As soon as I landed in Rio de Janeiro at the end of 2013, I knew it was to become my second, and much-loved, home. Rio is a simply stunning city that hosts a differing, but equally breath-taking, sight around every corner, be that Copacabana Beach, Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain or the colourful Favelas, but it’s the people there that really make it feel special. I got into my very first Brazilian taxi almost five years ago, tearful and absolutely exhausted from a ten hour flight, and the driver, without any conversation whatsoever, sang to me until we reached my hotel. Yep, this was going to be my kind of place.
I had been invited to Rio as part of the British Consulate’s ‘Britain is Great’ campaign, and was to be presenting my background, biggest achievements, and my work as an accessibility consultant and budding travel writer. I had even cleaned my wheelchair and dyed my hair from its usual pink hue to a perfectly professional brown for the occasion (something that I promised myself was to be reversed as speedily as possible!)
There were around thirty government officials in the room and I was ridiculously nervous, but one man in the centre of the audience kept nodding, laughing at my mediocre jokes and smiling in the right places as I spoke. Half way through my speech, though, I lost my encourager, who had started to type on his phone. Trying not to show my disappointment, I carried on and finished my speech. He then stood up, apologised for being distant; he’d been texting his manager and would like to offer me a job as an accessibility consultant at the company he works for – MetroRio – the underground transport system of Rio De Janeiro. They needed a helping hand to ensure access and inclusion was improved prior to the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and he thought I was the right girl for the job. I think I squealed by way of thanking him.
Working in Rio for the next three years with MetroRio, and also travel writing on the accessibility of the city for Lonely Planet, was without doubt my biggest challenge and greatest achievement to date. Navigating my way around, mostly alone, wasn’t easy; I was in a beautiful, brilliant but totally alien city, I only spoke a few words of Portuguese, and as a wheelchair user, relied on the successes of my own work as much as anyone else! ‘How did you do it?’ so many of my friends and family members asked me.
In truth, I think the fact that I wasn’t always 100% safe, that not every transport option could cater to my requirements, and that I had to trust someone to balance me on a steep escalator so that I could see Christ the Redeemer in all his glory are all the things that I now think of most fondly because they kept me feeling alive, encouraged me to push for change and progress, and made that satisfaction as I watched Paralympic athletes travel around the city so smoothly all the sweeter.
As a disabled person, I am always ready for the unknown to come along and try to trip me up. I’ve had to miss out on group trips as I’ve been seen as a hazard to tour companies, nightclub doors have been closed to me as I don’t fit that ‘perfect clientele’ image, and I’ve even had to crawl down the length of a plane to use the bathroom as the in-flight streamlined wheelchair was not placed on-board! But as embarrassing and angering as each one of those experiences was at the time, I still cherish them as times that made me strong, adaptable and resourceful when I most needed to be. I think that flexibility and quick thinking, problem-solving attitude is what makes me most proud to be a wheelchair user who travels the world.
There’s a Brazilian Portuguese word ‘saudade’ that simply can’t be translated into English, as it is a feeling rather than just a turn of phrase. It means to feel so connected to a loved one, memory or place that its absence causes a longing or feeling of nostalgia that is so deep, that only saying ‘saudade’ will do it justice. I feel this connection and longing for Rio, its people and the impact that time of my life and work had on me. And I know I always will.
I have now set up my own accessible travel guide company, Globe Hopper Guides, to ensure that my peers also know that travel can be incredible, and doesn’t have to discriminate, regardless of their background or ability. We go on monthly trips to less-expected accessible destinations, like Morocco, Poland and Iceland, write accessible guide and film weekly vlogs of our adventures. We are kindly sponsored by www.healthcare.co.uk, a care aids business based in my home town of Skipton, North Yorkshire, that has been set up within the healthcare sector to ensure that everyone can live their best lives, whether at home or abroad, living independently or with support.
I’m excited to see where this adventure takes me and can’t wait to soak up all the learning curves and unknown experiences that will inevitably appear along the way. More than anything, though, I hope that Globe Hopper Guides plays a part in defining the importance of an accessible world and helping disabled people from far and wide to make their mark. That is certainly why I travel.
Find out more about Emily’s new venture at www.globehopperguides.com