Continuing along with my new Inside the Enabled Mindset series, we have Anthony from The Geordie Traveller. Anthony is in a wheelchair, and you would think that would make traveling damn near impossible. Anthony of course tells us otherwise. Read on to find out more bout this epic guy!
First off, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you fell in love with traveling?
I’m a dude in his mid-twenties originally from Newcastle upon Tyne in the United Kingdom – hence the name ‘The Geordie Traveller’. I was born with an extremely rare genetic disability which leaves me requiring the use of a wheelchair. I’ve managed to find ways around all the daily struggles that occasionally popped up throughout my life so I would say one of my strongest traits is my adaptability. I can make the best out any situation.
The moment where I fell in love with travelling was when I was 17 years old. I was on holiday with my dad, my sister, and my sister’s husband and their kids, and we were spending a few nights in Berlin. Prior to leaving I really did not want to go. I just wanted to stay in the UK and stick to what I knew, and what was comfortable for me. Thank God I got on that flight though, because the freedom I experienced for the first time in my life was just truly remarkable. One memory from that trip that resonates with me vividly to this day, is when I was wheeling around the streets of Berlin on my own, close to the Brandenburg Gate, at dusk, with my iPod playing – listening to ‘The Great Escape’ by a band which I loved at the time called We Are Scientists. I just felt euphoric, and I realised then that I adored the freedom to go where I want, whenever I wanted.
Fast-forward to nine years later and I’m now a fully-fledged nomad with nothing but my wheelchair and my rucksack to keep me company at times.
To give our readers a little bit of background, can you tell us briefly about your condition, and what it allows you to do and not do?
My disability affects every joint in my body. I would say that to an observer, my disability appears quite severe. Luckily for me though, as mentioned before, I’m really adaptable so I find ways to do all the things I need to do in order to get by. I just feel blessed that I don’t require the help of a carer and that I can enjoy a full range of independence.
All of my joints have a fair amount of webbing – so for example, my legs don’t straighten at the knees because webbing restricts them from fully locking out. The same applies for my arms, my neck, and my armpits. I also have scoliosis, but had it corrected with surgery at the age of 11, so I now come equipped with two metal rods screwed into my spine.
Was there ever a moment that you thought you wouldn’t be able to accomplish your dreams because of your disability? How did you overcome this?
Absolutely, unequivocally; not, thankfully. If anything, being disabled just spurred me on even more. To overcome the ‘doubts’ and to do everything in life that I want to do. Disability is just a state of mind.
How do you deal with looks people give you when they notice you’re a disabled traveler?
I generally just laugh it off. I love challenging people’s perceptions, so when they see me there in a wheelchair and think it looks bizarre then I guess I know I’m doing something right. I’m extraordinary to them, in some ways, and I do appreciate that a disabled traveller with a rucksack on the back of his wheelchair is not really something that you see every day!
One thing I have struggled with over my time travelling though is some of the looks I get from folk coming from Mainland China. They have a very different way of looking at disability throughout vast areas of China, and often I find myself the victim of some disgusting stares, and also being surrounded by swarms of Chinese people unashamedly taking pictures of me without my permission (true story – it happened in Cambodia with a flock of Chinese tourists).
Were there any countries that were harder because your disability?
Oh God yes – when I was backpacking around South East Asia it was a constant struggle at times. There’d often be nothing in the way of a pavement (sidewalk) and I’d have to resort to heading onto the road, into oncoming traffic. Anyone who’s spent some time in South East Asia will know that traffic can be crazy. Thousands of scooters and cars whizzing past you are break neck speed. Every hour seems to be ‘rush-hour’, and there I was, in the thick of it… just going about my business, trying to get from A – B.
Transport was also a bit hectic. I got pretty damn used to just bundling my wheelchair onto a bus which wasn’t really stopping, just barely slowing down, and somehow managing to crawl up the steps and make it to a seat, whilst dragging my rucksack behind me. Fun times!
Don’t even get me started on the toilets.
How about countries that were easier because of your disability?
Generally speaking, all European countries I’ve visited have been a doddle (really easy). I’d say that Australia and New Zealand are the same, and for the most part they are, but there are some killer hills, which makes for a pretty decent workout when pushing my chair up them!
Living in Holland was a definite highlight when it came to easy living. One of the flattest countries in the world… I definitely take it for granted sometimes though!
You mentioned to me that you’ve climbed mountains with your wheelchair on your back. You’ve got to tell us more about that!
