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What I've Learned About Kindness as a Traveler With a Disability

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I have a love/hate relationship with kindness.

As a wheelchair user, I can’t really afford to turn down the kindness of strangers — especially when I travel. You see, I’m an accessible travel blogger, and I roam around the world by myself on pretty much a semi-monthly basis. This may sound a bit reckless, but I never do or try anything unless I believe I can get through it — or out of it — by myself because I feel like relying on the kindness of strangers is dangerous. If I can’t do it myself, I shouldn’t be doing it at all.

Then someone explained to me that by denying someone the opportunity to be kind to me, I was denying them the opportunity to feel good about themselves, and even useful. But nothing has demonstrated the deeper power of kindness than something that happened to me almost two years ago and half a world away.

In February 2016, I took my first international trip as a complete non-walker. I went big, too; my electric scooter and I hauled ourselves alone from Orlando to Dubai to visit two of my friends who were living there at the time. It was absolutely incredible! I went to the top of the tallest building in the world, saw the only 7-star hotel in the world, shopped in glittering souks, and dined on a luxurious man-made island shaped like a palm tree.

On my last full day in Dubai, my friends had arranged for us to go on a desert safari. This would
involve a 45-minute “dune bashing” adventure and time in a Bedouin-style camp with awesome food and traditional experiences and entertainment. My friends made sure the safari would be accessible — or at least easy to modify for my physical needs.

Our guide’s name was Javeed, and he picked us up in Dubai in a Toyota 4-Runner that would take us through this experience. With my rented manual wheelchair in the back and my rear end gently placed in the front seat, the four of us were off to the desert! An hour later we were on a roller coaster ride, gliding over the sands as plumes sprayed up alongside us, then tipping over precariously as we went from one dune to the next.

At the end of the dune bashing, all the SUVs parked at the base of a large dune where people got out and started climbing to the top for photos. I sat patiently and just planned to wait for everyone to finish. Then Javeed looked at me and asked, “Miss Sylvia, what are you doing?” I told him I was waiting for everyone to climb back down. He said, “Miss Sylvia, today I’m going to make sure you can do what everyone else is doing.” He called over my friend Tom, and the two of them picked me up in a seat-carry position. Then they proceeded to climb up a very steep sand dune just so I could see the view.

Riding a camel in the desert.
I never thought I would be riding a camel in the Dubai desert!

After we came back down, Javeed drove us to the camp so I could enjoy the activities before everyone else arrived. Javeed and Tom seat-carried me once again so I could ride a camel. A camel! Javeed put me in a plastic chair, and he and a camp worker carried me from tent to tent, where I got a henna tattoo, sampled tea and dates, and got to hold a hunting falcon.

At the end of the safari, we started the hour-long drive back to Dubai in darkness. Javeed had been mostly quiet all day, and I assumed he was being so kind and helpful because he was a tour guide and was working for a good tip. With my friends asleep in the back seat and the glittering Dubai skyline on the horizon, Javeed unexpectedly spoke and said, “You remind me of my daughter.” I thought he meant we physically looked similar. Then he told me this story.

In 2005, a tsunami of titanic proportions emerged from the Indian Ocean and killed over 200,000 people in South Asia and Southeast Asia. The tsunami killed Javeed’s sister and her husband, which left his niece and nephew orphaned. Years later, Javeed and his wife adopted his niece and nephew, so when he referred to his daughter, he was speaking of his adopted niece. He explained to me that she had polio and used a wheelchair. She was young and beautiful and wanted to be a doctor. She was always go go go, and never let anything stop her. He said that because of me, his mind and heart had been in India with her all day. I knew then that she was the reason he had helped me. Being kind to me was his way of honoring his daughter. It took every ounce of strength to keep it together the rest of the way back to Dubai.

Since that day, I gladly accept offers of help, and I appreciate every act of kindness shown towards me more than I ever have. Because if accepting kindness encourages more people to show it and feel good, then only positive things can come from being humble enough to do so.

Follow this journey at Spin the Globe.

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Photos by contributor.

Originally published: November 7, 2017
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