“Things I Learnt Whilst Backpacking Around The World In A Wheelchair…”

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The End

It takes six months to get your life back on track after an extended backpacking adventure, so I hear from many a former backpacker. It’s taken my girlfriend and I precisely thirteen months to get to where we’re at right now – still living out of a backpack.

Out of the windowThere has been some progress, of course, since April 15th 2015, the day we spent looking down at England from the aeroplane window for the first time since departing fifteen and a half months prior. This green and pleasant patchwork of hedgerows, fields and mismatched architecture is home for my girlfriend and me, and we have decided to stay here for a while.

Elsewhere we’ve used the time doing what’s probably expected of former backpackers – catching up with friends and family, getting new jobs, finding a new place to live, maxing out credit cards. One of the last things to tick off the list before it can be officially said ‘normal life’ has resumed is to buy a new chest of drawers to go in the bedroom of our new flat in London, hence why we’re still living out of backpacks.

At the top of Machu Picchu

I had always intended to finish off this blog with a retrospective roundup of our time on the road – a tremendously overblown über-post with pretences of the key to enlightenment – a grand finale of blisteringly incisive insight in to the human condition. Instead I have spent the last thirteen months staring blankly at the same half finished Word document.

Me overlooking Laguna Colorada

Trouble is, my thoughts on our fifteen and a half month backpacking trip continue to evolve with each passing day. Everything I wrote in summer 2015 seemed like utter hogwash when I reread it in late autumn. Likewise, what made perfect sense at Christmas read like total gibberish by spring 2016.

Not London

By the time the first anniversary of our return to England rolled around, my Word document still consisted of a few dozen nonsensical paragraphs all completely failing to combine in to an over arching narrative. And so in an act of desperation, I imposed an entirely artificial deadline of precisely 30 days to collect my thoughts in one big brain dump. The results are as follows…

People Are Nice…

If ever you go backpacking around the world in a wheelchair, you will quickly learn that there is one uniting factor that encapsulates the entirety of human race – people are nice. Except in China. Chinese people are arses.

Posing with a Chinese guy

Also, Brazilians have big arses. Koreans are loud. Americans are very loud. Argentines are arrogant. The Japanese are excruciatingly polite. Bolivians are overly tolerant of inadequate sewerage. Australians are smug. Peruvians are pushy. Ecuadorians are racist. The Vietnamese are too friendly. Chileans are dull. And the Colombians…? I quite like the Colombians

Wheeling through the rain water

But the bottom line is that people are nice. Irrespective of race, creed and culture – our species is quite cooperative in the main. It is quite tempting when reading news headlines to conclude that the vast majority of human beings are hell bent on careening our frail planet towards certain doom, but no, the truth is quite different.

Trust me, I have witnessed it with my own eyes…

Salvador at night

Take for example the time I was wheeling through Salvador, Brazil, after midnight – the tenth most violent city in the world with a solid reputation for the mugging of tourists.

I came up against a dauntingly high kerb. The only way I could get from pavement to street was to precariously tilt the wheelchair back on its rear two wheels and ‘bump’ down on to the cobblestones half a metre below.

Wheelchair on cobbles

As I prepared to launch, a street kid began sprinting towards me. His face and clothes were filthy; his tiny frame ravaged by a lack of food and an excess of sniffing solvents. My life flashed before my eyes as I prepared to lose my wallet and phone.

“Senhor! Senhor!” screamed the street kid. “Rampa! Rampa!”

He was pointing towards a lip in the kerb just a few metres further down the road.

Me and Capoeira

This was just one of many pleasant interactions I had with other human beings whilst travelling, and one that I doubt many non-wheelchair wielding backpackers will ever get to experience. When your average tourist is confronted by a crack addicted Brazilian street kid in the dead of night, he or she expects to end up mugged. As a wheelchair backpacker, I end up with my preconceptions confounded.

