Over the past seven years, I’ve had the chance to travel to some remarkable places. I’ve seen the Taj Mahal in India, ridden in a hot air balloon over volcanoes in Spain, and even been attacked by a hippo in South Africa (yes, really!), but perhaps my biggest accomplishment was reaching Antarctica earlier this year. Antarctica was my seventh continent and it had been my life goal since the age of six to reach every continent. To be honest, I’m still a bit shocked that I actually did it… and just two weeks before I turned 30 years old!
I’ve had a lot of fun on my journey to all seven continents, but I have also learned a ton. I always say that travel is the best teacher because traveling enables us to step, or roll in my case, outside of our comfort zones. History books are also brought to life when we travel, so it’s easier to learn while on the road.
Out of all of my travels, there are some valuable lessons that I’ve learned along the way. Here are the seven most important things I’ve learned from visiting seven continents as a wheelchair user –
Kind people are everywhere if you look for them
On some days, it can seem challenging to find kind humans. With all of the political division and issues currently going on in our world, it can be rather mentally draining, but even though the negativity can overshadow the light at times, there are still so many kind people out in the world. We just may need to look a bit harder for them sometimes
Humans are genuinely kind and helpful, and I’ve seen this all over the world. When I was in Iceland, I arrived at a restaurant and there was a step to get inside, but the chef helped lift my heavy wheelchair over the step. When I was in Morocco, a man helped me transfer onto a camel in the Sahara desert. When I was in Argentina, a fellow wheelchair user challenged me to a wheelchair race in the streets and we shared a few laughs afterward. I could list all of the many remarkable people that I’ve met, but this would turn into the longest blog post of all time. In short though, never give up on humanity. Kind people are all around us.
Always be willing to try something new
Nearly all of my greatest memories started from a place of fear and being afraid to try something new. Sometimes though, when we’re afraid to try something new it’s because it is so big and daunting, but in the end, these make for the best experiences.
I’ll never forget how nervous I was before I went hot air ballooning for the first time. I was a nervous wreck and all that I could think about was everything that could go wrong. Somehow, I managed to push my fears aside long enough to get in the basket and within minutes, I was up in the air. As I looked out at the beautiful scene below me, all of my initial fears went away and I realised just how awesome that opportunity was. I’ve now gone hot air ballooning three times and it’s always a phenomenal experience. If I would have stayed fearful and been unwilling to try it, I would’ve never known just how great of an activity it is.
A positive attitude is a necessity
To be honest, traveling as a wheelchair user can be tough. On almost every trip, something is bound to go wrong because there are so many pieces that go into the puzzle of accessible travel. However, for every problem, there is a solution. In order to find the solution and deal with whatever fiasco is happening though, you absolutely have to have a positive attitude.
On my first night ever in Europe, I arrived at my hotel room in Munich, Germany and needed to charge my motorised wheelchair. I had an adapter and a converter, but as soon as I plugged it into the outlet, it literally blew up. Sparks were flying and the power went out for about 15 minutes. It was a debacle, but instead of freaking out, I stayed positive, got on Google, and found a wheelchair repair shop just a few miles away. Luckily, they had the exact charger that I needed in stock, so I was able to buy it and use it for the remainder of my trip. By staying calm and positive, everything worked out pretty quickly and my vacation wasn’t ruined in any way.
Empathy is the most valuable asset you can have
By definition, empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” If we could all put ourselves in the shoes of other people that live in different circumstances than we do, I fully believe that the world could be a much better place.
When I visited Ecuador, I had the opportunity to meet with a group of indigenous Kichwa people in the Amazon rainforest. They showed me how they live and it was incredible to me how they could live with so little. And they were happy with no TV, the latest iPhone, and fast food. They lived off the land and that experience made me look at my own life. I still think about them all the time and I now know that I don’t need all of the latest technology to live a happy life. I can be content with less and I’m thankful to the Kichwa people for showing me that.
Preconceived notions should be left at the door
Before I visited the Middle East for the first time, I was a nervous wreck. I thought that it would be a dangerous place to visit because of my preconceived notions. Sure, some areas of the Middle East, and every country probably, are unsafe, but I didn’t realise how remarkable the Middle East could be until I visited Israel and Palestine for myself.
By the second day of my trip, I was more worried about how tasty the next falafel would be than my safety. The locals were incredibly friendly, it was surprisingly accessible, and I am now dreaming of my next visit to the area. Try to look past your own preconceived notions or ideas when traveling. Form your own thoughts once you actually experience the destination.
We all want the same things in life
If you watch the news for more than five minutes, it will probably seem like most of the world has nothing in common. There’s a lot of chaos and division, but when we boil it all down, I fully believe that we all want the same things in the grand scheme of life. Happiness and love are two pretty obvious things, but if I could only choose one thing that every single person on this planet wants, it’d be validation.
Everyone, in every country that I’ve visited, wants to be validated. They want to know that someone is listening to them and that their words matter. When you talk to someone or when someone talks to you, look them in the eyes and actually pay attention to what they’re saying. It is the easiest thing that we can do for others and you’ll make some amazing connections by doing this.
I have immense privilege (and you probably do too!)
When I first arrived in India, I kept getting stares. Many of the locals seemed to be fascinated by my motorised wheelchair. They asked for selfies and would literally run to watch me get out of the tour van. At first, I found it annoying to some degree, but one person changed my entire outlook. He asked how much a wheelchair like mine costs and when I told him that it was around $35,000, he looked absolutely crushed. He started telling me about how his brother was disabled and needed a wheelchair like mine, but there were no motorised wheelchairs available in India and even if there were, they could never afford one. His brother uses a homemade wheelchair and is unable to even leave the house. Can you imagine?!
Luckily, only because of where I was born, I am able to use a motorised wheelchair, which my insurance bought. If I would have been born in India, that very well could have been me… completely unable to leave the house. In that moment in India, I realised what an immense privilege I have and how fortunate I truly am. It gave me a whole new outlook on life and showed me how much help others need around the world. We all need to do our part to help others because we could be in the exact same situation, if not for sheer luck.
All seven of these lessons that I’ve learned are ones that I’ll always take with me wherever I go. Traveling is fun and exciting, but it’s also the best teacher. So, start planning your next trip now. You never know what you might learn!
About the Author:
Cory Lee is a wheelchair user, travel addict, and accessible travel writer. On his blog, Curb Free with Cory Lee, he hopes to inspire others to roll out of their comfort zones and see all the beauty our world has to offer.