I left, I finished college, moved to Arizona, started a career, got married, bought a house, and started a family. As with most people, I got so caught up in my own stuff that I lost contact with a lot friends including Alan. Luckily, thanks to social media, he was able to track me down and contacted me exactly a year ago, and I am very grateful that he did.

Alan is a true free spirit and that genuine “glass is half full” kind of person everyone needs in their life. After taking some difficult detours over the years, Alan seemed to be exactly where I would have pictured him. He had been in the army for eight years working as a combat medic serving tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. After that he worked as a seismic engineer building network stations to measure and monitor tectonic shifts in the Western US. However, after a while he missed working in medicine, so he found his true passion three years later: He became a critical care paramedic living first in Nevada and Colorado. He said: “The best part about what I do is I can do it anywhere.”

And anywhere he went! When Alan first wrote to me last year he had just been aboard the Greenpeace boat Esperanza for about a week sailing from Sri Lanka, through the Red Sea and Suez Canal, the Mediterranean, to Amsterdam and then to Norway. It was going to be a three-month journey. He was the Medical Officer on board for the transit. Greenpeace had contacted him six days before the ship sailed.

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Greenpeace “Esperanza”

What had I been doing over the last decade?

What had I been doing? School, job, marriage, house, kids. Normal stuff. No boats involved. I felt almost apologetic as to how “uneventful” my life had been in comparison. At the time, I was just slowly digging myself out of a major mommy burnout. In my typical exhausted stay-at-home mother negativity – while generally healthy, happy and more than grateful for my beautiful family – I was still struggling with the feeling of not having a lot to show for myself. In response, Alan wrote the following and every now and then when I need a little motivation and positivity boost, I re-read it:

“It is interesting to look back at all the different avenues and turns we encounter in life which brings us to our current station where we live in the moment. Not sure where or when this (…) lifestyle will lead me or if it will come to pass, but I do have a great sense of peace with what I do. I guess it is always about what you want and what you are willing to give and the middle ground somewhere in there.”

And that was the beginning of a new but old friendship that lives through the emails he sends to me and many other people from all the different corners of the world. Like many of his friends and family, I live vicariously though him and am able to draw inspiration from his adventures. I even forward his emails to my husband, parents and brother and they always seem to enjoy them as much as I do.

After sailing for Greenpeace, Alan’s journey over the last year took a more serious turn as he started working for RMSI – an international rapid deployment medical and rescue service, specializing in complex and high-risk missions around the world. He was assigned to the UN base in Mogadishu helping wounded soldiers of the Somali National Army fighting Al Shabaab. There he saw the dark side of humanity. I remember him writing about “a river of blood”, “body bags”, “brain matter on the tarmac” and many, many more terrible images of death and destruction resulting from war and terrorism.

After a few months there, Alan recently went to the Ukraine as part of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe) mission to monitor the cease fire between Ukraine and the Russian separatists in the Eastern part of the country. He wrote of the whole region being on the brink of war, him and his team patrolling streets in body armor, local towns being hit by rockets, destroying homes and claiming lives.

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Alan before heading out for a mission in Mariupol, Ukraine

Everything Alan has been experiencing I find very interesting as it is so different from my life and pretty much everyone else’s I know. It is fascinating and terrifying at the same time which has me worried for his safety and his mother’s stress level. However, the thing I remember the most from his emails is the positive outlook he keeps in the darkest of places. I admire his ways of making even the most horrific days fun by putting his own creative spin on things. From Somalia he wrote:

“In the past month running on the beach and walking around the UN base it is impossible not to notice all the abandoned footwear littering the place. People everywhere must be walking around with just one flip flop. As I went around taking photos I received many odd glances from a lot of people. First off, photography is highly restricted here and is strictly forbidden near, around, or in sensitive areas. It is easy to sneak a photo with an iPhone but I used my SLR camera with a 150mm zoom lens so it was very obvious. Second, when people saw me taking pictures of the ground and then realizing I was taking pictures of sandals, I really started getting looks. Two people approached me and asked what I was doing after explaining to them what it was they thought it to be a clever idea all the while thinking I was crazy and probably had some weird sandal fetish…The take away from this is my attempt trying to find something creative and constructive out of the abundance of trash which litters this place…Especially flips and sandals. Children’s, men’s, women’s, casual, dress, even a climbing shoe.”

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50 Flips of Mogadishu

Alan enjoys nature and makes friends everywhere he goes. In the Ukraine he recently met up and enjoyed a night out with a guy he happened to sail with on the Esperanza just months prior. Talk about a small world! I wonder if I were able to focus on something positive given the destruction of the region and the confusion of the local population. Oddly enough, most people (myself included!) that live comfortable lives filled with nothing but first world problems would have a hard time doing just that.
Alan with is Ukranian friend Sergey, his wife and friends.

Alan with his Ukranian friend Sergey, his wife and friends.

And when I asked him Why do you do what you’re doing? What keeps you going? this was his response:

“It is not like I purposely look for these situations or assignments for work directly. I work for an organization who specializes in providing western emergency medicine in such environments. Working as a critical care paramedic is by far the best job I have ever done and one that is very much me. There is a tremendous amount of instant gratification with the nature of the work I do but when I went to Somalia last year, things kind of changed. In Somalia, I felt for the first time I was giving/providing something which was so rare to see or receive. I feel the same here in Ukraine. Nora, the people here are so screwed that something as little as dressing a cut on a patient’s arm and listening to their struggle, I see how it brings comfort to their chaotic lives living in a war zone. This isn’t something I will do forever, it is fairly taxing on the mind, body, spending time with the girl and my family. But I truly enjoy what I am doing. What keeps me going is not taking too much of this or life too seriously. Laughing is very important to me, even if inappropriate at times. Also what keeps me going is I truly love traveling around, getting to know the places I see intimately, and meeting/making more friends around the world. I feel I could go almost anywhere in the world and know someone personally in the area. Fate is not something that happens to you. It is something you change by changing yourself. When people do not understand this they feel powerless. How we change ourselves depends on what we want in our lives. I guess the changes I have made in my life has brought me to this very moment in time. And I am loving it.”

This powerful message I will forever take with me. May it inspire you just as much and help you move forward as you are trying to find your true purpose in all the chaos we call life.

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Sunset as seen from the “Esperanza”


All Photo Credit: Alan Stroeve

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