Granted, the discovery that human beings tend towards altruism isn’t particularly Earth shattering in itself. It was more the odd ways in which this altruism manifests itself throughout different cultures that took me by surprise…

Dancing Cholitas

For example, say your wheelchair is in need of repairs whilst in Bolivia. Chances are that within half an hour you’ll have half the village crowding round you, earnestly debating how best to patch up the damage with their acetylene blow torches and mallet heads made from melted down truck tyres.

Bolivians are a wily, clever and cooperative bunch – presumably because their country lacks resources, and because centuries of corrupt government has taught them how get by in lieu of ‘official’ sources of help.

Bang This

By contrast, if your wheelchair breaks down in the USA, the absolute last thing passers-by will do is help to fix it. In America’s health and safety obsessed, compensation culture, the fear of causing injury by botching the repair means you’re likely to be on your own until you find a qualified specialist.

Looking down on coffee country

The liberal progressive inside me (or at least what’s left of it) applauds the Bolivian brand of niceness in the above mentioned scenario. The niceness Bolivians offer is immediate, albeit with a fair-to-medium chance that your wheelchair will end up in a worse state than before they got involved.

The cynical pragmatic side of my personality prefers the American approach however. Americans have gone so far as to actually enshrine niceness in law with a right to adequate financial recompense should the repairs go horribly wrong. In the short term, American niceness might mean it takes you longer to get back on the road, but in the long run, you’re less likely to need to stop for repairs again further along the trail.

Wheelchair on the Great Wall

Niceness is in the eye of the beholder. Once you scrape beneath the idiosyncratic collective behaviours of a nation’s citizens, you’ll figure out their intentions. Those intentions often seem warped and misguided at first glance, but dig deep enough and you’ll find they’re almost always rooted in some form of benevolence. Niceness is more or less universal (except in China) and the weird and wonderful ways it manifests itself can provide a fascinating window in to the philosophies underpinning a country’s character…

Japanese smart casual tedium

In Japan, for instance, we found out that security guards insist on donning white gloves when carrying a wheelchair. For a while, I assumed that this was because they were trying to protect themselves against being infected by wheelchair germs.

The truth actually turned out to be the opposite. The Japanese have a well documented obsession with personal hygiene, but much like the face masks worn by people with the flu in Japan, these white gloves are actually worn to prevent the wearer from infecting other people, and not the other way around. A face mask in public, or white gloves when carrying a wheelchair, denotes courteousness in Japan, not paranoia.

Had a cold. Pharmacist gave me this.

Crossing the bridge in MindoThe Japanese glove phenomenon is a prime example of the richness and diversity that a wheelchair can bring to the backpacking experience. Without my wheelchair, I would never have shared a beer with the two farm workers that carried me down a two mile mountainside donkey track to a coffee plantation in Salento, Colombia. Without my wheelchair, I would never have been crowned prom queen by 300 teenagers dancing ‘The Birdie Song’ in Hoi An, Vietnam. Without my wheelchair, I would never have spent an afternoon hunting Nazis in Bariloche, Argentina.

New Year in Hoi An

Which brings me to the second lesson learnt whilst backpacking around the world in a wheelchair – people are nice, and I am nice too…

The Trouble With Arses…

If ever I write a book about wheelchair backpacking, it’ll be in the form of a choose-your-own-adventure novel. Every time the reader hits a fork in the story tree, he or she will have the option of either being friendly or behaving like an arse.

Big arses on Ipanema

After a while, the reader will realise that every time they choose the nice branch, they are showered with free drinks, free flight and hotel upgrades, free front row seats and free backstage passes. Every time they go down the arse route, they end up back at Heathrow Airport having never actually left the country.

Real life wheelchair backpacking is a lot like this. Being nice (as opposed to being an arse) is essential because of the nature of the challenge itself.

Wheelchair in the Forbidden City

By far and away the trickiest bit of wheelchair backpacking (above and beyond regular common-or-garden bipedal backpacking) is in balancing the budget. Hill too steep to propel yourself to the summit? You’re going to have to pay for a taxi to take you there. Hotel room too small to manoeuvre around? Get ready to fork out for more space.

