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.