TRAVEL

Why I Travel: Spinal Cord Injury Travel Story

Spinal Cord Injury (SCI)

Kris Gulden

To go or not to go: that is the question.

Last week’s journey to Cozumel, Mexico reaffirmed my belief in the value of travel.  At Reagan National Airport on Tuesday morning I said good-bye to the mindless transfers I do multiple times a day to get in and out of the driver’s seat of my car, scrapped the sense of complacency that accompanies completing routine tasks, and tossed the independence that defines much of my life.  By leaving behind the comfort of what is familiar and accepting the challenges that come with the unknown, I sought excitement and gratification in a foreign land. There were obstacles and moments of trepidation, to be sure, but you could say - overwhelmingly - that, once again, we hit the jackpot.  

Down the stairs in the hands of strangers

My first test of faith came shortly after our plane landed in Cozumel. With no covered jetway to connect the plane to the terminal, a portable flight of 15 stairs was rolled to the door of the plane. Hurricane Franklin was busy drenching the island with 8.9 inches of rain as we arrived, and it seemed like half of it was being blown into the cabin where I waited for the aisle chair that three guys would use to carry me down the steps. When I was all strapped in and the moment of truth finally came, I threw an American Airlines blanket over my head and looked into the eyes of a man I had to trust would deliver me to the ground. I’m not sure which one of us was more nervous, but at least he got to wear a full set of foul weather gear as he walked backwards down the stairs.

We made it

Soaked to the core but grateful to be in one piece, Mom and I were led through Customs and Immigration, where we presented soggy, crumpled passports that looked like we’d just fished them out of the toilet, and then escorted to the taxi that would transport us to the Occidental Grand, an all-inclusive resort on the island’s southwest coast.  Listening to ‘80s disco music in the taxi offered a slight distraction from the scene outside - a Malecon with standing water close to a foot deep, scooters with their wheels barely visible ridden cautiously down the submerged street, pedestrians walking barefoot with their pants hiked up to their knees. It was hard to think about having fun when our only goals were dry clothes and getting out of an amphibious cab, yet here we were, fully immersed in Cozumel, and there was no turning back.

Underwater Life

While scuba diving at Columbia Shallows and Palancar Gardens on Friday I swam with many of the fish I have come to associate with Caribbean waters - Parrotfish, Angelfish, Butterflyfish, and a Barracuda. I also saw some new creatures like Black Durgon and the Yellow Stingray. There were schools of Porkfish, an occasional Christmas tree worm or a Hermit crab, and each time I turned my head I wondered what I would see next.  The ocean is a magical place, and to be weightless and free and surrounded by such natural beauty is nothing short of a transformative experience.

When all is said and done

The sum of this vacation is that for every difficult transfer, for every moment of uncertainty, for every time we had to stop and think and not cruise around on autopilot, there was a fabulous reward, an authentic island experience - a sea turtle swimming at the surface of the water, a woman to share her freshly made tortillas, a friend to help me up a ramp or over a curb - that I would have missed had I chosen comfort and familiar over unknown and challenging.

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