“I have decided to travel not using a tour operator because I like to get lost. I love to face unexpected events and most of all I like to meet local people”
Before leaving we booked the return trip and some interviews. Nothing else: no itinerary, no domestic flights, no hotels (except for the first two nights). We travelled by train and bus and we used taxis only to reach faraway places in big cities. We didn’t even need to ask for help to lift Federico and his wheel chair or to find someone who would carry Federico on the shoulders to get on buses
We rarely booked hotels in advance because they were often advertised as accessible to disabled people but most of the time they had four flights of stairs and no elevator.
However we did not have great difficulties in finding a cheap hotel with the elevator and a suitable bathroom. That said, Federico’s trip was made possible by various supporting devices.
“Several friends – Federico explains –, either disabled or not, have recommended me these devices and now I would like to share these information with others and return their favor”
Federico has somehow started traveling when he was 19, thanks to the hand bike. The first international races in South Africa, Australia, Emirates, Lebanon have allowed him to face his disability and to travel around the world. He often likes to remember an episode.
“I was on my way back from Perth where I had run in a circuit of Australian races, I was the youngest, 20 years old. I went to the airport with two athletes. We did not have any companions with us and they didn’t even ask for assistance at the airport. We were moving towards the gate and there was an escalator. They grabbed the handrail and while balancing on the stairs with the wheelchair, they started to climb. I couldn’t do it, I didn’t know how. However I tried but probably touched some devices thus blocking the escalator. They remained halfway on the escalator. They didn’t even turn around to check: one of the two (both legs amputated) got off the chair, put it on his shoulders and reached the top moving on his stumps. The other one – paraplegic – did exactly the same thing using his arms. What is the meaning of the story? Keep going, always”
When I decided to go to Cuba I knew I couldn’t postpone it any longer because my physical conditions were getting worse. I didn’t want to have any regrets. I really didn’t know what kind of problems I had to face but I figured it couldn’t be too different from a race. I was the one that had to make the choice: either pedal or stop.
Through times, conditions and needs change as well as support devices.
“In Cuba I did not have the electric wheel (I didn’t even know it existed) but I had a small wheel connected to the front of the chair that helped me moving on an uneven surface. I did a lot of pushing with my arms. It was really exhausting. It took me at least six hours to visit a town district. When I was back home, I received an email from a disabled guy who also loved to travel. We had kept in touch although we didn’t know each other in person. He had decided to buy tickets to travel to Cuba, partly inspired by my experience. On his return he gave me, as a thank you gift, the electric wheel that is manufactured by his company”
According to Federico there is always a lot to learn, exchanging suggestions and ideas on new support systems.
“In Vietnam I saw a woman, unable to walk, who used two small stools to move around thus avoiding to drag herself on the ground. When I was alone in Manila my chair couldn’t pass through the bathroom door. I thought of the woman and borrowed two stools”
The electric wheel is mounted on the front of the chair and it allows Federico to go around for hours running many kilometers in places that are poorly accessible. Either alone or with minimal help Federico can walk up and down steps and sidewalks next to scooters that go everywhere; they even enter stores and hotels. This is a good thing for him because a lot of stores have access ramps that can be often used by Federico. Moreover this wheel can be easily removed from the chair, which is something we often do before entering a bar or getting on a taxi.
We run almost two thousand kilometers by train from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. We took five different trains, covering between six and eight hours each section. We never stayed on board for more than eight hours because the bathrooms are not accessible, and anyhow not to be recommended to anyone.
Moreover the chair does not pass through the corridor, that is why we always ask for seats close to the door. We face the first surprise from Ho Chi Minh City to Nha Trang: the train platform at destination is two meters lower than the train, while it was at train level in Ho Chi Minh. With the help of two persons we manage to lower Federico’s wheelchair without great difficulties. It happens again on several occasions: lowering and lifting the wheelchair. We decide to use the boat too, even if we have some doubts. We do it twice, because it is the only way to visit the floating markets of the Mekong Delta and Ha Long Bay. In both cases it is easier than expected.
Federico carried many packages of wet tissues in his heavy backpack in order to wash up even when it is impossible to enter the shower. They are actually sanitary items created for personal hygiene of bedridden patients. Federico had experienced them while in Cuba. When the bathroom is more accessible, there is “another trick” to use: a suction handle that clings to flat surfaces and supports up to 150 kilos. Federico uses it to move around the bathroom as well as to get off the bed. He has named it “La mano de Dios” (God’s hand) because it has rescued him in at least in two occasions.
Federico has studied visual communication. Photography has always been a real passion for him, but it gets complicated to take pictures while traveling if you have to drive the elctric wheel or push the chair. Before leaving for Cuba he found a small camera that perfectly fits his needs. It has the size of half a cell phone, it can be hung around the neck and it works adjusting automatically according to changes of movement, light and position. It is possible to get hundreds of shots from his “very personal perspective”, scenes of a trip through a country.