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Pieter Ghijsels: the art of not planning

Pieter on a glass elevator with a stunning view of the New York skyscrapers
Pieter wearing a red polo and posing in front of beautiful cliffs and the sea. He is wearing glasses and he is smiling.

Pieter Ghijsels is a well known professional in the Accessible Tourism field: part of the Accessibility Team of Visit Flanders, he started out as a journalist after graduating from Leuven University, city which he loves and where he has been living for most of his life. After some experiences in the non-profit sector, 20 years ago he started working on the accessible offer of the norther region of Belgium: Flanders, renowned destination over the world with cities such as Bruges, Antwerp and the area of heritage sites from WWI, just to mention a few. Pieter also gave the name to the All Inclusive podcast! He won the online competition we launched at the beginning of 2021, and he plays some of the music you can hear on the podcast episodes. We invited him on this episode, which was broadcast in May 2021, to talk about his travel style.

So, first all I want to know what kind of traveler are you, are you a luxury traveler or are you more a backpacking adventurer, a mix of the two?

I think it’s a mix, in general when my wife and I travel, we will  decide on a place to start and a place to end, but in between things can change quickly, so we just know when we are arriving and when we are leaving, but that’s about it. We like to to follow the inspiration of the  moment, we are not really prepared. You know, strangely enough my wife is the one who’s preparing most of it, I’m just too too tired when we leave, I’m mostly too tired to do much about the preparations. But then it’s up to both of us to enjoy it! One of the things that I’ve  learned that really works in traveling is asking the locals  what to do. There are plenty of stories  where we just asked somebody what to do, and very often you end up, first of all, in a place that you wouldn’t have expected, but also that’s really worthwhile, that’s really a story in itself.

In my experience Australians are the most active ambassadors of their country or of the region they live in. I believe that on their national day they will just grab  any stranger to give them travel advice, but even when they’re abroad, it’s really something that struck me.

Are you five-star hotel or hostel? 

Also that is a mix and we are always good with taking some low budget places to stay, because we know that at one point there will be a moment that we will need the extra money.  For instance there was a time when we were in Norway and we had taken a road trip of the whole Scandinavia, or a big part of  Scandinavia, so Denmark, Sweden, Norway and we ended up in Bergen. We had stayed at a lot of camping sites and cottages: it was out of season so it was really a very very calm time to travel and the prices weren’t high. Well, in Norway the prices are always high but anyway,and we were in Bergen and all  of a sudden we found out that  all the accommodation was booked because it  was the, I don’t know, centenary I think of Edvard Grieg the composer,  so they had a big music festival and everything was booked. So the  only room that was still available was in Scandic hotel in the center of Bergen, so all our money went that way but we at least we were happy to  say yes to it, because it was an experience not to forget.

What was your best and your worst travel moment?

There’s a story where we were in Italy and we were there in a bnb and at one  point the owner came to me and said  “Pieter I don’t know if I can  ask you this, but would you mind if we carried you up the hill?” It was already late in the evening, we already had had a few drinks and he wanted to show me something but he didn’t want to carry me without my consensus, which was very nice of him to ask, but we ended up with a whole company of the guests of that bnb at that time all together carrying me up that hill, where we had fireflies in the bushes and then the open starry sky and it was, it  was something so out of the world that it was a moment that we thought: “yeah how would we ever have had this experience” if they wouldn’t have dared to ask  me if they could carry me. So with the wheelchair and everything we went up 

In Barcelona I was with my manual wheelchair, it was the first time I did a trip with my wife, who was my girlfriend then, and we were trying to  reach a place where you had a kind of what they call a telepherique, so the cable car and we had to reach the top of the hill to go aboard. But well, it took a while, and it was winding  around the hill up to the top, and after a while Karen said “Pieter really, I’m exhausted” so  I just stepped out and I started walking with my crutches next to the wheelchair, but in the end we had to decide that it was really not possible and we couldn’t see the  top because it was going around all the time.  At one point then Karen said “Pieter let’s start hitchhiking” I said “Hitchhiking? nobody’s going to stop for somebody like us, with the wheelchair and everything”. She said, “just give me five minutes”  so we tried and indeed the first car  stopped and it was a small car with a young father with a young boy in it, and the father didn’t speak English, he only spoke Catalan and so we said that we wanted to go the top and he said, yeah okay, and he started to rearrange his whole car and to make a long story a bit shorter, we ended up 50 meters further where we were, at the top the last stretch, really, and the poor man had no means to tell us that we were almost  there, so he just drove us up. 

These are the good ones, now you have to give us a terrible travel story

Well there was one time when we were flying, it’s not really a place where I have stayed for longer than just a transit time,  but that was in Dubai airport and they have a kind of wheelchair lounge  as they call it, and it’s underground, and it’s a place very bare, this is about six years ago. Everything was closed, there was nothing  there, it was just chairs and people were sitting and waiting, they took away the wheelchair and they took away your boarding pass so you had  to stay and you couldn’t leave. The toilets  were really too far away, it was really  an awful place, even you couldn’t close  your eyes for a bit because they were  calling people’s names all the time.

