Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Bahamas 2012, #9: Final Thoughts

I’ve received a lot of questions from readers, so I’ll format this final vacation post as a Q and A:

Mitch, would you go this same vacation again?

It depends. If I maintain my current level of functionality, which is unlikely, then I might consider returning to Sandals Royal Bahamian in the future. I can't recommend this resort to other handicapped people, but because I spent time there I would know exactly what I was getting myself into.

Christina, our liaison in the guest services department at Sandals, recommends three other resorts that have more legitimate wheelchair accessibility. I can't personally vouch for these resorts, but if I ever again consider an all-inclusive Caribbean vacation, I'll research them:
Mitch, are you really as sexy as you appear in these photos?

Yes, yes I am. Although Kim has let herself go a little bit at her advanced age, I, on the other hand, maintain my perfect physique despite the fact that I get absolutely no exercise, at all, ever. Kim is a very lucky girl.

Mitch, should I go on vacation to Sandals Royal Bahamian?

If you are a healthy person who likes some excitement, but places a higher value on luxury, food, drink, relaxation, and scenery then I think you would be very happy at Sandals.

If you're a healthy person who likes big crowds; shiny, new buildings; wet T-shirt contests; or big name entertainment; then you might try some other type of vacation, like Vegas.

If you are a disabled person you need to carefully determine what your needs are and whether they will be met. Work all these details out with Sandals or any other resort before you book your vacation. Ask for pictures of the room, including the bathroom. Ask for guarantees in writing. Even then, when you travel remain flexible and try not to allow setbacks to ruin your vacation. If, in order to have an enjoyable vacation, you need everything to work perfectly then you are almost certainly going to be disappointed.

Mitch, are you really as humble and self-effacing as you seem in your blog posts?

Yes. In fact, I wrote the book on humble. And when you look up self-effacing on Wikipedia there is a picture of me. Does that answer your question?

Mitch, what is it like to go on a vacation in your iBot?

My iBot draws a lot of attention in my own community, but it seems to attract even more attention when I'm on vacation. I'm an introvert by nature, so the iBot becomes my own personal icebreaker. At long last, I’ve become the cool kid at the party. The iBot acts as my social lubricant, kind of the equivalent to having a couple of drinks under my belt.

Because I am generally upbeat, positive, and appear to be having fun on my iBot vacations, I think I’ve become a half decent ambassador for the disabled cause. I elaborated on this observation in a previous post.

As you may or may not know, the iBot is no longer being manufactured or sold, and in essence has less than two years life left in it. On January 1, 2014, service and parts replacement for the iBot will no longer be available. Although the iBot is relatively low maintenance, it is such a complex machine that most iBots will wind up on the scrap heap within the first year after support is discontinued.

If you'd like to know what you can do to help resurrect the iBot, click here.

Mitch, is there anyone you'd like to thank for this vacation?

Where do I begin?

First, I'd like to thank the readers of this blog for allowing me to share my story with you. I'm still amazed that so many people take an interest in what I write.

I’d also like to thank Jeannie at Snail's Pace Travel for all her hard work in putting together this vacation for us. Jeannie specializes in cruises for disabled people, but is now trying to branch out into resort vacations for disabled people as well. Jeannie is a hard worker, very responsive, and really knows the travel business.

I'd like to thank the local staff and management at Sandals Royal Bahamian for their outstanding customer service. It's not their fault that the room was poorly designed in terms of accessibility, but they did everything in their power to make up for this shortcoming. I've never experienced a quality of customer service better than what I did at Sandals during this vacation.

I’m thankful that my parents were so hard-working and thrifty as to have built a modest nest egg to leave for my brothers and me. Without that inheritance, we probably would've been governed by our genetic predisposition toward frugality and not parted with the money for such a lavish vacation.

I’d like to thank my brothers, Tom and Andy, and their wives Diane and Karen, for assisting me throughout the week, and for being patient as we navigated so many accessibility issues together. But most importantly, I thank them for being such wonderful travel companions and for helping Kim and I have a memorable experience.

Most of all I need to thank Kim. She worked her butt off all day, every day helping to keep me afloat in so many ways. But she managed to remain energetic and positive all week long, and this great attitude only enhanced everyone's enjoyment of the vacation, especially mine. I joke around a lot about Kim, but I am the luckiest guy in the world to have her.

