There are few obstacles that can deter a traveler from pursuing our wanderlust. No money? We plan ahead, couch surf, and scour the Internet for deals. Not enough vacation days? We take weekend trips and work remotely. No time? We make it.
There is very little in this world that can hold us back from exploring it. We will always find a way, but what happens when our body strips us of our choice to move? I have finally discovered the most damning obstacle that a traveler can face: the physical inability to wander.
Three years ago, I fractured a bone in my foot while backpacking through Europe (the humor isn’t lost on me that the cause of my impending immobility would be my restlessness). Stubborn as I am, I did not have it checked out until six months later – by which point, my fracture had turned into a break that was deemed irreparable.
For the first time in my life, I was hit with the realization that I was not invincible. I was a traveler with a broken foot. Which meant that if I were to continue to pursue my passion in the long run (pun intended), I had to sacrifice at least three months of my life in post-surgery stagnancy. Of course, in retrospect, this sounds like a no brainer. What’s a few months to a lifetime? But for someone who doesn’t want to waste a minute of my life being held back from what I want to do, every minute of this impediment felt like torture. I despaired at the very thought of being imprisoned due to my physical limitation. After years of futile treatment and procrastination, I finally conjured up the courage to go through with the recommended surgery.
Truth be told, I did not expect this experience to impact me so deeply. While I have still not emerged on the other side unscathed, I have come to realize that difficulty is crucial to our human existence because it dares us to fight against the worst parts of ourselves. While we will inevitably be faced with struggles over and over again throughout our lives, we are ultimately responsible for the person that we become because of them.
There are three lessons I learned as a traveler with a broken foot:
Patience – Being seriously injured, I became a prisoner of my own body and I had little choice but to deal with it. Having a broken foot forced me to slow down, and this was tremendously frustrating. I am an incredibly active person and the mere thought of being off my feet for a couple of months suffocated me. Immobility taught me tolerance and patience. This was a situation that was beyond my control – regardless of what I wanted or how well I took care of myself, my foot was going to heal at the pace that it needed to heal. There was little I could do to influence this other than accept that this condition would eventually pass.
I never stopped to think that patience doesn’t just entail dealing with other people – it’s also about being kind to myself. It’s so easy to get frustrated with our lack of ability or skill, yet difficult to appreciate all the things we CAN do thanks to those very same “shortcomings.” Because I am restless, I reveled in the patience I had to summon to just STOP. To put aside all the back-to-back plans I tend to make weeks in advance, and just relax. I am always in a hurry, and my injury forced me to slow down. For the first time, I was able to leisurely walk (hobble is more appropriate, as I was wearing an orthopedic boot) through a museum exhibit and thoroughly enjoy select pieces, uninhibited by my inherent need to see everything at once.
Compassion – I’ve found that there are two types of people in the world: those who will stop and help when they see someone struggling and those who will pass by with indifference. Sadly, New York has much of the latter, but that does not negate the kindness of the few strangers who went out of their way to help me and offer words of comfort when I was visibly struggling with my injury. Navigating the city with a serious injury gave me every reason to be jaded with people and their callous demeanor towards their fellow humans: so many times people impatiently waited for me to get through a door on crutches without offering any assistance, or shoved past me wearing my clunky orthopedic boot in their haste to get to their destination. Only once over the course of seven weeks did someone give up his seat for me on the subway.
First week of “imprisonment”: a winter wonderland from the inside the glass
What truly stunned me, however, was not the indifference. It was the kindness. One individual offering a sympathetic word or gesture was all it took to remind me that good exists in our society. I learned that one act of kindness can trump a thousand callous dismissals. In their willingness to combat our everyday human condition via seemingly innocuous acts, these people identified themselves as rare gems in a world that is so often deeply starved of love and kindness.
I hold myself to a much higher standard after this experience. I do not ever want to be the one mindlessly rushing past people who are handicapped, disabled, or in difficulty. I expect this much of myself: for the deep compassion I developed from dealing with this injury to seep even into situations that are beyond the scope of my direct understanding. It is true that it is much easier to sympathize with someone when we ourselves have been through a similar event. In fact, most of the people who approached me had at some point suffered foot injuries themselves. But it is much harder, and as a result rewarding, to place ourselves in unfamiliar scenarios and for the pure sake of helping somebody. This, I believe is personal growth: connecting with other people and channeling their struggles into an action that, however minor, will thaw their pain and inspire our kindness.
Gratitude – As a traveler and a woman, I thrive on being independent and self-sufficient. When you are healthy and on two feet, the world is your oyster. There is nothing you can’t do, nowhere you can’t see… your only obstacle is your will. This is not the case when you cannot walk.
A broken foot meant that I had to wholly depend on people to sustain my well-being – and that hurt more than the injury itself. I had to swallow my pride and allow others to help me take care of the most basic needs, such as getting water or running the bath. I realized during this time that I had grossly underestimated two very special attributes in my life: the wide extent of my support system, and the importance of my good health.
We often take the fact that we have two functional feet for granted. I learned that the ability to go wherever our heart pulls us, to navigate this world on our own free will is the most beautiful gift that Nature has given us. Yet, despite having perfectly working feet, many people choose to sit around all day. I am even more so boggled by the concept of consciously sitting at home in a sluggish state on a day when the sun is beaming and the skies are shining blue. I have never been one to do that, and now more than ever I don’t believe I could choose a sedentary, stagnant life over one of mobility and change.
So, what does it mean to be a nomad with a broken foot?
I travel to find pieces of my home, yet the most important home you will ever have is your body. It is a home that must be taken care of and cherished, even as it slowly deteriorates. And ironically, it is a home that can only be kept well via constant movement and exploration. I found meaning in the cliche that we only learn to appreciate the blessings that we had until they are gone. I had the immense luck to only temporarily taste the loss of my mobility, and the opportunity to recognize the value of my body and worship it for the rest of my adventures.