Amazing Nomads: Sylvia Longmire – Special Agent to Travel Agent

In the US Air Force, Sylvia Longmire was a counterintelligence officer specializing in the Mexican drug war. Forced into retirement due to illness, she launched a travel company for adventurous wheelchair users.

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Amazing Nomads: Sylvia Longmire

Sylvia Longmire is the owner and founder of Spin the Globe Travel, planning wheelchair accessible adventures. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2005, Sylvia is a service-disabled veteran, author, consultant, entrepreneur and world traveler, and is a wheelchair user. She is also one of America’s foremost subject matter experts on Mexico's drug war.

What’s in the Episode

01:11 Is safe to go to Mexico?

02:50 From special agent to travel agent

05:08 Being diagnosed with MS

09:30 Travel from the American perspective

12:40 Making dreams come true

15:25 Violations of accessibility laws

17:21 Next week

Quotes from the episode

“I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005 while I was on active duty. If you develop a chronic illness or any kind of condition that you're no longer fit for service, then they consider that service-connected.” – Sylvia

“Travel for me has always been a source of peace and healing and calm. I said you know what? Now that I have the time and I have the ability, maybe I just need to go on a trip." – Sylvia

“We have the American with Disabilities Act that has certain requirements for grab bars and the way that showers, where the seating has to be, and you have to be able to reach the shower controls and the doorways have to be so wide.” - Sylvia

Who is in the Episode

Sylvia Longmire runs Spin the Globe/Travel an agency specializing in accessible travel for wheelchair users, “…travelers want to have confidence and trust in their travel agents, and that is earned partly through my personal experience and training.”

You can follow Sylvia’s blog Spin the Globe wheelchair accessible travel blog that serves as an invaluable resource seeking accessibility information.

Resources & links

Sylvia’s book on Mexico’s drug war titled Cartel is available from Amazon.

Sylvia’s latest book is Everything You Need to Know About Wheelchair Accessible Cruising.

Learn more about the American with Disabilities Act.

Here is a list of must-have apps for disabled travelers.

Scholarships Newsletter: Sign up for scholarship news and see what opportunities are live here.

Want to make money while you travel? Check out World Nomads Partner Program.

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Next Episode: Bulgaria

About World Nomads & the Podcast

Explore your boundaries and discover your next adventure with The World Nomads Podcast. Hosted by Podcast Producer Kim Napier and World Nomads Phil Sylvester, each episode will take you around the world with insights into destinations from travelers and experts. They’ll share the latest in travel news, answer your travel questions and fill you in on what World Nomads is up to, including the latest scholarships and guides.

World Nomads is a fast-growing online travel company that provides inspiration, advice, safety tips and specialized travel insurance for independent, volunteer and student travelers traveling and studying most anywhere in the world. Our online global travel insurance covers travelers from more than 135 countries and allows you to buy and claim online, 24/7, even while already traveling.

The World Nomads Podcast is not your usual travel Podcast. It’s everything for the adventurous, independent traveler. Don’tmiss out. Subscribe today.

You can get in touch with us by emailing [email protected].

We use the Rodecaster Pro to record our episodes and interviews when in the studio, made possible with the kind support of Rode.

Speaker 1: The World Nomads podcast bonus episode. Hear amazing nomads sharing their knowledge, stories, and experience of world travel.

Kim: Thanks for tuning in to this episode with Kim, that's me, and Phil-

Phil: That's me.

Kim: ... showcasing an amazing nomad, someone that demonstrates fear, discovery, connection, transformation and love through travel.

Kim: This time we are showcasing the owner and founder of Spin The Globe Travels, Sylvia Longmire, a service-disabled veteran, author, consultant, entrepreneur and world traveler.

Phil: Look, her company, Spin The Globe, organizes accessible travel trips. It was founded after Sylvia herself was confined to a wheelchair with MS. She says, "Using a wheelchair or any other mobility device shouldn't keep you from exploring all of the amazing things that the world has to offer."

Kim: I don't know where to start with you, Sylvia. In fact, when Phil was going through the information that I shared with him about you, he's going, "What? What?" Phil, what was it about Sylvia?

Phil: Ah, well, because in my role as a travel safety expert, a few years ago, I was asked a lot of questions about if it's safe to go to Mexico. And I'm just reading about your expertise there and things that you've written on, it's like, "Oh, my goodness."

Kim: Well, let's start with that then before we get into-

Phil: Sure.

Kim: ... Spin The Globe.

Phil: All right.

Kim: Mexico then, is it safe?

Phil: Well, with the stuff that you are writing, it was at the height of the so-called drug war there and it was pretty bad, wasn't it?

Sylvia Longmire: Right. Yeah, and it's actually still pretty bad. The homicide rates are at record numbers, sadly. Nobody seems to have found a good solution.

