Global Explorer: Kate Christie Zee, M.D.
Interview by Marti Gacioch 1999 Global Access
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Kate Christie Zee, M.D., adventure traveler and author of the newly published "Disappearing Windmills," shares insights she gained from years of exploring.

At the peak of her medical career, Kate Christie Zee, M.D. was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Instead of retreating from the world, Zee decided to explore it from the angle of a wheelchair user. Over the years, she traveled to many lands including China, Nepal, India, Cambodia, Tanzania, the Amazon, and Russia. These were not easy journeys; they cover the range of human experience. Zee pushed her physical limits to ascend the Great Wall, board an elephant, ride a camel, view Tanzania’s wild animals, hunt caiman on the Amazon, and witness a sunrise over the Ganges.

But Zee’s new book "Disappearing Windmills" is far more than an itinerary of exotic destinations. In coming to terms with her newly disabled life, Zee’s chronicles her true journey – a rediscovery of the human spirit that outdistances any place she could visit on this planet. Unlike Don Quixote who mistook windmills f6r dragons, Zee tackled every imaginable travel obstacle and conquered them one by one. By the end of her many journeys, Zee was no longer a woman refusing to be photographed in a wheelchair; she was a traveler who had discovered how using a wheelchair could enhance her journey through life. Global Access thanks Dr. Zee for the following candid interview.

Global Access: We receive many letters from newly disabled people who doubt their ability to travel. Can you offer some guidance or reassurance to help them make that first journey any easier?

Zee: Book with a travel agent who has years of experience in dealing with all sorts of disabilities such as Accessible Journeys or Flying Wheels. Maybe join a tour with other people with similar needs (wheelchair tour, visually impaired tour, etc.) so you can see how other people like yourself deal with travel. Perhaps the best way to start out is to take a cruise to the Caribbean, the Panama Canal, or Alaska. It's the easiest and most accessible experience going. Disabled travel specialists take these cruises and often go along as an escort who can answer all questions about accessibility.

Global Access: China was your first adventure as a newly disabled person using a wheelchair. Was that first journey your hardest and if so why?

Zee: The journey was the hardest only in view of the fact that I had b1.jpg (19812 bytes)always traveled independently and had not been in a wheelchair before. It took some getting used to being treated "differently" and to the new limitation in personal mobility (like doing no stairs unless carried in my wheelchair, such as I experienced at the Great Wall--even that, for a first time, was pretty scary).

Global Access: In your China chapter, you describe the experience of suddenly feeling that you were "invisible" in a wheelchair. While you were surrounded by people, they seemed completely unaware of your presence. Since many disabled people experience that same feeling, do you have any methods of coping that you'd like to share?

Zee: If appropriate to the situation, I become very friendly and outgoing and reach out to the people around me. If there's no language in common, there are always smiles and gestures. Except in China, which is quite unused to westerners, my efforts are always returned positively

Global Access: While in China, did you gain any knowledge of what is available for disabled people in that country? You mentioned how female b4.jpg (29714 bytes)babies are undervalued (and even murdered). That made me wonder if disabled childrens' lives are also at risk.

Zee: According to TV propaganda films, they are happily living in institutions that meet their every need. I personally think they are kept out of sight at home as was the case with a mentally impaired girl I met in a private rural home. I do know that the government supplies the mobility impaired with red motorized carts to travel about the city in the bicycle lanes of the streets.

Global Access: You've visited many physically challenging places like Nepal, China, India, Cambodia, and Tanzania to name a few. Was any one location more difficult for you than others and if so why?

Zee: The most difficult trip was Vietnam because by some accident, instead of the private tour we booked, I was put on an able-bodied tour containing two other people. There were many things I couldn't do that were arranged for the group, and I felt bad about being left behind several times when they went climbing to see some special sites. Also, the heat was intense (and the air conditioning in most of the hotels inadequate), so it was not always very comfortable.

Global Access: When you decide to visit an exotic locale, how much time do you spend preparing for a trip, and do you have a checklist of "dos" and "don'ts" to share?

Zee: I read the "Lonely Planet Guidebooks" to understand what there is to see. Then I put the plans, and my suggestions as to what I might like to see, in the hands of Accessible Journeys and wait for my itinerary to arrive. I make lists of what I need to pack depending on the climate and the degree of primitiveness (water filters are necessary in some very remote spots). Then given my fatigue level, it takes me about three weeks to pack it all. A special "do" is to remember to pack a good attitude and leave at home any expectation that where I'm going will be anything like home (otherwise what's the point of going away). I especially remember to pack duplicate medications in separate places and repair wrenches for my manual, collapsible wheelchair in case anything shakes loose. Having M.S., I also pack those cooling neck scarves when I'm going to hot climates. And I always pack a stack of granola bars in case the time zone mealtime does not match my appetite time zone. I believe you have already published my "Twelve Secrets of Savvy Travelers" last year and may want to reissue it.

Global Access: In India, you often encountered disabled beggars in the streets. Was it difficult to return to the U.S. without feeling extremely fortunate?

Zee: When I saw the beggars and other disabled people abroad (a rare occurrence because they are usually institutionalized or kept at home), I have always felt extremely fortunate. Travel always puts my problems (relatively small compared to those of the disabled overseas) in perspective and makes me feel both grateful and humble.

Global Access: Of the many places you visited, is there one you felt especially enchanted with, and does it call you to return?

Zee: I have always been enchanted by India, which is why I've been there four times. It is a land of contrasts: maharajas and beggars, gaudiness and enchanting beauty, gilded palaces and dirty hovels. The tajmahal.gif (7890 bytes)people are extremely friendly and any time I'm faced with steps (like the Taj Mahal or mud (like one time during monsoon season at the Ganges) dozens of smiling men jump forward to carry me in my wheelchair over and across barriers.

Global Access: You've visited a large part of the world. Is there a special place you still long to see?

Zee: Yes. I still long to see Sulewesi in Indonesia, reportedly (by other travelers) one of the most beautiful spots in the world. It is a fascinating place where the dead are buried in the cliffs, and their life size effigies are placed outside their tombs for all to see--a spectacular sight I'm told. I'd also like to see Bali because of its beauty and its fascinating culture and artwork.

In November/December 1998, I completed the penultimate in travel experiences--a first class trip around the world on the northern route. We went from Philadelphia to Frankfort to Bombay (Mumbai), to Varanassi, India, a favorite city, to revisit the Ganges, to Delhi, to Singapore (with a stay at the incredible Raffles Hotel), and to Maui, Hawaii then home. The limited number of stops were because of time constraints (l6 days). I had a great time, and there were no problems with the trip or with keeping track of my (undamaged) wheelchair during the multiple airline transfers. I still dream of doing the southern route once they reinstitute it because it can include Bali, Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia, etc.

"Disappearing Windmills" is now available for $19.95 U.S.
from Vantage Press (800) 882-3273.


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