Thanks for such an enjoyable vacation, Kim. Heck, thanks for such a wonderful life.

Click for previous post: Bahamas 2012, #8: Getting Home

Monday, March 26, 2012

Bahamas 2012, #8: Getting Home

2011 08 050All good things must come to an end. I had thoroughly enjoyed this vacation. Yet, the thought of returning to my handicapped accessible home and resuming my pathetic little life had its appeal.

The flight from the Bahamas to Baltimore was uneventful. As we were waiting for our plane to depart from Baltimore to Portland, there was a slight delay. Eventually the gate agent announced, "Sturgeon, party of two, please come to the podium." The assumption was, since I'm a special traveler, that they were looking for Kim and me. But no, it was Andy and Karen who had hit the jackpot. The gate agent informed them that they were being upgraded to first class. We asked why, and he just smiled and didn't really give an answer. More on that later…

Andy then thought to ask the agent, "Can you also upgrade Mitch and Kim?" He tapped a few keys and announced that he could indeed do that. It was our lucky day too. Bring on the comfortable seats, expanded snack selection, and free drinks.

But wait. Whenever you're preparing to board a plane in a power wheelchair they always ask about the batteries. I've flown with the iBot many times, and it has always sufficed for me to describe the batteries as "internal, dry cell type, that cannot be removed." This was unacceptable, however, for one of the airline employees near the gate in Baltimore. We overheard him talking on the phone with his manager and discussing whether they were going to allow me to get on the plane or not.

batswitch22Afterward, the agent came over and declared that he needed to see a positive disconnection of the battery. I compared my iBot battery to a cell phone battery. "There are no wires to disconnect," I reiterated, with dwindling patience.

I reminded him that I would be removing my joystick controller, and that the wheelchair could not operate without it. He asked, "Would you consider the controller to be a positive disconnection of the battery?" As an engineer and a decent human being, I was tempted to explain to him that because the power feed did not run through the controller it was not technically a positive disconnection, but mama didn't raise no dummy. I responded with authority, "Yes, that is a positive disconnection of the battery." I gave him what he needed, and I was cleared to board.

But the gate delays and general confusion continued for a while longer, with employees briskly walking up and down the jetway and speaking with invisible bosses on radios and cell phones. I was no longer the problem, but what was? Eventually, we were allowed to board. I learned that being in the front row of first-class is by far the easiest possible transfer. That's the ticket, if I can only afford it.

The four of us felt at home in first class, as if this were the only way we ever flew. Of course we fulfilled the obligation of our heightened social status by conveying an air of superiority toward the proletariat, as they shuffled by us on their dreary march to the back of the plane. How sad to be them.

Eventually, we solved the mystery of why we were in first class at all. Kim overheard the flight attendants talking about how a strange odor had been detected on the plane in Baltimore, and how this was apparently the cause of all of our delays there. Undoubtedly, said odor had been emanating from the seats that Andy and Karen were originally assigned to, hence the upgrade to first class. From where we were now sitting on this flight, however, everything smelled like roses.

Only one more strange thing happened. When we pulled up to the gate in Portland, with me already at the very front of the plane, the flight attendant asked, "The aisle chair is here already. Do you want to get off first?" I appreciated the gesture, but this was just a very odd invitation.

1264126360lqWL47I always allow everyone to get off the plane before I do, not only because I have to wait for the aisle chair, but also because I don't want to have 100+ people held up while I execute my elaborate transfers. Because it takes so long for my iBot to be brought up from the luggage compartment, even if I were to get off the plane first I would only sit in the jetway while everyone has to walk around me.

So that was an easy question to answer. “No thank you. I'll wait."

After getting off the plane and transferring to the iBot, we went downstairs and picked up our luggage and my spare wheelchair. Andy retrieved the van from the parking garage and met us outside of baggage claim. We drove home just before midnight in a mixture of light rain and snow. Welcome home, indeed.

In my next post, I’ll give my final thoughts on this great adventure.

Click for next post: Bahamas 2012, #9: Final Thoughts

Click for previous post: Bahamas 2012, #7: Taking the iBot to the Bahamas

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Bahamas 2012, #7: Taking the iBot to the Bahamas

I put together a short video showing how the iBot performed in the Bahamas. Check back in the coming days for my last two posts about our wonderful vacation. Enjoy.