Sylvia Longmire: But as far as travel goes, you just have to kind of pick and choose your destinations. I mean, tourism is still one of the top income sources for Mexico and you still see resort places or resort cities like the Cabos and Puerto Vallarta, Cancun and Cozumel that are still thriving.

Sylvia Longmire: So there are still places that aren't safe, but you have to do your homework. You can't go driving around by yourself in the middle of the night in more remote areas. It's about doing the research and just asking the questions.

Phil: So there's only ever been like a handful of tourists have been involved in the violence in any way.

Phil: Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, every Christmas there's something like 7,000 people get admitted to the hospital every Christmas time because they injured themselves trying to open the clamshell plastic packaging, you know? They use knives and things like that. I did the math, so it works out like you're 75 times more likely to be injured by your own Christmas present than you are by a drug cartel in Mexico.

Kim: There's your headline, Sylvia.

Sylvia Longmire: All right. There's my next blog post right there.

Phil: Okay. It's all yours. You can have that.

Kim: Well, not only are you a travel agent, but you're an ex-special agent?

Sylvia Longmire: I am. I was in the Air Force for eight years, from 1997 to 2005. I was an Air Force officer and my job for that time was as a special agent in the Air Force ops special investigations.

Phil: Oh, love it.

Sylvia Longmire: Sounds very exotic, doesn't it?

Kim: At this point, you are a disabled veteran and I initially thought that you'd been hurt in action or injured in action. But you're in a wheelchair because of a neurological disorder?

Sylvia Longmire: Yes. I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005 while I was on active duty. If you develop a chronic illness or any kind of condition that you're no longer fit for service, then they consider that service-connected. That's why I was medically retired from the Air Force with my rank at the time, as opposed to being separated.

Phil: Were you disappointed by that?

Sylvia Longmire: Part of me was, yes, because I was doing really great in my career, I kind of envisioned doing 20 years and retiring.

Sylvia Longmire: But also I had just gotten married at the time right before my diagnosis and one of us was going to have to eventually separate from the military if we wanted to have kids and stay together, instead of being stationed apart, because my ex-husband is active duty. So it was kind of a pro and a con.

Sylvia Longmire: But looking back now, yeah, it's easy to say, "Hey, if that hadn't happened to me if I hadn't been diagnosed with MS, would I be where I am now doing all of these things, trying to help other people in wheelchairs and travel and see the world and working on my nonprofit?" I have a pretty great life right now. So looking back, everything just kind of worked out for the best.

Phil: When you get a diagnosis like that, obviously, it's a very sort of shocking moment for you.

Sylvia Longmire: Oh, sure.

Phil: Were you thinking at that time, okay, there goes all my chance of travel? Or was there a process you went through?

Sylvia Longmire: Well, there's always a process and travel wasn't even on my scope at the time. Everybody who deals... I don't want to say, everybody, that's too general, but a lot of people who deal with a diagnosis of a disease, especially something that's chronic, long-term and incurable like MS, goes through the grieving process, just as if somebody that they love died. You go through the denial and the anger and the sadness and eventually the acceptance.

Sylvia Longmire: Now I was "fortunate" and I'll put that in quotation marks in that my MS diagnosis took two and a half years to come about and that's typical of MS. You have to go to the doctor and have so many symptoms looked at and so many tests done, it can take a really long time to diagnose. So my first symptom, I lost vision in one of my eyes for about two months. It was highly indicative of developing MS later on.

Sylvia Longmire: Now, I didn't have anything else wrong with me at the time and my diagnosis came two years later. But when that happened I was prepared for it because I had two years to kind of deal with the possibility, do the research, find out about the treatments and everything and sort of have a hypothetical plan of what am I going to do if this diagnosis comes down.

Sylvia Longmire: Not everybody has that, the luxury. So, yes, it was a shock and, yes, it kind of turned my world upside down when the retirement happened, then I had to move and I was no longer active duty. But I figured it out and a lot of people are able to do that.

Kim: Tell us about creating Spin The Globe.

Sylvia Longmire: Again, I was diagnosed in 2005. I was married for 10 years and I traveled a lot before I got married. I traveled a lot when I was on active duty. I started traveling by myself when I was inactive duty because I didn't want to sit around and wait for somebody else to either have the time or their money to do that. I didn't really travel very much, a little bit for work here and there and for family holidays and such during the 10 years that I was married.

Sylvia Longmire: But after I got divorced, when my ex and I split, my children live with him during the school year. So I live by myself and going from being a full-time mom and working from home and having the whole kind of insane, crazy schedule to going and living by yourself in a wheelchair is a real shock to the system. And having to start this entire life with this new normal without my kids and just in a new place, in a new home surrounded by family, fortunately, but I really didn't know where to start.

