From New York City to the Old City of Jerusalem

As I entered Newark International Airport about a month ago, I barely knew how the butterflies in my stomach would escape. Alone at the check in counter, I found out that my bag was 2lbs overweight and that I’d have to pay for the excess weight. My flight to Tel Aviv with a connection in Reykjavik was on time, so I didn’t have much wiggle room to delay at counter. While mentally prepping for the trip, I told myself that confidence was I all I needed, so I told the lady at the check in counter that I had medical equipment in the bag that they couldn’t hold against me in terms of weight. She looked at me for a few seconds and, without questioning me any further, issued my boarding pass and whisked my oversized bag onto the luggage conveyor belt. What I really had in my bag was a bath stool that I had collapsed and fit in. I wasn’t sure how accessible the hotels and homes abroad would be, so I decided that taking the bath stool would be one of my critical items. Mommy always said to bathe everyday and no inaccessible bathroom was about to stop me from doing so.

The butterflies in my stomach somehow simply transformed into a feeling of wanting to vomit as I passed through security. There was no on board wheelchair on the flight and I attempted to make as many bathroom trips before I boarded. As the first group of passengers were called to their seats, I kept telling myself that it was just 5 hours to Reykjavik and that again, confidence was all that I needed to take the first step. As I finished that thought, I was greeted by the air host who assured me that he would assist me during the flight. With my walker on board, I conquered my fear of flying alone and managed to hop into the cramped airplane lavatory. Success! One fear put aside.

In no time, I reached Tel Aviv and felt a sense of relief as I was greeted by my friend at the airport. It was too dark to see the countryside as we drove towards Jerusalem. I could sense, however, the shift in atmosphere as we entered the biblical city nestled between the hills. The sun rose the next morning and unveiled a beautiful city momentarily unscathed by the politics of the day. Trump had just announced that Jerusalem would be recognized as the capital of Israel by the USA. Many friends advised me from visiting the region in fear of violence due to the news that the American Embassy was to move to Jerusalem, but early that morning all I could see was serenity as I overlooked the Old City, even though it might have been for a brief moment.

The hustle and bustle of the city became visible as I met my guide later that morning. His name was Sam and he was a Christian Palestinian. With Palestinian license plates, Sam was able to drive me around both Jerusalem in Israel and Bethlehem in Palestine. I knew that I had found the right guide to take me around because the first thing we did in Jerusalem was to flag down a guy balancing a large tray of freshly made bagels the size of big foot’s face and convince him to sell us one. Just 6 weeks before I arrived Jerusalem, I had started working with a nutritionist to help me reach my goal weight. This meant no eating no carbs or dairy for the most part. I planned on sticking to my regiment, unfortunately, the offer of a freshly baked sesame bagel was too good to not accept.

With bagel in hand and my weight loss dignity in the back seat, we headed to the top of Mount of Olives to get a view of the Old City, which was clearly marked by fortress type walls. I wasn’t sure if it was to protect the city from outsiders as intended years ago or to contain the political conflict of today. Sam explained that whenever you saw a news story about Jerusalem, it most likely referred to the political atmosphere found within the Old City’s walls, where communities of Jews, Muslims, Armenians and Christians lived next to and on top of each other, all claiming their stake on the biblical site.

After taking in the scenic view, Sam continued to explain the history of the city as we drove towards its gates. Every time we’d get out of the car, he’d have to schlep Bobbie out of the trunk, but he never complained. We soon entered the Jewish Quarter and made our way through the endless alleyways. Rows of shops lined the narrow streets with spices, local delights, souvenirs, and art. Many merchants stared at me as I rolled through the market but a few recognized my guide and invited me into their shops. When traveling as a tourist on a wheelchair, I learned that you are as much of a sight to see as the place you are sight seeing. It’s hard to blend in and not disturb what is happening.  All I could do was smile back and steadily I smiled all the way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where Jesus was said to have been buried and resurrected. Worshipers and tourists from across the world were swarming in and out of the Church to get a better view of its grandiose architecture. Although the sketchy wooden ramp prevented me from going into the Church, just being within the walls of the Old City felt like I had stepped back in time into another world, where I didn’t have to worry about airplane bathrooms and excess baggage weight. It finally hit me that I had overcome my fear of traveling alone internationally and actually made it to one of the most famous landmarks in the world on my wheelchair. If I could make it here, then I could go anywhere. It may take some extra time. It may require additional assistance. But with my renewed confidence, I was sure to make the best of this trip.