I’ve been up a few mountains in my time. For instance, in Taiwan there’s a place called Alishan, which is a beautiful area of national park and forest. Alishan is also a mountain! Shan = mountain in Mandarin! So, there were times whilst there on the mountain top that I had no option but to drag and carry my wheelchair over rough terrain. It was totally worth it though… the views were insane!
What mode of transportation do you tend to use when you’re traveling? Bus, taxis, etc.? How is it different for you to travel than for people with full use of their limbs?
I’m tempted to just put ‘Wheelchair’ here and be done with it, for the comedy aspect – but no, in all seriousness, I take all modes of transport, from buses, to planes, to trains, to boats. Whenever I can I’ll always try to mix it up and use a cross section of different transport modes. I want to fly in a helicopter… that’s my next mission!
I guess the ways in which it can be considered different is that I often have to think about how I’m going to get on the mode of transport as I’m approaching it. Do I have time to take the wheels off my wheelchair and put it away safely? Or do I just have to kinda fling it on board the train and attempt to chase after it? It’s a bit mad – but incredibly fun!
You told me you’ve backpacked with your pack on your wheelchair, which I think is super cool. Do you have a special kind of backpack for this?
Nope, it’s just a regular North Face backpack – sorry to disappoint. I travel incredibly light; it makes it easier when I’m carrying the bag on the back of my wheelchair. Seriously – it might seem a bit trampy, but I usually only travel with like 5 t-shirts, 2 pairs of shorts, and a pair of trousers! Vacuum bags are my best friend.
Do you have any special type of wheelchair that makes traveling easier?
I have bespoke wheelchair, which means it’s a regular wheelchair, but fitted to my needs. I got it over seven years ago and at the time it cost £3,000. My parents have been trying to convince me to get a new one – but honestly, I don’t want to. I love my chair and it’s been everywhere with me. It’s super, duper light. Only 8kg! It’s a bit battered and bruised though, with dents here and there. Luggage handlers at airports aren’t too kind to it…
That reminds me, in Vietnam I had a heart-in-mouth moment when the boat I was on in Ha Long Bay suddenly caught fire. I didn’t care about my possessions, such as my bag or my laptop, I just thought, “Oh shit…my wheelchair is going to sink to the bottom of the South China Sea…. FUCK!!”. Luckily we were rescued just in time.
You also told me you’re currently working as a volunteer intern for the World Wildlife Fund! What types of things do you do for them?
Right now I am in charge of a big campaign that WWF-New Zealand are looking to launch on the 5th of May 2016. The campaign will be called “Challenge 55” and we want as many New Zealander’s as possible to get involved and complete their own personal challenges and raise money in the process for the Maui dolphins. The Maui Dolphins are the world’s rarest and smallest dolphin, and there are only 55 of them left in existence – all of which live of the west coast of New Zealand’s north island. So yeah, I’m pretty much organising Challenge 55!
Okay, I’m giving you full bragging rights here – what’s the most badass thing you’ve done in as a traveler in a wheelchair?
I find this question so difficult, because I’ve experienced so much in my life. I guess one thing which springs to mind from recent travels was from when I was in Vietnam (God I LOVE Vietnam!!!), spending some time on Cat Ba Island. I found that the best way to get around was to hang on to the back of a scooter, which my friend had rented. I was being dragged along busy streets at around 50km per hour, and then flying down massive hills. I couldn’t use my hands to brake, as it burnt too much, so instead I had to use my feet. I eventually started to smell burning and my foot suddenly became very hot. Needless to say I burnt a huge hole in the bottom of my shoe. How many disabled people do you know that wear holes into their soles?
What’s your advice to anyone out there who wants to travel, but is afraid their disability might hold them back?
Just go for it. Really, just go for it. Find what works for you. Travel with someone if it helps, and just get out there and give it a go. Life is what you make of it, and there are ways around everything. I’m a strong believer of ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’, so just grab life by the scruff of the neck, get your hands dirty and just live a little! Would you like any more clichés in one sentence? 😉
Any final thoughts?
Always be the best version of yourself. Put yourself out there and challenge your own comfort zone. I love the expression if you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space, and I feel it’s important to push your boundaries to learn and grow as an individual. Never be scared of change, expect and preempt it, go with the flow, be open minded and just always try to be positive. But most importantly, just always be sure to have tons of fun on this beautiful journey called life.
If you’d like to be my next interviewee, contact me for more details!
And be sure to check out more interviews with people who don’t let anything hold them back – click here!