Life update: a new continent? Say what?!

After two years in Eurasia, I’m heading to a new continent! Read on to find out where… and, more importantly, why.

 

In 8th grade Geometry class, I always copied the boy next to me.

Not that I was cheating, mind you—I just couldn’t see the board. My teacher’s writing on the whiteboard was a series of blurred blobs at best. On days when she used a red marker, all hope was lost.

My inability to see beyond my own desk was a bit of an issue. Mostly I was upset about perpetually peering at my neighbor’s notes—I had a crush on him and it was, like, so embarrassing—but my comprehension suffered as we studied more complex topics, and my grades began to dip. A solution had to be found.

Living in affluent suburban America, it wasn’t a particularly complex problem to solve. My mother shuttled me to an optometrist in a strip mall. I read letters illuminated on the wall. Typically teenaged, I complained: glasses make me look ugly there aren’t any nice options I want contacts all the cool kids have them. Once all was said and done, I could finally see more than a few feet in front of me, and returned to straight-A nerd status.

Young Alex with glasses - Lost With Purpose travel blog

Looking like the proper Asian nerd that I was with my fly AF glasses. (Told you there were no cool options.)

13-year-old me thought nothing of it. 27-year-old me knows better.

Luxury out of reach

The reality is that not everyone in this world can pop over to their local glasses store and fix up their vision like I did.

From underserved parts of the United States to remote mountain towns in Pakistan, vision care can be wildly inaccessible for a variety of reasons. Ophthalmologist offices aren’t something you should expect wedged between the town tailor and general store in rural Armenia. Measuring eyesight and cutting lenses for patients require costly machinery not likely to be tucked away in the back of a Bangladeshi village doctor’s hut. Not every American can afford a doctor’s check up or a new pair of glasses.

Compared to more standard medical essentials like general practitioners, hospitals, and medications, vision care is a luxury out of reach for many. A nice-to-have, rather than a need-to-have.

Along the Amazon River in northwestern Brazil, for example, many residents must travel for more than 30 hours to access eye care in the state’s capital of Manaus. That’s a long way to go for an eye exam and a pair of glasses. Not everyone has the luxury of time—nor the financial means—to travel so far just for improved eyesight.

The good news: in the coming month, some of them won’t have to.

Amazon rainforest in Brazil

Photo by Neil Palmer of CIAT, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Eyes on Brazil

So yes, in case you didn’t get the hint… I’m heading to Brazil!

In the middle of June, I’ll travel to remote areas of the Amazon with OneSight, a non-profit committed to bringing good vision to everyone in the world, no matter where they are. Over the course of 30 years, OneSight has provided vision care to more than 10 million people in 46 countries, and they’re still going strong.

Treatment ranges from temporary clinics to permanent vision care centers in the United States and beyond (more than 90 at present, serving 15+ million people), but they’re trying out a new strategy for the Amazon.

Rather than making patients travel to reach a clinic, OneSight is bringing the clinic to them on the world’s first floating vision care clinic.

Two boats.

46 crew, translators, and ophthalmologists.

Two different remote locations.

500 patients per day, 2,500 in total.

Sweet.

Manaus, capital of Brazil's Amazonas state by Neil Palmer of CIAT

Photo by Neil Palmer of CIAT, licensed under CC BY 2.0

As I first read through OneSight’s invitation, I was thrilled. Sailing down the Brazilian Amazon is a sweet opportunity on its own, but I was more excited about the project’s motives.

Over the last two years, I’ve seen firsthand how lacking or unobtainable health care can be in remote areas. I’ve listened to quack doctors on islands prescribe every medicine under the sun for minor issues, seen cataracts in the eyes of young people in the high mountains, watched decrepit “ambulances” crawl (too) slowly along potholed roads.

Knowing there are people out there putting their minds to these problems gives me hope.

But, as I’ve said before, responsible travelers should question everything. Before I committed, I had to make sure OneSight was doing things right.

Houses in the Amazon, Brazil, by Neil Palmer of CIAT

Photo by Neil Palmer of CIAT, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Responsibility first

Just as I’ve seen the struggles of remote medical care, I’ve also witnessed how irresponsible NGOs and other volunteer efforts can be.

Oftentimes, foreign organizations barge into countries on a mission to save the “poor” people, and ultimately waste a lot of people’s time and money trying to solve problems they don’t actually understand. If they even spend the money on the issues they’re trying to solve, that is.

I was thrilled to be invited, but I wasn’t interested in sailing down the Amazon to take pictures of foreign saviors giving glasses to stereotypical tribals, nor promoting an unscrupulous NGO.

A long talk with OneSight—and a look into their financials—cleared my concerns.

Most importantly, this floating clinic effort is coordinated by two local Amazonian organizations: Barco Hospital Methodist Church and the Penido Burnier Foundation.

These partners are responsible for reaching out and informing local communities, providing local translators, and running the ground operations as we travel down the river. Basically, OneSight provides the finances, technology, and vision care experience, and the partners handle the rest.

In addition to making an effort to involve local organizations as much as possible, OneSight is doing as much as they can to ensure this endeavor is effective:

  • Local eye doctors will perform vision consultations on land, close to the patients’ homes.
  • Rather than using donated frames and lenses—which, in OneSight’s experience, are often cast aside because no one in this world wants to wear ugly glasses—they’ll bring a full supply of stylish frames for patients to choose.
  • Instead of taking several days to produce glasses—and risk patients not coming to pick them up or the glasses never reaching their final destination—glasses will be manufactured on one of the boats. Patients will be able to pick them up on the same day.

