How I Eventually Became a Soaring Eagle

While sorting through my bookcase one afternoon, I found this old story and thought it fit well with my hopes for 2017. To once again be that soaring eagle!

When I was in first grade we were separated into reading groups. Those that excelled were the soaring eagles, and those that were well on their way, but not quite there yet, were the leaping frogs. Then there were the learning turtles. They were on the very bottom of the totem-learning pole—fish bait for the over achievers and brainy kids. I was a learning turtle. I loved to read but I struggled, and like a turtle, I had a pace that qualified as “perpetually falling behind.” It would be a while before I could tackle, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I longed to be a soaring eagle. They were like an elite social group that only smarter, cooler kids could join. I so desperately wanted to identify with an animal that was an American trademark, and not one that had the athletic capacity of a paper cup.

 

Our teacher Mrs. Clone, a short, pudgy woman in her fifties, terrified us to our very core. Her raspy voice and tinted fingertips suggested she was a chain-smoker. Her Donald-Trump hair, haphazardly combed to the side, gave you the impression that she preferred an effortless life, one unconsumed by female frivolities. High heels and pencil skirts were foregone for sensible beige shoes and tweed pants. Mrs. Clone was practical and never minced her words. I remember an afternoon crying while I went through my workbook, erasing all the math problems I had so courageously decided to do on my own. “You won’t do something unless I tell you to,” she barked, as my classmates looked on in fear. Math homework never seemed so traumatic!

One December morning we were all ordered to the front of the class and formed a single line. I watched as, one by one, the students formed a row, our black and yellow plaid uniforms creating a menagerie of colors and print. The boys and girls meandered to the front over the sound of desks clamoring and seats being huddled to the sides. They twisted their elbows nervously; the girls tended to their locks, making sure their pleated skirts were tidy. The closer I got to the board, the stronger the smell of chalk, bananas, and cigarettes became.

Slowly, Mrs. Clone took out our reading book from a small metal drawer that clinked loudly when shut. She turned to her left where Jonathan stood meekly. Jonathan was a light-haired introvert who was a soaring eagle. What he lacked in confidence, he made up for in spelling. He glanced around the chalkboard probably wishing it would open up to a hidden vortex leading to anyplace but there. Mrs. Clone handed him the book and commanded, “I want you all to read this story one by one.” Jonathan nervously began to read, but before he could get to the second sentence, he was abruptly cut off. “Next!” Mrs. Clone shouted. The book was passed down the line, like a tasty Thanksgiving dish, only not as appetizing. After each child had read the same sentence, Mrs. Clone yelled, “Next!”

The students stood completely bewildered, questioning why they were all being dismissed so erratically. And then it dawned on me. I knew why Mrs. Clone was frustrated. Each student was forgetting to read the title before diving into the story. When it was finally my turn, a small red-head handed me the book, her eyes defeated. I took the book, swallowed hard, and began from the very top, expecting that husky voice to interrupt at any moment. But the words kept flowing and eventually I finished. I looked up, suddenly aware of the palpable tension. An audible “Good” escaped Mrs. Clone’s lips. She then motioned me with her index finger, and as I got close enough, she said something even more erratic and out of place. “After the Christmas holidays, you’re going to be a leaping frog.” I stared blankly, letting it all register.

That moment alone erased all the excruciating Math classes spent in humiliation, all the long hours tackling nouns and verbs, and all the moments of being intimidated by cigarette breath. My fears of the cursed turtle were replaced with new hope of someday getting to the top of that totem pole; of wanting more, of eventually being an eagle.

And a few months later…I was.

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London’s Batmobile

It only hit me just now how the black (and slightly dark grey) cabs that are synonymous with London culture are somehow like their very own unique version of the Batmobile…to me anyway. Why? I guess it’s because, to me, it embodies everything that is significant with the caped crusader’s armored vehicle. Like the Batmobile, London cabs have proven to be worthwhile companions and heroes time and time again, especially for the disabled community.

On a number of visits to London I’ve had the pleasure of riding in a London cab, and IMG_6712every time, I’ve been in awe of the service and accessibility behind it all. Imagine my surprise the first time I got into a hackney carriage, or as they are more commonly referred to, “black cabs.” At first contact, they appear spacious and compact, with a driver usually very keen to see how he can assist. As I was wondering how I’d get in and whether I’d need to fold the wheelchair first, the driver instantly pulled out a small metal ramp from the interior of the side and swiftly wheeled me inside the cab, all before you could say, “holy buckets batman!”. “Hang on to the yellow bar on the side there, love,” he gingerly advised, as my friend sat down on the seat adjacent to me.

