Exploring the World from a Power Wheelchair

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Unlike singer-composer and mouthpainter Gilbert Tan, not many people can say that they have crossed off most items from their bucket list.

“What I wanted to do, I have mostly done. There comes a time I tell myself it’s time to be a bit more relaxed, lah. Now it’s time for traveling. I travel for the knowledge, for the experience, to know what it’s like in another country. To see how other people live. I learn a little bit of their language.”


quadriplegic man in power wheelchair on subway platform

While his most recent trip with his wife, Irene, was to Barcelona in October 2015, Gilbert has been to other cities in Europe like London, Lisbon and Vienna as well as “the usual countries” in Asia like Malaysia, Japan, Philippines, Thailand and Taiwan. When he flies to a city, he likes to take a week-long accessible cruise, that lets him see more at a relaxed pace. He finds Europe a great travel location for people with disabilities (PWDs) because much of its infrastructure is accessible.

“I took the city tour bus – accessible but expensive. I also took the subway and local bus everywhere. This small little hotel [we stayed at], Hotel Raco del Pi, there was just a little bump [at the entrance]. But inside it was very nice and everything was wheelchair accessible.”

However, much of the historical allure of Europe may not be as charming for PWDs, especially power-wheelchair users. Gilbert, who gets around on a Quickie pulse mid-wheel drive, said, “[Cobblestones] were very difficult, particularly in Naples, Italy. My wheelchair became like a massage chair. There were also lots of migrants selling their wares on a scarf or blanket on the streets. They were quite in the way of my wheelchair. I had to keep saying ‘Excuse me’ and ‘Sorry’, [but] they were really friendly.”

Gilbert has travelled with other PWDs on specially-arranged tours, but these days he prefers to travel with just his wife.

“We like our own pace. Different disabilities have different challenges. For me, it’s my weight and my paralysis. A visually impaired person can still dress him or herself, take a shower and get ready. I need Irene to do everything for me.”

In Barcelona, Gilbert and Irene took a cruise that brought them to several Italian cities like Naples, where he tried “the best pizza in the world”. The self-confessed foodie lovingly describes his favourite culinary samples from Italy. “In Florence, we had a chance to try roasted chestnuts and the local lampredotto, or beef innards. They cook it until so soft and tender, with olive oil and spices. It’s the best hamburger, man!”

As a former architectural draftsman, Gilbert didn’t miss out on the monumental works of Spanish Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. “I went to Parc Guell, Sagrada Familia, Casa Milo, Casa Batllo. This is my favourite, Casa Batllo. Wah, so beautiful. We were there in the evening, just as the light [was going]. The colourful [mosaic tiles] on the wall were mesmerising.”

On travelling halfway across the world, Gilbert said in jest, “On [these] 14-hour flights, the first 10 hours is OK. The last 3 hours: aches and pains. It’s not as glamorous flying in economy.” That’s why his favourite place is perhaps a predictable one. “Home. My bed at home is the most comfortable.”

What is your favourite place in the world to explore in your wheelchair? Share your travel experiences with us, and you could be featured on AbleThrive!

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