The Cripple’s Guide to International Travel

My experience traveling on crutches: two months, 10 countries, one new set of arm muscles, and many lessons learned.

I did something this summer I never thought I would do – and that I had never really thought about anyone doing. I traveled through 10 countries on crutches, with a broken leg and a school backpack.

On this trip, I sat next to a smuggler on a bus leaving Belarus, wore through four pairs of rubber crutch tips, and tried to elevate my leg in a variety of creative ways on 13 flights, lots of busses, a train in Spain, a tram in Milan, and about a thousand subway rides in New York City.

Along the way, I learned a few things about traveling in general: The less you pack, the less you need. The people who push wheelchairs are, without question, the friendliest people in any airport. It’s okay not to see everything, not to do everything, and not to walk everywhere – the trip will not be ruined, whether you’re crippled or not.

And a few things about traveling while broken: Broken legs are an excellent way to avoid lines, get people to bring you things, make friends, get hit on (do my crutches make me less threatening?), and moonlight as a spy (everyone assumes you’re local when you’re on crutches, even in New York).

Traveling on crutches – here I am swinging from my crutches at a music festival outside Minsk, Belarus. ©KettiWilhelm2015
At a music festival outside Minsk, Belarus.

To squeeze even more wisdom out of my eight weeks on the road, I devised a ranking system how ideal a place is for traveling on crutches, based on five factors for each location:

  1. Size – Can I hobble around easily and see the cool stuff?
  2. Quality of public or private transportation – Do I know someone with a car? Does it suck if I don’t?
  3. Obstacles and terrain – How much stuff is in my way? (Cobblestones, hills, surprises, people.)
  4. Weather – Am I sweating all day? Is it cold enough I wish I could wear pants with my boot?
  5. Do I like this place?

I now give you The World’s Best Places (out of 11 places) To Travel On Crutches, beginning at the bottom:

11. China

After ten months living in China and noticing how this country makes no effort to make life easier for people who are not completely mobile, I got to test my theory. Turns out I was right, and being crippled in China sucks.

My odyssey began here, when I got thrown over over backwards by a strong set of legs while playing the Brazilian dance-fighting martial of capoeira (ca-PWHERE-uh), which I started doing when I first arrived in China. When I showed up at the basically unstaffed emergency room, in the back of a friend’s car, my capoeira group had to find me a stretcher, and then personally wheel me around the outside of the hospital to access the radiology department, where some punk in basketball shorts and flip-flops had to pause the TV show on his cell phone to give me an x-ray.

China also has no elevators anywhere, is full of broken sidewalks in most neighborhoods, and uses the slickest, highest-shine marble for sidewalks in fancy areas, such as the open plazas outside of malls.

Quancheng Square, Jinan, China: China's sidewalks are great for writing calligraphy with a wet mop, but not always so good for walking on when traveling on crutches. ©KettiWilhelm2015
Quancheng Square, Jinan, northeastern China. China’s sidewalks are great for writing poetry in calligraphy with a wet mop, but not always so good for walking on.

10. Belarus – Land of Bureaucracy and Sour Cream.

Belarus loses this contest almost exclusively because of its Soviet loves of record-keeping and people-tracking, and the location of its police station in Minsk. My friends and I visited the police station four times in our first two days in the city, attempting to register as official tourists for ten-days in the country, even though we had obtained visas at their embassy in Beijing before arriving. The police station being on the fourth floor of a building with no elevator became slightly less frustrating when my friend offered to fireman’s carry me all the way up, all four times. If you don’t have such a friend, don’t go to Belarus without all your limbs and all your patience.

On the street in downtown Minsk, which was not the best place for traveling on crutches. ©KettiWilhelm2015
On the street in downtown Minsk.

On the upside, you can rent a wheelchair for 90,000 Belarusian Rubles a week (about $5), and the cuisine – a tasty selection of meat, dairy, and potatoes bathed in sour cream – has lots of calcium to heal broken bones.

On the downside, lots of the sidewalks seem to be relics of the Stalin era, so the wheelchair doesn’t ride too smoothly. Every single doorway has a ledge along the ground (height of anywhere between 1 inch and two feet) to keep out high water and cripples.

Istanbul, with the Blue Mosque in the background.
A gray day in Istanbul, with the Blue Mosque in the background.

9. Istanbul, Turkey

The street was almost literally uphill both directions from the front door of my hostel. I was only here for a 24-hour layover, but the city is squeezed into two peninsulas, with more hills than San Francisco (but apparently fewer homeless people). That being said, the mosques were beautiful, people were jumping at the chance to chat with me, and the streets smelled like perfume, dried fruit, and spices. I’ll definitely return some day on two legs. 

8. New York City, Brooklyn, and their Subway. New York far exceeded my expectations. This is a walking city. It’s a great training ground for all future travels, as nowhere in the world required so much of my own effort to get around.