I remember thinking how incredibly easy and comforting that experience was, and every time I remember it, I smile. I smile because I’m grateful that somehow, someone took the moment to think about this…to really think about the consumer (and all our different needs). As we passed by the streets of London that night in our “carriage” I was reminded of just how thoughtful and accommodating the city of London is overall towards the disabled community. Not only were they accommodating, but they radiated a sense of empathy and patience that so far have been unparalleled in other cities.

Every public building from theaters to restaurants to museums and bars: the majority of them offer an accessible entrance(whether from main or side doors). Those that don’t, are quick to offer an alternative with portable metal or plastic ramps that can just as easily get the job done. Comfort and ease are clearly at the top of their list and I was always thankful for that.  Accessible cabs were just the icing on the cake that made for a fun and spontaneous tour of the city. I highly recommend it for those traveling with strollers or wheelchairs. These cabs are pretty much on every corner throughout the city, but can also be booked online or by telephone.  If traveling with a wheelchair user, they seat 3 people comfortably.

So the next time you’re in London, and looking for a heroic mode of transportation with a little bit of class, try the Batmob–er.. I mean the black cabs. Make the trip just a little more easy.  🙂

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DeFY. New York talks to a fellow New Yorker

In March, Scott Fredrick, a friend from LIU (CW Post campus), contacted me and asked whether he could ask me some questions relating to my accident and where my journey has taken me over the years. He wanted to include the interview in his blog, DeFY New York; a blog catering to the urban world of sneakers, fashion, and music.  Naturally, I said yes, and after a few email exchanges, here’s what he came up with.

DeFY New York Interview

Thanks Scott for supporting my cause and for sharing my journey with others!

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Fashion-Friendly Friends

If you’re like me, and you need a cane to walk, why not walk it with style? About 2 years ago, I discovered this great website called Fashionable Canes. It carries an assorted supply of colorful, patterned canes with different handles, sizes, and grips. Are you looking to spice up your daily stroll with animal print? Then try this website.

IMG_20150423_131201621_HDRMy current friend Candy, (get it? Candy Cane?) is a glossy purple paisley print. She often gets compliments and has proven to be very reliable. 🙂 I’ve been through a few canes over the years, but none have been as shiny and fun as Candy.  Of course this is not discrediting my very first cane, Michael (Ok, I’m sure you get this one), who thankfully, made the struggle much less challenging. I still have Michael perched in a corner; a symbol of how far I’ve come and all the little things that helped me get there.

Thanks to Fashionable Canes, my collection of fashion friendly friends is slowly growing.

http://www.fashionablecanes.com

 

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Window With a View

Sometimes I’ll admit I have one of those days. Days where I’m so consumed by my backaches and pains, that the only thing I’d rather do is stay home, be entranced by a book or a film, my duvet a cozy cocoon. On these days, I welcome my solitude and enjoy the view of the (still currently) snow peaked mountains from my terrace or kitchen window.

Some days though, I’m taken out of this cocoon, aches and all, and I’m reminded to allow myself to be taken in by a new view, even if only for a moment. That moment can change us for the better.

In March I was invited to join a friend and a colleague for a flight lesson on a 4 seater plane. My colleague, Paul, who is close to retirement, is working toward obtaining his pilot license and figured it would be nice to have some passengers along for the ride.  After a bit of hesitation, and I’ll admit, fears of Paul’s piloting skills (he doesn’t have his license yet!) I accepted the offer and prepared myself for a Saturday of fun in the skies.

This was my first time getting on a 4-seater plane. Naturally, I was inquisitive: accessibility being the main concern. Thankfully, Paul seemed to keep all this in mind and assured me it was something I could handle. “I’ve been on an elephant in India. I think I can do this,” I casually replied, concealing all the minor trepidations and doubts that were lurching in the pit of my stomach.

