Paying it Forward

It’s been a while since my last post, but a lot has happened and honestly, I’m not quite sure how time flew by so quickly. Finally the dust is settling and 2018 has given me a fresh start on life. Some told me in the beginning to take disability and implied that there was nothing much left for me to do, but if you know me, then you know I hate giving up.

It has been over a year with Urvi and I still work full time. Being in the worst shape of my life didn’t stop me from working the hardest that I ever had to in my career. It had been over a year and half since I drove, but I was determined to get that part of normalcy back, as well. I passed my driver evaluation and got a new car with hand controls. There’s an odd pleasure one gets when you are able to drive to any corner of the city without having to worry about train delays and broken elevators. All this is useful, since I recently got a puppy and have to drive him to his veterinarian. Sometimes I take him on a drive to my gym, as well. It’s my choice. My choice to move ahead in life and conquer any obstacle that comes in front of me.

As I reflect back, I can’t stop remembering the random strangers who helped me along the way. I never knew their names. I can’t clearly recall their faces. I only remember their acts of kindness and words of encouragement. I’d walk at a snail’s pace with my walker and didn’t realize the energy I was giving off. Strangers would slow down to let me know that everything would be okay. I never said anything to instigate the comments, but somehow they knew I needed to hear those words on the days I was struggling inside. Other times, I had cab drivers remind me that there is hope. Hope to get through everything and hope to walk again. Strangers would say a prayer for me, hold the door open, help me make my cup of coffee, and even put my shoe on my foot when it would fall off.

If I could find these people again and thank them in person, I would. Until then, I’ve decided to pay it forward. I just ordered 500 cards with the message: “The world is beautiful, because you’re in it,” and for the month of June, my birthday month, I’ve decided to hand these cards out to as many strangers as I can to remind them that they matter.  #payitforward

“How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment, we can start now, start slowly changing the world! How lovely that everyone, great and small, can make their contribution toward introducing justice straightaway… And you can always, always give something, even if it is only kindness!” – Anne Frank

 

Would you stand up for me?

Before Urvi came into my life, I can honestly say that I didn’t realize the degree to which many individuals with disabilities are ignored, segregated, or discriminated against on any single day. With so many problems in the world, taking a look at how your neighbor is being treated may not be as sexy as fighting global poverty or ending world hunger, but the simple ways we act [and react] to individuals with disabilities can shape their self-image.

Of course, I still remember being able to walk. Not just walk, however, but walk with confidence, purpose, and determination. I felt unstoppable at some point and knew that nothing could come in my way. I never made enemies or got into a fight. Yet, just a few months later, as I’m attempting to maneuver Urvi in and out of the subway cars, I accidently touched a bystander’s foot with the rear wheel. I remember warning him and the others around me that I was about to back out of the subway car, but I guess it wasn’t enough. I think I can count on just one hand how many times I’ve been cursed at by a stranger. Being called a b!tch out loud left me paralyzed on the platform. Bystanders just stared at me for a brief second and then resumed their commute. As tears filled my eyes, I wanted to tell that person that I didn’t ask to be in this position and I’m sorry that I can’t walk, but he was already gone. I barely got my wheelchair a few weeks prior with no formal instructions or guidance on how to operate it. It’s terrifying boarding and leaving the train car. You have to get the timing just right, as not all conductors will wait for you to get on safely before the doors start closing in on you. Even worse, some people just don’t move out of the way when they see you or they jump right in front of you to get a spot in the train. But on that crowded platform, no one seemed to understand.

More recently, I was taking the bus to the gym, when a man sitting across the aisle a few feet in front of me decided to throw old newspapers and trash at me that he had in a plastic bag. I was on the phone when I noticed the items dropping at my feet. First I thought the man had dropped something, but as our eyes met, it was clear that he was deliberately flinging the items at me. I don’t know if he was drunk, deranged, racist, sexist, or otherwise. It didn’t matter what the reason was. I felt helpless in that moment. I had nowhere to go and had no idea if this man was a threat. No one on the bus said anything. It seemed like an eternity as this scenario played out, but it must have been only a few seconds before I couldn’t take it anymore. I screamed at him, “Sir, do you have a problem?” Surprisingly, he answered, “No.” I didn’t wait for an explanation and alerted the bus driver of his erratic behavior. The bus driver stopped the bus and made him pick up the trash, but didn’t kick him out. I felt a knot in my stomach form. Although, the bus was a few stops away from where I had to get off, it was the most uncomfortable few minutes of my life as the man just stared at me. Thankfully, the man didn’t follow me and I got out of the bus shaken, but okay.