Sylvia Longmire: Travel for me has always been a source of peace and healing and calm. I said, "You know what? Now that I have the time and I have the ability, maybe I just need to go on a trip." That's what I started doing and I started doing it slowly at the time. I did a road trip in the Southwest. The Southwestern United States, the Canyonlands, and the desert have always been kind of very healing for me. I did okay with that.

Sylvia Longmire: Then I went to Australia, which I had been dreaming of going to Australia for 25 years. I finally went to Sydney all by myself and that kind of made me bolder. I went to Dubai by myself. I went to Iceland. I went on an Alaska cruise with my best friend.

Sylvia Longmire: The more I traveled, I said, "You know, I've been a professional writer for like 10, 11, 12 years writing about the drug war stuff," which is obviously very different. But I said, "You know, there are a lot of bloggers out there. There are some accessible travel bloggers out there, not many. Why don't I write about this? This is what I do." And kind of out of that experience is where my blog was born.

Kim: Those countries that you mentioned and, in particular Sydney, how wheelchair-friendly are we?

Sylvia Longmire: I loved it. One of the things that I loved the most was the accessible taxis in Sydney, that there's a phone app specifically designed for accessible taxis. I think it's called Taxi 200 or something like that. There were some hills in Sydney, that was exciting, especially going down, so it's a little hilly.

Sylvia Longmire: But it's very westernized as far as what our laws are and what the accessibility expectations are there. I was very, very pleased. I could eat, I could shop. In my hotel, I could get in bed and I could use the bathroom, which is always the most important thing for me when I travel.

Sylvia Longmire: But I was able to take a tour of the Opera House. I was able to take the Manly ferry and take the little boardwalk and promenade around Manly Beach and do all sorts of really exciting things. So I was extremely, extremely happy with the accessibility in Sydney.

Sylvia Longmire: Now I just have to go back and check out Melbourne and Brisbane and all sorts of other places. And I did take the train, actually, when I was in Sydney. I wanted to go out to the Olympic stadium and I took the train out there. It was very easy.

Kim: So since your diagnosis, in how many countries have you been to?

Sylvia Longmire: Total in my whole life 57-

Phil: Aye.

Sylvia Longmire: ... and in a wheelchair, I've been to 49. Out of those 49, I've been to 41 of them by myself.

Kim: Pretty impressive, but I also don't want to be patronizing.

Sylvia Longmire: No. I don't want to say that I'm a country collector or anything, but I got to take a look at it from the American perspective.

Sylvia Longmire: Just like you guys, we're a big country. I think it's hilarious how some people don't know how big Australia is and they think that they can go from Sydney to Uluru on like a day trip.

Phil: Yeah, right.

Kim: Really? Good luck.

Sylvia Longmire: You know, we're roughly the same size as you guys.

Sylvia Longmire: A lot of people in the Midwest that either don't have the money or it's just too expensive, you have to fly everywhere and we don't have a good rail system. So you have people who are living, especially in the Midwest, who've never left their home state because it's just too expensive and it's too far. They've never seen the beach, they've never seen the ocean in person.

Sylvia Longmire: So given, at least from the American perspective and where we put a priority on travel, and if you've got kids, it's really expensive. So, yeah, if you've been to at least even over 10 or 15 countries for an American, that can be impressive just because of the challenge we have to travel.

Sylvia Longmire: Now, if I were living in Europe, people wouldn't bat an eye because you can visit seven countries in a day, just taking the train. So a lot of it has to do with geography.

Kim: Well, we spoke earlier or late last year, sorry, to actor, travel writer and director Andrew McCarthy. He said 40% of Americans have passports, but only half of them have ever used it.

Sylvia Longmire: Yeah, and it's a shame. But, again, a lot of people are scared of foreign travel. Americans, culturally speaking, are a little more insular, I believe, than, let's say, Europeans.

Sylvia Longmire: Again, that's not to condescend or talk down. Again, it's just because we're not so easily exposed to foreign countries and cultures. Because we've got Canada to the North, which is kind of like United States light, there are so many similarities and culture and such and then we've got Mexico to the South, but that's it. We don't really have any more exposure than that.

Phil: But you have made another leap as well, in a way, by becoming a travel agent. How did that come about?

Sylvia Longmire: It wasn't my idea. Like most amazing things that have happened in my life, somebody else just kind of gave me the idea. Fortunately, I was able to kind of grab onto that idea and turn it into a really good opportunity.

Sylvia Longmire: I was at my first travel writer, travel blogger conference in Huntsville, Alabama and this was almost three years ago. I was sitting around talking with some old friends and new friends and we were talking about accessible travel writing and what I did.

