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10 Things You Learn When You Go Backpacking In A Wheelchair

One drunken decision and a year and a half of planning later, I set off with my friend Steph for the trip of a lifetime.

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Hi, I’m Amy.

I’m 28 and I have a connective tissue disorder that makes my joints weak and prone to dislocation. While I can walk short distances, without my wheelchair I’m pretty much stuck in the house. Every day I have to deal with protecting my joints, managing chronic pain and fatigue, and the frustrations that come with having to adapt nearly every way I complete a task.

Despite my limitations I’m determined not to let my disability get in the way of seeing the world. Over the course of three months I went backpacking across Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Japan. These are the things I learnt while travelling in a wheelchair.

1. You can take a wheelchair just about anywhere…although you won’t always be in it.

I took my wheelchair places I never thought I could go, including wheeling into a river to wash an elephant with a tiny bucket. I found that often the only way to accommodate my wheelchair was to separate myself from it; I had to bum-shuffle into and around my chosen method of transportation. By bungee-cording my wheelchair to vehicles, I managed to travel on boats, tuk-tuks, and motorbikes. This did mean I spent most of the trip with a brown-stained bum and quickly realised the flashing hazards of the dresses I had brought.

2. Things can get really personal.

There’s nothing quite like your wheelchair being strapped to the roof of the Mekong boat you’ll be on for two days, weak legs and appalling stability even on steady land, a heavy flow, a Mooncup, a squat toilet, and no running water to bring you closer to the friend you’re travelling with.

3. Never forget your She Pee.

This little urine funnel is the only way I can use a squat toilet without assistance; unfortunately on one of the few nights I went “out” I forgot to take it with me. This required a situation where my friend Steph squatted backwards over the toilet, holding me up over it and trying not to dislocate my shoulders. After the event she loudly proclaimed to our newfound friends that I had weed on her shoes, only to have it pointed out that her shoes were flip-flops.

4. Accessible transport is not a known concept, unless you’re in Japan.

One of the most ridiculous journeys we had involved an oversold minibus where the driver insisted on Steph sitting on my wheelchair frame, perched in the footwell of the first passenger row, resting its axle on the seat where another traveller was crammed in. It got worse when we stopped off for a toilet break five hours in and the driver added another passenger! The wheelchair doesn’t fold, so accommodating it on most forms of transport resulted in crammed, uncomfortable journeys. When we reached Japan we were amazed to find every single form of transport was accessible to an independent wheelchair user, with ramp assistance from hyper-efficient station or bus staff. I never had to wait longer than five minutes, the right member of staff was always there to meet me at the other end, and they even managed to get a ramp up to an ancient mountain train with five steps up to it.

5. If you ask if something is accessible you will always be told yes.

When you get there and discover you’re stranded at the bottom of a flight of stairs you’ll know you’ve been lied to…again.

6. You don’t always feel like the inspiration everyone else sees.

Eventually the novelty wears off and you have to confront the fact that any mental health issues you had before you left will have come with you, while your support network hasn't. Friends and strangers kept telling me I was amazing for doing that I was doing, but I felt like I had lost a lot of my confidence in my ability to be independent and I felt like a fraud. Everywhere was so inaccessible I had to accept I needed more help than normal. I had to be pushed around and helped to access everything from the shower to the bus; at times I felt trapped and completely reliant on Steph, and this fuelled anxiety and depression. Sometimes my mental health was harder to deal with than my physical health needs, partly because helping someone with mental health problems is more complicated than getting them a painkiller, and partly because I felt disconnected from my friends back at home who could only see the “inspirational” me through social media.

7. You’ll look like Buckaroo when fully loaded.

When Steph was helping to push me, I had to take all The Stuff: two backpacks, two rucksacks, and an off-roading attachment for my wheelchair. At this point I was less manoeuvrable than a two-wheeled shopping trolley. Add in nearly 40ºC heat, and you’ve got a recipe for a stressful situation.

8. Leaving your wheelchair in a shed and heading down a river in a rubber ring is never a good idea.

I did a few stupid things while travelling, but swapping my wheelchair for an inflated tyre inner tube to head to riverside bars from the fast-moving Nam Song River comes close to the top of the list. After leaving the last bar before most of the crowd to beat the sunset, we suddenly found ourselves floating alone down a very dark, very long stretch of river and genuinely fearing we’d missed the stop point. After around 40 minutes of panic, desperate attempts to paddle to the bank and screaming for help at some distant torches, we finally saw the lights of the end bar. The relief was quickly replaced with the burning question of how I was going to get back to the wheelchair I had abandoned.

9. There’s a great sense of camaraderie in the travelling community.

The people we met while travelling didn’t treat me with the discomfort people back home sometimes do, to the point that a few hours after we met on the Mekong boat, a new friend called Tam was attempting to smoke a cigarette through my paralysed toes. I also had multiple strangers hoist me up steep riverbanks to get to bars from the floating tyre and Agustin the strong Argentinian piggybacked me up about eight flights of steep, uneven stairs.

10. You will do and see things you never in a million years thought possible.

In the space of three months I went scuba diving, rented and drove a motorbike with a side car (for stability), fell off the back of a moped with no side car (no stability), shared a 5’6” single bed on a night coach through Vietnam, went kayaking with rare dolphins, swam under a waterfall, soaked myself in a barrel of herbal water on a mountain, and saw more temples than I can recall. Sometimes I still can’t believe all the things I achieved with the help of an amazing friend and a determined attitude.


Amy Oulton is a writer and designer based in London

Contact Amy Oulton at amy.oulton@googlemail.com.

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