Click for next post: Bahamas 2012, #8: Getting Home

Click for previous post: Bahamas 2012, #6: More Stuff We Did

Here are my other iBot videos:

Taking the iBot to the Beach

Taking the iBot to Two Lights State Park

Taking the iBot to Bar Harbor

Taking the iBot to Bug Light

Taking the iBot to Crotched Mountain

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Bahamas 2012, #6: More Stuff We Did

Activity #3: Visiting Paradise Island

The huge, mega-resort in the Bahamas is called Atlantis. It dominates an island just off Nassau called Paradise Island. For a variety of reasons we avoided vacationing there, not the least of which was the fact that Atlantis allows grubby little kids, whereas Sandals doesn't. What did we have against other peoples’ snot-nosed brats, these irrational and whiney reminders of our fading youth and imminent descent into obsolescence and irrelevance? Kim, Diane, and Karen are all teachers of one sort or another, and this was their winter break. ’Nuff said?

But, since Atlantis was only about 5 miles away from us, we wanted to spend a few hours taking in this spectacle with our own eyes.

After arriving at Paradise Island, we decided to do a little shopping just outside Atlantis. We were able to negotiate with the local vendors, something that is rare in the United States, and we picked up some nice items. As we strolled (and rolled) from the market to the entrance of Atlantis, we were struck by the opulence of the private yachts lined up at the dock. The picture below is just one example.

Once inside Atlantis, Kim and I looked forward to simply wandering around and seeing everything. We were reminded of the mammoth casino/hotels that we love exploring in Las Vegas. Disappointment struck early, however, when we were not allowed to peruse the beach or other outdoor venues without first buying a ridiculously expensive day pass. So we sat down at the video poker machines and blackjack tables to make Atlantis pay the price for their inhospitable ways. We lost $180.

My brother Tom had never played blackjack, so Andy and I coached him on all the right moves to make at the table. Tom blew through his gambling budget in about 30 minutes. A few years ago I also advised him to sell all of his Apple stock. “That company is on its last legs," I assured him.

The three hours we spent on Paradise Island were enjoyable, but served to validate our decision to have stayed at Sandals instead of this very busy, very crowded, mega-resort.

Accommodations or adjustments for me:

So how did I get from Sandals to Atlantis in my wheelchair? I checked with the same transportation company that had brought us to our resort from the airport. I asked how much it would cost me to be transported from Sandals to Atlantis and then back again 4 hours later. They said the price would be $100 per hour. Ouch. A round-trip taxi ride, 5 miles each way, for $400? No thank you.

I jumped on the internet (yes we had internet access in our room) and did some research. I found a company that quoted me a price of $72 each way. This was still outrageous, but everything is relative, and we split the $144 cost among the three couples. Having suffered through unreliable wheelchair taxi service in the Caribbean a couple of years earlier, I was nervous about this unknown company. But, as it turned out, I didn't need to be. They showed up on time. The van was in good shape, and the driver was a delight.

Activity #4: Entertainment at Sandals

The nightlife at Sandals would have disappointed most twenty-something party animals, but it worked well for us. There was a piano bar, and we visited there most nights. When a particularly talented player was tickling the ivory, and a large group of fun patrons were singing along, it was a blast. When the pianist/singer was not as dynamic, and the back-up singing crowd was sparse, it was a little more like karaoke night (the fewer the voices the more you can hear the bad ones).

There was a deck near the beach with fire pits and a bar. On most evenings a solo musician played live music for a couple of hours, outside. It was very relaxing and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. One night there was even a chocolate lover’s buffet. I'm proud of the restraint I showed. I devoured mass quantities of luscious chocolate, but stopped short of actually making myself physically ill. I consider that a significant accomplishment, given the temptation (and my past history in similar situations).

There was also a theater that staged a couple of song and dance productions during the week. These shows were not as grand as those on our 4500-passenger cruise ship two years earlier, yet they were charming and well done, and we’re glad we attended.

Another bar that we spent a lot of time at was called Cricketers Pub. It was centrally located, and became our default meeting place during the week. It was a fun, upbeat, Irish pub, which stayed open until 7 am. Below is a shot of Kim and I on their patio.

Accommodations or adjustments for me:

I could access all the bars and restaurants, but sometimes I had to use ramps that were situated in obscure locations. Sandals Royal Bahamian is an older resort (but well maintained and updated), and you can tell that none of the ramps were part of the original design, but were added later. The access to the piano bar was a particularly roundabout one. We had to go all the way to the entrance of the resort, follow a balcony around to the piano bar, move a construction barrier, and slide in the back door. We became adept at that maneuver.

