A few years back, Tony and I walked across the border from Belize to Guatemala. I remember so vividly the bridge that we were walking under just inside the Guatemalan border when we passed a mother pushing her roughly eight-year-old child in a wheelchair that was four times too big for her and looked to cost about $70. I will never forget their eyes as we passed, making direct contact with me, heavy and full of struggle. I wanted so badly to buy a new wheelchair for this young girl, to give her mine right then and there, but knew that if I did, it would likely be stolen from her within the day by a gang or some political power. I knew her fate was inevitable, and I think of her often, wondering why she had to be born there and I was born in the US.
I’ve been on my sabbatical for almost seven weeks now, and traveled many of times before this trip. But the past few days have been some of the most difficult for me when it comes to accessibility. I’ve spent a few days really absorbing some of the events that have unfolded and am trying to understand why I’m struggling so much. Let’s be honest – this is not the first place I’ve traveled to where accessibility is a challenge.
We arrived into Montenegro mid-afternoon with our rental car. We needed to return it near the airport and parking by our AirBNB wasn’t really an option, so I dropped off my two sisters who took as many bags as they could and I returned the car at the airport. When I arrived, the wheelchair was still in the trunk of the SUV, so I parked the car and crawled to the backseat, where I was able to pull the wheelchair over the seat and push it out the side door. It was a long process to get back to the AirBNB. I had to find an ATM to pay the taxi, find the taxi driver, find the AirBNB, and then climb the two flights of stairs up to our room. We were staying in the Old Town of Kotor which is covered in cobblestone (and doesn’t do well with a wheelchair). It was, however, quite lovely in the evening with restaurants lining the streets, which we enjoyed both nights we were there.
On our full day in Kotor, Montenegro, we had another relaxing day by the beach absorbing the scenery of the mountains. I was grateful that we were taking it slow that day, as the city itself was nestled in the side of a mountain, it was virtually impossible for me to walk (or wheel) around. The following morning, we had a three-hour bus ride into Dubrovnik, Croatia.
The bus ride itself was exactly as expected, just like a Greyhound bus in the US. And when we arrived at the bus station, we took a seven-minute Uber to where we thought our AirBNB was (and yes, they have Uber in Croatia). Our driver dropped us off in what appeared to be an empty parking lot that had a long flight of cement stairs on either side. We were messaging with our AirBNB host, attempting to find the apartment and a path that did not involve taking a wheelchair down what I would guess was close to 50 steps. After many attempts, and much frustration, I started the climb down the stairs on my butt while one of my sisters handled the wheelchair. About 15 steps in, the host finally found us and quite literally refused to let me crawl any further. He picked me up like a baby and carried me the rest of the stairs down, around a corner, and then back up a hill so steep some cars have trouble making the climb.
A few meters further and we arrived at the AirBNB, where I crawled three flights of stairs up to get to our unit. I couldn’t really follow the path back to where we started if I had to, given the stairs, turns, hills, and the wonderful man who carried me. But what I do know is that we are staying on the side of a mountain. Literally the side of a mountain with a giant hill that leads to a road that leads to another hill going back up. For what it’s worth, the views from up here are phenomenal.
That evening, we made the reverse journey down so we could visit the Dubrovnik Old Town. Like most old towns, it’s covered in cobblestone but is also lined with amazing restaurants, so it’s a Catch 22 for me. I suppose beauty never comes without some hidden troubles. We took an Uber back to our AirBNB that night and the driver so graciously pushed me up the hill that he wasn’t able to get his car up.
If you’ve gotten nothing else out of this post by now, just know that I am in a place in my trip where there are intense hills covered in cobblestone. This is one of the most limiting, freedom revoking places a wheelchair user can be. There’s literally nowhere to go without help, and even then, it’s a struggle. I worry about part of my wheelchair breaking on the cobblestone and suffer from the guilt of having someone help me through difficult paths, which I know can be a challenge for a perfectly abled person.
The next morning, we had to get to a bus stop for a day trip into Bosnia. Our directions were indicating a 10-minute walk from our apartment to the bus stop. We got to the bottom of the hill and started walking. There was no way I could do this walk on my own, and my frustrations started to come out in some unhealthy ways. I didn’t want to need someone’s help. I didn’t want to give my independence away. I was ready to give up on the trip. We settled on calling an Uber to bring us to the bus stop and I committed to myself to take some time to understand what I was feeling and why it was so emotional for me.
I had a total of six hours on the roundtrip bus tour to Mostar, Bosnia, where we experienced similar hills and cobblestones, to think about and process my frustrations with my wheelchair. I’ve spent the last seven weeks mostly on my own, in places that I’ve researched and made sure I could navigate. I’ve learned what my physical limitations are and have become incredibly comfortable with them, knowing that it will be impossible for me to see the entire world, but learning to appreciate the things I am able to experience. I know I’ll never climb the highest mountains or surf the biggest waves, and that acceptance process has been a huge part of my journey. I am at peace with it though, and I know that of all the people who walk this planet, I am still one of the absolute most lucky, and I don’t ever want to lose sight of that.
In the past several weeks, I’ve felt a freedom like I’ve never felt before, both emotionally and physically. I’ve been able to go when I wanted and slow down when I needed to, so suddenly being in a place where I am at the mercy of others to even leave our apartment is crippling. I suddenly hate the confines that my wheelchair has given me.
So at the end of my day, I realized that I was and am outrageously frustrated. Frustrated and angry. I am angry that there are athletes training for the Olympics while I cannot get to a bus station on my own. I am angry that I was enjoying so much freedom, and because of a hill and beautiful cobblestone, I feel more trapped than I have in years. I am angry that I am so incredibly lucky and at the same time so incredibly upset about my disability. And I am angry for the little girl in Guatemala, who will likely never experience the bittersweet frustration I am going through, and deserves it just as much as I do.
Through my personal journey, I am learning to sit with my feelings and let them become a part of me, for as long as they need to. Today, I sit on our balcony in Dubrovnik, Croatia overlooking the Adriatic Sea. It wasn’t worth the effort for me to get to the beach. The frustration and anger I have had are sitting next to me, and we are starting to understand each other. Together, we are appreciating what we do have, and that is the ability to challenge ourselves and grow when even the hardest things present themselves. I cannot and will not allow myself to ever forget how fortunate I am. I might not walk the sands of those beaches below me, but you better believe I will enjoy every damn view of them from up here. Of all the people on this planet, I still cannot believe I am the one that gets to live this outrageously spectacular life.
To receive updates on new blog posts, please subscribe here or follow me on social media.