Around the world in a wheelchair
I met Haian for the first time on an online travel forum. I read his profile, in which he talks about his amazing adventures and already from the way he wrote, I could sense his passion for life and enthusiasm about travelling. A traveller like me, I thought! It was only when I clicked on his photo that I saw that there was in fact a huge difference between us: he undertook all those adventures despite being in a wheelchair.
Haian was still a child when his physical disability forced him into a wheelchair. Although as a result of his conscientious training, he is able to walk short distances on crutches, on longer journeys, the wheelchair remains his companion. How did he manage to travel to places like Lebanon, Singapore and the Alps like this? What kind of difficulties does he have to face when travelling on his own? And what life philosophy gives him strength to overcome those difficulties? These are some of the questions I talked to him about.
Syria is not exactly known for its backpacker culture and gap year tourism. What was your road towards becoming a traveller?
When I was a child, my family took care of me in every sense, which meant that I grew up in a very protected environment. However, when I decided to go on to university, I had to move to a different city. From that moment on, my life changed radically. Suddenly, I was forced to do everything by myself, and it was at this time that I undertook my first shorter trips on my own as well.
When I finished university, I got a job with the Ministry of Tourism, where my task was to help tourists in the beautiful historic city of Palmyra. Thanks to my job, I was meeting travellers on a daily basis, and one day, one of them introduced me to the Couchsurfing website, where travellers can offer accommodation to one another or guide others around in their hometown for free.
After this, there was no turning back. I started meeting more and more travellers in my free time as well, and gradually, I began to accompany them to different places. Before I knew it, I had already visited about 90% of Syria! During this time, many of my travel friends encouraged me to organise the first Middle Eastern Couchsurfing camp, and so I set up the event, during which we were camping in the desert in Bedouin tents. The camp ended up hosting more than 50 people from 12 different countries of the world.
What made you decide that you wanted to look around outside of Syria as well?
In Syria, it is not common to travel. Somehow, it is just not part of the culture and even wealthier people who could afford trips all over the world prefer to spend their holidays at the seaside of Syria. Therefore, I had a lot to learn from foreign travellers before I felt safe to take the plunge. My first trip aboard was also thanks to one of them: after talking a lot online, she invited me to visit her in Singapore. I think that was the moment when I became really addicted to travelling. When I experienced the new culture, language, world view, mentality and saw how people live on the other side of the globe, I decided that this was something I wanted to do more of.
My next plan was to visit the surrounding countries. I made it to Turkey and Lebanon, and even though these two places are definitely not amongst the most wheelchair-friendly countries in the world, I had a great time visiting them thanks to my Couchsurfing friends who helped me during my stay.
However, the real turning point came when I was awarded a scholarship to carry out my Masters degree in England, which was followed by an opportunity to do my PhD in Scotland. During this time, my eagerness to travel continued to grow, and I started travelling around in Europe. For example, in 2014 alone, I visited 10 different countries.
What kind of difficulties have you had to face during your travels?
Before setting off on a trip, I always do some research about the local conditions and the extent to which my destination is wheelchair accessible. Luckily, there are a lot of websites that deal with the topic, and I do my best to contribute to them as well by sharing my experience.
When I book a flight, I always have to call the flight company to let them know that I am travelling with a wheelchair; otherwise, they can refuse to let me board the plane. However, there are a few flight companies that make this procedure seem like an endless struggle.
Sometimes there can be surprises even after careful preparations. For example, before travelling to Lisbon, I did not find much information on the potential difficulties for disabled travellers in the city. Therefore, I was shocked to see that the accessibility of the city resembles that of a developing country. Most underground stations are not accessible by wheelchair, it impossible to enter trams with them, too, and there are no signs on buses to indicate which ones are suitable for disabled passengers. I was not prepared for the number of hills of the city either and the impossibility to navigate on them. Because of this, sometimes I lost control over my wheelchair, which made travelling in the city a little bit unsafe.
How do you normally manage to overcome such difficulties?
If I know about them in advance, I only have to think about ways to get around them. For example, I knew that in Rome, the sidewalks are very high, but I did not want to skip this amazing city because of this difficulty; therefore, I kept asking passers-by to help me get onto them.
However, I have already come to terms with the fact that about 30% of the sights are inaccessible for me. I often cannot do anything else but admire them from the outside.
What was a tricky situation that you managed to solve with success?
Recently, I have travelled to the French Alps to visit a friend. Before the trip, I had to face a lot of difficulties because of my wheelchair; I had no idea how I would be able to make it work in the snow. I got hold of some off-road wheels, but they were not compatible with my chair, so I had to travel with my normal wheels. We also tried to put some plastic cable ties in the wheel, but that did not help either, which meant that I had to rely on my friend’s help all the time. However, when in spite of all the difficulties, I managed to spend two hours skiing in the Alps in a special chair, it made up for all the difficulties.
What is people’s general attitude towards travellers with disabilities?
It is mostly culture-dependent. In a lot of countries, disabled people normally stay at home. For example, in Italy, people are often perplexed at why I want to leave my home as they are convinced that it is definitely causing me a lot of difficulties. In Eastern Europe, I often find a very patronising attitude towards the disabled. I often get that look of ‘what is this guy doing here, he should be at home, having somebody look after him’.
A lot of times, people ask me whether I would like them to help. Although when I am at home, I sometimes find this a little annoying as I aim to be independent, if I am travelling, I know I sometimes have to ask for help because there are some things that I may not be able to do on my own.
What are your future travel plans and your travel dreams?
I am going to the United States and Japan in 2015. I would really like to discover more continents. I am interested in China, India and a lot of the African countries. At the moment, I am working on figuring out how to get to Machu Picchu in a wheelchair. It might be possible in an off-road one.
What advice would you give to those young people who suffer from physical disabilities but would like to follow your example?
As a first step, they can look for articles online about people who travel with disabilities for some inspiration. Then, when they make the decision to go for it, they should make sure to plan their trips carefully. They should know where they are going to sleep, how they are going to get around, because otherwise, being abroad can become a very scary experience. They should plan programmes that are adequate to their abilities and come to terms with the fact that they will not be able to visit everything. Last, but not least, they should not be too proud to ask for help because without this, it will surely not work.
To be honest, it is not always easy to travel in a wheelchair. However, I try to live my life with Einstein’s motto in mind, according to which “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle”. If you manage to tune into the thought that everything in this world is a miracle, you will take obstacles a lot easier as well.