My main worry was how I’d even be able to get inside. 4-seater planes don’t normally have steps or those clever little cars that whiz you on up to plane level.  I’ve had my fair share of those in airports, but somehow, I couldn’t imagine the humble, little Agno airport in Lugano having one. “You’ll step onto the wing and then jump unto the seat,” he explained, carefully calculating the distance from the classroom to the actual plane, and how much I’d have to walk to get there. There were some details that needed ironing out, but nevertheless, I agreed to give it ago, throwing caution to the wind (no pun intended).

That Saturday afternoon after a quick lesson on codes and heavy flight jargon (they don’t say things like “roger” or “over and out”) the flight instructor, Jacopo, led us to the airport landing strip and introduced us to this little beauty. Now I can’t remember her name…but I’d like to think it was something pragmatic yet comforting…like Velma. 

Flight 1

Velma stood heroically, wings and propeller at a firm stance. Immediately I saw her wings were not very high at all and in fact even Tyrion Lannister could have been able to hop on with little difficulty.

Despite that however, I still needed a few extra arms and hands to hoist me up Flight 2and keep me steady, as the wings aren’t completely flat and you do need to have a good sense of balance once up there. Having a prosthetic leg definitely throws your balance off at times, especially when under uneven terrains or surfaces. Jacopo was efficient and quick to lend a hand, and kept his cool even while we were trying to figure out the next step: how do I get inside with so little leg room left? Because I have a hip disarticulation amputation, it isn’t so easy to step up and bend the leg and pelvis with little leg space available. But sturdy, pragmatic Flight 7

Velma proved trust worthy so far, and I knew it was now or never. I quickly lifted my right foot, my left side swerving a bit as the gentlemen held my waist and torso. My friend, Helen, had already sat down and made sure she was on the other end just in case. Because the leg room was so cramped, I had to step onto the seat, then pulling up my prosthetic leg, Bruce Lee (will explain in a later post), relying on Helen to hold the cane and help me bend the leg. Once that was done, I could slowly but surely crouch down into my seat. Phew. The rest was pretty much a cake walk, as I leaned back smiling proud, clutching on to my  bulky aircraft headphones.

Flight 5

As warned, it was a bumpy but amazing ride. We drifted over Saronno and Milan, taking in the aerial views of mountain tops, green valleys, and lustrous lakes along the way.  The warm rays beamed through the windows on our faces, as the sunshine cast an ethereal glow over the horizon. Velma hummed and roared, and yet oddly enough, I felt a sense of peace.

That Saturday afternoon I was reminded how much the world can change when Flight 8we look at it from a different view. While it may be safer to stay on ground, and dwell in the comfort of that cocoon, sometimes we need a good jolt and challenge to remind us how capable we are. That day, as I was carried off the plane (it was just easier to be carried out), I felt grateful; grateful for the experience, the people I could share it with, and more importantly, for the view from my window.

 

 

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Hola Bar’the’lona!

Tapas, paella, Gaudi, and a nightlife that can give New Yorkers a run for their money: this is how I would describe Barcelona. It’s a city of unparalleled charm and grittiness. DSC_0321A city where the Sangria is plenty and the heart of the Spaniard, while at first reluctant, can be as giving as the city. The vibrant street life is as depicted in guide books and online reviews. There’s truly never a dull moment with street performers, musicians, and outdoor cafes and restaurants parading through the crowded sidewalks. The culture of this Catalonian region is proud, earnest, and clearly set on its traditional ways, yet its people are not inadvertent to change. Commercialism and medieval corners (such as the Gothic Quarter) are a pleasant paradox, as you are taken in by the old and the modern. Yes, you will see a Zara (founded by Amancio Ortega and Rosalía Mera in Galicia)  almost everywhere, and yes, the prices there are slightly cheaper. My friends and I definitely got our shopping fix!

This trip to Barcelona was special for me. Not only was it my first time visiting this quirky, urban city very much unlike my own, it was also a small family reunion. An aunt and two cousins from Colombia have lived there for over 15 years, now having completely immersed themselves in the Catalonian culture. The last time I had seen them I was 15 years old: a young, pimply teenager with chubby arms and frizzy hair. You can imagine how it was to see them again, 17 years later (gosh now I really feel old), my older cousin now a mother to a precocious 10 year old, and my younger cousin a beautiful, young woman at the cusp of her life. Our reunion was heartfelt, hilarious, and incredibly fulfilling, leaving me dumbfounded and gasping for more, wishing I had more time in this city of  hope and new beginnings. When I wasn’t with family, I was gallivanting with friends from Lugano, soaking in the culture, the drinks, and of course the eye candy.

