We are a couple of middle-aged travel fiends. We live to see new things, meet new people, check the boxes off on our individual bucket lists, and encounter the beautiful and the weird. Taste it, touch it, and throw caution to the wind. But one of us is mobility challenged, and that puts a crimp in our style.
My husband, Michael, has multiple sclerosis and needs a scooter to get around. But get around we do. Together we’ve been to the Galapagos, to China, to Crete and Athens; to Vienna, Prague, and Dresden; to Thailand, Spain, Paris, and Switzerland; and all across the United States. We’ve learned a few things about traveling when you are handicapped.
Mostly what we’ve learned is that while nothing is easy, being flexible and embracing the imperfect and the impromptu on the road makes travel both possible and pleasurable. A sense of humor helps too.
Our trip to China tested and refined every one of our assumptions about travel. We had an amazing time. We heartily recommend the journey. But it wasn’t a cakewalk, or even a rice cake. We use it here to illustrate to joys of exotic destinations and how to use humor and ingenuity to overcome the bumps.
Like everyone else, we arrived in Shanghai and couldn’t resist the comparison to the Jetsons. Our hotel room was on the 70th floor, and the vista of the Shanghai nightscape — the neon filigree outlining the fantastical architecture — the sheer size of the urban footprint, the shining river. Oh my god. We made it. We are actually in China. We arrived in advance of the rest of our tour group, hoping to acclimatize a little before we hit the ground running. Metaphorically speaking, that is, for with MS, running is just a metaphor.
We had done our research, made the phone calls, sent the e-mails, done all the things on our checklist before we booked the once-in-a-lifetime trip to China with a wonderful company that assured us that, yes, guests with disabilities were always welcome and well cared for. The guides were savvy, we were assured, the tour buses accessible, and the cruise ship that would carry us down the Yangtze River, entirely safe. No worries at all — just send us your AmEx number and sign all the waivers.
What we hadn’t counted on was China. What we hadn’t counted on were the Chinese functionaries who eyed Mike’s battery-charged electric scooter and decided it was a subversive device.
It was a little dicey at the airport, but in our experience, it is always dicey at the airport. It’s challenging to get a taxi willing to take on our mound of luggage plus the scooter. (How could a taxi driver know that the scooter collapsed and fit easily in a car trunk)? And for goodness sake, we were in China, not Paris or Berlin or Orlando. We expected things to be a tad challenging.
Our first day we had decided to visit the Shanghai Expo, cruising to its finale a few weeks later. We’d hired an accessibility guide (we were so smart!) from a special website that seemed professional, and bought special access passes to boot. When “Jimmy” arrived to meet us, he seemed perplexed, as if he hadn’t gotten the handicapped part of the assignment. Things like looking for curb cuts and taxis with a reasonable trunk befuddled him. OK, whatever, we thought. The day is young. We wanted an adventure. That’s why we selected China.
We arrived at the entrance (or possibly one of about eight entrances) at the Expo site. Huge. Fun. Wonderful. With Jimmy trotting behind, Mike rolled up to the kiosk holding out our pre-paid tickets. The young military officer jumped in front of the scooter. No, he motioned. The scooter could not enter. “Not allowed.” We could leave it with him and use the rickety wheelchair he offered. We could get the scooter back when we left the park.
This wasn’t going to work for us at all. We hadn’t come from Boston with a fancy travel-enabling mobility device just to leave it unguarded at a ticket counter in Shanghai. What was wrong with the scooter, we wanted to know? “Not allowed in China.” But all the parts are made in China, we explained. “No. No. Not allowed.” I asked to speak with his supervisor. Please.
Jimmy was trying very hard to be invisible as a second officer came out. This one had two gold stars on his shoulder. Not allowed, he explained, jiggling the handle of the flimsy wheelchair to make it a more attractive sell. I asked for his supervisor. An officer with three stars came out, as did a growing crowd of Chinese visitors who were avidly snapping photos of the scooter. After a little more back and forth, three- stars came back with a four-star, a general we gathered by the behavior of our new cheering section. Mike started showing him the scooter’s virtues: its small footprint, its peppy little battery. I’d like the record to show I remained calm and never raised my voice.
By this point, the crowd was swarming around us. Mike and his scooter had to pose for photos with innumerable children and grandparents. He smiled and so did his photo-mates. The four star was overwhelmed and we passed through the gates. We’d learned a lesson that would be useful for the remainder of our visit in China: People in any kind of hierarchy are afraid to make decisions that might carry a risk. It is our job to help them make a decision. Smiling and staying calm are crucial — a useful lesson in traveling with a companion with disabilities. It’s helpful in museums, domestic airports, in the Forbidden City, even at the panda zoo, with the warriors of Xi’an. We stand up calmly to “authority” and occasionally win.
We were a big hit at the Shanghai Expo. It was hard to miss us, being two Westerners out of perhaps 30 visiting that day among 100,000 Asian visitors. Mike is hard to miss in most circumstances. He’s big and smiling, with a full head of silver hair and beard, and electric blue Irish eyes. But I think the scooter was the real attraction. The Expo was fascinating and crowded. A sort of Epcot Center without the magic fairy dust. Early in the day, we lost our guide, who was never to be found again. We hadn’t thought ahead to exchange cellphone numbers, but it didn’t matter at all. People were falling over themselves to be helpful, making us feel thrilled to be in China, where yet again, we were reminded that people are wonderful, compassionate, curious, and willing. Often several wanted to lift Mike, scooter and all, over stairs and barriers. I said no but loved the gesture. It was a wonderful, serendipitous travel day for the two of us, buoyed by the unexpected warmth of strangers.
We made it back to the hotel having had a pretty perfect immersion experience, and given the jet lag and the excitement of the day, we chose to eat in the hotel, soaking up the amazing sunset from 360 degrees of glass on the 8oth floor.
The trip continued with spectacular hits and a few misses. There were spots Mike simply couldn’t visit. We were on a lovely river cruise and the boat itself was easy, but disembarking at the docks along the way? Several stops were simply not possible. I racked my brain, wondering what questions I might have asked in advance.
But there was so much that did go right. We figured out (again, with the help of compassionate strangers) how to visit the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Xi’an, and navigate all the byways of University of Peking. It’s amazing that the extraordinary engineering minds that built the huge dam on the Yangtze River couldn’t figure out how to construct ramps with a slope less than 90 degrees. Some unexpected plusses: When we couldn’t join our tour group at an evening of Chinese acrobats, we were drinking German beer and munching pretzels at an impromptu Wild West Oktoberfest karaoke night at the Kempinski Hotel in Xi’an, complete with a chorus of Chinese girls in white cowboy boots and sundry hotel guests belting out “You Light Up My Life” and “Stand By Your Man.” (At least that’s what we think they were singing.)
China was more challenging than we expected, but we wouldn’t have missed it for all the tea in, you know, China. It is a huge country with more than enough to see, and with some creativity and spots of luck, we gimped gaily along.
This trip more than many helped us think through the cardinal rules of accessible travel: research, flexibility, human warmth, curiosity, and gratitude for all the things that delighted us. For us, traveling is about not getting stuck on a plan, embracing the unexpected, and enjoying the road ahead.Louisa Kasdon can be reached at louisa