This girl’s story proves you can still travel on Contiki with a chronic illness


This article was created for The Travel Project by Jessica Pala Dunbar, a 31 year old who has done 6 amazing Contiki tours, 3 of which were done after being diagnosed with a rare, chronic neuromuscular disease.

I was born into a family of travellers and truly felt the pull of wanderlust at a very young age. As soon as I was old enough to work and travel on my own that was it - every thought was consumed by all the places I wanted to go.

I managed to explore some of Europe, Canada and the United States and never felt more at home exploring foreign streets or rushing through an airport with my passport in my hand. Even when I became a full time teacher I still managed to plan holiday escapes and continually add to my never ending list of places I wanted to go. Then, suddenly, my life drastically changed.

One day I was an energetic Kindergarten teacher with a non-stop lifestyle and the next I couldn't see properly, talking was difficult and I couldn't swallow my food.

Rushed to the hospital it was all put down to some dodgy virus and some vertigo. But I didn’t get better. I just got worse. I started to have falls and sometimes couldn’t stand up and walk at all. My eye would droop and I wouldn’t be able to see out of it and my smile started to not look right. Doctor after doctor, never ending tests and blood work the doctors finally worked out that it seemed like I had a rare autoimmune disease that makes your muscles shut down and not work sporadically.

My primary doctor didn’t think my upcoming Contiki trip to Europe would be a good idea considering I was on medication every four hours and there was no way to tell if my symptoms would improve or get worse. I was devastated, but told him I needed the trip to look forward to and asked if we could play it by ear over the next two months before I was due to leave.

Long story short – I got to go. It was hard adapting to travelling with chronic illness, managing medications, fatigue and symptoms but with the help and support of my travel buddy, tour manager, bus driver and new Contiki family I was able to celebrate the new year watching Prague’s first snow fall for 2016 and participate in as much as I possibly could and more. Our TM’s were amazing at preparing me for the day and making me feel so comfortable even on my difficult days. I realised that I needed to do as much as I could while i could because anything can change in a minute and I didn’t want to have any regrets.


My most memorable moment however since being diagnosed is hiking to the top of an ancient Mayan Temple on New Years morning to watch the first sunrise of the year. Something I previously thought would have been impossible considering how sick I had been just months previously.

I had my tour mates supporting and encouraging me, holding my hand to physically support me and even offer to piggy back me to the top and back if they had to.

In getting sick I got to experience the best moments of my life. My diagnosis gave me the extra push to get out of my comfort zone and tick more places off my list. Without that push I would never have met so many wonderful people who I now call friends or tried so many things that I previously thought I had all the time in the world to do.


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  • Miss Kitty Moo

    How inspiring! I agree with your sentiment, to live life as much as you can while you still can. I hope you can tick all your bucket list items off

  • Sarah Fiore

    Your story is truly inspiring. I hope you continue to follow your dreams and travel to every corner of the world. “Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire.” – Jennifer Lee