Sylvia Longmire: Another travel blogger, who is now a good friend of mine, a fellow travel blogger, Jennifer Reese, and she's like, "Oh, have you ever thought about becoming a travel agent?" I looked at her, I was like, "No, but I will look into that."

Sylvia Longmire: So having started several businesses already on my own, yeah, I did the research and found out what I need to train and what do I need to do to start the business, what do I need for insurance, for license and all this and this. I did the homework and I said, "All right, let's get started," and I found a training course.

Sylvia Longmire: Knowing the geography and knowing the nuts and bolts of travel from personal experience is one thing. But you still have to know the lingo, you've got to know the business and now that you're trying to make dreams come true for other people, but you kind of become responsible for their happiness when it comes to travel.

Sylvia Longmire: That's a big responsibility to shoulder and you have to be there if something goes wrong. You want to make sure that you understand what their needs are and ask the right questions so that they can be comfortable and safe. Because arranging a honeymoon for two young and healthy and fit people is a totally different story from arranging a birthday cruise for somebody who's a quadriplegic or needs oxygen or needs other mobility equipment to make sure that they're safe.

Sylvia Longmire: But I was down for the challenge and it's been really amazing. It's been over two years now that I've had my own agency and I love working with my clients. When they come home and seeing that they had a good time, it's a really, really rewarding experience.

Phil: Yeah. Look, it must be super complicated organizing accessible holidays for people. It must get really, really complicated.

Sylvia Longmire: It is simply because everybody's needs are totally different.

Sylvia Longmire: It's not that much of a stretch because everybody likes to vacation differently. Everyone has different tastes. You have some folks who are really laid back. As long as they have a bed in a bathroom, they're totally okay. And you have other folks that have very discerning tastes and like something a little more luxurious or want to make sure they're on a certain floor or a certain side of the building. I would say that just that the needs are unique.

Phil: Are providers getting better at it?

Sylvia Longmire: Slowly. I love to cruise, it's my favorite way to travel. I'm noticing that the cruise lines are advancing a little more quickly than other parts of the travel and tourism sector.

Sylvia Longmire: Hotels are the second most infuriating because, at least in the United States, we have laws. We have the American with Disabilities Act that have certain requirements for grab bars and the way that showers, where the seating has to be and you have to be able to reach the shower controls and the doorways have to be so wide. But if something is not regulated by the law or dictated by the law, then the hotels generally don't go out of their way or go above and beyond to make that happen.

Sylvia Longmire: For instance, furniture is not part of the law, so they don't bother to pay a wheelchair user to go through their property and tell them, "Oh, by the way, this wheelchair user can't reach the window to close the blinds because you put a huge heavy couch in the way." Or I can't reach the light switch or the temperature control. I can't get around the bed because there's no space.

Sylvia Longmire: None of that is dictated by the law. So even though a hotel says it's ADA-compliant or accessible, I would say that 50%, if not more, between 50 to 70% of the time, I can easily find a violation of accessibility laws in hotel rooms across the country.

Sylvia Longmire: And then I don't even want to talk about airlines because we don't have that much time for me to get into a rant about airlines and wheelchair damage.

Kim: When you say the word violation, it made me shudder, just knowing that you're a special agent.

Phil: [inaudible 00:15:43].

Kim: So to pass on your knowledge, that means you have to keep traveling. What are your plans? What are your next destinations?

Sylvia Longmire: Well, I'm saving some money because I'm taking my children on a couple of big trips next summer. My kids are now 11 and nine. We went on five trips this past summer and they're just amazing to travel with.

Phil: Hey, that's a pretty awesome wheelchair I've seen some photos of you.

Sylvia Longmire: Yeah, I've had it for a little over a year. I was actually a brand ambassador for the company for a couple of months and I regularly torture and put that chair through the wringer. It's a sturdy, strong, loyal little chair.

Sylvia Longmire: It wasn't cheap, but I did my research. I need to know that I can rely on my chair, especially traveling solo for safety reasons. I need to make sure that the battery's going to last and it's not going to die out on me, that I'm not going to have pieces that are falling off or flying out. My chair is my lifeline. It's my legs and I need it to get me through that destination.

Phil: I'm just imagining the salesperson that you're [inaudible 00:16:49].

Kim: That is Sylvia Longmire and we will have links to Spin The Globe and Spin The Globe Travel and more on Sylvia, including her work as America's foremost subject matter expert on Mexico's drug war and border security issues-

Phil: I mean, I could have talked about that forever.

Kim: ... I know, right, in the show notes.

Phil: Look, you can get both our Amazing Nomads episodes and our destination episodes wherever you get your favorite pods. And please do reach out to us with your experiences of travel at [email protected]

Kim: Next week, we're traveling to Bulgaria.

Phil: Oh. Bye.

Kim: Bye.

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