Hello my readers,
Hope you are well. I’m researching new camera and planning a new trip! Yay 😀 but more to that later, now let’s begin what you been waiting for!
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Today I am featuring one SOLO traveler and his unique story.
So for the past year and a half, I have been traveling to various parts of Asia and Eastern Europe. Now if you don’t know me already, my name is Thiru and I guess what makes me unique to other travelers out there is that I’m actually in a wheelchair!
With every up comes the down, and in this blog post, I wanted to share with you the top 5 things I learned while traveling across Asia in a wheelchair, alone.
1) There’s no such thing as a pavement
One of the very first things I noticed when I arrived in Chennai (South India) back in August 2015 was that there was no way on earth I was going to be able to use the pavements. In fact, this has been the case almost everywhere across Asia including Thailand and the Philippines too.
Why? Well because the pavements are steep (with no ramps of course), they are often broken, and sometimes I wonder (especially in India) how even able-bodied people use them!
In fact as one might expect, the streets and roads in Asia overall is not as advanced as Western (and even Eastern) Europe. Roads are often broken, people rarely ever observe any street rules, and you’ll hear cars honking for minute things like someone approaching a turn.
So how do I counter not being able to use pavements? Well, as they say, adaptation is survival, so that’s exactly what I did. I started using the roads instead, with the cars and motorbikes and everything else!
Now this might sound dangerous, in fact, in a country like India it IS dangerous, but somehow, with the tact and the intuition that I quickly developed, I learned to drive my wheelchair on the side of the roads with all the other vehicles.
Now I’m sure there were many drivers in Asia who almost had a heart attack when they saw a disabled guy driving along the side of the street without a worry in the world, and I still get stares now on an almost daily basis when people see me on the road, however, I have slowly (and reluctantly) become used to it.
Whilst it can be very scary sometimes, especially when I’m wheeling on the side of the road in the dark with no lights attached, I have learned some very important rules to keep myself safe. These are simple but very important rules. ALWAYS look when turning right or left, however slight it is, however much you think no one is there.
And I’ve now been smart enough to attach a light to the back of my wheelchair so it lights in dark (finally yah!).
2) You’ll be praised for every small thing you do
I’d like to take you to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand for me to best demonstrate this point.
So there I was, working out in the gym, doing my usual arm curls and imagining myself getting hunky and pulling the Thai chicks very soon, when all of a sudden, I see a guy coming running towards me from the other side of the gym. I have to admit I was taken a little by surprise. I wasn’t afraid at all because he had this very wide grin on him the whole time.
He stops right in front of me, huffing and puffing and says “YOU’RE AMAZING!!”. So I stopped my bicep curl halfway and said “what? wha-what you mean?”. He then explained
how it’s amazing that someone in a wheelchair can get to the gym and isn’t stuck at home all day and how he admires me and that I’m such an inspiration to him. I, of course, thanked him but I was thinking inside how pathetic he expected me to be. Did he expect me to just be stuck in a room all day crying because I can’t walk??
In fact, this is a recurring theme I see happening to me across Asia and even parts of Eastern Europe too.
I’ve had people applauding me and saying “well done” once I crossed the street, Thai girls in clubs telling me how amazing I am and how much of a real inspiration I am because I’m in a club, a girl once say to be in a bar “I can see you have a really great heart”, how exactly she knew this from across the dancefloor I will never know, as well as people just generally staring at me everywhere I am, most likely since I am wheeling alone and without any help and they are wondering how the heck a guy in a wheelchair manages to do everything alone.
On top of this, I’ve had a beggar in Romania literally come up to me and force (that’s right force, when I pulled my hand away he literally forced it back towards me) coins into my hands, and another very painful but memorable experience in Palawan in the Philippines when a woman asked me who I was traveling with, when I told her I was alone her response was “you shouldn’t be traveling alone…look at you…you can’t walk”
In fact, I think there is a very sad and deep reasoning behind this that often makes me very upset and deeply sorrowful when I’m in Asia.
That is the fact that if you’re a disabled person who has been born and raised up in Asia you’re life is likely not very easy at all. In a place like India, if you’re in a wheelchair, I struggle to think how you’re even going to get food alone as there are literally stairs everywhere. Now if we move away from that and think of schools, universities, or even something as mundane as going out with friends on a normal day or night out (to the shopping centre to hang out with friends in the day, or to bars and clubs with friends at night, like any normal person growing up would do), and things start to feel somewhat more depressing.
