Meet Annimal (Ann) and Polkahontas (Darrah), an inspirational duo who on February 1 set out on a 2,000-km trek from Zhongshan to Beijing for charity. They two shared their story with Shanghaiist and talked more about “The Walk”, their experiences and the charities they support.
First a brief backgrounder on the two: Darrah is a professional tennis player from New Mexico and Ann is from Zhongshan. Ann and her Irish husband are the co-founders of a charity project they started with Luo Dong, the leader of Zhongshan Volunteer for the Disabled. The project, formed in 2010, is called Sunshine Is Beside You—The Zhongshan Poor and Severely Disabled Families Aid. Darrah is walking for the New Day Foster Home for orphans with disabilities in China, while Ann will be walking for her charity.
Here’s what they had to say about the journey, how it started and where it’s taking them next.
Could you tell us where are you right now? How much of your trek have you concluded so far?
Ann: We are outside Hangzhou. We just took two rest days in the city and they were magical. Before departure, we set our goal to walk 2,000 kilometers. As of today, we have walked 1,320 kilometeres.
How did you (Ann and Darrah) meet?
Darrah: I was out on a date one night last summer when we ran into a man named Gordon Styles, who told me about two men who rode across China to benefit people with disabilities. One of those men is Ann’s husband, Jerry Grey. When I told Jerry that I was planning to do The Walk, we went to his apartment to look at maps. There I met Ann, and she helped me plan the route even before she agreed to walk with me.
How did you come up with the idea to raise awareness for your charities by doing a sponsored trek?
Darrah: The only way I can explain this is by saying that the universe knocked me over the head with this idea until I accepted it. I wanted to do something amazing to help New Day Foster Home, a foster home for children with disabilities, and the idea just appeared in my head and heart. Regardless of my fears, I couldn’t say no because I knew I would regret that decision forever.
Ann: When I heard Darrah wanted to do The Walk, I recognized it as a great opportunity. I planned to raise awareness for my own charity, The Sunshine is Beside You, which supports and connects the families of people with disabilities so that they can encourage and support each other. I decided to do The Walk so that I can spread the name and idea of this charity to people all across China.
What inspired you to walk for these two causes together?
Darrah: I wanted to walk for New Day South because I absolutely fell in love with the children the second I met them. I saw the love shared by the children, nannies, and volunteers at New Day South and I promised myself that I would do something to help keep that love flowing.
Ann: Since New Day Foster Home helps children with disabilities and The Sunshine is Beside You helps connect the families of people with a disabilities, our two causes have a lot in common.
Can you recall a specific event that motivated or inspired you to organise this sponsored walk for your charities especially?
Darrah: Absolutely. When I first had the idea to walk from New Day South in Zhongshan to New Day North, which is on the outskirts of Beijing, I was terrified to give voice to the idea. After all, it is a NUTZ-O idea! I’m 23 years old, I didn’t know anything about the language or culture of China, and I came here to teach and play tennis! Who the hell do I think I am, taking on such an impossible feat? In the midst of my fear and self-doubt, I attended the funeral of Feng Ming, one of the New Day South babies who contracted a fatal infection after a routine surgery. Through experiencing the grief of losing Feng Ming and witnessing the love everyone has for him and every other New Day child, I mustered the courage to finally give life to The Walk.
Ann: My husband Jerry rode his bike almost 5,000 kilometers last year to benefit The Sunshine is Beside You. I wanted to beat him. Ha! Actually, his ride inspired me to take this walk to benefit our charity. On a personal level, I turned 40 last year and I wanted to take on a challenge to prove to myself that the best years of my life are yet to come.
When you were planning ‘The Walk’, how did you map out your trek?
Darrah: Ann did a great job of planning the route of our journey. Every once in a while I would stand next to her and stare at the Chinese maps as if I was helping…. It made me feel less incompetent.
Ann: First we talked about going straight north, but there were too many mountains. We talked about going along the coast, but that would be SUCH a long journey. We decided on our route to avoid the mountains, see part of the coast, and to experience the beauty of China.
How come you chose Beijing as your final destination?
Darrah: My original goal was to walk to New Day North in Nangfang.
Ann: I wanted to continue the journey to Tiananmen Square for the historical element. We began our journey at Sun Zhongshan’s statue, and it will be great symmetry to finish at Tiananmen.
How have you prepared yourselves for 2,600 km of trekking?
Ann: As soon as we started planning, I began walking every day. I’ve never done sports before in my life, so it was difficult for my body to adjust. We did quite a few trial walks and overnight trips to cities and villages in the Zhongshan area. I also started eating a lot more.
