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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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.

Swim like a cannibal pioneer

Throughout my journey of recovery from spinal cord injury, as I’ve maintained my focus and commitment on reaching my ultimate goal of getting back on my feet and walking, I’ve learned the value of setting and working towards smaller goals. The proverbial mountain I’m trying to climb is bigger than anything I’ve ever experienced and I have been, and continue to be, in it for the long haul. I’m proud of the progress I’ve made and the accomplishments that I’ve achieved (all of which I was told I wouldn’t do) but I would be lying if I said that my journey has been anything but arduous, full of challenges, breakthroughs, moments of immense frustration and moments of unparalleled hopefulness.

Because of the immensity of my goal, I have found focus and comfort in setting smaller, more attainable objectives and working towards those. The best example of this was the months and months of hard work I did that was dedicated to the moment I would be able to finally stand up on my own and ask Brita to marry me.

I’ve previously shared my newfound love of being in the water and swimming largely because of the freedom I feel from the weightlessness and the relief of pain from not having to deal with gravity and its impact on my body. Last summer, I set a goal to complete a 2.4 mile open water swim and I thoroughly enjoyed the process of training as well as actually completing the swim. But I remember that the moment it was over, I was already looking ahead to the next challenge. A couple months later, during a trip to visit friends, Brita and I swam in Lake Tahoe’s smaller, slightly warmer, less sexy and well-known but still gorgeous neighbor: Donner Lake.

Since I was seeking a new swimming challenge and wasn’t quite able to find an existing event that could serve the purpose (the swims weren’t long enough or they were relays with too much distance or the water temperature and other conditions were too challenging), I decided I would make up my own event and the answer couldn’t be more obvious.

Though I toyed with the idea for quite some time, it’s only recently that I finally put the pieces together and decided that my new challenge would be to circumnavigate the perimeter of Donner Lake, which by my best Google Earth estimates, comes out to 5.8 miles.

Yes it’s more than double what I did last summer, yes it will be at 6000 feet of altitude, and yes with my steady but very slow pace of swimming it will likely take me the equivalent of a cross-country flight, but I couldn’t be more excited about it. I want the swim to be about so much more than just my personal commitment to work towards this goal (I’m going to do that no matter what) so I’m inviting friends and others to join me in this endeavor. Whether swimming is completely new or a familiar activity, working towards a personal goal, whatever that may be, is what I want to encourage.

The non-profit that a few friends and I recently established (more to come on that on a future post) will be organizing the swim and raising money for our mission. If you’re interested in participating, you can join as a swimmer or non-swimmer (there are options to kayak, paddleboard, or just simply hang out, cheer and support), just comment on the post or contact me individually.

Because it’s in Donner Lake, near Donner Pass and everything else named Donner, the swim is the Donner Party Swim. For those of you not from Northern California who didn’t hear the story of the Donner Party pioneers (yes there was cannibalism involved) a thousand times as a child, educate yourselves here.

Before my injury, with a fully functional body, I could barely swim a quarter of a mile in the pool before gasping for air and calling it quits. Two years ago, I could swim no more than a couple hundred meters but only with a snorkel and many rest breaks. A year ago, I thought it would be nearly impossible to swim 2.4 miles in open water. Now, it’s time to work towards something much bigger and more challenging, to prove that I can do it, but also to remind myself that this will be just another step in my larger journey of recovery and reaching my ultimate goal.