Unlike hindsight, foresight is never 20/20, but I’m comfortable with saying this operation seems well thought out, and I look forward to taking part.

But, wait… why are you going, Alex?

You mean I don’t strike you as the ophthalmologist type? Ye of little faith.

New continent - Alex with glasses in Bangladesh - Lost With Purpose travel blog

You mean having poor eyesight isn’t enough?

Fair enough. I’m a photographer and writer, not an eye doctor.

My camera and I are tagging along to document OneSight’s Amazonian adventure, and share what I see with the rest of the world to raise awareness about the importance of vision care for everyone.

Issues like vision care are often overlooked in favor of “sexier” problems such as improving women’s rights or solving world hunger. That’s not to say those aren’t important issues, but good eyesight is also essential to a person’s success and happiness. A single pair of glasses can make a huge impact on someone’s life, as many of us know firsthand.

As I sail down the Amazon, I’ll be raising awareness about the importance of eye care through my blog, Instagram, and Facebook. I encourage you to take part.

Brazilian Amazon by Neil Palmer of CIAT

Photo by Neil Palmer of CIAT, licensed under CC BY 2.0

How you can help bring sight to the world

You don’t need to have mad eye doctor skillz; anyone and everyone can help by donating to the cause.

For the cost of several lattes or a nice Sunday lunch, you can provide someone with perfect vision for years. $30 gets one patient a vision consultation and a sweet pair of glasses, but any amount makes a difference. I’ve started my own fundraiser; you can donate to it here.

(And no, none of your donations will end up in my pocket.)

Whether you’re able to donate or not, be sure to follow along on my journey, and spread the word. More people seeing the importance of good vision means more people getting the help they need to see.

 

Yay transparency! OneSight is covering the costs of my trip to the Amazon… but I’m doing this because it’s something I believe in. All thoughts and words belong to this very near-sighted nerd, never fear.

Alex

American by birth, British by passport, Filipina by appearance. Addicted to ice cream. Enjoys climbing trees, dislikes falling out. Has great fondness for goats which is usually not reciprocated.

More about Alex

21 thoughts on “Life update: a new continent? Say what?!

    Liza Jane says:

    What a great cause Alex, enjoy your new adventure!! I’ve wanted to volunteer with them before. Thanks for the inspiration and staying so committed to your dreams and passions!

    Alex says:

    Thanks Liza Jane 🙂 It’s not too hard to stay committed to something when it’s your passion! Perhaps this will be motivation for you to take the next step and volunteer with them in the future?

    Karen says:

    I’m excited for you and so interested to read about Brazil through your eyes. (Too many eyeglasses puns?)

    Alex says:

    There is no such thing as too many puns. Cheers Karen!

    Born a Backpacker says:

    I used to work for a nonprofit working in sub-Saharan Africa and saw how irresponsible and sometimes harmful other NGOs were. Thank you for doing your due diligence before introducing OneSight to your loyal followers. Per usual, I’m looking forward to hearing tales of your travels and seeing your incredible photos. Boa viagem!

    Alex says:

    I do my best to be a responsible traveler and blogger (though there’s still much room for improvement!). Thanks for taking the time to read my little announcement, and I look forward to sharing photos with you 🙂

    Pallab says:

    You are embarking on an exciting journey, Alex. Cruising on the river + Getting to help out People.
    Sweet Sweet Satisfaction !
    May the dopamine levels be always high with you ☺️😉

    Alex says:

    Helping others, bonding with nature, learning about new cultures… I think my dopamine levels will not be wanting at any point in the near future 😉 May it be the same for you, Pallab!

    Nejma says:

    Cannot wait to follow your new adventure!
    I had the same problem at school…

    Alex says:

    So you know how it feels to struggle along without glasses… and understand how important this mission is!

    Orangewayfarer says:

    And I read this as my eyes were paining as I sat in front of the laptop for a little more than 4 hours straight and I had to take a break and came to the break out zone in office and was checking IG. I am so so so happy for you Alex. If I may suggest, do read this book: the story teller as you explore the nuances of Brazil! My all time favorite for life and beyond.

    Alex says:

    The things we do to our eyes… no wonder so many of us have poor vision! Thanks for the book rec Madhurima, I’ll have to check it out 😀

    Vikas says:

    All the best for the new adventures! 😊😊

    Imran says:

    All the best Alex. Buy a drone or rent one for this. The pics in Amazon would be amazing. Stay safe and keep the updates coming.

    Alex says:

    Drooool, yes, I should pick up a drone in the near future… as yours reminded me! You and your family take care until the next time I see you 🙂

    Mureed Akbar says:

    Good luck to you and to OneSight

    Alex says:

    Thanks Mureed! Stay blessed 🙂

    Corry says:

    You’re an inspiration to all my favourite four-eyes! Enjoy cruising the Amazon and can’t wait to read/see all about it! Hope there is lotsa ice cream for you there. Açai flavour maybe? 😉

    Alex says:

    OMG I had my first cone of açaí ice cream today. SOOOOO GOOOOOD (and purple!) AHHHH.

    Oh, also, thanks! Heh, distracted by the joys of ice cream…

    Niko says:

    Hi Alex, very interesting and inspiring article! I will for sure consider making a donation.

    Incredible coincidence… before reading your post I was thinking to write you about One Dollar Glasses, a ONG that has much in common with OneSight, which is involved in the charity initiative Break-Out, a hitchhiking race going on right now – 13 hours are left to go.

    I just wrote you a mail to tell you more about. Cheers!
    (I posted the same on your fb page)

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