Only once did someone stand up for me. During rush hour, I was unable to get to the spot in the car that is reserved for wheelchairs. People usually just crowd in that area and ignore me, so I park myself in a way that there is enough space for others to slip out without blocking any of the doors. As the train picked up more passengers and started filling up, a woman came behind me and started mumbling. I didn’t pay attention at first, but as she left the train a few minutes later, she turned back and screamed at me, “You should not be in the train; Wheelchairs should not be allowed on the train!” All eyes turned towards me, but I couldn’t muster the words to come up with a reply. An older man standing besides me, however, didn’t hesitate. He screamed back, “How can you say that? What if you were in the same position? You should be ashamed of yourself!” A million questions ran through my head that I had wished I screamed back at her; What about the other people occupying the train? Why don’t you scream at the people taking my spot? Why couldn’t you just go into another car or wait for the next train? But there I was in the train car frozen and humiliated. I’m not sure if the man who helped me that day heard me thank him as I struggled to speak.

Within the days following this incident, I kept on thinking of the man who stood up for me and how grateful I was. I don’t doubt that I am a strong woman, but it’s scary sometimes being at everyone else’s hip level, strapped in the bus, or stuck on the subway platform. I feel invisible some days, until something goes wrong, and then it’s most likely my fault. I tell my friends and family that when you are on a wheelchair, you attract the good, the bad, and the ugly. While I can’t control the challenges life throws at me on a daily basis, I want to implore you, the reader, to be the good in this world. Have the courage to stand up for someone in need, disabled or not. Even though I was shocked after the lady screamed me, for a moment, I felt empowered knowing that someone had my back. This one selfless act made it easier to wake up the next morning with the same courage to go out into the world again. So, would you stand up for me?

 

Sanctuary

The trip of a life time came after I booked dirt cheap tickets to Thailand and Cambodia. The opportunity seemed too good to pass. I snagged up round trip tickets to Bangkok from New York for $630! Little did I know when booking the tickets that I’d lose my job just a few months after. The news came out of nowhere and after the initial shock, I was faced with the decision to cancel my trip or carry on. Luckily, I had saved enough money and thought that if I had to go abroad, better now when I didn’t have a job. Who knew that my decision would lead me towards sanctuary?

Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand, was one the last stop on my 3 city tour. The relatively cool November days contrasted against the sweltering heat and congestion of Bangkok. Life seemed to slow down in Chiang Mai. The beautiful mountains nestled in the background complemented the rich tribal culture of the region. Tourists typically flocked to Chiang Mai to experience nature and the abundance of animals, particularly the elephants.

A while back I had seen some photos of tourists riding elephants through the forest and rivers in the outskirts of Chiang Mai. I was keen on experiencing the same excitement for myself. The last time I rode an elephant was years ago in India and I couldn’t wait to do it again. However, as I was conducting research prior to my trip, more and more articles started turning up about the cruelty that many of these elephants faced to please the ever increasing demand of tourists. The problem was not just local but spanned the region. Some elephant trainers, otherwise known as mahouts, would inflict pain on the elephants to force them to engage in entertaining tasks for humans, such as painting, circus acts, and of course, elephant riding. At this point, I was conflicted on what to do. The tickets had been booked and my desire to spend time with the elephants was growing more and more as I counted down the days to Chiang Mai, but by the end of my research, I had no interest in financially supporting and participating in such harmful activities.

As I was giving up hope, I stumbled across the website for Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for elephants. The organization not only rescues victimized elephants but teaches mahouts across the region how to treat the elephants with dignity and respect, while being able to earn a living off of tourism. The first and foremost lesson was that elephant riding was forbidden. As an alternative, Elephant Nature Park offers and encourages independent mahouts to offer nature walks with the elephants. The concept intrigued me as it would give me an option to enjoy the company of these beautiful creatures in an ethical way. I quickly signed up for an all day tour offered by Elephant Nature Park that would include a visit to the sanctuary, walking with the elephants on a nature hike, and giving them a bath in the river. Definitely an opportunity not to be missed!

The day came when I was anxiously waiting in the hotel lobby for the minivan to come whisk me away. Joined by a handful of other tourists, I embarked on the 45 minute ride towards the foothills of the mountain. Although my excitement grew, I was worried about my right leg. It had been feeling weak for a few weeks but felt weaker than usual. I brushed it off as over exertion from the 9 day tour and traveling half way across the world. Nevertheless, I had informed my guide about my concerns and he assured me that the hike was very doable and that he would assist me, if needed. My group had a few older couples, so I figured the hike couldn’t be that bad.

