By Tom Chun
After my motorcycle accident in 1996 resulted in T5 paraplegia and the need to get around in a wheelchair, I always imagined that it would take two burly guys to carry, tow, drag, lift, toss, or do whatever it took to get me around the world. To my amazement, I only needed one person, my “human mule” and younger brother, Paul, to help me crisscross the globe in 2006. Fortunately, he is a 200-pound former UCLA rugby player, good for heavy lifting and backup bodyguard duties.
I had to plan carefully about what to bring with me. Though I had traveled extensively before, this time would be different, since my brother and I would be in many remote places for almost three months. With my trustworthy Nuprodx 3000TX portable commode/shower chair and three months’ worth of medical supplies (catheters, leg bags, etc.) neatly packed into one backpack, I felt at ease knowing I could carry my major necessities onto the plane without fear of losing them. In wheelchair-unfriendly hotel bathrooms, I knew I could manage to do my hygiene program and take a shower almost anywhere with a little imagination, contortionism, and some physical strength. In my larger bag that I would check, I stuffed a week’s worth of clothes and all my toiletries, things I could purchase while traveling, if needed. After a lifetime of dreaming and six months of planning, we were off on our world tour.
We flew out of San Francisco and landed in Lisbon, Portugal. On our first venture out, we decided to head up to the picturesque town of Sintra to view the Moorish castle and the Palacio de Peña. Not knowing that it was about a mile or so uphill on a bumpy cobblestone street, my poor brother had to push me uphill when my arms were too tired to push any further. Bringing along a human mule was a smart idea. His extra muscle would come in handy in many challenging occasions throughout our trip.
While pushing up the steep curves, we saw vehicles driving past us, their drivers probably wondering why dumb tourists would hike up these hills. Finally, exhausted at the top, my brother bought tickets for the bus to go down. The ticket lady asked, “How did you get up?” Hearing Paul’s answer, she shook her head in astonishment.
Once the bus arrived, I transferred myself onto the back floor of the bus and asked the bus driver if I could just sit on the floor without getting onto a seat. To my surprise, he said yes. This kind of thing would never be allowed in the United States for liability reasons, but outside the country, things are more relaxed. On American public buses, it would have taken many minutes to strap my chair and me down securely. While it’s necessary for safety purposes, it always makes me feel like I’m being strapped into a straitjacket.
From Lisbon we flew into Casablanca, Morocco, where we headed out to see the Hassan II Mosque at the edge of the city overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. From Casablanca, we took a four-hour train ride to Marrakech, our first attempt to board a train together. Throughout our entire journey, getting onto trains was challenging. On practically every occasion I had to be lifted up in my wheelchair by two or more people, and my chair almost always was just barely narrow enough to fit through the train doors. A few times I had to hop off my chair and scoot around on my butt.
Once in Marrakech, the bazaars and main square inside the Medina transported me back to another time and era. My wheelchair shared the narrow alleys with donkeys, bicycles and people. Many times the friendly locals would smile and wave to me as I zoomed by.
Paul and I stayed in a beautiful, romantic Riad bed-and-breakfast within the historic city walls. It felt as if I were on a honeymoon with my brother, something I hope never happens. The hotel unfortunately was not fully accessible, nor was it the only hotel that I would face challenges with throughout our trip. The door to the bathroom was too narrow for my chair. I had to get on the floor and scoot my way inside, then disassemble my chair, pull the detached wheelchair through the door, reassemble it, and then hop back on it. On those occasions, I missed the comforts of my familiar bathroom.
From Morocco we flew to Athens, Greece. At the airport, while being transported to the main terminal, I noticed the wheelchairs being used were from the Wheelchair Foundation, a charitable organization that sends wheelchairs to those in need for $75 per chair. I felt like Paris Hilton with my $3,000 wheelchair. Instead of sending bombs around the world, the United States should send wheelchairs.
Having traveled around in many countries, I can testify that the Greeks have it right when it comes to public transportation. The subway stations are all accessible. Also, some buses are low enough that all I had to do was a wheelie to lift my front casters through the door, and then have someone push me up and in. However, the city still has many old buildings that are not very wheelchair friendly. In Athens, there’s a lift that takes mobility-impaired folks up to the Acropolis. The 360-degree view of the city from the cliff top of the Acropolis was spectacular!