[Ready] Set, Go!

I don’t think there are enough checklists to make one ever feel really prepared. With my purple suitcase almost packed to the brim and laying half open on the living room floor, I can’t help but imagine that I’m forgetting something. What are the odds that it will rain? Should I bring my wheelchair poncho? I would if I could take another suitcase, but I’ve opted for only one this time. It would be a bad situation if I am unable to carry all my stuff, in the event that no one is available to help me at the airport. There you go again, trying to prepare for another scenario, as if the airports of all the major international cities I’m going to would be empty as a ghost town.

The days flew by so fast since I booked my tickets for my first international trip. Now the time has come to embark on my multi-country voyage. I first fly to Israel and then travel by road to Palestine and Jordan, after which I fly to Egpyt, India, and the United Kingdom, before heading back home over the course of the next 24 days. For the most part, I’m flying alone and even though air travel is second nature to me, this is the first time I’m flying alone internationally since being on the wheelchair. Urvi isn’t coming with me, however. She usually takes a break when I’m out of NYC. My travel wheelchair of choice (as if I had one) is Bobbie, sometimes eluded as the slower, less fashionable cousin of Urvi. Although her motor is not as powerful and precise as Urvi’s, she’s much lighter at 60lbs, folds like a stroller, and can easily be stored in the trunk of a car. Bobbie and I are very different though. I have a love-hate relationship with her as I lose some of my confidence when compared to being with Urvi. I feel like I am sitting on an actual wheelchair when I am with Bobbie and when I look at my reflection as I pass store windows, she never fails to remind me of my disability. Nevertheless, I’m grateful that I have Bobbie to be able to continue enjoying what I love most – traveling.

Between the living room and the dining room, some of the items I still need to pack are scattered around: my snow boots for those chilly nights, my diary, Bobbie’s charger, winter gloves, a pair of compression socks, the two braces that prevent me from falling onto my face most of the time, a spare bookbag, and a pair of crutches. Well, I guess not the crutches. I was adamant on taking them to prepare for an emergency situation on the plane. When booking my flights, the fine print on the airline websites said that if you were traveling solo that you would have to be able to carry out a variety of functions, such as fastening your own seat belt to transferring to your seat from the aisle wheelchair, but most alarming was the ability to get to the emergency exit by yourself. I called the airlines to get clarification and there was no one said definition. I tried to explain my situation as having a broken leg. One representative said that well as long as I was not paraplegic then it should be okay, but basically it would be determined at the airport whether the airline would let me fly alone or not. Later I found out because there is no evacuation plan for disabled passengers, those flying alone need to be able to help themselves. I was shocked but not going to let that deter me from flying solo.

Later that week, I went to my physical therapist and told her that I needed to learn how to use crutches; I needed to prepare. She said it wouldn’t be possible, but I insisted. Hesitantly, she advised that I get a second brace to prevent my foot from dragging. After multiple appointments with the brace shop to get the sizing just right, I was ready to start using crutches. With only 4 physical therapy sessions left, I knew I would be pushing it. Unfortunately, the ease that came from using the walker disappeared with the crutches. My right leg kept on failing to properly support me as I tried to bring the other leg forward. With my last physical therapy session today, I thought I’d give it one more go! My visit turned into a warning, however. I almost tipped over on the crutches, the closest I’ve fallen since my biopsy. The physical therapist stopped then and there, giving her recommendation that the crutches were not a good idea at all. I had to accept it.

In the end, there is only so much you can prepare for. I have my walker to help me get to an emergency exit, even though it’s not ideal for that particular scenario playing in my head. Nevertheless, I accept the fact that I can’t be ready for every possible situation that can come up and that’s okay. I might never be 100% ready to travel alone on a wheelchair, but it won’t stop me from trying, making mistakes, learning to be vulnerable and relying on others. Trying to prepare for every situation just delays us and makes us anxious about taking the next step. Some never take that leap because they wait for the right time, person, circumstance, condition, or situation, but how much do we lose from not jumping into the unknown? What could we have learned from being vulnerable and not fully prepared? Who could we meet and how could we grow? You’ll only know when you take that first step, even if it takes you halfway across the world in a wheelchair. As I packed the last of my things into the suitcase, I put away the crutches, ready to learn and grow on this trip of a lifetime.

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/.