Because I'm in a power wheelchair, steep ramps are not a problem for me. I'm sure many of these ramps did not meet ADA guidelines, however, and would have been difficult for a manual wheelchair user to ascend.

The public bathrooms around the resort were inconsistent. But I soon learned which ones were accessible and which ones were not. That's also how I work it at home. Many of the old buildings in Portland, Maine, which house the most appealing bars and restaurants, don't have accessible bathrooms. But, I always know where the nearest one is.

Don't worry; my goal is not to make a career out of writing about this vacation. I'll be wrapping it up in the next couple of posts, and then I'll return to my usual blend of mind-numbing, self-pitying, self-aggrandizing blather that you so adore.

Click for next post: Bahamas 2012, #7: Taking the iBot to the Bahamas

Click for previous post: Bahamas 2012, #5: Stuff We Did

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Bahamas 2012, #5: Stuff We Did

2012 02 381So, what did we do for four full days and two half-days in the Bahamas? First, let me explain what we didn't do, which is at least as important.

We didn't do responsibilities, kids, pets, coupon clipping, snow shoveling, stress, guilt, diets, television, rainy days, doctors, lawyers, CEO’s (except that one we met in the Jacuzzi), grocery shopping, vacuuming, arguments, politics, stock markets, mortgages, bills, dentists (other than the one we met from Detroit), driving, changing printer cartridges, or blogging (a new Enjoying the Ride post came out on that Wednesday, but it was pre-loaded).

We didn't worry about death or taxes. We didn't vote (except on when to eat dinner), and we didn't attend any board meetings, workshops, or fundraisers. We barely used our credit cards or wallets, as this was an all-inclusive resort. We didn’t tip the wait staff, bartenders, room cleaners, or empty glass picker-uppers, not because their service was poor, but because this was a non-tipping resort. Perhaps most telling was that we didn't spend time engaged in that favorite activity of snowbound northerners- daydreaming that we are lying around on a tropical island somewhere.

Now, for a little bit about what we did do.

Activity #1: Eating, eating, and then eating some more

Our days revolved around food. There weren't a lot of snacks, but there didn't need to be, because the meals were so satisfying.

2012 02 660Let's start with breakfast. There were a couple of sitdown options with white tablecloths, and one impressive buffet. We generally didn't plan to meet for breakfast, although we sometimes bumped into one another. Over the five breakfasts, we had two sit downs and three buffets. I must have pushed the limits of how much bacon can be safely consumed in one week.

There were several sitdown lunch options, and the same buffet restaurant put together a very nice noontime spread. I think we did two sit downs and three buffets.

There was an open hearth pizzeria near the pool, which supplied any kind of pizza by the pie or by the slice. I don't remember how many slices I consumed. But, in my curious system of food accounting that week, I never considered those slices to offset any part of breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

There were three dinner restaurants that required reservations, and several others that did not. We enjoyed an authentic Italian restaurant one evening. They had an extensive antipasto salad bar and a variety of outstanding entrées. The wine flowed easily. One night we ate at a high-end French restaurant, which was très magnifique. On our last night at the resort we experienced a Japanese hibachi steakhouse and were thoroughly entertained by our personal chef.

The culinary highlight of the week was our comped dinner at Gordon's on the Pier, the exclusive $140 per couple restaurant. We asked for a wine list and noticed that there were prices beside the selections. Damn. I asked the waiter, a tall, and I suppose handsome, Bahamian named Shannon, if the wine wasn't complementary. He indicated that the house wines were included. These were just the special wines. Whew, close call. We ordered a complimentary bottle of champagne and then some house wine. After nibbling on bread we moved on to salads, appetizers, entrées (the most popular of which was filet mignon and lobster tail), and finally desserts. One member of our party, who shall remain nameless, even planted not one, but two kisses on the cheek of our waiter, Shannon. We all left a little drunk and very satisfied, some more than others (coughahemKarencough). Sorry, I was just clearing my throat.

Overall, I would rate the food at this resort as excellent. To Sandals credit, the wait staff was absolutely top notch. And you know, as good as the food and service was, one of the best things about dining at an all-inclusive resort is that as soon as we were finished with our meals we didn't have to wait for the check, figure out how to split the bill among three couples, calculate a tip, and then wait some more for our credit cards to be run. We could simply get up and leave. If I were to start a restaurant somewhere, I would do what I could to streamline that entire process.

