Fiji is not a place that accepts physical disabilities as a society. Nothing is ADA-accessible to even a mild degree, which makes my daily commute a constant adventure. I knew I was entering this country with added challenge if I was going to require a wheelchair for walking tasks. Once that notion became a lived experience, the anticipated challenge was so much harder than I could have imagined. One of the most shocking experiences I endure multiple times during my work commute is random people walking up to me, blocking the path, and asking why I am outside in a wheelchair. Comments such as “you cannot be out here as a woman like that!” or statements that prod at my personal information like “What happened to you? What did your doctor say?” happen nearly every day. Sometimes it’s humorous, other times it’s bizarre, and most of the time I am just overwhelmed as to why a complete stranger is touching me or demanding answers to questions about my health. Frequently, they will not even speak to me, they question Justin directly as if I am invisible.
I had many concerns about how my patients would view me, but this has ended up being easier than I anticipated. My yoga programs I wrote before coming to Fiji had to be changed to a sitting position on the floor or in a chair. I had fears of my patients disliking my classes because they would be taught in this manner, but people are surprisingly adaptable. What I have also found, is that my classes have required adaptations regardless of my own injury because my patients ALSO need adaptations. Thus, the nature of the class needs no explanation. Most of my patients have never done yoga either, giving me a blank slate to work with and formulate my classes however I want. I gained trust from the kids at the special needs school quickly, because I was relatable as a person navigating my environment with a disability. At the hospital, I generally assist with upper extremity patients, so I get to sit during patient treatment. But most days I am asked by other patients if I am in the physio department for treatment, and I catch them by surprise when I say, no, I'm here to give you treatment.
I’m trying to see things in a light that offer growth and flexibility. But there are days where I feel knocked down, because it’s all just too much. Last week I was exhausted, sick of being in a wheelchair, sick of the stigmas, tired of being constantly stared at, and overwhelmed by the cultural differences. The chronic pain I push through each day breaks my focus at times and I yearn for normalcy. I had to stop and reset. This type of environmental setting is not new to me, but the wheelchair makes me feel like an alien in my own body. Self-care has been pushed to the side for many weeks so I can focus on the care of my patients. But we all know that if we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t take care of others. I was not practicing what I was preaching. Justin and I were long overdue for a weekend vacation. I have been logging many overtime hours on Saturdays working on my projects so they are ready for the following week. But not last weekend. Justin and I found an affordable resort to the west of Labasa and made a last minute booking. I eagerly counted down the minutes to sleeping on an actual mattress and having a hot shower. The true luxuries in life are the little things we take for granted.
The weekend was a dream. We slept in and ate fresh fruit and vegetables from the organic farm on the premises. We kayaked to a secluded beach and swam in the private pool under the palms. We spent our afternoons reading on the porch and staring at the big blue ocean. I tried to let go of any school tasks on my mind (emphasis on tried) and treated the weekend like time off. The life changing magic of self-care should never be underestimated.
I was torturing myself for a while by continuing to hide my physical limitation I am currently living with. I posted one photo on Facebook exposing my reality, and thereafter continued to portray myself on social media in a wheelchair-free manner. I am slowly accepting my reality. I mean, do I have any other choice? I still shudder when I see my reflection in a wheelchair. Self-love is complicated. The cultural stigmas in Fiji amplify my desire to hide this part of me. Fiji’s culture wreaks havoc on my ego, but at the same time it brings me peace. I don’t know anyone here, and the people I am meeting don’t know my past. I have nothing to live up to or explain of my changed life. I don’t always have the gumption to stand up for myself, but when I do, I hope I can use the abrupt confrontations from strangers in the street as an opportunity to educate people about disabilities. Fiji is not progressive in this manner and badly needs reform. Simply being out in the community, no matter how horrified passersby are by the sight of a woman in a wheelchair, is a means to show the community that everyone is capable of participating in daily life.
And now, some snaps from the weekend.
I am an outdoor and travel junkie who is currently completing my doctorate in occupational therapy overseas in rural Fiji. On Sweet World Travels you will find stories of my life with my husband, the communities we serve, and the many adventures we take.