A gander through Bali & Lombok

One thing became very clear within minutes of driving out from the swanky, sparkling international airport in Bali: this was NOT going to be an accessible place for a wheelchair.

While I’ve learned to transfer into and out of most cars relatively comfortably – Hummers and massive pickup trucks aside – the minivans that taxis in Bali preferred (that looked like a Dodge Caravan that had been squished on both ends, making it taller and more compact) were a challenge to say the least. The sidewalks were narrow, potholed, bumpy, and their frequent stone steps made them completely unusable. Almost every single store or restaurant had at least a couple of tall, stone steps to enter. And all four of our lodging options – despite my meticulous review of online photos and numerous phone calls and emails confirming the lack of steps, obstacles or other impediments – indeed presented us with unexpected challenges.

But amidst all of these day-to-day struggles and unforeseen hiccups, we were blessed with incredibly helpful people who were always eager to help. I want to steer clear of the exhausted and overused trope I’ve read in so much travel writing and speak about the “friendliness of the locals” but I know no other way to admit just how helpful the locals were at all times. They were fantastic, never once approaching me in an uncooperative way or with confusion about how I enter or exit a particular building or car or storefront. We were consistently greeted with collaborative attitudes and helpful smiles. Yes we were tourists paying for their services, but I’ve traveled enough to know that simply paying someone for their work doesn’t necessarily result in sincere warmth and cooperation.

Even at the airport, as we were waiting on the tarmac to board our little plane that would make the 30-minute hop over to Lombok, Bali’s much quieter and less developed neighboring island, once the airport staff finally realized what we had repeatedly told them (that I would need assistance getting up the steep steps into the plane), they only scratched their heads in confusion for a couple of seconds before they sprang into action and one unfortunate baggage handler had the pleasure of piggybacking me up the stairs, inside the plane, and into the seat.

In fact, the only sideways stares and resentful glances I got were from the other tourists. The locals always treated me with respect but it was the European and North American travelers who made me feel the most uncomfortable. At one point, I practically had to hold Brita back from unleashing a verbal tirade upon an elderly French couple who seemed to go out of their way to be unhelpful and rude every time I was near them.

It was a wonderfully relaxing trip and allowed Brita and I to have some much needed downtime. I had never taken such a long break from my rehab and exercise but it became very clear that my body desperately needed this time to unwind, rest and relax. Every time I got antsy about my nonexistent exercise regimen, I reminded myself that after four years of going going going and working as hard as I had been, I was due to give myself a break.

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On the snorkeling boat to Menjangan Island

One of the highlights of the trip was doing an all-day snorkeling venture in what many people considered to be one of the best snorkeling places in Indonesia, if not all of Southeast Asia.

It took some friendly boat workers to help me on and off the rickety motor boat, but once I strapped on the snorkel and got in the water, I was in my element, loving every weightless moment and appreciating the opportunity to do a unique and memorable activity in a comfortable physical state, outside of the wheelchair and free of the confines of gravity.

While there were certainly some frustrations – not being able to explore as much as I wanted, physical pain and discomfort, and a steady flow of logistical challenges – Brita kept asking me if it was all worth it. If the long travel and the unfamiliar terrain and the different cultural attitudes and the physical struggles were all worth the effort?

After years of craving to go abroad and finally having the opportunity to feed my desire for international travel and novel explorations, my unequivocal and repeated response was YES.

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A slightly less lonely passport

Brazil. Nepal. Slovakia. India. Finland. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (yes that’s the official name). Tunisia. Laos. Egypt. New Zealand. Norway. Peru.

Between 2003 and 2012, my passport filled with stamps from the many places I had the extraordinary privilege of traveling to. As a trip leader for a company with biking, hiking and multi-sport vacations all over the world, I had the incredible opportunity to live and work in a number of different countries, getting to know the cultures more intimately and having the chance to explore some of the less traveled paths. As a result, my time off from work while I was in these places allowed me to continue to travel and explore on my own, often times with little to no expectation or planning. It was as simple as finding a cheap flight and a fun destination and off I went.

A last minute schedule change to give me a week off from a long stretch of work in Tuscany allowed me to hop on a cheap flight to Romania and check out the land of Dracula. Killing time on a layover in Lima resulted in a chance stroll past a ticket counter advertising bargain flights to Buenos Aires so I had no choice but to pull out the credit card and book a flight for later in the summer. When my mom told me that she was going on a work trip to Sweden and I was on biking tours in Spain, I decided that it made perfect sense to squeeze in a trip up to northern Europe before continuing my schedule on the Iberian peninsula.

