Access Is Subjective

by Laura Hamilton
Laura Hamilton

It was our third day as obviously American tourists, and I had grown so comfortable with being manhandled by unknown men that I started viewing my boobs as convenient handholds on a pudgy cliff face to allow others to secure a better grip on me. As long as they weren’t using my lady bits or my front-butt as my husband likes to call them, for leverage, I was cool.

“Don’t worry madam,” said one of the four smiling men with his hands on my butt, “To us, you are like a sister.” Sure I am, I thought with a mental eye roll, and up the dusty steps into the perfume shop, we went.

At 140 pounds, I promised myself that I would lose enough weight to be more manageable for others before our trip to Egypt, but then pastries happened. No matter where you go in the world, there are pastries, so many pastries, around every corner, and if you don’t try them now, you may never have another chance!

My biggest fear is that on my deathbed I won’t regret the risks I didn’t take in life, but the pastries I didn’t try.

I had easily packed on a good 15 pounds since my husband and I decided to uproot our lives in San Francisco and travel the world for a year. We had Airbnb-ed our way across 17 different European countries over the last eight months, and by this point, my belly was by far my biggest souvenir.

At a size 10, I was by no means obese or even chunky by American standards, but when your legs don’t work, that is a lot of dead-weight to move from place to place. I have needed a wheelchair to get around since I was 18 years-old because I have a form of Muscular Dystrophy that causes the muscles in my arms, legs, abs, etc. to weaken, and sometimes disappear entirely, over time. As you can imagine, this obviously presents me with some unique logistical challenges when trying to explore a diverse list of places and cultures, but not as many impossibilities as you would think thanks to some delightful culture shocks. Such as the ones I found in Egypt.

When we arrived at our hotel in Cairo on a semi-paved sandy road, we were met with a 2-foot-tall curb from the door of our sedan taxi with no curb cuts. Even my husband had trouble scaling the thing with our single suitcase. Before coming, I of course, made sure that our hotel was wheelchair friendly, but as is often the case, such safe environments exist as islands among rough seas of non-access that you must find a way to paddle your way through on your own.

Our taxi driver came around the side and started pulling me out ragdoll style with such speed it caught us both off-guard. With some help from my husband, they successfully lifted me a good four feet higher than I had begun, safely planting me into my wheelchair on the sidewalk. My husband and I were in a mix of shock, amazement, confusion, and gratitude as we tipped the driver well, and he went on his way.

It’s important to understand that strangers rarely help us with any heavy lifting when we’re out and about, and for good reason. First of all, we rarely find ourselves in need of such help. My husband and I have always lived, and often traveled, comfortably in a first world environment. By this point in our societal evolution, most first world cities and countries have invested a decent chunk of money into providing step-free access to most necessities. The castles in Prague and the aqueducts in Istanbul may still be off-limits to me, but I can at least get close enough to read about them at the entrance.

The second reason is that no one thinks to do it, or they are afraid to. There have been numerous occasions where I have turned down the kind offer of strangers to lift me up or down some barrier because my missing out on going to the thing in question is a bummer, but not essential. Also, I desperately want to avoid any risk of injury to this nice person or myself, and the $12,000 bill from the emergency room for a cracked ankle that follows. No thanks bro, I’m cool.

From my travels to second world countries, I’ve learned that an inherent can-do attitude and kindness often replaces the lack of infrastructure that my existence normally hinges upon. This is entirely cultural. When people live in a place where stairs to everything are a given, the fact that I can’t navigate them on my own and that I will need serious help is also obvious.

During my week in Egypt, I got to see and do things that I never would have dreamed of in the U.S., and it had nothing to do with the location itself.

My blonde hair became a beacon, letting people know I needed help, and had money to tip anyone who would volunteer to lift me here and carry me to wherever I needed to be.

It was amazing. I ate anywhere and everything I wanted (not just pastries!) My favorite was a simple fresh bread dinner while watching the Nile at sunset from our hotel balcony. We traveled in a horse-drawn carriage around the pyramids without even asking if it was possible, though I did decline the camel ride. I’d like to see that happen with the carriages that surround Central Park or maybe a ride on the cable cars back in San Francisco. I can almost guarantee such requests would be met with a, “Seriously?” to “Nice try sweetheart,” by their operators.

I have never been so liberated in all my life, and all it took was money and a wonderful culture of people who think outside the box. Who knew? If my dollar traveled nearly as far in the states, I would gladly hire a kind Soviet-era woman named Olga with thick thighs and a backpack on her shoulders that fit my dimensions perfectly. Together, we would climb to the basecamp of Everest and finally ride that cable-car. Stretch goals.

As I type this, I’m literally trapped in my apartment complex in Seattle because there is four inches of snow on the ground outside. Where is Olga when I need her?

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