Accommodations or adjustments for me:

There were not many accommodations necessary for my dining. Most of the restaurants were very accessible. There was one outdoor lunch spot that required me to negotiate three steps. We dined there twice, and just used the stairclimbing mode in the iBot to get into the restaurant. Gordon's on the Pier did not have a bathroom, and the nearest bathroom was not wheelchair accessible, so I avoided emptying my bladder even after consuming several glasses of wine. That was a little uncomfortable, but I managed.

Activity #2: Lounging around and doing nothing
2012 02 338
This is an activity at which I excel.

We sat by the pool or the beach, read books (my Kindle was loaded with 3 new titles), talked, met new people, sipped on tropical concoctions (often comparing them to one another, "here, try this"), relaxed on our private patio, floated on mats in the pool, reached consensus on plans for the evening, debated about whether we were going to have our next cocktail here or over there, and listened to live music. I must confess that we also admired the beautiful people walking by without having our gazes detected due to our dark sunglasses. Is that creepy or just honest?

We met a large group of people from Minnesota who were there for a wedding. They were very friendly folks, and had the strongest accents, right out of the movie Fargo. Kim, who is not as adept at relaxing as the rest of us are, would occasionally venture over and play beach volleyball with the Minnesotans and other guests and staff.

Accommodations or adjustments for me:

There was no way for me to get in the pool, but that was okay. It's been a few years, and I was never a water lover anyway.

I didn't consume very much alcohol, because drinking is a double loser for me. First, it makes me have to pee, and peeing takes time and effort. Second, alcohol makes me weak, and I'm already weak when I wake up in the morning because of MS. But I still had a couple of drinks here and there, and it felt good.

As a person with MS, my body is sensitive to heat, so I endeavored to stay in the shade. There were plenty of large umbrellas. I just had to adjust my position every half hour or so to follow the shade as the sun cut across the sky. When that became problematic, one of my brothers would wrestle with the large, heavy umbrella stands, and reposition them for me.

I didn’t play beach volleyball. I felt that I would have had an unfair advantage with my iBot.

Click for next post: Bahamas 2012, #6: More Stuff We Did

Click for previous post: Bahamas 2012, #4: Settling in at Sandals

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Bahamas 2012, #4: Settling in at Sandals

2012 02 210The luxury treatment continued. After the champagne and lemon scented towels at the entrance, the porters grabbed our bags and someone else led us to the check-in desk, where more champagne, and cookies, awaited.

After check-in, we were led to our rooms. I held my breath as we opened the door. I’ve been stuck with a lot of crappy handicapped accessible rooms in the past (mostly in greater New York City), rooms that I didn't even have space to turn around in. My initial reaction was one of relief. The room was spacious and welcoming: flat screen TV, four poster bed, stocked bar (complimentary). There was a sliding glass door to the ground level, private patio. Nice.

2012 02 212Then we looked in the bathroom. Damn.

The sink was designed so that I couldn't pull under it in my wheelchair. The toilet was very low (disabled folks like high toilets). There were no grab bars to assist with transferring to the toilet at all. The bathtub/shower was an oval shaped garden style, very tall on the outside and very deep on the inside. The only grab bar in the shower was at the far end such that I couldn't even reach it. Per my request at the time of booking, they had provided a shower seat.

We studied the situation, scratched our heads, and couldn't come up with a shower transfer strategy that didn’t involve a high risk of me falling and getting hurt, and getting hurt was not on any of my vacation to-do lists.

2012 02 226I visited the front desk and asked to speak with a manager. As was the case during our entire stay, everyone was very pleasant and appeared to be genuinely interested in solving our problem. The poor room design was not their fault. We were asked to make due with our room for the night, and in the morning, after everyone had checked-in the previous evening, we would be able to see what other rooms were available.

Since I hadn't showered yet that day, having woken up at 3:00 on a Sunday morning to catch our early flight, I wanted to shower before dinner. I pulled out my slide rule (not really) and we came up with a plan. I would lean my head over into the tub such that Kim could give me a shampoo. I would then sit on the shower seat, outside the shower, and Kim could give me the equivalent of a sponge bath. It wasn’t ideal, but we managed. In the process, I discovered that I very much like sponge baths. I informed Kim that this was how I would be cleaned henceforth, even when we returned to our accessible home. I can't repeat what she told me.