Loadsa moneyIn my experience, so long as you have enough cold hard cash to throw around there is almost no corner of the globe that is inaccessible. The only limitation is the depth of your wallet. If, for example, you wanted to get to the top of Mount Everest in a wheelchair, it could theoretically be done, albeit with a similar amount of resources as were spent on sending men to the moon.

There is however an intrinsic unfairness in all of this. Cash spent on luxuries like wheelchair access is also cash that could be far better spent on fridge magnets, snow globes, suntan lotion, bug spray, toilet roll, dinners, booze and fags. In the real life choose-your-own-adventure version of wheelchair backpacking then, the only way to offset the inevitable extra costs in getting your wheelchair from A to B is to find a way to pay without money.

Wheelchairs have a high value in terms of conversational currency in the backpacking world. Put yourself in the shoes of the average tourism industry worker – day in day out, they endure the same old backstories from gap year students and OAPs ticking off their bucket lists. As a guy in a wheelchair, my tale is a thousand times rarer and a million times more interesting.

Underwater

I first discovered this some years ago when my girlfriend and I pitched up at the front desk of a car rental booth in Toronto Airport. Here we were greeted by a chirpy looking lad called Dexter…

My girlfriend and I filled out the necessary paperwork, and Dexter led us out towards the budget-friendly hatchback we had selected via the rental company website a few days earlier. We threw our backpacks in the rear. Two people and two backpacks squeezed in to this size of vehicle is usually just about manageable, but when we added the wheelchair, things got a little tight.

It was at this point in our choose-your-own-adventure tale that we faced the fork in the story tree. Either we could grin and bear the discomfort of a teeny weeny vehicle – or behave like arses by throwing a temper tantrum about the unfairness of being expected to pay for an upgrade.

We shook Dexter’s hand, thanked him for his services and prepared to drive away – but Dexter, bless his little cotton socks, was having none of it. No sooner were we dragged out of the hatchback were we shoved in to a bigger, faster, sexier, convertible coupé. Best of all, there was no extra charge.

The convertable

Now I don’t doubt for a second that this particular car rental branch just so happened to have an excess of coupés in the parking lot that day – the fact remains Dexter chose to go that extra mile for us. We were a break from the norm and it had brightened his day. He was not a knight in shining armour – just a nice guy trying to do nice things for his nice customers.

Would we have gotten the free car upgrade if we had behaved like arses? Perhaps, but there’s no doubt it would have led to a crappier backpacking experience overall.

Puno to Cusco

Because the most enjoyable part of travel is the journey, never the destination. If you expect the vast majority of the people you meet along the way to be hell bent on careening our frail planet towards certain doom, you’ll never get to experience niceness. If you never experience niceness, you’ll never experience the richness and diversity that the planet has to offer.

And if you want to travel the world for any other reason than to experience the richness and diversity that the planet has to offer, you’ll always be better off having never left Heathrow Airport.

And Finally…

So there you have it – everyone in the world is nice, including me, except in China. Here endeth the lesson. When I first started putting together this blog in 2013, I had hoped that my overall conclusion would be a little more poignant than this.

Joseon Knight

A friend asked recently, “When did it start to sink in that it was all over?”

“It’ll be over when we’ve bought a new chest of drawers for the bedroom,” I told him.

Middle Chilean sunsetBut in reality I think travel is one of those things that never really ends. Even if you wanted to, you can never completely expunge it from your life, like a tattoo or herpes.

From now on until the day I die, I will always know that things are done differently in other places, and that the people that do those things think that they are doing them in the nicest way possible. There are no right or wrong answers, just an easy way and a hard way to get from A to B. Never underestimate the power of a firm handshake and a cheeky grin – these things will get you further than ramps, elevators or a working pair of legs ever will.

Thanks for reading. Sam and I have already begun to plot our next adventure.

– James

 

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