First couple of days

It was the night before I was due to leave and lying on the floor in front of me were two packed rucksacks and my old wheelchair, solid tyres fitted and footplate held together with duct tape and cable ties. I was a bit worried. I felt a little too prepared for this trip, like everything was in place and that was slightly unsettling. It seemed like I was travelling light, but that was the plan and everything on my list had gone into the bag. As soon as the plane left the ground I was convinced I would remember something of significant importance that hadn’t been packed.

bags n tings

It was 11 hours to get to Dhaka with a 2 hour change at Dubai and a further hour delay when we were on the plane ready to take off. Sleeping was difficult on the aisle seat that I had, I’d nod off in a seated position then lose my balance, start to fall and wake up with a jolt. I’d managed to keep all my bags with me and had my wheelchair brought to the gate to save any messing about when we landed. I got to the airport and made a b line for the taxi rank. It was already six o’clock and wanted to get to the CRP sooner rather than later.

As I got to the taxi desk I saw a bloke stood there with a sign saying ‘ASCON 2014’ (Asian Spinal Cord Network). He approached me and asked if that’s why I was over here. I guess the odds are in his favour asking that question with me being a wheelchair using foreigner turning up in Dhaka at the same time as a spinal conference is happening. Luckily I’d arrived at the same time as the Nepalese basketball team who were here for a tournament to celebrate the conference and I managed to jump in a jeep with a couple health care professionals who were heading in the same direction.

As the doors opened and we exited the airport I was immediately hit full on with the warm, smoggy air that I had become accustomed to on my last trip over here. Everything else reminded me of the first time I was over here. Pitch black night on narrow roads, with four bright lights heading toward us, one truck was on our side of the road overtaking another truck and this wasn’t even 200 metres in front of us. The truck would pull back into its lane just in time. You quickly get use to this style of driving after the fifth or sixth time it happens. The buses look reminiscent of Mad Max with scrapes down both sides, some with shattered windshields and people riding on the roof rack. The reassuring thing is that the drivers over here know what they’re doing; I glance over to my driver to see he is so confident that he’s happy to talk on his mobile as we drive.

I got out at the CRP reception, spent a little time trying to find someone who had my room key then threw all my gear on my bed before calling my friend Sumanta to ask if he fancied catching up over my spoils from duty free. We poured our gin and t’s and sat and chatted about what we’d been up to over the last few years. I had met Sumanta when I was volunteering here 4 years ago. Unwilling to postpone a trip I had planned, I came over with a broken wrist and Sumanta being a hand therapist had treated me while I was here. It was great to catch up with an old friend, something that I was going to do a lot more of over the next few days.

After 24 hours travelling I was up at 7am for the first day of the ASCON conference, it was a bumpy couple of miles to the venue over non-existent roads and arrived at what I would consider quite a lavish hotel for these parts. I grabbed a bit of egg and toast for breakfast before registering and starting catching up with people I’d not seen since my last visit out here.

SAM_5545

Al Amin was 14 when he fell from a tree fruit picking, breaking his neck, causing paralysis and no movement from the shoulders down. I met him in 2010 when he was 16; he had spent 2 years in bed after serious pressures he developed in a general hospital before he got to the CRP and was up for the first time when I was there. The one thing that stuck in my mind about Al Amin was the fact he always had a smile on his face. When I met him yesterday at the conference he told me that he’d been back to school to pass his first set of exams and was now at the Open University to pass his higher secondary exams. About a year ago Al Amin had started mouth painting and from what I saw he’d gotten pretty good at it. He was at the conference showing off some of his artwork. It seemed like he was doing alright, considering the circumstances. He’d had one leg amputated since I saw him due to a sore on his leg that later got infected with gangrene. Despite all this, he still has a big grin on his face.

All in all, it’s been a great first couple of days in Dhaka. It’s brought back memories of my first two trips out here and given me the chance to reconnect with friends I made. I’ll make sure I make the most of my time here before I take off next week.

Back to Bangladesh and beyond

Back in September I was recovering from surgery, twiddling my thumbs and wondering what I was going to do with my 3 weeks of annual leave that I still had left to take off work before the end of the year. It’s been a few years since I did any adventure travel when I drove to Mongolia in 2012 and I started thinking that something like this is the high that I’d like to end the year on.

Out of nowhere, I received an email from a friend at the charity Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralyzed (CRP) in Dhaka with an invite to attend the Asian Spinal Cord Network conference at the end of November. It’s been 4 years since I was volunteering at the CRP and always knew I’d go back there.

On my last visit to the CRP I’d been blown away with the services they were offering people with a spinal cord injury in a developing country. So much so, that I was inspired to travel home overland to raise money for an outreach development project they were working on in Moulvibazaar, a northern province of the country. Taking on this fundraising challenge led me on what was to be a one of a kind, incredible adventure trekking across Asia.

When the opportunity came up to visit the CRP again it wasn’t even a question whether I’d go, just how long I’d go for. After looking at how much time I had, with annual leave, time off in lieu, office closure over Christmas and the way that the working week had fallen this year, I realised that I had 6 weeks of travelling ahead. I was going to make the most of this.

My plan now involves a lot of South East Asia, starting in Bangladesh then going on to Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Places that I’ve never been to before but have been on my to do list for quite a while.

amChart

Doing solo travel of this size in a wheelchair means that I’m going to have to pack light. I’ll be taking a 40L rucksack with the bare essentials: sleeping bag, micro fibre towel, medical equipment, mosquito repellent, sun cream, minimal spare clothes, toothbrush, comb etc. Visas, vaccinations, malaria tablets and solid tyres are all in place, so it would seem I’m good to go.

I’m writing this entry a week before I take off, feeling confident that all the essentials have been taken care of. I’ve never been to these countries before and no doubt that there are major challenges ahead, but I’ve got a great feeling that this trip will offer me the (mis)adventure that I’m looking for.