Travel guides for Diabetics – Laura Pandolfi

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As a young law student, Laura Pandolfi would use the long summer breaks to combine her two passions, travel and volunteering. Her desire to help others led her to specialise in Human Rights and International Law so that she could work as a legal counsellor for immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. However, after being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2015, her life took a very different turn…

How did you first react to the diagnosis?
«Not so badly… I had been working very closely with refugees and asylum seekers from all over the world. That really helps you realise that it’s all relative. I have diabetes. It sucks. But my life could have turned out so much worse that I still consider myself very lucky. I realised that if I learnt how to control it well, I would still live healthier and longer than ¾ of the planet’s population. The thing that worried me the most was if I would still be able to travel as much as I wanted to. I couldn’t imagine my life without travel.»

How did it change your lifestyle?
«Diabetes changes everything and requires quite a lot of self-discipline! You need to change your diet, learn about nutrition and counting carbs, inject insulin 4+ times a day, be more aware of your body, recognise the signs of hypoglycaemia and hyperglycaemia, accept your limits (and surpass them!).

I was used to being a strong and independent woman. All of a sudden, I was scared, felt weak, and lost a lot of confidence. But even on my hospital bed during the diagnosis, I was already searching the internet about traveling with diabetes. The more I read, the more questions I had, and the more scared I became.

I realised the kind of problems diabetics encounter while traveling: How to keep my insulin cool? What happens if I lose my supplies while in India? Is the food diabetes-friendly in Peru? How to manage my blood sugar while diving? So many questions, so many doubts… and very few practical answers.»

Nevertheless, you decided to travel again…
«I bought a ticket to Georgia in the Caucasus region. I boarded the plane feeling quite scared. It was during this trip that the idea of the Sweet Trip project grew in my mind. I realised that diabetics need their own country-specific travel guides, and that I would create the first ones. I decided to quit my job to give me time to explore this new project.»

How do you go about preparing each guide?
«First, I spend a lot of time compiling all the questions and worries that a diabetic can have before traveling to a new destination, and dividing them into the 3 chapters of our guides that follow the 3 cornerstones of diabetes management (nutrition-health-physical activity):

Local food and nutrition: We describe the local gastronomy, and provide readers with nutritional information and advice to help customize local meals to personal needs and tastes. We also provide a food dictionary to help with ordering and buying.

We explain the local medical system and how it applies to foreigners, with information like emergency phone numbers, useful medical facilities, specialized doctors, laboratories, pharmacies… and a dictionary to help communication with local healthcare professionals.

As physical exercise plays a huge part in diabetes-management, we prepare walking and cycling itineraries of different levels and duration to combine health and tourism.

We are very aware of the fact that the quality and accuracy of our content is fundamental to our readers’ health and safety. But travel and holidays should also be fun and diabetes shouldn’t prevent anyone from having a good time, trying new things, discovering new foods, and taking more liberty.»

How do you research each destination?
«The first steps are collection, selection, review, and verification of information. We then travel to the destination to meet with local organizations and partners, to check and complete our information. We tour around to find the most beautiful and interesting walking itineraries, and we try out restaurants and food stores to select the healthiest options.»

Is there the same level of awareness of diabetes in most countries?
«Not at all. The level of awareness varies dramatically from one country to the other. Many people around the world still think Type 2 Diabetes is something you can catch! They don’t realise that it is a long process of destroying your own body’s ability to process sugars, due, in major part, to long-term unhealthy nutrition and lifestyle.»

What has been the reaction to your guide books so far?
«Wonderful! We are thrilled by the many spontaneous messages people are sending us! More than a business, we want to build a community. There are people with diabetes everywhere in the world, and we should help each other. That’s why we’re putting in place a free Fridge Surfing platform on our website, to bring volunteer insulin hosts together with travellers in search of a refrigerator (insulin needs to stay cool). We’re also planning to build a forum where diabetics around the world can talk with each other directly and exchange their own tips and local information.»

What personal advice would you give to newly diagnosed diabetes sufferers?
«Take it easy and don’t be too hard on yourself. Diabetes management is a long-run marathon. It takes time to build your new lifestyle. Don’t stay alone. Talk to other diabetic people. The community out there is very helpful and you’ll be surprised by the solidarity you can find.

In order not to stress and to enjoy travel, it is very important that you find answers to your questions BEFORE your departure. That’s what we try to do for people with diabetes.»

Sweet Trip currently provides guide books (in English) for Cuba, Lisbon, Mexico and Paris. In 2019 they will be publishing new guides to: Vancouver, Toronto, London, Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, Vienna, Thailand, Bali, Costa Rica, Hawaii, San Francisco, New York… They also encourage people to email them if they can’t find a desired
destination on their website