What’s worse than the actual physical limitations, however, which in itself is huge, are peoples somewhat pathetic attitudes. You’re seen as an object of pity and sympathy and not as a real person who is capable of things like everyone else. You’re seen as someone who should get everything done for them instead of someone actually capable of doing things themselves. In fact, I realized this very strongly in India where I felt everyone wanted to do things for me and refused to let me do anything myself (such as even simply even going to the sink and washing my own hands), it felt extremely claustrophobic and like I was being controlled. And to add to this, very little is expected from you, and as all human beings you absorb things from around you. So if everyone thinks you can’t do much, you may well start to believe it!
The word “disabled” is literally put on you. You’re exactly that, unabled, not just in the physical sense, but in almost every sense. In the sense of being able to do anything at all, whether it’s to think for yourself, chase after your dreams, or even just have a basic and normal day to day life like others.
I remember whilst being in India (as well as some occasions in Thailand and Philippines too) just feeling an immense sense of sadness but also an overpowering sense of gratitude that despite the fact that I was born disabled, I was raised in a country like England, where I had immense opportunities, laws to protect me, and where even though everything isn’t perfect, I still have a perfectly good chance to having a happy and fulfilling life. I failed to see (though I could be totally wrong) how this could be as easily possible for a disabled person growing up in Asia. The sad truth in that you have immense physical and societal barriers to contend with. A true force for any disabled person to be reckoned with.
However, on top of the sadness, there was a sense of real anger, anger, and bitterness. Anger and bitterness at how the whole majority of society could just simply sit back, watch, and do nothing full well knowing that a segment (however small it may be) of their own people cannot access shops, streets, schools, buses, trains, bars, clubs, and many many other places without any real effort to make a change. That a whole part of their own people cannot lead a basic normal day to day life and yet they had absolutely no inclination on doing anything about it. People’s attitude just seemed to be “Yes it’s not perfect for you, but just get on with it!”
Now I know some of you may be thinking “Do they actually have the funds and the infrastructure in place in these countries to make that possible?” Well imagine this, that 50% of the country is disabled, would they then make those changes?? Of course they would! They would have no choice whatsoever, as without any changes 50% of the population would not be able to function. So from this, we can only conclude that the issue is the incentive, rather than money or resources. It’s a sad truth that with only a small proportion of people affected, a small bunch of people who are rolling around in wheelchairs, blind, deaf etc, the government and mass majority of people have very little incentive to make any changes, and until they do, I shudder to think of how the lives of disabled people in these countries will ever improve.
3) You’ll be stared at almost everywhere you go, ESPECIALLY if you’re with western foreigners
I touched on this point above, but I thought I would quickly mention it again here.
So yes, one thing that happens to me almost everywhere in Asia is that I get stared at almost everywhere I go. The smaller the city and fewer foreigners there are, the more I get stared at. This is natural I guess, these poor guys get hit with a double dosage of “never seen before”, one for me being a foreigner, and two for being a foreigner in a wheelchair who is rolling around by himself totally unaided.
It can be frustrating at times, and at first, it was quite hard to get used to, but I think over time I have certainly become more and more accustomed to it.
What puts the staring on steroids, however, is in places like India when you’re a dude in a wheelchair traveling with white foreigners. A lot of people cannot even comprehend how a guy in a wheelchair can even have anything to do with anyone as highly valued (by them) as western foreigners.
An occasion in South India best illustrates this point.
So I was with two guys I met from a hostel in Kerala and we were traveling together to Goa. After leaving the hostel in Goa we were looking for a tuk-tuk (or auto as they say in India) to get us to the station. The three of us were together and since we had no luck in finding a tuk-tuk I suggested we split for a while so we could search for a tuk-tuk separately. As I left them to search for a tuk-tuk, I saw two police officers approaching them and talking to them. I eventually found a tuk-tuk and brought it to them so we could all get in. Once we were inside they told me the story of how the police officers approached them and asked them if I was giving them trouble. Once they explained that I was their friend they apparently just looked at them in shock for a few minutes without saying anything.
On another occasion, I was traveling with my friend from England who joined me for a month in India (who also happened to be white). We spent a few days in Pondicherry before leaving back for England, where we met a nice elderly couple on their retirement. What frustrated me was the fact that they kept on accusing me of being his tour guide when I told them on like three different occasions that I wasn’t!