My worries dissipated once we reached the elephants. Our meet and greet consisted of being introduced to the herd, 3 of which would accompany us on our hike, a mother, a baby, and an auntie. After our introduction, both elephants and humans headed off into the forest for the hike that at least one species had been waiting for. Armed with bags filled with bananas, our group slowly traversed the lush greenery, while feeding the elephants at certain rest points. As we approached a hill, my smile disappeared. I quickly grabbed our guide and told him that I definitely will need help going up the hill. He didn’t hesitate and held my hand as everyone started ascending. I couldn’t tell you how much I had to walk up, but the majority of our group got to the top of the hill within 2-3 minutes. Slowly I followed, but the weakness in my right leg grew and I was stopping every 10 feet. I felt bad for my guide and told told him to go ahead and join the rest of the group, but he didn’t leave me. I insisted on at least getting me a walking stick so he could go back and forth, so he scanned the forest floor and brought me the perfect broken branch fit for any hiker. He kept an eye on me as he rushed ahead to instruct the other mahouts to wait on top of the hill. The weakness was almost unbearable and I could see my leg going limp. I was determined though to finish the hike and conquer the hill, so I kept pushing. It took 15 minutes to get up that hill. I felt bad that the group had to wait for me, but they assured me it was a well needed rest for them. Back on flat land, I was just thankful that I didn’t fall. However, I knew something was very wrong and that I would have to address it when I returned to the United States.

I pushed the worrying thoughts aside as the group settled down for a beautiful Thai lunch feast. I was convinced that our guide was the jack of all trades as he educated us about the elephants, while making fresh Thai papaya salad, one of my favorites. After a wholesome lunch and learning more about my fellow travelers, we set off again on a comparatively easy hike towards the river to bath the elephants. By mid afternoon, we reached a beautiful river where we found our new elephant friends already splashing away. My group started heading one by one into the river with buckets that our guide had provided us to bath them. The river wasn’t too deep, only waist high, but even the gentle current made me uneasy. I found myself waiting on the bank of the river with another girl , who just didn’t want to get wet. My guide saw me and told me to get in the water. I explained to him that I was still weak and didn’t know if I could stand up against the current. The friends that I made on the tour offered to hold me, but the last thing I wanted was to actually fall and create a dangerous situation. That definitely was not on anyone’s bucket list. Soon everyone went back to enjoying bathing the elephants. I watched from the side smiling and taking pictures of the others, but was internally devastated for not being able to participate.

I watched from afar the mother, baby, and auntie elephants enjoying the buckets of water being splashed on them from every which direction. All of a sudden, the auntie elephant broke from the group and came my way. I was confused as I saw this huge creature coming towards me. My guide shouted to grab a bucket and start bathing her. She had come all the way to the river bank and although I may never know for what exact reason, I felt humbled and honored to have the opportunity to bath her. Slowly I balanced myself in a little over ankle deep water. I grabbed my bucket and started bathing her by the river’s edge. All the surrounding noise seemed to wash away, as well. She was so majestic, calm, and beautiful. Something you wouldn’t be able to see riding an elephant and for those few moments bathing her, I forgot all about my weakness and found sanctuary.

To learn more about Elephant Nature Park, visit https://www.elephantnaturepark.org/.

Paintings

Society paints images of people all the time.

Sometimes, we blindly accept them as the viewer. Perhaps, it’s even worse accepting it as the subject being painted.

How has society told you how a woman, a person of color, or a disabled person should look like? Do you accept them? I don’t. I plan on painting my own picture and proudly showing it to the world.

Society tends to consciously or subconsciously judge you and put you in a box constructed out of preconceived notions, depending on how you look. There was a span of a couple of weeks in early 2017 when I was reliant on my walker to get around. I didn’t have enough energy to walk a couple of blocks, let alone take the subway and fight rush hour foot traffic, so I decided to take the taxi to and from work. My brother found a cheap taxi service that would charge $60 round trip from the suburbs into and out of Manhattan. I had just started my new job barely two months prior and could not afford to take an extended sick leave. With no other way to travel the 14+ miles to get to work, I had dedicated my paycheck to pay for the cab service.

Most of the cab drivers were nice, but over 1/3 of them had the same question for me as they were folding my walker and storing it in the trunk, “Oh, you work?” Their perplexed looks always had a hint of horror and surprise. A handful of them would pursue the conversation further and would suggest that I go on disability. I couldn’t walk more than two blocks at the time without a good 20 minutes passing by, but luckily my job didn’t require me to make frequent coffee runs. In fact, I had a standard desk job and my arms and left leg worked just fine, so I would reciprocate the look of horror and surprise when they implied that I would not be able to do my job, let alone any job. It bothered me for quite some time how people’s perceptions changed as I walked slower and slower with the help of a mobility device. I realized soon enough that society had decided to repaint my identity without my consent and I wasn’t about to let that happen.

Welcome to Adventures with Urvi! I hope you enjoy the images that I paint of myself in the months to come.