During one of my many subway trips a businessman asked me where I was from, explaining his confusion as follows, “She’s on the subway on crutches. That demonstrates a high degree of confidence – probably a New Yorker. But she was talking to the crazy homeless guy – probably not a New Yorker.”

Upside: No hills.

Downsides: A different part of my body was numb every day from being a newbie at getting around with my arms. Renting a wheelchair costs $100 a day. (No, I did not.)

Conclusion: It’s not so much that New York is a good place to go on crutches, but it’s a place you can go on crutches, and after half expecting to be pushed down in the street or re-broken by a cab, I found New Yorkers surprisingly patient, often friendly, sometimes helpful, and never violent.

7. Sevilla, Andalucia Province, Spain

Upsides: Sangria and the world’s best damn Drunk-History Walking and Hobbling Tour, led by my friend and fellow roving journalist, Austin Green.

Downsides: Crushing heat that makes moving on crutches feel like doing CrossFit in a sauna. Cobblestones that broke my crutch tips (for the second time). And the least attentive pedestrians I have ever encountered. It’s possible that it’s just too hot in August for anyone to expend the energy to get out of the way, but it’s also possible that everyone in Spain is blind.

Sevilla's cathedral.
Sevilla’s cathedral.

7. Finland.

Finland is the climatic opposite of Spain. What it lacks in sangria, it makes up in adorability, cool breezes, and gentle sunshine. I’m told that until roughly the week I arrived, this summer in Helsinki was the coldest and wettest since 1962, so I can’t guarantee Finland will have nice weather for crutching next summer, but I can guarantee Sevilla will make you suffer every year.

Being in Scandinavia, Finland is more expensive than everywhere else I went, but their public transportation is effective as well as entertaining, and the center of Helsinki is decently compact. The truth is, I stayed with friends here who showed me the best possible hospitality and took me on road trips to the towns of Porvoo and Turku, so I am biased.

Somewhere in the old part of Tallinn, probably on a hill.
Somewhere in the old part of Tallinn, probably on a hill.

5. Tallinn, Estonia.

The smallest Baltic capital wins big points for its puniness, but definitely loses some for its cobblestones, which were hell on my crutch tips. And I do mean puny. I’d been off the ferry from Finland less than 24 hours when I already felt I’d basically experienced the place, even at a cripple’s pace. But Tallinn grew on me after the first day. The hills are steep throughout this medieval and, in many places, painfully touristy little old town, but they gave my already rock-hard left calf muscle an extra workout. No points up or down.

Riga loves to put sculptures of cats, people, and other stuff on top of its buildings.
Riga loves to put sculptures of cats, people, and other stuff on top of its buildings.

4. Riga, Latvia.

Less touristy than Tallinn and much flatter. A winning combination.

Downtown Riga.
Downtown Riga.

3. Vilnius, Lithuania.

Vilnius is the first city that broke my crutch tips. But it’s smaller than Riga and approximately equal in cuteness, and they have the best beers in the region. Lithuania being my first Baltic country, I was feeling full of energy and ready to prove myself, so I completed a two and half hour walking tour of the old town. This made me feel like I deserved a gold medal, so I have fond memories of this casually funky little city. (At 155 square miles, it’s not really little, but the interesting, old, and English-speaking part is compact.)

vilnius church

You may notice that the last four countries are ranked in order from north to south. This is not the order I visited these countries, so it's either a coincidence or my subconscious telling me to 'Go south, young woman.'
The last four countries are ranked in order from north to south. It’s a coincidence, or else my subconscious telling me to ‘Go south, young woman.’
My new favorite grocery store, in a secret location in the Italian Alps.

2. Milan and the Alps, Italy. Land of pasta and cheeseIt’s hard to argue with pasta and cheese.

It’s also hard to climb around on the roof of Italy’s biggest cathedral on crutches, but I still did it.

Milan's Duomo, which I hiked all over the roof of on crutches, on a sunny day. ©KettiWilhelm2015
Il Duomo, Milan’s cathedral.

1. Montana, USA. Where people see me on my crutches and apologize for being on the same sidewalk. They push their loved ones out of my way to give me a wider birth, even though there are rarely more than three people anywhere. An outdoorsmen gave me a giant plastic bag from his Subaru to protect my cast at a rainy wedding. The weather is temperate, and while the public transportation is non-existent and everything is always at least 10 miles away, these are the people who fixed me.

Montana's Glacier National Park: I've decided my home state is the best place for traveling on crutches. ©KettiWilhelm2015
The west entrance to Glacier National Park.

P.S. I know, this post wasn’t very useful if you are truly planning a trip with a broken body part. If you are planning on especially traveling on crutches, I would honestly recommend the Baltics. I was lucky to have already planned to be in that region of tiny countries and small, easy-to-navigate cities before breaking my leg. If you have (non-medical) travel questions for me, please leave a comment below! Or come find me.

3 Comment

  1. Wow, sounds cool! Thanks!

  2. James says: Reply

    What an awesome read. You are a pirate.

    1. Ketti says: Reply

      Ayyy, thanks matey.

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