Every travel story comes with hiccups, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard somebody come back from a trip and exclaim every little detail went exactly as planned. If your friends have ever said that to you – they are lying! That’s part of the fun of traveling, learning to roll with these unexpected situations. They are the moments that make the stories, reveal your character, and help you grow as a person. Individuals with mobility issues obviously have more opportunities for these delightful “stories” to develop… Yay… Silver lining? These are the moments that are sometimes intimidating when thinking about traveling.
While traveling through Portugal I spent some time in Sintra; a little resort town in the foothills of Portugal’s Sintra Mountains, near Lisbon. A longtime royal sanctuary, known for its many 19th-century Romantic architectural monuments, which has resulted in its classification as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Before I left on this trip I had done a little bit of research and knew that this may be a challenging place for people with mobility issues. But, being the champion I am, I didn’t believe anything was off the table. So I spent some time hiring the very qualified and fun Magdalena to be our tour guide for the day. There are a handful of palaces and fancy-schmancy royal residences and she thought our best shot would be a lovely little residence called Monserrate Palace. It is one of the most beautiful architectural and landscape Romantic creations in Portugal. The Palace combines Gothic, Indian, and Moorish influences that extends through to the exotic exterior and plant motifs.
The moment the car door opened the sweet, almost sickly, smell of flowers cut through the soft scent of the morning’s fog. The lavish gate of gold had gently entangled with ivy that cascaded over the fence, growing tendrils in every direction. Peering through the gates you could see sturdy oak trees lined with cheery and herbaceous perennials blooming in shades of rose, chartreuse, and violet. I was puummpped!
After the planning and the steps I took to ensure a seamless visit, I had my heart set on this destination. I wanted the experience of travel and visiting what has been described as one of the most exquisite places in Portugal. Why the hell would I want to miss that!? However, I always go into these experiences with a little bit of realism left in my gut. It certainly doesn’t feel good to have your heart set on a pony for Christmas, and all you get is a puzzle. Better to have realistic expectations. This, I KNEW, was going to go well though– I hired a tour guide!
As we were buying our tickets I heard Magdalena speaking pretty intensely with one of the attendants. My Portuguese is awful but I began to understand that they did not think my wheelchair was going to work. It’s always important to be your own advocate, so at this point I jumped in to figure out exactly what was going on. Magdalena explained that they said there were no power chairs allowed on the premises. When things like this happen my first plan of attack is basically to push back and say “nope, absolutely not” – it’s going to be okay – I can do this. Often it is ignorance or a misunderstanding of what they think will work for me. Sometimes they haven’t worked with people with limited mobility and make uneducated judgments based on inexperience. Sometimes it works, many times I pass through and am on my way before they can wrap their head around it. This time though, I was told there really is a policy. I was crushed! I hauled my ass all the way out here – I woke up early! Dammit, I don’t want to miss out on the Sintra experience just because I can’t move around as well as other people.
The attendant said that they had a manual wheelchair and that I could be pushed around the gardens and the palace instead of using my power wheelchair. This wasn’t as easy of a decision as it sounds. I hate being pushed around! I can’t see you; I feel infantilized, and what it comes down to is that I have no control. My level of independence has already been lowered because of my limited mobility, now the tiny bit that I do have left – has been eliminated. However, I didn’t see much choice. So I growled a “fine!” I’m not even sorry that I wasn’t very gracious about it either. I was so mad. So I huffed and puffed my way into that silly little push wheelchair that they had for me. I made sure everyone around me knew that this was not what I wanted, nor did I think it was acceptable to ask people to leave their “legs” at the door.
Here is that moment where I got to decide how this trip will be written – I hit a brick wall. I can’t control that. What I can control is my own attitude and how I want to move forward. This trip was not going as planned. I am uncomfortable, some of my freedom has been taken away, I’m in the middle of a REALLY good tantrum, and to be honest I’m a little bit embarrassed of being a spectacle. But dammit, this place was beautiful.
As we were taking the golf cart ride down the gravel path to the palace I realized that although I may not get to do this EXACTLY the way that I planned – I am so grateful that I get to experience this. Yes, I’m having a slightly modified experience but it is so worth it. Getting past the frustration of having to deal with this modified experience was a challenge, I don’t like it when things don’t go my way. Shocking, I know. If I turned around and left in that moment I would’ve missed out on a few things. The least significant being experiencing the historic and breathtaking venue. The most important is that I would’ve denied myself an opportunity to grow as a person. To fight through that frustration, to deal with momentary uncomfortableness, and to see the beauty that emerges on the other side of that.
The little icing on this cake was when we arrived back to the very front of the property where my chair sat awaiting. I was chatting with the attendant, I asked a few questions about whether other areas of Sintra would be accessible, or if this was it for me. I was told by a Rick Steves’ specialist that it was probably out of the question for me to experience the rest of the area. So I was mentally spicy and ready to tell that poor attendant, who probably makes minimum wage and has very little control over that part, just how I REALLY felt about it. He proceeded to tell me that almost every place in the entire 120 km² could be experienced by someone with limited mobility. He named a few really cool ways to do it, and soon I will do a “how to” for Sintra. So that anyone with mobility issues will have the tips and tricks that I didn’t. I think the lesson here, and to anyone going to Sintra is that you can do it all, you just have to be open to your experience looking a little bit different than everyone else’s.
Find a way to turn that no into a yes.