And so it went again and again and I was able to spend my twenties seeing much of the world and developing an insatiable desire to continue exploring and becoming exposed to different cultures, peoples, and ways of life. In 2008 I had to get extra pages added into my passport to accommodate the flow of visas and stamps I was accumulating and that’s when I came up with a simple life goal for myself: to have the number of countries I’ve visited always be a higher number than my age.

The last international trip before my injury was in January 2012 when I went to Colombia with one of my closest friends. Because it was the 37th country I had visited at that point, I knew I had a few years buffer before my age would catch up but for a long time, my severely weakened physical state as well as the daunting logistical challenges involved in traveling abroad prevented me from fulfilling my ever-present urge to get out into the world. This was the case until recently when Brita and I decided that enough was enough.

After four and a half years of not leaving the good ol’ U S of A, and countless experiences of hiding my envy and jealousy of my friends and family as they regaled me with their stories of travel, the two of us decided to fly almost as far away as possible and spend two weeks in Indonesia.

After allowing my passport to expire three years ago – a virtually unthinkable prospect back in my heyday of globetrotting – I had to trade in my trusty, wrinkled, beat up version with its haphazard stamps and sewn in extra pages for a blank, lonely new passport. When it arrived, I flipped through its empty pages, wondering if and when I could fill it with more country names (recognizing these as gross oversimplified symbols of novel trips) before readying it to get christened on this first adventure.

Gone were the days of stuffing some items into a backpack and carelessly jumping onto a plane with little planning or preparation, knowing that everything would inevitably work out. Nowadays anywhere I go, even if it’s for one night, requires that I meticulously go through a long list of essential items for my health and comfort. Add on to that the unpredictability of where we were going and how easy or difficult every single thing would be, and my packing list was just a little bit more complicated than it used to be, to say the least.

But pack we did, and I grabbed my lonely, blank, rigid passport and smiled at the thought of this new chapter as we headed out…

Next post: A summary and reflection of our trip 

The Donner Party Swim

7:30AM, East end beach, Donner Lake

The morning greeted us with a radiant sun rising up over the high Sierras, its rays cutting through the perfect blue sky and shining strong, reminding us that although fall was only a couple of weeks away, its summer warmth was still in store for the day. 

The swimmers gathered on the shores of Donner, surveying the water, like a sheet of glass stretching almost three miles across the length of the lake. Some, like me, had trained for this day for months, convincing themselves that the frigid water and the 6,000 feet of altitude wouldn’t get the better of them in their attempt to push their limits and accomplish what had seemed previously unfathomable. Others had decided that they would get into the swimming spirit in any way, shape, or form and be out in the open water, itself a significant challenge and accomplishment. And finally, there were all of the friends and family who would cheer and support from a kayak, paddle board or from the dry, rocky, tree lined shore.

Starting the swim, water like glass

I had been worried that the powerful and relentless winds and waves that Brita and I had swam through when we had trained here a month earlier would challenge all of us and make this feat harder, possibly even impossible for me, but thankfully Mother Nature decided to prove me wrong.  

The winds were pleasantly absent, the water was refreshingly cold yet beautifully clear, and the boundless energy and positive spirit of everyone permeated through the smiles and faces of all the swimmers and supporters alike. Even the orange swim caps with our non-profit’s name and logo plastered on the side (a last minute addition to the event that arrived just in time) looked perfect countouring everyone’s heads, marking us all a part of this magical experience which had all started as a crazy idea in my head nine months earlier. 

Quick break to refuel and warm up!

And so it was that after weeks and months of planning and training and visualizing how this would all go down, September 10th was upon me, and this goal within my larger goal of recovery which had consumed and motivated and driven me for so long was now about to be realized… 

I could write volumes about this day, I could share way too many details about everything, about the incredible community that gathered together, all the people who volunteered their time and efforts to make it a smooth and seamless experience, of the serenity of the water as each passing stroke of my arms cut through its stillness and propelled me forward, of the astounding sense of accomplishment I felt upon the completion of swimming those five miles around the lake… 

Suffice it to say that it was one of the best days of my life, one that I will remember forever, and as I think of the collective energy of that wonderful community who showed up, who took the time to drive up to the mountains and be at part of this first of all firsts, I will draw strength and passion and hope for future accomplishments and conquered objectives. And it looks like there’s a good chance that we may do this all again next year…  🙂

Little video capturing some of the awesomeness:

So much more than just a swim

I’ve always loved pushing my physical limits.

There was a time, before my injury and the compromised state of my entire neurological system, when working towards a physical accomplishment like a marathon or a multiple day trek through the mountains was a significant accomplishment on its own. Now, with the daily challenges that come with life in a completely different body, it would seem logical that merely dealing with these challenges would be enough, that taking on anything beyond those day to day struggles would seem unreasonable.

