Traveling around the world can be hard enough every now and then, but what if you had to do so with a wheelchair? I recently learned about Walt Balenovich while searching photos for an article on disabled world travelers, yet was immediately inspired by his accomplishments and set myself on tracking him down for an interview. Turned out it was actually quite simple, and not only that but he did not even hesitate when I asked him if he would be interested in being interviewed for this site.
Please tell us a bit of who you are and where you come from.
I am a backpacker, in a blue wheelchair, who travels the world alone…at least when I have the time and money! I am from Welland, Canada, which is very close to Niagara Falls. Now I live in Toronto, where I work in IT for a bank.
I had polio when I was 12 weeks old. I walked with crutches until I was 27 but it was too slow for me. Then I moved into the blue chair, and I was so much faster, I could go and travel.
What triggered the travel bug in you Walt?
I started travelling while playing wheelchair sports such as rugby, basketball and sledge hockey. I realised you could easily get on a plane, and then you just needed to figure out if you could do anything once you arrived there.
How did you plan for your first trip? What were your concerns? What precautions did you take, if any? Where did you go?
My first trip alone was to Europe on EurRail. I was concerned mostly about finding a place to stay and then a washroom that I could use. I always carry a big yogourt container to pee in, if I need it. Usually I was able to find a place that was w/c friendly, with the help of the tourist booths in Europe.
I went to 10 countries across Europe from France to Croatia, in 30 days.
Which were your first detinations? Why?
My first destination was Holland, as it was flat, was modern – so I knew it would be OK for my blue chair, and they spoke English widely. I needed to get some confidence at first. Then I went to Belgium and France, so I could try my high school french. I worked out quite well.
How long have you been a traveler for? How long are your trips on average? Why?
I have travelled since 1988, when I went to Yukon and Alaska with a buddy from my sports team. Then I went to Kenya to visit a pal who worked there. Finally, as mentioned, I travelled alone through Europe. In the old days I would travel for a few months, to get a real experience of being out in the world. I worked as a consultant, and could easily find a job on my return.
What do you pack? Do you include spare pieces for the wheel chair just in case?
I always pack spare inner tubes for my chair, as you can imagine. But normally I travel lightly, with only 1 week of clothes, as I can do the laundry on the road. I have a knapsack on the back of my chair, and a gym bag on my lap. That’s it.
How difficult is it to more around on a wheelchair, particularly in places like Africa where roads are not paved and buses are simple, old and cranky?
In Kenya I was visiting a friend who had a 4×4 so travel there was not bad, but in South Africa and Zambia, I usually used a taxi as they were cheap and reliable. The roads are dusty in Zambia, but paved and OK in SA. If you need to use a bus or train, you can ask for help and almost all people will help. That is a great thing I have used in my travels, a smile will go a long way.
How do people react when they see you in off beaten locations? Do they come up to you? What friendships arise from here?
Yes, many people are quite amazed. I stay in backpackers hostels, so that I can make friends and go on day trips out with them sometimes. When I am in a market the vendors are always looking for my travel buddy, as they cannot believe that I am alone. But they are always happy to see I am alone and then they ask lots of questions.
Like all backpackers, I have friends all over, so I can keep in touch with social networking websites. Some friends from England and Holland, whom I met in Thailand and Australia respectively, got married, and I was invited. When I arrived I got to sit right next to the bride, at the wedding! Now they have a child, and I am “Uncle Walt” when I visit.
I always try to meet up with old travel mates, when in their town, and it is so good to get caught up and re-live old times on the road.
You must have found yourself in weird, odd or even dangerous situations at some point, like most backpackers do, but with an added inconvenience. Do you have any you can share with us?
Yes, part of the charm of travelling is that things will go wrong, but you have to deal with it. For me, I came to the realisation very early, that the world isn’t built with a ramp.
The toughest for me was in Zambia, when I fell out of my chair just after arriving at Victoria Falls, and broke my leg! I had to go to an Egyptian doctor with a broken X-ray machine to get a cast put on. That was the end of the trip, and I had to go home but it was an experience!!
Also, in the seas of Indonesia, our small boat’s engine conked out in the dark, while we were waiting for a sunrise with the dolphins. I have bad balance and had a hard time hanging on, but we finally made it home and say the dolphins too!
What are your favourite 3 destinations so far? A place where you would not go back to? Where are you planning on going to next?
I loved Iguazu Falls at the border of Argentina, Brasil and Paraguay. There are 185 waterfalls in a jungle and the upper track is totally friendly for a chair.
Any destination in Africa is always great with me too, as that continent has so much scenery and wildlife, you can spend a lifetime there. Just don’t break your leg!!
Finally, Australia and NZ are great. Very modern and each country is totally different, but both have such friendly people and natural beauty.
There isn’t anywhere I wouldn’t go to, but I had a hard time in Rome and found the Roman people were not the friendliest or most helpful. But I would still go back and try again!
My next big trip overseas will be to India and Nepal, I just need to get the time off work!
Tell us about your book “Travels in a Blue Chair”. Why did you write it? Who are the targeted readers? What can they expect from it?
I wrote the book because all my friends read my emails home with my funny stories of travelling in a wheelchair and they loved them and told me to! I finally did it over a long , cold Canadian winter and it has been very well received.
I wanted people to know that disabled folks can do anything and a world of adventure awaits, you just have to try.
The targeted readers are anyone who loves to travel, not just disabled. But having said that, I do want friends and family of the disabled to read it. One of the great results of this book is the wonderful emails and even phone calls I have received from all over the world from disabled who have read the book and been inspired to travel themselves. They all loved it!
There are over 55 funny short stories, so you can pick it up, read one or two and then put it down. I am told it is great for the bathroom, lol, but I hope that is not a comment on the quality of the stories.
Do you have any final words for other disabled travelers who are afraid to hit the road?
For disabled travellers I can only urge you to try. Even start with a trip to a nearby city that you have always wanted to see. Start with a small wheel. After that the sky’s the limit. Thing will go wrong, they always do, but we are all in the world together, so if you just smile and ask for help, you will make a new friend and get to see the world a little easier. You may not get to see all of what you want to see, but you can truly enjoy those parts you can!
For other travellers, read the book and see if there is a positive way you can help by asking people at various places to try to put in a ramp or make the destination a bit friendlier for those of us who are out there also trying to see the world.
Thank you Walt! Any final comments?
If anyone does get the book, please ask you local library to order it too! Then even more people will be able to share it, enjoy the stories, and hopefully get to enjoy some travel too!
Walt has a webiste for his book , www.bluechairbook.com and a travel blog you can follow too: http://travelsinabluechair.blogspot.com/ . You can purchase Walt’s book on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble or any other large bookstores, OR you might want to check this site and participate in next week’s contest. I’ll be giving away 5 copies of “Travels on a Blue Chair”, one as a soft copy and the rest as ebooks. Stay tuned!
[Photos courtesy of Walt Balenovich]
What do you think about Walt’s story? What words come to your mind? Don’t you think his story is truely inspirational? Do you think you’d have the courage to travel like he does? Share your comments below, and this post too if you liked it!