Aurélie, The Wheelchair Using Globetrotter
"For the first time, in April 2015, I traveled far away from France. For years, I wanted to discover other cultures. So when I finished my studies I didn't hesitate and bought a flight ticket to Japan. Three amazing weeks! During these vacations in the country of the rising sun, I caught the travel bug and I realised this passion was about to become a central part of my life." That's how Aurélie's amazing story started a few years ago.
Already The first Step Of The Journey Was Filled With Hurdles
To achieve my dream I decided to act! With my partner we decided to apply for a New Zealand one year visa. We wanted to lay our eyes on the stunning landscapes and learn about the rich culture of this country. Because of my handicap I struggled to obtain my visa.
This battle was exhausting, doctors I met made me feel like I wasn’t worth it, and at one point I almost threw in the towel. But finally, after a long and tough process, I got my visa. So I decided to share my experience in order to show others that it is possible. That's how I started my travel blog "I wheel travel" in which I share my adventures from around the world and report the accessibility (or inaccessibility!) of the places I have been to.
As I have a hereditary spastic paraplegia, I use a manual wheelchair outside, a walking stick in my home and I am able to climb some steps with another person's help or with an handrail. Faced by the lack of information regarding accessibility I wanted to contribute to a solution.
First Stop New Zealand, The Wheelchair Friendly Country
Once we arrived in New Zealand, we decided to travel slowly and to immerse ourselves into the local culture by living in different families for a few months before settling down in Wellington. We worked a few hours per day for those families which warmly welcomed us.
Two weeks here, one week there, we roamed the country, hopping from home to home. Volcanoes, impressive mountains, hypnotising blue lakes, surprising geothermal activity: I discovered many wonders in a wheelchair friendly country. I even visited a glowworms cave which is fully wheelchair accessible!
Over these months I also discovered another facet of travelling that I am fond of: meeting people. Indeed there is so much more than those postcard landscapes to see: life‘s moments to share, a kaleidoscope of new experiences to delight and the pleasure of a warm welcome despite the handicap. Over the span of a few months, I lived on a dairy farm, I dyed leather couches, made some data-entry, helped to give cooking class and nurtured lambs.
My fears regarding my handicap were quickly swept away by the kindness of these people. They have done everything they could to make things as easy for me as possible. For example, they gave tasks that I can do by staying seated. One family even built a makeshift slope for me to access the house. Sometimes my handicap was even a catalyst for new experiences and encounters. Like, for example, when I rode a horse and tried disabled ski for the first time in my life. These are powerful, happy and meaningful memories.
And On To Asia
After one year there, we left New Zealand and continued our journey. We travelled through south-east Asia for three months: Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Myanmar. This part of the world is not renowned for its accessibility but my desire for discoveries was stronger than my fears.
And I was right: This Asian journey was so memorable! As soon as we landed in Kuala Lumpur, on our first day we were completely immersed in a new world. Surrounded by a wet heat sticking to our skins, we drowned ourselves in a world of diverse ethnic groups. Where Malaysian, Indian, Chinese and Muslim cultures coexist and feed off each others.
A few weeks later we left Malaysia and headed to Tana Toraja, an Indonesian indigenous land on the island of Sulawesi. What a discovery! This part of Indonesia is remote and difficult to visit for a wheelchair user. But still, this was a remarkable step of our journey. Landscapes are superb and, above all, the Tana Toraja culture is so interesting and astounding! Up high in the mountains, mostly unaware of their own specific culture until the 20th century, Torajas live in traditional - and to our Western eyes oddly shaped - houses called "tongkonans" surrounded by rice fields in which people work while buffalos are bathing.
In the Torajas' culture, life and death are always intertwined. Toraja people continue to maintain relationship with the dead even a long time after their deaths. Funeral sites are surprising and funeral ceremonies are astonishing: Both fascinating but also disturbing and brutal.
After such an intense week in Tana Toraja we left Sulawesi to go to Bali island and its cultural capital Ubud. In the streets, the smell of incense stimulates our noses and the sound of the gamelans, traditional balinese orchestras, please our ears. Many temples, guarded by dragons and other creatures, appear in every street and guesthouse. Here we are, experiencing the Hindu culture of Indonesia!
These few months in south-east Asia were so rich in wonders, but we came across some accessibility issues. There is still a lot to do in south-east Asia: Public transport, roads and sidewalks are often not wheelchair friendly, finding accessible restrooms is challenging and crossings to the islands by boats that are unsuitable for disabled people. However, many initiatives regarding accessible tourism are bubbling up at the moment. And Singapore is a paradise for disabled people. It is clearly the most accessible place I have ever been! There is even an inclusive neighbourhood called "the enabling village". Training centre, fitness club, sidewalks, computing room, supermarket, restaurant: Everything is designed with disabled access in mind; it’s so well conceived that able-bodied probably won’t notice.
Encouraging Others To Explore The World
So south-east Asia is not the most accessible part of the world but it is still possible to book a journey via a travel agency specialised in accessible tourism. During my trip I collaborated with some of them in order to help them improve and create accessible offers for people with reduced mobility. I can tell you that some people work hard to make travels in their homelands accessible for all. Those countries have so much to offer that it would be a shame not to enjoy it!
In three months we discovered many cultures living together, we snorkelled and dived surrounded by colourful fish, we admired the jungle plants and wildlife, we chilled on heavenly beaches and, above all, we met amazing people. So if I had to do it again I would do it without hesitating for a minute!
Guest post by Aurélie Loaec. Aurélie is originally from Brittany/France. She used to work in the law industry but she caught the travel bug. So now she tries to be on the road as often as possible, backpacking with her wheelchair and reporting on accessibility. Aurélie runs the beautiful website I Wheel Travel, which is bursting with inspiration and advice for other travelers with a disability. You can also follow her on Facebook and Instagram.