When I was six, I had a throat infection that migrated and infected my spinal cord. I lost the movement of my legs, the strength of my torso, I couldn’t walk anymore. I had to relearn how to sit, how to crawl, I learned to use a wheelchair, walk with a walker, and finally, the crutches that are now a part of me.
My first challenge was to get around the backyard without my mother helping. When I conquered this feat, I did not imagine that these would be the first meters of the more than 164 thousand kilometers that I would travel around the world.
When people see me with a 70-liter backpack on my back and leaning on a pair of crutches, the first look is like amazement. The second reaction is to think I’m extremely brave. Others even question themselves whether I have perfect mental health and always talk to me about how difficult it must be to travel alone as a woman with a physical disability. I must reveal something disillusioning: It’s not.
It’s easier and more uplifting than you think. I live the same routine as any traveler. The difference? The backpack has to be well thought out and lighter, the trails may ask for more breaks along the way, and my gaze has a radar that, when detecting accessibility issues, chooses the closest workaround that can be useful to keep the journey going.
Even the feeling of pity that is still present in the image of people with disabilities has turned in my favor. When the backpack was heavy, someone would come and offer help. When there was no vacancy in dorms, someone would appear willing to walk beside me to help in the saga of finding an available small hotel. Not to mention the careful attention I received even when I was detained when entering a conflict zone in Sudan.
Sometimes I feel like I’m living a rally on crutches, like at one of the Ethiopian countryside bus terminals. Let’s see who walks between these two buses first, skips three wooden boxes, dodges a chicken, without bumping into the crying child and without stepping into that puddle of mud.
Most of the time, there is no way to plan more accessible routes. After all, how to predict or avoid climbing the high and narrow steps of Machu Picchu? What would be the best option? Changing the route and looking for accessible destinations would be a plausible answer. But I couldn’t let two disabled legs stop me. Well, I have my arms for that. And if I didn’t have them, I know I would find alternatives.
The truth is that being a traveler with a disability requires learning to use available resources. If I don’t have the strength in my legs, no problem, I walk with the strength of my arms. If I can’t carry a suitcase, no problem, I put a backpack on my back. If the backpack is too heavy, no problem, I give up a variety of clothes in exchange for a lighter backpack.
I’ve always heard the word crutch as a synonym for accommodation, for excuses. In my case, I use them to climb rocks, hills, mountains, and escalators. I also use them to turn off lights, close doors, and cross deserts. To pass through police barriers in the midst of a conflict zone in Western Sahara, or to hitch a ride in Morocco. To eat in Mauritania, follow the life of Romanian gypsies in Spain, or dive into the Brazilian northeast.
I confess that I started traveling to escape from prejudice, and not to be “just another disabled person”. In the art of setting yourself in motion around the world, I discovered that you don’t have to break your crutches, you have to learn to use them.