Dani has an indomitable spirit. She lost her mobility while she was still a teenager but that didn't stop her from coming into her own as an accomplished athlete, dancer and traveler! Read this interview to know all about Dani and her quest to make accessible travel universally acknowledged, accepted and embraced.
How did you become a wheelchair user?
I got diagnosed with a bone marrow tumor 15 years ago. That tumor was surgically removed 11 years ago and the process left me with a medullar injury that took away most of the mobility in my legs! So, I started using a wheelchair.
At that very moment, my passions changed, and I began to discover a whole new world! Today I am a world champion of wheelchair-bound Latin dances, I am a national basketball player, an active representative of women with disabilities! And then comes my true passion, travel! I want to make people aware of access needs and provide relevant data to other chair users.
When did the travel bug bit you for the first time?
I've been an athlete all my life! Thus, traveling has been a constant for me given all the tournaments and training schedules. Then there came a time when I devoted myself wholly to my engineering career. After two years, I began to feel like I was short of breath, that I needed the sun, sea and the calm! And then one day, I randomly decided to go to Dominican Republic. That was that and since then, it has been more than 8 years of traveling continuously.
So, do you travel alone or with company?
I usually travel alone. However, a friend may accompany me from time to time.
When you have company, I'm sure difficult situations are easier to deal with. But, suppose you are traveling alone and something major from the pre-planned bit goes wrong. How do you face that challenge or overcome it?
There is actually not much difference between being alone and having company while traveling ! Normally when I travel with someone, it is anyway me who has more experience, the reason why I am able to come up with a solution if we face any problem. You need to face any problem with a smile on your face and a calm disposition. And then you can always ask for help. People are very kind and always agree to help, especially if you ask in a good way.
How many countries have you covered as of now and which has been the best in terms of accessibility and overall experience? Also, do tell us about your experience in the least accessible country you have been to.
I've lost count! My favorite places are in Central America in spite of them not being truly accessible! Those are countries that are still growing and accessibility is part of that process. So, it's understandable.
I think India has places with less accessibility! Some places do not have the concept of sidewalks or places just for pedestrians! It is very difficult to be in India for people like us! And yet I loved it! Fortunately, the temples (not all) are slightly more accessible, which makes things easier. People in India are so warm, kind and friendly. They just enhanced my experience in the country.
The most accessible country I have been to is, without a doubt, Slovakia. Actually Europe, in general, is highly accessible! Sometimes, the cobblestone streets can be annoying. But then you must also respect the history, architecture and planning of different countries.
You wrote in an Instagram post, “This year I fulfilled the dream of being in India and even while writing these words, I can not stop thinking about the trip that has changed so much within me.” Can you put a finger on what has changed?
It's hard to explain. I think my priorities have become more apparent. I have a newfound sense of spirituality and also a certain gratitude for what I have. There are immense opportunities that life gives us to get ahead. I am fortunate to be from Chile where, irrespective of my social class, I have the freedom to choose the way in which I want to live my life. It is very difficult to do the same in India. If I have to sum up what the trip truly did for me, I'll say that it has taught me to value who I am, where I come from and what I have very dearly.
What are your thoughts on inclusive urban planning and universal design and how important do you feel it is to expand this steady change in the context of accessible travel? What can be the baby steps towards inclusive strategies?
The moment someone says inclusive 'strategies', I hear profit! We are often charged twice as much in a tour just because it is designed specifically for a wheelchair user. So, it is better that places adapt to all! I think the same assistance should be given to all travelers, regardless of their color, race, country and their physical ability (or lack of it)! Therefore, the only strategy should be a mix of empathy, willingness, goodwill and delivery!
Do you think it’s better for the government to establish the infrastructure that allows people with disabilities to have full freedom and independence to travel on their own?
Now moving away from travel a bit, when and from where did your love for dancing stem from?
One day, about 10 years ago, I went to the doctor and saw a group of boys dancing in wheelchairs. I've always liked to dance but I've never been inspired enough to take classes, until that moment! My dance teacher became my best friend and my dance partner of 9 years, we never stopped training and participating in tournaments, until we became world champions three years ago!
Today, we no longer dance together because our priorities changed along the way and that was perfectly understandable!
I am still dancing. I have found an amazing partner in Felipe and we hope to compete in a new World Cup soon.
When have you felt the most accomplished on a basketball court?
My best moment on the court was when we, the national basketball team of Chile, qualified for the Parapan American Games 2019, set to be held in Lima from 23 August to 1 September.
Congratulations and good luck! So, what do you feel is the role of attitude when it comes to traveling with disability?
Travel is for all those who dare to leave their fears behind, it is for those who want to live in moments and experience the thrill of adventures! Someone who can do this without importing his/her capacity will see that the world is made for all.
What has been your best travel experience till date, one that brought a beaming smile on your face?
My best experience has been in the Dominican Republic. For me, it has a very special meaning because this island made me lose the fears and prejudices that I had. People there are very warm and cheerful! They enjoy their lives as if there is no tomorrow despite the difficulties! I have been there 6 times and each time I have had a pleasantly different experience! Sometimes, I stay there for more than a month. I already have friends there and it is always an honor to be able to return.
What are the top 3 things that you cannot travel without?
First and foremost, my cell phone! It is my main tool to mobilize independently, find the best routes, write down the good things I come across and the details I want to repeat or not to do again on my next visit.
A handkerchief for the cold or the wind, there must ALWAYS be one in my backpack. I tend to get very cold!
And finally, my smartdrive! It is a wheel that allows me to move through difficult terrains or streets without too much inclination.
I think those are my essentials.
What are the 3 specific travel tips that you'd want to give another wheelchair user?
I only suggest they lose their fear! Many a time, we do not dare to do things or limit ourselves only due to prejudices that are a result of social and cultural conditioning. Finally, it is we ourselves who must open this world and know it with our own wheels! So the most important thing is to lose your fear!
Dani Zapata LilloTraveler
Travel has taught me to value who I am, where I come from and what I have very dearly!
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