After my accident in 2009, I quickly learned the world isn't made for wheelchairs. I've faced multi-story buildings without elevators; buses without wheelchair ramps, and metro stations without elevators. I know, it's crazy, right? It's a struggle sometimes to not feel like the world is conspiring against me... and fight the reality that I'm trying to function in a world that was not built for someone in a wheelchair. But as the old adage goes, where there's a will, there's a way.
I told myself I would never let being in a wheelchair and lack of accessibility keep me from doing all that I wanted to do. I made an internal decision to push my limits in this wheelchair ensuring every second I am on this earth would not go to waste.. Determined to live my life as intentionally and fully as possible, my heart was set on world travel, even if it would wear out both me and AJ’s muscles!!I Well, after 23 countries and countless cities later, this wheelchair is still going strong (AJ is doing ok too)!
I've often asked myself, why do I go through all the trouble of being pulled up several flights of stairs? Why do I spend hours doing all this research to plan accessible trips? It's crazy the hoops someone in a wheelchair has to jump (or rather wheelie) through to enjoy all the world has to offer. And it all comes down to the valuable lessons I've learned from my travels and how those lessons have made me who I am today.
Because I traveled...
I learned to love and appreciate people of other cultures. On my year-long foreign exchange to Brazil, I met my host families and friends, especially my best friend, Nina. I learned that we each have great potential for something special and that transcends culture. We share the same desires to love, to be loved, to be happy, to have a family, to be successful. My exchange helped me see the good, love, and commonalities across culture and want to share love and positivity everywhere I go. I learned that long-lasting happiness comes more often from the strengthening of relationships. My relationships and experiences changed me forever.
I gained a love for serving others. As an intern with an NGO in Cambodia, I saw the challenges brought by unfortunate circumstances that so many people must endure. I learned how privileged I was to be afforded so many opportunities, and I wanted to make the most out of those opportunities to serve those who needed some lifting. It instilled in me a desire to seek tomake a difference for other people and empower them to live full, happy lives. It is partly the reason why I decided to pursue a master's in public administration and enhance my skill set to help others. I wanted - and still do want - to create opportunities for them to attain the lives they want for themselves and their family.
I found joy in simplicity. Something I learned in Cambodia from people who didn't have many earthly belongings was that I don't need material items to be happy. I learned that I could live more simply and be happy. I lived that whole summer with alternating between 7 pairs of shirts, 3 pairs of pants, 2 pairs of shoes, and 2 dresses (for church). I didn't look fashionable, but I made adventuring fashionable in my life. I worried it was going to be too much sacrifice with less technology, fewer transportation options, less money, but we were really happy there. I loved getting to see how people lived off the basic necessities. I loved walking in the torrential rain pours. I loved disconnecting and not having Facebook on hand all the time. I learned I could live with less material items in my life. Since then, I seek to live my life a little differently than before. I don't spend a lot of money on clothes and wear my clothes until they have holes. "Recycle" is a big word my kids know all too well. We max out as much of our items as possible. I learned I can be happy with less.
I found peace and power in stillness. Every now and then, AJ and I take our family away from the city for a quick escape to the mountains. The mountains have a great way of reminding us that we are a part of something special. We are a part of something bigger. As I'm surrounded by these beautiful mountains, my soul rejoices. I find peace and a closeness to God as I embrace the stillness of all around me and reflect on my life, my desires, and my goals. And every time I return to the mountains in the snow, I get excited because then I know it's time to get into my monoski, break the bonds of my wheelchair, and shred (or fall...either is pretty fun and acceptable for me). Good things come from these mountains. One of our favorite nature spots is Yosemite National Park.
I learned resilience through tough times and don’t sweat the small stuff. When navigating new spaces and pushing yourself through new routines, learning to rely on your companions and even complete strangers, you prove to yourself that you are more capable than you ever thought. The first time we rode the metro up to the Sacre Coeur in Paris, we got off and went searching for an elevator to get out of the station. But after searching around to no avail, we both got in our dynamic duo stance, me carrying our backpacks and AJ flexing his muscles and gripping my wheelchair handles about to take me down a couple of stairs (takes a lot of faith, but I sure love this man!). But, a couple of guys on their way out spoke to us in French and after seeing the blank looks on our faces, they just motioned and picked me up in my wheelchair and started their descent. We have been able to see the kindness of so many people through these tough times. And we've learned over and over again not to sweat the small things so much because it will all work out. We can take on anything that comes our way.
I know that many people learn these lessons (I hope) without having to travel around the world, but the point is that we have to actually leave our homes to learn these things. We've got to push our comfort zones to be able to learn these valuable lessons--to make a profound difference for ourselves and others. I've just found that for me, traveling around, pushing my stress and anxiety level, and seeing new places truly fill my soul.
As a couple, we are trying so hard to make travel part of our family culture, whether they be little trips to mountains, or a trip to Asia. We hope our children will desire to learn people's stories. We hope that over time, as they learn more of the history of the places we travel to, we can instill in them a curiosity to learn from the past and move forward towards a better, brighter future. We hope they will gain a passion of exploration and thirst for knowledge of how things work, so they can find greater solutions. Imagine the positive change that may come for the next generation as they seek to understand other people, learn from their surroundings, explore other options, and work together towards something greater.
The lessons I've learned from my travels are priceless. I've gained so much perspective and fed my adventurous spirit through my travels. I would never trade all that I've learned, even if it means getting kicked out of a bus station in Rome in the dead of winter....which did happen. But that's a story for another post.
As you can see, there are so many reasons to travel. Why do you travel? What's next on your bucketlist? I'd love to hear some of your thoughts on this, so comment below!