If you’ve spent more than five minutes in Beirut, you’ve probably lamented its nonexistent sidewalks and been stuck in at least one battered, smoke-sputtering service.
Lebanese infrastructure can be trying under even the easiest circumstances, but what if you’re a person traveling in a wheelchair?
Caron Walker has crossed the globe on wheels, recently stopping to sightsee in Lebanon. Undeterred by the country’s challenges, she proves that if you know where to go (and which taxi company to go with), just about anything’s possible.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m a 50-something who still thinks she’s 25! I’ve been a wheelchair user all my life, but it’s never stopped me from doing whatever I want to do. I am a socialist, work in public health, and have two wonderful children who are now adults. I live a complicated life, including working away during the week and returning to Newcastle on my days off. I hadn’t traveled abroad until I was 18, but I’ve made up for it since then! My ambition is to sell my house, buy an adapted VW campervan and travel.
You’ve traveled quite a bit since that first teenage trip. What are some of your favorite destinations?
Syria, Peru, Venezuela, and Cuba.
What are your top three global sights to see?
Of the places I’ve visited, Macchu Picchu, La Mezquita de Córdoba, and The State Hermitage Museum St Petersburg. Of the places I haven’t visited, The Great Wall of China (and China, generally), Odessa (for the steps as in Battleship Potemkin!) and India.
What are the general challenges of traveling the globe in a wheelchair, particularly those that non-wheelchair users might not be aware of?
The two biggest issues are lack of toilets I can use and inaccessible transport. However, people’s attitudes have an enormous impact. For example, in Syria, places weren’t very accessible, but people made them so. They were so welcoming and prepared to do anything for you. I went to a restaurant one day and all the tables were low but they found a pile of books to raise the table to my height! In St. Petersburg, there was no accessible transport and the buses had ramps that were screwed down. In another incident in Brussels, I was told (only last summer) that I couldn’t come into a restaurant as I’d get in the way.
What was the biggest challenge in traveling to Lebanon?
Very few cafes and bars had a toilet I could use, so I was constantly having to be careful what, and how much, I drank. At times I just didn’t want to go anywhere because it was so restrictive.
What was something that was easier than expected?
Taxis – I was amazed that there was a company [London Taxi] with 40+ black cabs that were wheelchair accessible.
Lebanon isn’t exactly known for being wheelchair-friendly. What was your experience with hotels, restaurants, and bars?
We stayed at the Midtown Hotel and Suites, but it wasn’t particularly accessible. The shower was really difficult and unless you booked into an expensive hotel, the idea of a wet room shower (which has level access) seemed alien. I used London Taxi to see Byblos at Christmas, which was good, but it cost a fortune to get there. I think it worked out to $120. We went to quite a few bars in Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael, but I can’t remember any of them having an accessible toilet.
What airline did you fly and would you recommend it?
Aegean Airlines, and definitely not. They were downright discriminatory. They refused to let me sit close to a toilet and said I shouldn’t have been allowed on the plane, and if I didn’t accept where they wanted me to sit I would delay the plane for other passengers. They had no inflight chair on wheels that I could use to go to the toilet, so my daughter had to carry me up the plane.
Any general tips or tricks for a person in a wheelchair traveling to Beirut?
People are very friendly and welcoming; the sidewalks are very high with few drop curbs, so don’t be frightened to go on the road. The traffic may seem mad but they will give you space!
What’s next on your list of destinations?
Mexico, Spain (I’ve been many times but for a relaxing and accessible holiday it can’t be beaten), Vienna, and possibly Jordan.
Images courtesy of Jaume Escofet/lonelyplanet.com, bambisoapbox.wordpress.com and theodorearz,blogspot.com.