My family was proud to show me their side of the pond. That first day we had lunch followed by a long, deliriously happy walk through the Catalonian streets. We strolled through Ciutadella Park (also a zoo), a historical garden of 70 acres. The park is home to a small lake with the occasional paddling enthusiast, a collection of statues, museums, a variety of vegetation, and a large fountain designed by Josep Fontsere.  This charming park is a portrait of daily living; families and couples flocked there to read, picnic, and simply enjoy a floral respite from their concrete metropolis. The park is easily accessible from start to finish, with well paved pathways, benches, and ramps. If a st’roll’ through the park is what you crave, without all the tourist hubbub, then IMG_8753this park is for you.

Barcelona certainly lends itself to disabled travel with decently paved sidewalks and entrances to shops being fairly accessible. I have to admit the purpose to this trip was more emotional than educational, but it still gave me insight as to how the city caters to the needs of those less mobile. The bustling city while busy and consumed by its entirety,  is definitely aware. One night, my family and I went to a small sidewalk restaurant called Ciudad Condal (located on Rambla de Catalunya, Esquina Gran Via), where I had my first taste of the notorious tapas. I liked them! Small, bite-size goodies that still fill your appetite and tickle your palette. Once again, the Sangria was plenty. The service while a little haphazard and mediocre at times, didn’t take away from the actual meal and the quality of the food. In fact, I noticed a pattern with many waiters in the city: customer service might not always be at the top of the list, so be prepared for a little bit of gruffness or outright indifference in some places. Like most outdoor cafes and sidewalk restaurants, accessibility was not an issue; no steps, no fuss. The bathrooms vary according to establishment. Ciudad Condal had an accessible bathroom on the bottom floor. After a few pitchers of Sangria, I was relieved to not have to tackle a staircase to get to the loo!

DSC_0163DSC_0151After dinner, we strolled through the tree-lined streets of Las Ramblas and ended in Port Vell, a fun, animated seaside attraction teeming with visitors, locals, entertainment, and a stunning view of the city at night. Wheelchair users won’t have any problems here as the boardwalk is as intended- friendly, flat, and a long stretch of diversity.

Gaudi fans will enjoy Park Guell, with its lush gardens and mosaic sculptures and buildings. I call it Gaudi’s playpen: where all his inspirations and colors seemed to have come together for a nap, producing an ethereal play-land for all. But make no mistake; while enchanting and seemingly peaceful, Park Guell is busy! Relieved to have a separate entrance (for disabled visitors), my friends and I were able to avoid a long chain of impatient tourists and street vendors.  Once inside, you are taken in by the colors, the geometric shapes, and the Gaudi imagination. Once meant to be a private park for palatial homes, the space never lost its sense of richness and clever modernity. The sloping walk ways make it another play -land, but for disabled travelers. Wheelchair users will be able to get around, however, not without the help of a companion. The slopes while helpful, were sometimes a little steep and “sweat-worthy” for those pushing you up the slope.  DSC_0358 DSC_0373

Of course no trip to Barcelona would be complete without a visit to La Sagrada Familia.  This monumental structure, now a Unesco World Heritage Site, is the heart of the Catalonian culture, combining an architectural and engineering style that I have yet to see in other basilicas (I would however like to be proven wrong in my future travels!) DSC_0243Clearly, Gaudi’s master-mind was present when he began his work in 1882, and his hands are still felt in every chiseled piece, every stained glass. I tried to think of a way to describe his art work (aside from modern and neo-Gothic) and came up with this: it’s as if Tim Burton and Giger had dinner with Willy Wonka and decided to have a baby.

Accessibility in La Sagrada Familia is incredible with long, extended ramps in every direction you turn. A private entrance for disabled visitors is a welcome option once you see the long line outside.

DSC_0291Inside there were ramps that helped you cross to other ends, without feeling like you had to remain in one place. Even though I was there with friends, I felt autonomous and in control of my surroundings.  Do reserve! I purchased my tickets through www.cloriann.com. Disabled visitors and children get reduced prices. 🙂

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My first impression of Barcelona exceeded my expectations. I can see where the pride stems from as the people have a lot to be proud of.  Seeing my cousins and aunt again after so long, truly warmed my heart in a way I never thought imaginable. Time and routine create a cozy cocoon for us, until suddenly that cocoon is burst revealing something we never knew we were missing. Seeing my family, feeling that unequivocal closeness that you only feel with family, made me want to know more of the city that has hosted them, the city that has embraced them over the years.

