Travel Lessons Carry Teen Through Tragedy and Illness

Travel Lessons Carry Teen Through Tragedy and Illness

Sebastian Hill


Costa Rica, Australia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Fiji, and Morocco 2011 – 2016

Working as a Fiber Optic Engineer in Oregon

All the images have been provided by Sebastian. Read Sebastian’s story below

Sebastian Hill admits the memories of his first trip with Rustic Pathways are a little bit fuzzy. He was only 12-years-old, and he was grieving because of a recent tragedy in his life. About a year before his Costa Rica program, his father died after getting hit by a car during Ironman training. Sebastian’s mother used some life insurance funds to pay for her son’s program.

“My father didn’t have the money to do so, but he always wanted to take us abroad and show us the world because he was a big adventurer,” Sebastian said.

That Costa Rica program launched a love of travel and helped Sebastian walk in the steps of his father, who lived each day to the fullest. Over the next few years, Sebastian would visit a total of seven countries with Rustic Pathways. He persevered in his travels even after another major life challenge would take him off track in high school.

Sebastian faced a life threatening cancer diagnosis shortly after his 16th birthday. For months his day-to-day life was derailed and his future uncertain. But there were a number of things that helped him get through that period. One of them was the memories he had from his travels as a young teen. Plus, he had the hope he could see more of the world.

Middle School Adventures

The desire to travel the globe was ignited during Sebastian’s first international stop in Costa Rica. As a seventh grader, he says he was pretty thrilled about flying to Central America. While there, his group saw rich mountainous landscapes. They immersed themselves in the local culture and did a mix of service projects and adventure activities. They built a bathroom and zip lined and celebrated their independence.

“From a young age I always thought, ‘I don’t need my parents. I’m young and I’m independent. I can do my own thing.’ And so I was very excited,” Sebastian said.

A year later, Sebastian decided as an 8th grader he wanted to head farther away from his home in Oregon. He picked a program in Australia since his grandparents were from that country. During this trip, Sebastian and his fellow students traveled through the wonders of the country from the famous city sites to the sparkling coastlines. They strolled around Sydney, explored the Sydney Zoo, and journeyed up and down the Gold Coast. They also went to the Outback.

“We slept in what they called a swag bag… we learned how to throw a boomerang, play the didgeridoo and crack a whip. We tried kangaroo burgers that were surprisingly good, even though half the people refused to eat them,” Sebastian said. “I was gonna try everything, which was really fun.”

That eagerness to try new things grew as Sebastian entered high school. After freshman year, he wanted to go to countries with very different cultures than home. A program that would take him to Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos jumped out as the perfect choice for his next adventure.

Big High School Trips & Then An Unwelcome Surprise

Back in 2013 Rustic Pathways offered a program called The Jewels of Indochina. Cambodia and Vietnam ended up being two of his favorite countries after that program. Sebastian says the food was “absolutely amazing” and he enjoyed perusing the markets with their “maze of random stalls.”

He took in the scenery while cruising around Ha Long Bay and learned about the deep impact of the Vietnam War and the Pol Pot regime. He also began to appreciate how much he could learn from other people who were quite different from him.

“I met a guy who had a 45-year vow of silence. It was very interesting to communicate with somebody that didn’t speak, but he said a lot with no words. I was not expecting it. I was thinking, ‘how much can you actually communicate?’ But he’s really good at it,” Sebastian said.

He had similar interactions with other locals when he went with his sister on the Big Fiji Explorer program the next year. During that program he particularly liked the scenery and the activities.

“I had a blast. I thought Fiji was great. We got to stay in an island village for a couple of days with absolutely the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen in my entire life. It was like it was out of a movie. In this little bay area you’d see the glistening ocean and the sunrise. It was crazy!” Sebastian said.

He enjoyed scuba diving in that water so much he got his scuba certification later. He also enjoyed the service portion of the program and embraced meeting new people.

“I really liked the village and the people. They were really, really nice to me, and they gave us lots of good food, which is always an easy way to win me over!” Sebastian said.

Sebastian returned home with more travel memories and went back to high school. During the year, he developed a nagging cough that wouldn’t go away for months. Eventually his mom took him to the doctor where they discovered his heart was surrounded by liters of fluid but was miraculously still beating normally.

Amid concerns about his life, the doctors flew in a heart specialist. In what Sebastian called a “Doctor House” moment, the specialist made Sebastian get an extra scan, even though other tests showed no obvious problems. It was then that the specialist saw what the other doctors had not. Sebastian had lymphoma, and he would need chemo immediately.

Plans Delayed – A Life’s Perspective Changed

After the cancer diagnosis, travel plans to Morocco were canceled. But Sebastian kept going to school.

“I refused to be locked up inside. My nickname in high school became Captain Chemo,” Sebastian said.

Seven months of treatment got Sebastian on the road to recovery, and the Moroccan Wanderer trip was rescheduled one year after he originally planned to go. With a new perspective on life, Sebastian was even more open to the adventure that awaited and the people he would meet.

“Before my illness I was way more excited about the activities –  for the schedule,” Sebastian said. “Now I prefer to be in the moment as unplanned adventures happen, and I like meeting people… Obviously, people in another country are raised in a different place and a different culture, and they love sharing it with you. So, if I can, I try to meet people and hear some interesting stories.”

In Morocco he chose to observe Ramadan while he was in the country, so he could be immersed in the culture. In 2016, Ramadan was observed from June 5 to July 5, and the Rustic Pathways program coincided with some of that.

Because he was doing this, his host family invited him to stay a little longer and feast with them during Eid al-Fitr, which he described as awesome.

“Morocco was by far the nicest country I’ve ever been to. The people are so hospitable,” Sebastian said.

After his high school journeys ended, Sebastian joined the Air Force. He was told he was the first survivor of childhood cancer to join this branch of the military. Unfortunately a few months in, he was medically discharged after the military found he had a problem with his heart.

He now works as a fiber optics engineer and continues to travel. He says before his program experiences and his life challenges he didn’t think he was very open to people who are different than him. That has been one of the biggest changes in his life.

“My views on the world changed a lot, and I became very accepting of everybody,” Sebastian said. “One thing I realized is that people always have a reason for their beliefs. You don’t have to accept their beliefs as yours. But we have to understand that they came to a conclusion based on their own life and experiences. I think that’s helped me a lot to just be better and friendlier.”

Sebastian says these kinds of lessons are even more important now in today’s turbulent political climate. It’s one of the main reasons he thinks it’s greatly beneficial for teens to travel.

“Everyone seems to have an us versus them mentality these days. Travel is a good way for people to realize we’re all human,” Sebastian said. “We’re all here together and stuck on this rock, so you might as well get along and make a world that’s better for everyone.”

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