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Southeast Asia on crutches – do it now!

A few days after my wife Mardena and I got back from Southeast Asia, I was talking with friends about the trip. One of them, Gene, screwed up his face: “Weren’t you on crutches? How’d you get around?” I shrugged: “I used the crutches.”

What more can you say? If you want to travel and you’re stuck with crutches, you either use them or you don’t go.

I really wanted to go. Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, they all sounded pretty romantic to me. Laos especially. I’d first heard about Laos when I was a kid, about the Pathet Lao—the anti-government insurgents—guys in black pajamas (I imagined) sneaking around shadowy jungle paths, rifles in hand, launching guerrilla raids here and there. It sounded dark, mysterious, a little sinister, more so even than the much deadlier conflict, at least for Americans, in Vietnam, a conflict that would end up affecting my life more than Laos ever would. I wanted to see Vietnam too, though, with its beguiling landscapes and exotic place names. And Cambodia, with its Angkor temples.

It wouldn’t be easy. A month before we were supposed to leave, my right hip gave out. I could barely walk, and when I could, not very far. Cortisone hadn’t helped, so I was stuck with crutches. The permanent solution was a new hip, but the earliest I could get one was eight months away. Recovery would take another few months. That meant we’d miss the next opening in Southeast Asia’s weather-restricted travel window—November through February. In other words, if we didn’t go now, we couldn’t go for another two years.

I didn’t have two years. I’d been diagnosed with multiple myeloma a year earlier. The average life expectancy after diagnosis was just over three years. If we waited around for hip surgery to heal, I might never go.

There were some nagging practical questions. What do I do with crutches on the roundtrip flights between the U.S. and Asia? Will they fit in the overheads? What about on a couple of shorter flights, ones without overheads, that I’d booked within the region? How much planning do you need for your Asia vacation? And once we got there, how much could we even do hampered by crutches?

As the travel day drew closer, Mardena’s interest seemed to be waning. “I don’t care one way or the other,” she said the day before we left. I couldn’t blame her. She was probably thinking it would be more trouble than it was worth.

I concocted a proposal: if it got to be too much, we’d quit and come home. Mardena seemed to buy it, warily. I was being disingenuous, of course. No way I’d turn back; I’d bumble on through somehow.

Once we got on the plane from San Francisco to Hanoi, two of my questions were answered: the folded crutches fit in the overheads, and I could see that on shorter flights I could probably stow them in the rear of the cabin.

The next morning, our first in Asia, as Mardena and I made our way along a ragged sidewalk in Hanoi’s ancient Old Quarter, an elderly woman just ahead of us squatted in black pajamas over an upturned garbage can lid holding a match to charred, smoking bits of paper. I swung myself clumsily off the curb to avoid her. Moments later a traffic light up ahead turned green sending a barrage of motorbikes our way. I lumbered back up on the curb. A half block farther on, a single motorbike ripped straight at us along the sidewalk. I lowered myself back to the street.

A few minutes later, we plopped down at a tiny café, sipped coffee, and watched fearless pedestrians thread their way through a street-full of speeding motorbikes. Our little trek had been frazzling, but I was elated. “I can do it,” I realized.

It wouldn’t be simple. Crutches up, crutches down became a persistent theme. I’d invariably start out from some place or other carrying them, but within a block or so the pain would kick in and I’d give up, extend them, and hobble on.

It would have been simpler just to use them from the get-go, but I was self-conscious. Crutches were a rarity, they invited stares, and I got tired of being hailed by tuk tuk drivers who assumed we’d want a lift. I saw only one other person with crutches, a sad-eyed young Westerner in Siem Riep, Cambodia, who was sitting on a park bench, crutches under his arm, a fresh cast on his left foot, watching local boys kick a soccer ball around.

As time went on, a few things became clear. First, we’d have to curtail our sightseeing. I was moving slower than on foot, my eyes on the ground, focused on where to place each crutch. That was true nearly everywhere, but especially in places like Hue, with its rubble-strewn sidewalks, and on the slick, rainy streets of Hanoi. In our four weeks of travel, we covered probably eighty-five percent of what we would have on foot.

Second, it helped to be in shape. I’d quit running, of course, back when my hip had given out, but in the weeks before we left home I’d found a nearby pool where I could swim laps lying on my back, kicking with my good leg. Crutching every day around our neighborhood probably helped, too—anything aerobic to build stamina.

Third, it would have been hard to have done it alone. Back when I’d sensed Mardena’s commitment flagging, I’d actually debated whether I could travel by myself. I’d always done it that way when I was younger, but back then I could walk! This time, envisioning the obstacles I might face, it was hard to imagine traveling solo. A supportive travel partner (a spouse, needless to say, makes a super-handy candidate here!) turned out to be invaluable, not just for emotional backup but for help with simple tasks like tying a shoelace and putting on socks.

Finally, the kit of replacement items I’d brought along more than proved its worth. The rubber nubs on the bottoms of my crutches wore down over time, reducing traction and cushioning. The foam padding on top of the crutches thinned out, too, reducing cushioning there. It’s barely a stretch to say that replacing the nubs and foam pads made crutching almost a pleasure.

But the trip was more than a bunch of tedious lessons. There was humor. One evening at a street market in Luang Prabang, Laos, I stood along a curb watching people on the sidewalk while Mardena thumbed through a rack of scarves at a nearby street stall. Decked out in rumpled shorts, a faded gray tee-shirt, a five o’clock shadow, and well-worn sandals, and slouched over my crutches, I probably looked like an expatriate Westerner down on his luck. A group of well-dressed Asian tourists paraded by, some eyeing me curiously. I got an uneasy feeling that a couple of softies in the group were about to slip me a wad of Laotian Kip. I melted back into the street crowd as fast as I could.

And there were perks! On the morning we flew out of San Francisco, as we sat at our departure gate waiting to board, an EVA Airlines stewardess noticed my crutches and offered us priority boarding along with people in wheel chairs—people, that is, who actually needed it. I didn’t; using the hand rails I could have limped my way along the boarding ramp just fine, crutches in hand. But I happily accepted with only a twinge of guilt. Not only that, but from then on while seated in an airline boarding area I’d stick my crutches conspicuously into the aisle, hoping an airline employee would notice. They usually did. I even began to exaggerate my crutchy hobble along the boarding ramp for the benefit of any skeptical onlookers. It was all a bit lowdown, of course, but I rationalized, conveniently, that passengers would get their assigned seats whenever they boarded.

It’s probably obvious that we could have simplified things by taking a tour or by using more transportation—tuk tuks, taxis, buses, Lyft. Neither, though, was a real option for me both because I wanted whatever exercise crutches could give me and because (I’m beginning to think) I’m almost constitutionally incapable of taking a tour.

Years ago, when my father was in the hospital recovering from hip surgery, his roommate was telling me about a cruise he and his wife had taken. Many of their fellow passengers were quite old, he said, and for some it was a trip they’d waited a lifetime to take. Two of them died en route. “They waited too long,” he said.

It’s a sad story, but still, I like the subtext: Do it now. Sure, Southeast Asia was undoubtedly more work than if we’d waited a couple years, but would waiting have gained us anything? Not that I can see. As it is, in a few months my new hip will be healed and, health willing, we’ll be heading back again, this time with four strong hips and four good legs, our grasp of the region firmer now for having been there before.

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