One day, we sailed off on a high-speed ferry to the island of Serifos. The ferry had a steep ramp, mainly to transport cars, and an elevator to get to the main cabin. After the ferry docked and I was on the island, I realized my brother was still on the ferry, cruising away from the port. The lady at the dock said she saw him still on the boat and requested the captain to return, assuming I might need him for assistance on the island. I tried to persuade her otherwise, but to no avail. To my embarrassment, the crew had to turn around the giant ship to drop off my brother as everyone watched.
From Athens, we flew to Istanbul, Turkey, to visit the city that splits the continents of Asia and Europe. Istanbul is a hilly city, but not as steep as certain areas of Lisbon or San Francisco.
Before starting our journey, I planned our hotel stays to be as close to the major attractions as possible in order for us to avoid the hassle of getting into vehicles to get around. My brother and I stayed in a hotel in the old Sultanahmet area within walking distance to the major attractions, the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace. To get up 20 or so stairs into the Blue Mosque, my brother and another person carried me up using the “fireman’s lift” — one person on each side of me, lifting and carrying me up. A third person would have to bring my wheelchair up the stairs. This technique would be useful, especially to get up stairs to airplanes. Another useful method was for my brother to tilt me back using my push handles and then pull me up backwards. I would help by grabbing my push-rims and pulling backward simultaneously. It was a simple technique that worked well for us on many occasions.
Egypt was our next stop. First, we visited the famous pyramids of Giza. I had imagined the pyramids to be bigger; nevertheless, they are an amazing geometrical human feat. With a little push from my brother, getting around in the hard sand was possible. From Giza, we took the overnight “sleeping train” south toward Aswan. We used the same technique we perfected to lift me onto the train, but then faced a new hurdle. My wheelchair was too wide to fit through a narrow hallway to our sleeping cabin. To solve this problem, while still sitting in my wheelchair, I had my brother lift and hold me up using my push handles. I then pulled off both of my wheels and had him push me down the hallway to our cabin on my front casters. He held me up as I transferred at a 90-degree angle to my seat. Once in our cabin, I could finally relax.
At Aswan we hopped onto a small bus for a short drive in a convoy to see the temple of Abu Simbel. The temple is wheelchair accessible and cool inside, away from the 100-degree heat. A couple of days later, we headed up north to tour Luxor Valley. Unfortunately, in the Valley of the Kings and Queens, only a few of the tombs have wooden planked ramps inside for wheelchair access. At the Temple of Hatshepsut, my brother helped me up two steep ramps to get to the top level. Around the Karnak Temple, rolling around was difficult due to the wide-spaced cobblestones. After all our moving around, we took some well-needed rest in a luxury hotel with a pool overlooking the Nile. The ancient Egyptians weren’t the only sun worshippers!
An interesting sidelight: At most of our hotels and many of the attractions in Egypt, there were bomb sniffing dogs and guards with AK-47 and Uzi machine guns. I didn’t know whether to feel safe or within arm’s length of danger.
From Egypt, we flew to Amman, Jordan, where many Palestinians reside now. The day before we landed in Amman, Israel began to bomb Lebanon. Fortunately for us, Lebanon wasn’t on our itinerary. From Amman, we traveled south via a mini-bus to Petra, an ancient city that was built, by the Nabateans, into and around the surrounding walls of multi-colored stone mountains. Perhaps it is more famous for being in the movies Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the Mummy Returns. My brother had to venture off and take photos by himself because the rocky paths within Petra were almost impossible to push through in a wheelchair. I pushed myself about 100 feet before giving up, so I stopped and just admired the amazing beauty of my surroundings.
From Jordan we traveled to Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. In Abu Dhabi, along the Persian Gulf corniche, we marveled at the vast construction of buildings. Dubai was a city on steroids, something like Las Vegas, except the city is built on tax-free commerce rather than gambling. You can even ski inside the Emirates Mall. All this in the middle of the desert! Because there wasn’t much to do besides shop, we stayed indoors and became mall rats inside giant air-conditioned malls. Having less control of my body temperature, that was fine with me — I didn’t want to overheat. The summer heat was unbearable. At 120 degrees plus, it felt like a sauna outside.
From Dubai we flew into Tehran, Iran. As a U.S. citizen, you can only enter Iran by visa using a tour guide. With a newly constructed airport, Tehran was more modern than I had envisioned. It is also a big city with big city problems: pollution, lack of efficient mass transit, traffic jams, etc. It was very refreshing not to see a Starbucks or McDonald’s.