I have to deal with how my body functions in its present state, even as I continue to recover function and to work towards my ultimate goal of getting back on my feet. But challenging that present state and pushing myself way past what I thought was possible is inevitable. It’s a part of my personality. I can’t suppress it and just because I’m dealing with a compromised body doesn’t mean that I’ve lost the desire to figure out where my limits are, and challenge myself further. I just can’t help myself…

Tomorrow, I take on the biggest single day physical challenge of my life. I will swim five miles around Donner Lake, at an altitude of 6000 feet, surrounded by the mountains that I’ve known, explored, cherished and loved for my entire life. Three years ago, I was too weak to get my head out of the water to breathe and could only use a snorkel to swim for a few minutes. Two years ago, I was able to swim in the pool, but I would have to take a break after every 50 meter lap and catch my breath. A year ago, I worked my way up to a 2.4 mile open water swim in a lake. And now, this…

At each of those moments, the thought of achieving the next accomplishment seemed nearly impossible. But my love of being in the water fueled me forward and my insatiable desire to prove that no one would set my limits for me but myself kept me motivated and committed to keep working towards my objective.

So after months and months of training, countless trips to the pool following my already intensive rehab schedule, innumerable occasions where I visualized how this would all go down, here I am, ready to take this on. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little nervous, because I am, but more than anything I’m excited.

I know that swimming around a lake is not the same thing as walking independently, but I also know that being able to tackle and achieve this smaller goal gives me the confidence to continue working so hard towards my ultimate goal.

Donner Lake: I’m thrilled to see you tomorrow.

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Two wild horses

Recently, more and more time in each session of my rehab has been dedicated to doing a variety of exercises in a standing position. This is following on the work I’ve done using the Neuro Kinetic Pilates method that I’ve learned in Maui and almost always using the Core Align, an amazing piece of Pilates equipment that allows me to push my limits in a standing position while remaining safe and secure and minimizing the risk of falling. (See this previous link to remember what I’m referring to)

By finding new ways to establish movement through my lower body, I’ve encountered a new challenge. I call it the shakes. Put simply, my legs start to shake… and shake… and shake… and just when I think I may be done, my legs shake more. The video below is a perfect example of what I’m talking about and it occurs after some 15-20 minutes of doing squats or lunges or any of the other exercises I’ve been doing recently to target my quads and improve my standing stability.

It took me a while to really understand what this was. At first, when I would tell some people experienced with SCI, they would shrug it off and say that it’s simply clonus and just another typical example of the cervical level injury that I suffered. Clonus is defined as “involuntary and rhythmic muscle contractions” and it is commonly seen in many people with spinal cord injuries. But, like the doctor testing your reflex by tapping your knee with a hammer, clonus is also a reflexive result and can be tested for and replicated by a practitioner. After doing these tests with me, the PT scratched her head in confusion and confirmed that I definitely didn’t have signs of clonus.

So what’s with the shakes?

As with nearly everything else in my path of recovery from SCI, I’ve had to figure it out myself.

To put it as simply as possible, until recently, the controlled movements that I had in my legs were all based on a single movement pattern. Since I was first able to start bridging and standing up independently with a walker, I’ve contracted my leg muscles using a specific pattern of engaging them and it’s gotten me really far.

But since I started doing some new standing exercises a few months ago that target completely different muscles, I’ve established a new pattern of movement and carved out a new neurological pathway. Muscles that haven’t really contracted or have only had minor contractions and been overpowered by other dominant muscles are finally being forced to contract. And since my spinal cord can’t manage the communication between my brain and my legs as effectively as possible, those muscles start freaking out and shaking like crazy. It often feels like I’m trying to stand on two wild horses hell-bent on roaming the countryside.

It takes an extraordinary amount of mental effort for me to keep working these new patterns and strengthening these new neurological connections but it’s a great sign that I’m able to gain new movement and work underutilized muscles that are being forced to step up to the plate and show their stuff.

While I get annoyed with the shaking since it forces me to slow down and struggle through the movements, I still take it as a positive thing. If establishing new neurological connections, gaining strength in previously underperforming muscles and finding new ways of movement mean that I have to deal with two wild horses shaking like crazy, then so be it.

Another anniversary

This morning I woke up a bit unsettled, a bit more tense than usual. I’ve had a heavy feeling all day so far, wondering just how crazy it is that time has passed the way it has.

It was exactly four years ago today that my life changed forever. That three decades of knowing my body in a particular way and understanding how I interact with the world got turned on its head.