The conversation went something like this:
“Why didn’t you show him the temple!”
“I’m not his tour guide”
“oooh I see”
5 minutes later in conversation with the exact same person…
“Why didn’t you show him the (some other attraction I forgot)”
“I’m not his tour guide”
To make it worse, the guy even said “well done” when I told him Dan (my friend) was who I was with. I was literally being congratulated for having a white friend like it was some sort of achievement!
4) You’ll likely need to pay more for accommodation and transport
Whilst I was backpacking I was managing in most hostels fairly OK (just about!), but this was often from other peoples’ help lifting me up and down stairs if there was any. However, when I was a digital nomad thing were very different.
When you’re actually living in a country for any length of time (be it a month or 6 months) you need certain amenities when traveling in a wheelchair. Things like ramps, lifts, and toilets you can actually get in to take a shit! And in places like Asia, these often cost more money. The good thing is, it’s pretty cheap there generally as even when it’s more expensive it’s still relatively cheap by European standards.
Another thing you’ll notice is that public transport, both buses, and trains are often closed to you. The idea of having stairs and lifts in stations are most likely non-exist, out of order, or only in certain stations and cannot be relied upon. The concept of having ramps on public buses is totally foreign. Fortunately again, taxis and Ubers in most Asian countries are ridiculously cheap and people like me in a wheelchair can still use those pretty easily (in fact despite a lot of the tuk-tuk drivers being not very nice people, most of the taxi and Uber drivers I’ve met in Asia have been extremely polite and very very helpful)!
5) You’ll meet some lovely, kind, and genuine people and things will get better!
Now I know everything above can read for somewhat of a depressing read, and it may look like I’m being really negative, so I’d like to focus this last point on all the great, uplifting and positive things I’ve experienced while travelling in a wheelchair across Asia, because there certainly have been many.
Now like in any society, you have those that are not very nice (to put it gently), but you also have those that go above and beyond their call of duty to really help those around them. Here are some amazing and uplifting experience’s I’ve had while traveling around Asia:
– An Ola driver (another version of Uber in India) refusing to let me out when I arrived at the destination due to the rain. He refused to charge me extra for staying inside and even turned away customers waiting to get in telling them that he won’t let me budge until the rain stops. A truly great man! To see a tuk-tuk or auto driver doing that in India or anywhere in most of Asia would be a daydream (I’m sure there are some nice ones out there, I just haven’t met them yet).
– Kindness in Thailand and the Philippines which I saw everywhere. People buying me water in Thailand when I was just sitting on the side eating, with nothing but a smile and then walking away expecting nothing from me at all, just pure giving without expecting anything in return. Or in the Philippines, if I ever had to use the public buses (which I rarely ever did), even while I’m dismantling my wheelchair outside, someone would move away from their seat and leave a space for me.
– Again in Thailand, once a Muslim Thai couple saw me wheeling on the side of the road in the dark without a light. The poor dude literally followed me on his motorbike (driving slowly along at my pace) on the side, almost acting as protection so people would hit them first instead of me. They waited for me to get to the small food stall I was going to, and while I was eating, they went to the closest open shop and brought me some lights and even brought sellotape to attach it to the side of my wheelchair. It literally brought tears to my ears, that this couple, who never met me before, sacrificed so much for me and just wanted to ensure my wellbeing!
– I saw quite significant improvements in the Philippines, seeing many places with ramps, lifts, and generally good access. Now, unfortunately, this was mostly confined to the more richer areas within a city, but progress is progress and is certainly more than what I’ve seen in many other developing countries (unfortunately India and Sri Lanka is one of them).
– A couple of young boys in India who gave me and two Israeli girls traveling with me a free lift to our destination whilst we were in Manali. It was pouring down with rain and the mud was getting to my wheelchair. Of Course, we were initially hesitant to get in, but saw no choice, and figured it was 3 of us against 2 of them.
Their exact words were “we will show you what a true Indian is like!” and boy did they mean it! They took us to the destination and refused to take even a single penny (rupee actually) from me even when I tried to force it into their hands. They truly were true Indians for sure and true gentlemen who I can never and will never forget!
So that pretty much sums up this post, hope you all liked it and that it provides an insight into the world of a guy traveling alone in a wheelchair. Feel free to leave comments or queries if you have any. Will be more than happy to read your thoughts and ideas and share some more of mine with you if you want too.
Adios! Peace and Love 🙂
Words by Thiru
Edits by Anna xx