I had a fracture on my left foot exactly 3 weeks before I left for a 10-day vacation of Dubrovnik, Croatia and Rome, Italy. While there is certainly no good timing for a fracture, this certainly came at the most inopportune time. We had booked the business conference in Croatia and the family vacation in Rome months before. We almost canceled the trip the day before we were flying out, but my Ortho doc (God Bless him!) saw my x-rays and actually said I had healed enough to walk with just my special Ossur shoes on. However, just to be on the safe side, he advised me to use wheelchair assistance at airports, and use a single crutch as support on uneven grounds.
Rome and Dubrovnik – here I come!
While the trip by itself was one of the best vacations we had as a family, and the food in Rome simply delicious, all that is another blog by itself. In this blog, I just want to focus on the lessons I learnt while traveling with a temporary physical disability.
Lesson #1: Learning to accept help gracefully from strangers
Since we had requested wheelchair support at all the airports, from the time I got out of the car until I reached the entrance to the flight, the attendants took charge of my movement. And that of the Krishna family.
During this trip, I had 6 flights to catch from airports in 4 different countries – India, Qatar, Italy and Croatia. While I could walk with my shoe, airports presented way too long a distance for me to do it without pain. So I became intensely grateful for the help extended, very naturally and simply, by each of these attendants in all the airports. It was as if they considered it my right that I should be helped. Not a privilege extended because I was on a wheelchair.
Accepting help is very humbling for the ego. We love helping others. After all, we feel good and noble when doing so. However, when it comes to asking for help, it becomes tough for our ego (and our sense of self-confidence and importance) to handle. I was already feeling prickly because of the loads of people staring at me. However, the natural way with which strangers and officials extended their assistance simply made the whole experience very special. The attendants ensured that we whizzed past, in super record time, ticket counters, security checks, Immigration clearances, and boarding lines. Not just once, but every time we had to catch a flight.
By the end of the trip, I had become a pro at jumping in and out of wheelchairs. And at accepting and appreciating every act of kindness extended to me.
Lesson #2: Learning to put myself in other people’s crutches
This acceptance of my disability and receiving help in airports and from strangers was easier because in my mind I knew it was only temporary, and that in 2 weeks I would be fine. But then I imagined how life is for those who have permanent disabilities. Wherever I went, I became extra sensitive to those who were on wheelchairs or used crutches to move around.
I slowly realized that as a person I had no clue how a person with a permanent disability felt. I was guilty of staring at them before. I was guilty of not helping them or reaching out to them – in fact, I even ignored them or pretended they were not there. I became aware of the total inadequacy of my empathy, or perceived empathy, before I had the accident. Nothing, not even a temporary fracture, can help us realize the daily pains and frustrations a person with limited mobility feels.
Lesson #3: Learning that chivalry and decency is not dead
When random strangers came and commented on how brave I was, or how sporting it was to travel with a crutch, it was extremely embarrassing at first. I felt like a fraud and that I did not deserve these compliments. After all, I had a customized shoe for a cast, my husband and my daughters were supporting me every step of the way (literally), and I was traveling in total style and comfort. But the fact that at every stage there were people who were ready to lend a helping hand made me feel good. Indeed, chivalry and decency was not dead.
So what is the big deal when random foreigners (and even Indians!!) help you? I know all of us are in this rat race and too impatient to get ahead, even when on vacation. But maybe because I was taking my own time to move around, or could sit and observe others, I became intensely aware of these tiny, insignificant acts of kindness – moving out of the way, a warm smile, helping to reach the paper towel in bathrooms, letting me go to the front of the line, sharing their travel stories so I feel better… I could go on and on, but these gestures became valid evidence that people are intrinsically nice.
Am I waxing maudlin simply because strangers were nice?
Not really. It is just that only when we are down and out that we become sensitive and receptive enough to the niceness around us. We normally take all these for granted, but when we are in trouble and desperately have to depend on others, we realize how blessed we indeed are for all the help.
That probably is the best lesson I learnt during my Roman Holiday.