Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Lonely Planet, Indeed

Lonely Planet guides leave me feeling quite alone when it comes to travel resources. Frommer’s fails me as well. And while Chowhound has great advice about where to eat, it tells me little about whether or not I can get into a particular restaurant, what the layout is like, and whether or not I will be able to use the restroom once I am there. It won’t tell me if I'll be able to navigate to the table in the corner, all the way in the back of the room. I am a wheelchair user. I am a wheelchair user who loves food, drink, live music, vibrant social scenes and travel.

I honestly cannot tell you how many times I have gone to a bar only to discover that I won’t be drinking anything at all there, because I won’t be able to use the restroom. I've lost count.  What I can tell you that I have gone to multiple bars in a row in the same night, and left almost immediately to hit the next one because the bathroom is not wheelchair accessible. In one particular instance, I hit a total of three bars within an hour before finding an environment that suited my access needs (a giant thank you to 21st Amendment in San Francisco!)  I've taken to checking bathrooms before I commit to staying just about anywhere for more than 30 minutes. Unfortunately, I've had to learn to do this the hard way. This nugget of wisdom was hard earned after leaping before looking one too many times.  I grew up in Los Angeles, where most buildings are new, and therefore comply with the ADA.  It took me a while to learn that the Bay Area generally just isn’t as accessible as I was used to a place being. Despite its history as the birthplace of the Disability Rights Movement, the Bay Area can be quite challenging when it comes to accessibility. But it took me a while to catch on. I’d go out to restaurants and bars, assuming that all was well, only to discover that all was not. Those were painful nights. The awful alternative is to abstain from all liquids, while everyone is drinking around me. The isolation and frustration I feel when I’m not able to partake in activities going on around me as a result of barriers is unfortunately a familiar sensation- doubly so when incredible food, drink or music is involved.

The consequences for my social life are undeniable at this point.  I’ve grown complacent, and even afraid of new places and experiences as a result of the barriers I’ve encountered during my time in the Bay. I’ve noticed in the past ten years or so how much of a creature of habit I’ve become. I go to the same restaurants, bars and concert venues simply because I know how to get there, and what to expect once I’ve arrived. While it spares me the headaches and heartaches that new adventures often bring with them, it’s incredibly limiting. I live in the Bay Area, a mecca of food and culture. Embarrassed as I am to admit it, I haven’t done nearly as much in my own corner of the States as the friends I met in college have. I haven’t traveled as widely as other people my age in general. And I’ve grown sick of it. This is my revolt. I am going out. 

Because of my access needs, traveling anywhere requires quite a bit of research and a number of phone calls that the average traveler just doesn’t have to make. These efforts save me from a lot of unnecessary headaches upon arrival. I need more than a basic map when I go somewhere, local or otherwise. I have to become familiar with the topography of a place in addition to its basic geography. This proves harder to do than one might expect, and is often accomplished as I go. I’ll be the first to admit that this is perhaps an extremely flawed approach. Of course, not all problems can be anticipated and addressed in advance. But it helps a whole hell of a lot. 

Nevertheless, I’ve compiled a list of places I want to see, and will start attacking the list one by one. I will feign bravery until I no longer have to fake it. I will get lost, and get stuck. I may even have the occasional victory in the form of a surprisingly easy journey with an array of amazing discoveries along the way. And I’m going to write all about it. None of the guides out there address my needs adequately. It’s time to stop bemoaning this fact. It’s time to be my own guide and create my own guidebook. Wish me luck, here we go!

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