I plan to revisit Barcelona this October, and will have more to report on as far as tourist sites, but in the meantime, I think I’ll go enjoy a glass of Rioja!

Buenas noches!

Z

 

 

 

 

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Hello and Welcome!

For some time now I’ve been wanting to start a blog about my rewarding experiences and adventures as a disabled traveler. First, however, I should probably introduce myself.

My name is Zuleika. I’m 33 years old and I was born in Queens, NY. I currently live in Lugano, a cozy little nook in the Swiss-Italian region of a land notorious for cheese and chocolate. How did a New Yorker end up in Switzerland? Well, let’s see. Where to begin?

I came to Lugano through a study abroad program with my alma mater, LIU- CW Post. Imagine the allure of Europe to a 21 year old. Better yet imagine the allure of freedom and no parents! Like India, Italy had always been a dream destination for me. When I was told LIU didn’t offer a program in Italy, I chose the next best thing: Switzerland. “Do they speak Swedish there?” Yes. That was my first (and very uneducated) impression at first too. But I soon realized just how culturally exquisite Switzerland was with its reigning snow capped mountains and parade of nature-driven townsfolk. It felt good to be somewhere that didn’t have sirens whizzing by every 20 minutes. It felt comforting to see homes without bars framing the windows. I missed my parents, but I was too happy with this newfound freedom and joy for all things green. You know that saying the grass is always greener? Well, in Lugano it actually was!

It didn’t take me long to adapt to the college life in Lugano. In a matter of days I had found a group of international friends that I could relate to and be silly with. We traveled on the weekends, went to wine tasting events, we partied until the wee hours of the morning. We soaked up what the world had to offer and it couldn’t have been any better.

One October morning my new friends and I decided to go to Amsterdam in celebration of Queens Day, a national holiday. We had heard many tales of the attractive nightlife, the Anne Frank House, the Heineken museum, and of course the Belgian waffles no tourist should do without. That afternoon at the train station, we anxiously looked up at the timetable and glanced at our watches, curious, but ready for our latest European adventure to unravel.

I never made it to Amsterdam that day.

When I saw I was about to miss my train, I ran to it, lost my balance, and slipped, falling under as it was picking up speed. It was then my life took an unexpected turn. When I woke up three days later, I realized I had lost my left arm and leg. It was then I knew I would never be the same again. It was then I went from being a young college student enjoying every whim and fancy, to a grown up with some serious decisions to make.

Suddenly my hopes of adventure and traveling the globe were replaced with uncertainty and fears. I thought being disabled meant having to give up my dreams of exploring, taking risks, and seeing the world. But slowly, that urge to travel began to grow again. I realized my disability couldn’t overshadow my hunger for life and my passion for learning.

So I began to travel again. I started with New York, then worked my way to Paris, Morocco, Germany, England, Austria, and most recently, India. I even made it to Amsterdam after all. Each city has had its advantages and disadvantages in terms of accessibility. Some have proved more challenging than others, and those that lacked accessibility, more than made up for it in service. India for example, may not have been the most accessible, but I found the people and the culture the most endearing ( I will post on my travel experiences there soon).

Too often we see disabled or elderly people who seem defeated with life. They actually believe their possibilities are limited or void because they’re confined to a wheelchair or a cane, or a physical disability that hinders their mobility. As a wheelchair and cane user myself, I know how difficult it can be to travel. But if we just look at it a little differently, we’ll soon see how much of an adventure it can all be.

I know what it’s like to give up and believe life isn’t worth living just because it took a turn you weren’t expecting. But I believe there’s a vast, magnificent world out there, and a disability shouldn’t be a reason why we don’t discover it. Yes, it can be a challenge, and no, it isn’t always easy, but that feeling of accomplishment you take with you is priceless.

As a disabled traveler/blogger I hope I can offer others a chance to see just how much of that can be accomplished and how fun it can be. I will chronicle my adventures in the hopes of encouraging other fellow disabled travelers to take the plunge and embark on their own journey wherever it may lead them. 🙂

My motto is and will always be “Yes, it’s hard, but it’s not impossible!”

Zuleika