On our return I told my wife, well I’m not going to do this because  I just want to sit in the lobby, I just want to use the toilet, maybe have a cup of coffee but that was all impossible there. So when  we arrived to our flight back I immediately said okay, I don’t  want to go to that wheelchair lounge  I want to go to the lobby, the transit hall. You have to present yourself first at the wheelchair  lounge, because of the customs that is there, but then they would take me to the  regular place, but apparently it was considered that I refused assistance at that moment, so they told me in a quite triumphant, in a quite in a quite victorious way that yeah, you have to take care of yourself, you have to walk in the airport to the air craft, I said yeah okay, I can walk a bit if  that’s necessary, and the customs officer  said you also have to climb stairs, and I said yeah okay if need be I can climb some  stairs.

“Oh so you can do everything, so you  don’t need our help, okay you go” but it was really a mocking way and it really felt very very humiliating and it really didn’t feel like like a proper way to to deal with with tourists, so when we got back I sent an email to the airport to tell them my experience  and as a credit to them they also replied “we agree that this is below our standards  and we we are going to look into it to change things” so whenever somebody goes there and can tell me how it is now I’m always interested to know.  

Now considering the current situation, I  mean 2020 must have been a quiet year but are you considering traveling again? what will it take for you to travel again, what has to happen so that you think: okay now now it’s okay I can pack bags and start traveling again seriously?

I don’t know really yet, I think it has to do with confidence, with the confidence that things  are safe and that I won’t get Covid when I am somewhere  be it due to the airplane or due to whatever it is, or the or the train that I use or whatever. So the vaccine yes, I’m looking forward to it -will it be enough? I’ll have to wait and see  but I’m quite sure that the first  trip won’t be far, it will be domestic or maybe to the Netherlands, I have  a friend who showed me the existence of  a kind of boats with a cabin on top of  it, it’s like a small house on top of a  raft and it looks nice because you can just  find your way on the water, you don’t need a license to drive it.

Do you have a  recipe for planning the perfect holiday?

Pieter on his electric scooter in the botanic garden of Leuven, with a short sleeves polo and a big smile among the plants

First of all I think  you don’t have to go away from home to feel like a tourist, that’s maybe  one thing that I already realized  soon enough, since my my parents a long time ago had guests from the Czech republic and  they absolutely adored how our village  had all different houses, that was  so strange to them in that time, I’m talking about the 1980s. And just looking to my daily environment and through their eyes was already like a tourist experience for me. 

When you are preparing a trip I think that somebody was giving the advice that traveling isn’t easy, so you don’t have to make it more  difficult, and that’s not meant to kill anything adventurous of course, it’s good to test your limits and that can be very rewarding as long as it’s a challenge that you accept willingly.  

I remember one time when we were in an absolute tropical rain and we were on our way to a nice moderate  restaurant where we would have our dinner, our first dinner at the destination and it was such a shower that we just practically swam into another place where we hadn’t  booked to have dinner… and at that moment we had no idea about  the price level of the place so we were not sure how much  the bill would cost, so we ended up ending in one of the top 50 worldwide restaurants  without knowing it. It was in Australia, we had no idea about the exchange rates at that moment and that could have been the absolute worst experience in my life because I couldn’t eat the because of the jet lag…  I took one bite and all of a sudden my stomach said no, it’s middle of the night, don’t!

So your recipe is basically: be open to whatever will happen that’s not being planned to leave space for the unexpected.

Yes, and take your time, that’s also a good advice, take your time, especially if you have  some accessibility requirements, it’s so much better if you just know that  you don’t have to rush, and that you have time to figure things out. A real bonus also is, I would say, take a minute to learn some of the local vocabulary, not only when you have a disability,  although there’s a nice book  of accessible phrases for disabled  travelers in the Lonely Planet guides, it’s made by Martin  Heng and I believe that Josh (Grisdale) was the first one who made a kind of prototype in Japanese and English. So just even if you can say “thank you” and “hello” and possibly “help” in thelanguage, the local language, it will be  highly respected I think and sometimes necessary. 

Also what I would like to do is to make a photo album afterwards so  not to let my photographs gather dust in my camera or on my phone or on my laptop, but to make these paper booklets so that at least sometimes I can just take a look  and be back in my holiday atmosphere.

What I also like to do is to make a playlist or to buy a CD that we listen to during our trip, because later on you only need  that music to be back in the holiday atmosphere 

What is your favorite travel  book or travel inspiration book? 

It depends on how far you want to go… well the first thing that came to mind was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it’s got a great advice for every traveler, and especially for people who have accessibility needs, “don’t panic”. But yeah I really like the whole atmosphere, I believe it  was originally a radio show, and then it became a book and then it became a film. And also Belgium is in it, according to Douglas Adams, it is an intergalactic swear word that was only misunderstood in one particular planet.

But more down to earth I’m a fan of Bill Bryson’s travel books and especially “Down Under” is one of his titles, adorable book but you have to read it after you have visited Australia because otherwise it will.. it makes a serious effort to  convince you not to go… it tells you about so many dangers that you will encounter that yeah, okay..

Want to listen to the full interview? You can find the podcast on all your favourite platforms, and a subtitled version on our YouTube channel.

Pieter has his own personal blog on accessible travel, TOR: https://www.toegankelijkopreis.be/ which you can also find on Instagram.

Subtitled version of the episode available on our YouTube channel.

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