All I can remember is thinking, “Wow, is this really happening?” It was late 1990s and I had just been hired as a teacher at a collegio in Bucaramanga, Santander Department, north-central Colombia, for a two year contract. As it turns out, at the time I had received my work Visa for Colombia, I was also offered a position in Tokyo Japan, with the Japanese government. I chose to move east instead of south, determined I would find another time and opportunity to get back to Colombia. Well, usually life does not provide us a second opportunity but, twenty years on, finally she did. Colombia has been calling my name ever since, with boundless allure, whispering to me softly, the seductress de Indias – once bitten, not shy; I’m in love. This is the tale of my adventure to Colombia, traveling injured in a wheelchair, and all the wonder and splendor that resulted from the magic of the trail.
It was an early flight to the land of piccante y caliente from Philadelphia: 06:00. That meant a 03:00 wake-up call with little to no sleep. Not a prudent start to a long trip with a stopover each way. Being able to rest my body in horizontal position at night gives my body and muscles the relief from the daily onslaught of spinal pressure it so desperately needs. The stopover in Atlanta was a gift and a curse, all the same – it allowed me to stretch and easily access a bathroom but also lengthened my travel time, thus unnecessarily stressing my body. Before any trip I weigh all viable and imaginable variables: cost, total time of travel, airports, layovers and possible stopovers, food, and current recovery status. Each airline and/or airport has their own staff to assist those in need. Every year I notice these services not only increasing in their sheer numbers but also, most importantly, efficiency. They are a godsend – thank you for your assistance.
Upon arrival in Colombia one instantly knows one has arrived in the tropics. Old school airports where they roll out steel stairs, plane parks in the middle of nowhere, verdant palms abound, as the air hits you like a heated wet towel, navigation required, are the best; especially when in a wheelchair and need to be carried off the plane in a shaky old metal aisle chair by two slender ground-crew members. It was a fun ride. They did not drop me. One point for Stevo. (Photos of my travels can be seen here.) As I authored in my book, in life, if one wants to get anything grand or substantial accomplished, one must get in the mix, show up, take a risk, live and participate in: Doing the Dirty Dishes [of life]. This was to be my first trip to an industrialized country where I knew the standards would not be up to international specification, if they existed at all. Challenges abundant – like weeds in spring, they were everywhere.
No sooner I walked out of the airport and was accosted by a gaggle of local taxi drivers. Peter seemed like a nice choice. I liked his resume: biblical name in a very Catholic country. Good pick. Score two for Stevo. Solo bag in the backseat, wheelchair in the trunk, Cumbia music blaring, we were off to the hotel. It was a short drive, only 9 kilometers. It did not take long to know I was at the right place; the energy in Colombia was all encompassing; I could feel it in my heart. I was where I was supposed to be at that time, in life. There are no mistakes. I was still unsure why the universe had sent me to Colombia at this juncture but I was soon to find out. As we entered Boca Grande, meandering down the highway as it hugged the beach and waves, it was 420 and ‘Peter the Pope’ was more than happy to share some brotherly love. Bonus score for Stevo. Welcome to Colombia – a mighty nice Bienvenido, if you ask me.
Not a moment out of the taxi and my first real serious obstacle appeared. The slope of the driveway of the hotel was too steep to get up in the wheelchair on my own. That situation was not helped by the fact there were no sidewalks for 90% of the beach area surrounding my hotel. And when they had some form of sidewalk or stepping stones made of broken uneven pieces of jagged concrete, the curbs were almost a half meter high. Access to local eateries and bars was out of the question without assistance or a taxi ride. Even getting to the elevators of the hotel required a push up a small but steep incline. There were no accessible bathrooms except in my room on the 29th floor. I could not access the café in the lobby as it had a large step as an impediment. Travel while injured requires impeccable planning.
It reminded me of my days at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, a “supposed” top physical therapy hospital in Philadelphia, where they wanted to kick me out of in-patient therapy for refusing to agree to learn how to jump my wheelchair up large curbs. I saw no point; I found it violent and dangerous. My answer to them was easy: “I’ll ask for help (throughout this trip I would be carried in my chair in the air, over more obstacles and occurrences than I could count).” Cartagena was a never-ending veritable obstacle course in a wheelchair; best left to the advanced; but never an issue. This is injured travel – welcome to the club. In my book, Unbreakable Mind, I speak of the need to get out into the world to live again, that it is not falling down that counts, it is how many times you get up that counts – that is the greatest source of maturity and development in life – in living – happiness. La Buena vida, mi amiga.
