Travelling abroad in a wheel chair

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Accessibility in third world countries

My passion for long flights has worn pretty thin these days. So getting aboard the first of our two 6 hours-plus flights, my attention turned to anything that would make the time pass faster. The temptation to indulge in the free alcohol is only overcome by the knowledge that I will pay for it late: going through customs with a fuzzy head is unwise.

Fortunately there had been no difficulties going through check-in. I was once again made aware of just how difficult travelling by plane can be with a spinal injury. When getting on the plane, being lifted from one chair, to another, to a third, I wondered how somebody who wasn’t lightly built like myself would be handled in these cramped spaces. Despite great efforts from firms like Emirates, plane travel for wheelchair users is still pretty much in the Stone Age. You can forget about using the toilet on board so it pays to be particularly careful in that department. customer-brian

Arrival into Colombo brought with it the familiar warmth of tropical Asia and instantly reminded me why I am here: to get away from the miserable English winter.

As I write this a day before leaving for India, a tropical storm rages outside my room. But during the first two weeks we have had only scorching sunshine intermittently disturbed by hazy clouds. On the first day in Columbo, we took a rest to recover from the flights and just wandered around local markets soaking up the atmosphere and getting a taste for what the local people were like. A typical busy emerging Asian city, Columbo assaults all the senses. From the sound of the bustling traffic to the smells of rich spices being sold on the side of the road, you are overwhelmed by the energy of the place. Getting around in a wheelchair was not as difficult as some developing cities. However the favoured means of transport, tuk-tuks, would present serious challenges to most wheelchair users. Only highly agile paras and light skinny quads travelling with a strong companion could realistically exploit this readily available and cheap means of transport.

The hotels in which I have stayed during my two weeks in Sri Lanka have varied greatly in their accessibility. In some of the more beautiful areas away from the more developed cities, the accommodation options often require some flexibility. For example, “the Elephant Corridor”, which we stayed in for a few nights, had two steps between the bed and the shower room and the dining area could not be accessed at all.

However if you could look over these obstacles, the location of the hotel is amazing and wildlife surrounds every individual bungalow. Wild elephants are known to pass by regularly at certain times of the year. In between hotels we travelled in a medium-sized Toyota minibus into which I needed to be lifted physically by my brother and the driver. Once again however, this experience is common to almost every Asian country I have travelled to. I have always found that ease-of-use must always be sacrificed to allow for proper exploration of the developing Sri Lankan people are some of the friendliest people I have ever spent time with – always smiling and courteous. They have made it a great pleasure to travel through the country they call home.

My journey took me from the peripheral low-lying areas right into the centre of the island, up into the mountains. Here the environment changes remarkably, palm trees and coconuts are replaced with firs and deciduous trees. It almost feels like you’ve discovered a strange unknown European land, especially with so many colonial style buildings still standing in this region. Along with the change of flora, the exhausting heat of the coasts gives way to a gentle European climate. The illusion is almost complete until a speeding tuk-tuk careers past blasting a Bollywood beat!

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