In some ways it feels like very little has changed and that it was still only yesterday that I was climbing up mountaintops and biking all over town. I still dream every night that I am walking, running, playing sports (I just dreamt of playing in a competitive soccer game last night) and having access to my body as I’ve always known it. Sometimes I have more vivid dreams with more symbolism and meaning, like walking through my college campus and pushing an empty wheelchair. And I never stop thinking and visualizing of my goal to walk, of wanting so badly to move through the world at six feet tall again. None of it is distant; in fact, it all feels very familiar.

Yet in some ways it feels like four years has been eternity. Four years of waking up with some disappointment every morning, with frustration that my day will include challenges and discomfort and pain that I never thought I’d have to face, but that I have no choice but to meet those challenges head on, deal with them as best as I can and move forward.

I’m not going to lie and say that I’ve gotten used to it. I haven’t. I still don’t think I ever will and that’s fine because that will continue to motivate me. Acceptance can lead to apathy and that’s a dangerous road that I’ve never wanted to take. I know that’s not the path for everyone but it is for me. I can’t help that the fire in me still burns strong. That the frustrations of daily challenges can’t match the even stronger feelings of wanting to overcome those challenges, and wanting to reach my goals. I can’t help that four years of navigating through this very different life has not led to me wanting to throw my hands up and say that the doctors were right.

The truth is, they weren’t right. They said I’d never get to where I am now. My rehab doctor told me that instead of focusing on recovery options outside of the hospital, I should go on a cruise or a vacation with Brita and try to have fun. He told me not to worry too much about my spinal cord healing because it was unlikely that it would.  So even though where I am at this moment is not nearly as far as I want it to be after four years, I can’t help but recognize that it’s only from working my ass off and staying true to my intentions and commitment to my goal that I’ve gotten this far.

I WILL continue to fight. I WILL continue to dream. I WILL continue to have faith that improvements and changes will continue to come, and that I will reach my goals. I know so much more about healing, about healing my own body and recently, I’ve been paying  more attention to healing my mind and spirit. I have come a long way since the first days after this injury when I was struggling just to survive, when making it through a day without a disaster was a cause for celebration. And now, armed with four years of experience, knowledge, triumphs, setbacks, perspective, and a stronger and more determined spirit, I continue to move forward.

And so the journey continues…

Getting out into nature (again)

The beginning of summer has always been a period of excitement for me. The anticipation of what outdoors trips I will take and what new mountains, lakes, rivers, trails and campgrounds I will discover has been a motivating factor to do one of the things I love to do the most in life: get outside and explore nature.

But since my injury, all of this has taken a new meaning. Backpacking on remote trails and high mountain passes have had to take a backseat to my full-time schedule of recovery with the intention and hope to be able to get back out onto those trails one day. Camping weekends are harder to pull off and take more advanced planning when I don’t have the same freedom to dig up all of my gear by myself, pack up the car and hit the road, and have faith that I will work everything out somehow. Spontaneity is difficult to come by since I always need to ensure that I’m not forgetting the many things I need to get through each day, not to mention how to manage my exercise and physical challenges when I’m outside of my usual surroundings.

So far, I would say I’ve made a pretty solid attempt at getting out into nature as much as possible. I’ve gone camping numerous times and reminded myself of that magical, nostalgic smell of a nylon tent, sleeping bag and the surrounding trees. I’ve cross-country skied and made it a few miles out from the nearest parking lot or paved road. And I’ve off-roaded onto some dirt trails (with some pushing help) and challenged the integrity of the wheelchair tires. But none of that has compared to the joy of exploring nature in the water.

As part of my training for working up to a 6-mile swim in September, I’ve become more and more comfortable spending long periods of time in various bodies of water, especially lakes. On a recent trip to Minnesota, to celebrate Brita’s brother’s wedding, we had the fortune of staying at a house that was on one of the state’s 10,000 lakes (it’s not hyperbole, there really are lakes everywhere) and of course, we jumped in and swam around for over an hour each day.

IMG_2188It wasn’t just the bright, translucent, blue water and its perfect temperature (just cool enough to be refreshing but comfortable enough to stay in for a while) or the serenity of the trees and lush green surrounding the lake that I enjoyed, it was the moment of popping my head out of the water and realizing that I was IN nature. I wasn’t a passive observer of the beauty around me, I was an active participant, literally in it. And while it wasn’t as remote as it used to be when I could hike for miles in miles in the mountains, it felt just as profound.

I’m grateful for the fact that Brita has always been a swimmer and thus needs no convincing me from me to get into water. And because we are limited in what physical activities we can fully do together, not only have these swimming adventures fulfilled some of our instincts for nature, but they’ve also allowed us to have another way to spend time together and enjoy each other’s company.

So get out there and enjoy the incredible awesomeness of the outdoors and remember that there can always be new ways to connect with nature and fulfill whatever inner instinct you may have.