Hotel Dubai Cartagena did not originally come up as having accessible rooms in my initial search online with the big three travel websites. I knew better and so contacted the hotel direct. Good thing I did as they were willing and able and more than happy to have me as a guest. Most often you will find the information on travel websites to be inaccurate or flat out wrong. Be smart and seek out more information – write the property, ask the appropriate required questions and make sure all concerns for your injury or special requirements are addressed beforehand. Because even when you think you have it all worked out beforehand, it can easily go to shit, quick. This hotel assured me they would reserve a room with accessible shower and all the other required whistles and bells for an injured guest. Well, can you guess what happened? Welcome to a day in my life.
The doorman accompanied me to my room. Relieved to see a bed to lay down on to stretch my body, I shooed him off, performed a bathroom check, washed my face with soap and water, when no sooner was I prostrated across the California king duvet I realized I was not in an accessible room. Ramone, Operations Manager, arrived a few minutes later. After visiting ten different hotel rooms, all with unalike room layouts, we determined that some modifications had to be made to the shower and toilet to make one accessible. Three large glass panels had to be removed in order to allow access for my wheelchair to the toilet and shower area without having to go through a near impossible set of hurdles; ones that would cause trouble in an emergency situation, if required urgency. Juan, the hotel manager, was the most caring and accommodative person an injured person could wish for. He prepared the best calabaza y bombilla of Argentinean mate. Fabio and his kitchen crew went above and beyond to make the most delicious food. In the end, they upgraded me to a top floor suite. Pass GO, collect $200.
Cartagena, founded in 16th century, on the Colombian coast, replete with squares, cobblestone streets and brightly colored colonial architecture, is magical. The people are just as interesting and eclectic as the endless pastel painted buildings in the Old City. Everywhere you go you come across friendly Colombians, from taxi driver to street vendor to waiter; only a small tatter of the fabric that binds together this phenomenal El Caribe people and city. The seafood is some of the best I have tasted on the planet. And the very established Lebanese Diaspora, immigrating to Colombia from the Ottoman Empire in the 18th & 19th centuries for religious and economic reasons, also has out-of-this-world delectable eats. All the best local tourist spots are close-by and are easily visited by car or public bus. Since injured, I opted for a private driver for the day. And since I would be shooting photos with my new Sony Alpha 6300, the car’s window would serve as my creative aperture.
Not a week had gone by and two of my most feared injured traveler scenarios fructified. On my list of most feared anxious happenings while traveling the world in a wheelchair, two of the top three, are getting a sick stomach and a bad cold. Well, the time had arrived; of course, when it rains, it pours – both arrived back-to-back. After being nursed back to health by Simon and friends I decided to explore the Old City by taxi at night. It was just what the doctor ordered – allowing me to take in the city at its magnificent nocturnal glory. At night there is a different ‘feel’ to the people and city – as if a button is pushed and the energy becomes even freakier relaxed. Over the next two weeks I would take many taxi trips with my camera on the ready to shoot everything from Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Plaza de Las Bovedas, Getsemani and many other local cultural barrios, some with world renown street art. Cartagena is a city rich in history and culture, with infinite beauty, sure to delight. Go visit.
Other than your standard travel mishaps, occasional cultural faux-pas in Espanol, being robbed blind by a street money changer, fighting off beach hawkers and the perpetual fight with taxi drivers over padded fares , my adventure to Colombia was a huge success. It could not have been done without the loving care and support of others, friend and stranger alike. Michael, a friend from Germany, whom I met while living in Amsterdam, came to visit for a week. It was so great having him there; being a part of his inner-self journey as it commenced. Simon, my neighbor and a Norwegian yacht captain, based in Majami, Florida, was my arms and legs many a day when laid up in bed fighting a vicious cold or the horrendous stomach issues I experienced, requiring anti-biotics, pro-biotics and some international TLC. The hotel staff was so friendly and helpful. I am forever grateful for all the love and help I received.
As a result of my accident I was unable to travel internationally for six years. My will and spirit were broken. While traveling the globe I am most comfortable – being in the flow of life, living life. It was the last part of my freedom recovered and I was beyond ecstatic to travel and experience the world again. It is the same reason I started this blog: to help inspire other injured to travel again, to open their eyes to the possibilities that exist when one leaves the safety of their home. Each trip I push my boundaries a bit further than the last. This has provided me limitless inner growth and the most wonderful of experiences meeting extraordinary people and visiting supernatural places, the type only found when your eyes and heart are wide open; accepting and tackling new challenges at every curve, forming indelible memories – all while forging life-lasting deep and meaningful relationships. Colombia delivered on all the above. I drank her Kool-Aid and now find myself pining to hear her to call my name again – she is forever in my heart. Besitos, mi amor!
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