Darrah: Ann did a great job finding us sponsors. We also planned and held a few fundraisers. Before I left I really just wanted to immerse myself in the important relationships in my life. I spent most of my time with the New Day South children and volunteers. I spent a lot of time on the couch watching movies and eating good food with my China family because I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that for a long time. It was great at the time, but I wouldn’t suggest preparing for a 2,000+ kilometer walk this way because it’ll catch up to you later when you switch from couch potato to walking a half marathon each day (ouch!)
How has ‘The Walk’ gone so far? What are your experiences from when you first had the, as you call it, crazy idea to walk from Zhongshan to Beijing, to where you are right now?
Ann: It is good. We’ve had some difficulties, but we’ve also had a lot of laughs and we have seen a lot of beauty. Part of that beauty is in the volunteers we’ve met along the way. While we were in Guangdong many local volunteers hosted us. They encouraged us so much with their kind words. I never knew that I could inspire people and impact their lives in such a way. I’m very happy I made the decision to walk.
Darrah: Looking back, I had no idea what I was in for before departing. How can you really prepare for something you’re not sure you can do?….for something you’ve never done before? We prepared every way we knew how, and equipped ourselves with everything we might need. Some of the problems we’ve experienced were foreseen and others that came as a surprise. Despite that, the people we’ve met along the way have made the journey incredible. I had my tennis racquets sent up to me last week and they have been an absolute game-changer for me. Now I can play tennis with children when we take breaks or stop for lunch. It has been so much fun to have my sticks and spread my love of tennis.
How do you raise awareness about your charities while you’re traveling? Have you been able to raise any local awareness as well?
Ann: Yes! Many people have pledged 1 RMB/Kilometer to our causes. We are raising money for our Zhongshan charities, as well as spreading the idea of volunteerism in each place we visit.
Darrah: We have met a lot of great volunteers who have helped us along the way. We talk with them about their programs (many are already helping people with disabilities) and encourage them in their efforts. I was surprised to learn that many people in some of the small villages we’ve passed through don’t even know what a volunteer is. I like to think that simply exposing people to the idea of volunteering to help people with disabilities will get the ball rolling. We’ve seen a lot of disabled and mentally ill people along the way. We always help them in small ways if we can, whether it’s giving them some food or just a smile and our time. We can’t carry much with us, so we don’t have much to give other than positivity and encouragement. That’s enough, though.
Are there any personal skills that have come in particularly handy whilst walking to Beijing and interacting with the locals?
Ann: We are acquiring the important skills along the way. I was never able to walk this far before. My body has become strong. My difficulties have been mostly physical, while Darrah’s are more emotional or mental. I am able to walk without letting anything bother me. I don’t think, I just walk.
Darrah: Patience. Patience. Patience. Unfortunately, I posses none of this. I get antsy waiting for water to boil. Honestly, I am in culture shock 100% of the time, so I am often challenged to take deep breaths before reacting to situations. It can be trying.
Could you share with us what your most physically or mentally challenging moments were up till now? And, what challenging aspects of your hike do you expect to experience in the future?
Darrah: Leaving my China family (a group of mostly foreigners and some Chinese people who live outside of Zhongshan) was SO difficult for me. It sounds stupid, but I didn’t take into account the fact that I’d be lonely on this trip. Before Hangzhou, I hadn’t spoken to a foreigner face to face in almost two months. Thankfully, Annimal is great company. I don’t want to think about future challenges. I just want to think about ice cream and seeing my mom in Beijing (She booked a ticket this week!)
Ann: My biggest physical challenge in the beginning was having blisters. Since I have never trained before, I didn’t have callouses and my feet were in pain. Now the blisters are gone but my joints hurt pretty bad by the end of the day. As far as future challenges, I think it will be difficult to get to my 3rd story apartment when I am in a wheelchair after The Walk. Ha!
Do you have any travel stories you would like to share with Shanghaiist’s readers?
Darrah: There are so many! I can’t choose one. Go to my blog or check us out on Facebook on our page titled Border to Border for the goods.
You’ve said that apart from raising awareness for your charities, you would also like to convey an inspirational and motivational message: “Ni keyi”. Do you have any words of advice for someone who would like to pursue a similar goal?
Darrah: Prepare yourself every way that you know how. Talk to people who are smarter and more experienced than you. Be humble enough to ask for help and give yourself a lot of grace. You’ll be asking a lot of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. You’ll rise to the occasion more often than not. When you don’t, shrug it off and try again tomorrow.
Ann: Make up your mind. Prepare yourself and ask for help. Don’t think. Just do it.
Go to The Walk’s website to make an online pledge or, if you’d like to help by donating to the New Day Foster Home directly, click here. To donate to the Sunshine is Beside You Foundation directly, please transfer your pledge to the account information below.
Account name: Liang Yuhua
Account number: 722 457 421 988
Bank of account: Bank of China Zhongshan Branch
Address: No. 18 Zhongshan 3rd Road Bank of China Building
SWIFT code: BKCHCNBJ44T
Please mark “donation”
By Evelien van der Veer