My boyfriend and I had planned a beach vacation for mid-March a month in advance. We were still determined to go on the trip even as COVID-19 was trickling into America. At that time, the virus was relatively new, and no one seemed to know how it affected people, and if it only targeted those with preexisting conditions and the elderly. So, thinking that we were invincible, we packed our suitcases and hoped for the best.
In the 48 hours before the flight, things started to change at the speed of light. The number of cases of the coronavirus across the county increased exponentially, and the White House issued travel bans against a number of European and Asian countries. The turning point for me and my boyfriend was when New York’s Governor Cuomo issued a mandatory shelter-in-place order. It was then that we (heartbreakingly) finally canceled the trip.
The beach vacation was only one of the dozen trips I had planned for this year. It was on my bucket list to visit two more states before my 25th birthday so that I would have been to 25 U.S. states before age 25. My birthday has come and gone during quarantine, and I still haven’t visited those states.
Developing my love for travel:
Growing up, I never thought I’d be much of a traveler. It was hard enough to navigate through my hometown in New Jersey with cerebral palsy, so I could only imagine how hard it would be to navigate through different states and countries. My family and I would go on annual trips, but I relied on my parents for transportation and pushing me in my wheelchair (at that time, I used a heavy power chair, which we couldn’t easily transport in the car, so I used a manual wheelchair for trips.)
It was only when I went away for college in New York City that my wanderlust started to kick in. For the first time in my life, I was living and exploring a completely different place than the one I grew up in, all by myself. The city is far from being the most accessible place to live, but, as the saying goes, when there’s a will, there’s a way.
At the end of my freshman year, I invested in purchasing a lightweight, foldable motorized wheelchair. The chair opened a door of unlimited possibilities in terms of all the places I could go since it fit into any car truck, bus luggage bay, and airplane cargo hold. That summer, I frequently took trips to and from the city and my parents’ house in New Jersey. Every summer after that, I’d stay in the city for internships and traveled to different cities, like Philly, D.C., Hartford, and Boston, to visit friends on weekends.
In the three years that I’ve been out of college, my thirst for traveling has only grown bigger. Two months is the longest I’d go without escaping New York and as we are approaching three months since quarantine began— and six months since my last trip— I’m feeling a bit haywire. I know that I’m definitely not the only one. No one knows when it’ll be okay to travel and go on flights again. In the meantime, we are all daydreaming about our next trip and revisiting past ones.
This— mid to end of May— is normally the time when I plan and book all of my getaways for the summer. That is not happening this year. Instead, I’ll travel down memory lane of all the new places I explored in recent years and eagerly wait until my next one, whenever that might be. In the next couple of blog posts, I’ll write about some of my favorite trips that I took over the years.
My first solo international travel:
Ironically, my first time flying alone was on an international flight to Madrid. It was my junior year’s winter break and my friend from college and her family had invited me to visit them in Spain. The friend (whom I, unfortunately, parted ways with after college) and I met our freshman year and we immediately became like two peas in a pod. We always talked about me visiting her hometown in Spain, but that felt like a distant dream; I was just getting used to living 50 miles from home, so being 3,580 miles away seemed a bit daunting.
However, over the 2.5 years, this friend became an expert at accommodating my needs— namely putting my travel chair in and out of car trucks and helping me troubleshoot the chair when it malfunctioned— as if it was second nature to her. After witnessing me travel through some of the most inaccessible parts of the city with my wheelchair, she believed I could take on Spain. When her parents invited me to come, it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. It took a bit of convincing, but my family finally wrapped their heads around the idea and allowed me to go.
I believe living in NYC toughened me up and made me become street smart. Not only was it my first solo and international flight, but it was also the first time I brought my travel chair onto a plane. After researching, I found out it was safe for the chair to go in the plane’s cargo hold, and it had the right type of battery that was allowed inflight. Admittedly, I butted heads with the TSA and airport personnel; it seemed like they had little to no experience accommodating passengers traveling with this type of chair. It’s a good thing that I did my research because I could reiterate my rights to them and have the chair stored with the baby strollers beneath the plane.
It’s really helpful that they let passengers with disabilities board the aircraft first, allowing me to take my time walking to my seat. I’m naturally not a nervous person, so flying in itself was not a concern for me. I had taken long bus trips before, so I convinced myself that it was like that but up in the sky.
It was right after Christmas when I landed in Spain. The seven-hour flight flew by (pun intended) like a breeze since I made sure I slept through most of it so I could adjust to the time difference. It definitely took me a day to realize that I was really in Madrid— it felt like a dream. Forget about a White Christmas, this city has a spark of magic and beauty in itself.
Besides going to South Korea with my family right before college, I had never explored another country outside of North America. I can’t possibly pinpoint one part or aspect as my favorite because I was truly blown away by everything about the city and its culture. But I think that the fact that my friend and her family made me feel welcome and accommodated my wheelchair, made the whole trip feel even more magical.
I took a keen interest in the leisurely culture of the city — people take siestas in the middle of the workday, and they took time to eat each meal. The streets and buildings were vibrant in bright colors and the people definitely complimented the colors with their genuine kindness and cheerfulness. Although most of Madrid’s buildings and sidewalks are still in their original historic form, it was relatively easy to travel through the city in my wheelchair. As I usually did in NYC, my friend and I would push the chair through uneven grounds with me walking beside it. It was really convenient that the chair only weighed 50 pounds since it was light enough to carry into places when there were no accessible entrances.
Since my friend also had some family in Paris, we took a quick trip — a two-hour flight — to the City of Love. It’s wild how simple and cheap it is to travel within European countries. It felt unreal to walk on the same streets as some of the most famous writers once had, like Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, and to sip on a cappuccino at the La Closerie des Lilas cafe. Not to mention the historic landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, and the Notre Dame Cathedral (RIP).
This Europe trip jumpstarted my desire to travel around the world. It was then I finally realized how grand this earth is and how even if I devoted all of my time to traveling, that still wouldn’t be enough time to see all of it. In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing more of my experiences traveling as a woman with CP. Over the five years since my Madrid/Paris trip, I visited many more places and explored various cultures and ways of life. I cannot wait to share those experiences with you all through this blog.
There are many, many, many more countries and cities I want to visit, and I can’t wait for the pandemic to be over to do so I can start traveling again! It was through trial and error and determination that I realized my cerebral palsy should not and will not prevent me from exploring different cultures and places. Accessible and adaptable travel is what #MakesMayMatter to me and the ability to have a worldly view on pressing issues, like structural and geographical accessibility and universal design.