From Tehran we traveled south to Isfahan and Shiraz. Outside Shiraz we visited Persepolis, former capital of the ancient Persian Empire. When we arrived, Paul, my stubborn mule, refused to pull me up 100 stairs to the entrance. I understood why. Fortunately, there was a back entrance for wheelchair users, primarily built for disabled Iranian veterans of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
In Persepolis, it was hard to push my wheelchair through the small rocks on the ground. In these situations, doing a wheelie and balancing on my two large wheels was the only way to get around.
I found the people in Iran very friendly, especially the beautiful and hospitable people of Shiraz. Someone even came up to me quickly and gave me a pinch on the cheek while I was rolling around. It was different from the occasional pat on the head I receive. My brother laughed about it. Our tour guide said it was a way to show sympathy or interest in another person. I tried to stop myself from blushing.
He left Iran and flew to the central Asian country of Uzbekistan. Most of the streets in Uzbekistan have no curb cuts. So when we visited a supermarket in Tashkent, the capital, to purchase some sodas, I was surprised to see ramps leading to the store entrance. I thought to myself how great it was they were thinking about accessibility. As my brother and I drank our sodas outside, I noticed shopping carts being rolled out of the store down the ramps. Then, I realized the real reason they built the ramps.
From Tashkent, we flew east to Bukhara, a small town that was once an important commercial hub along the Silk Road. It felt as if we had the mosques and medressas (indoor markets) all to ourselves. While waiting alone under the shade of a tree, a young man walked up to me, pulled out some money from his pockets, and tried to hand it to me. I courteously denied him, but was grateful for his generosity and gesture nevertheless. It was the first time on my travels that someone tried to hand me money, rather than asking me for it.
From Bukhara, we shared a taxi that drove us four hours on bumpy roads to Samarkand to view one of the most recognized and beautiful mosques in the Islamic world, the Registan.
With another taxi ride to Tashkent, we then flew to Irkutsk, Russia, for an overnight layover. It was a relief when we landed, knowing that the previous month a similar plane crashed at the airport’s notorious short runway. We were reminded of the tragedy when we saw the recently crashed plane’s remains in an air bunker. At the tiny airport we got first-hand experience with the slow Russian bureaucratic process as we spent three hours getting through passport control and customs.
Having had difficulty getting any sleep overnight in my wheelchair, I was happy when we finally flew out in the morning to Ulan Bator, Mongolia. We almost didn’t get on the plane. At the check-in, one of the ladies at the airport suggested that we wouldn’t be able to get onto the small propeller plane. We eventually convinced her that my brother would get me on the plane using the fireman’s lift.
Flying over Mongolia, I observed the extreme beauty of the country’s rugged terrain. Once in Ulan Bator, we took a four-wheel drive SUV out to Trelej National park to view the nomadic Ger camps and wildlife.
From Ulan Bator, we then flew to Seoul, Korea. It had been over a decade since I last visited Seoul. The city had grown to become one of the cleaner, more organized and advanced cities of Asia that I have been to. An old college friend of mine offered to be our chauffeur, so we toured the traditional folk village, perused the art at the National Museum, and wandered the grounds of the Gyeongbokgung Palace. Many of the underground subway stations were accessible, with elevators. However, it took us half an hour to figure out how to get down one subway station and an hour and a half to get out of the same station. In Seoul, there are designated accessible parking spots, but no need for special placards. It’s all based on the honor system, and amazingly, people respect the parking spaces, unlike in the United States.
From Korea we flew to Tokyo, Japan, where we visited the city’s many unique districts. You can find practically everything here, from shopping, high-tech electronics, trendy nightlife, to Buddhist temples. The city is extremely clean and organized for efficiency: buses and trains always run on time. The “close door” button actually functions in most elevators. The rail and subway system is one of the most complex in the world, yet once we figured it out, we got around comfortably. Some subway stations were old with no elevators, but with a little help from the station attendants, they got us to our destination. On one occasion we waited for four station attendants to lift me up 20 or so steps to the street level exit.
After almost three months crisscrossing the globe, we finally flew home to San Francisco. When we arrived, I couldn’t believe it. I had finally made it around the world with my human mule. At times, my brother Paul was a stubborn donkey and at times a diligent horse. With all we had to go through, I was surprised we didn’t throw each other off a plane, train, or whatever mode of transportation we had to use when either of us had a chance. I’m glad I had the chance to share this journey with him. It was a trip of a lifetime that I will never forget.
When Tom Chun is not playing the role of the international man of leisure, he’s a certified financial planner.