The next morning we met a member of the hospitality management team, Christina, who would become our personal concierge, of sorts, for the rest of the week. Christina admitted that the resort was woefully negligent in providing real handicapped accessible rooms. She wanted to show us a smaller room that had a traditional bathtub/shower. I had earlier indicated that I could probably manage getting into and out of a traditional bathtub with a shower chair in it.

When we entered the alternate hotel room we noticed that it was definitely smaller, although manageable. But alas, the entrance to the bathroom was too narrow for me to even get the iBot in. It was the only room that she knew of that might be better than what we already had. We were disappointed, and headed back to our hotel room, resigned to making it work somehow.

2012 02 870Later that day, Monday, we bumped into Christina again and she introduced us to her boss, Angella. Angella also apologized for the shortcomings of the room, and told me about how she wanted to compensate us. In this all-inclusive resort not everything was included. The most high-end restaurant sat at the end of a pier and cost $140 per couple to dine. Angella let us know that she had made reservations for the six of us on Thursday night at 8:00, on the house, a $420 value. She also indicated that she would give us a couple of complimentary night’s stay.

Just to be clear, we didn't go into this adventure confident that the accommodations would be completely accessible, and our enjoyment of the vacation was not contingent upon that. Granted, the bathroom was a huge disappointment.  But, due to our creativity, a good attitude on the part of both us and the local management, and a great team by my side, we didn't allow these issues to negatively impact our enjoyment of the vacation.

So, how many sponge baths have I received since returning home? What do you think?

Click for next post: Bahamas 2012, #5: Stuff We Did

Click for previous post: Bahamas 2012, #3: Still Getting There

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Bahamas 2012, #3: Still Getting There

2012 02 925It’s a lot of work to get to Paradise, but we kept making progress…

The boarding of our Baltimore to Nassau flight went well, and 2 1/2 hours later we landed in the sunny Bahamas. In Nassau, the transfer from airline seat to the aisle chair went okay. We were then informed that my iBot would not be brought up to the mouth of the plane because it weighed 290 pounds, and there was no elevator. No elevator? I had to remember, I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. So, in the jetway I transferred from the aisle chair to an ugly manual wheelchair, and an airport employee pushed me the long, long way to customs, and then to baggage claim, all with no air conditioning.

When we arrived at baggage claim we handed the exhausted wheelchair pusher some greenbacks and he disappeared. It took us a few, unsettling minutes to find both of my wheelchairs (my babies). I transferred from the manual wheelchair to the iBot, and Kim and Andy began to reassemble my spare wheelchair, including reinstalling the batteries. I asked an employee where the nearest bathroom was and he pointed me to one nearby. I hadn’t emptied my bladder in hours. I went inside the bathroom and found that none of the stalls were wheelchair accessible. I was disappointed but not surprised. The ADA is not an international standard, after all.

I returned to the baggage claim area and saw that my team was making good progress, so I decided to seek out the Sandals desk where we were supposed to check-in for our ride to the resort. I found them, gave them our names, and then asked if there was a bathroom nearby. They pointed me in the general direction of a small food court. I cautiously entered the bathroom and was relieved, literally, when I found a wheelchair accessible stall.

All that remained was a 15 minute ride to the resort. Simple enough, right?

When I was evaluating resorts several months ago, I liked how Sandals provides complementary transportation from the airport. I wondered if that would include wheelchair transportation, and I was informed that it would. Then, later, Sandals told me they had made an error and that I would need to contract a private transportation service, and that fee would be $150 each way. I, of course, did not stand for this and reminded Sandals that I had chosen them in part because their package included transportation from the airport. They eventually agreed, but you can appreciate why I might've been a little nervous about the ride that I was about to embark on. As it turned out, I was right to be nervous, but for a different reason.

2012 02 115A very large and kind gentleman named Bubba led us out to the wheelchair van. The lift was already lowered for me, and I drove my iBot on. Bubba picked up the control panel for the lift and pushed the UP button. Nothing happened. For the next five or ten minutes several employees of the transportation company crawled all over the lift trying to figure out why it would not work. Finally, Bubba pulled out a tire iron, inserted it into the lift’s gearbox inside the van, and started manually raising the lift like you would raise a car to change a tire. As I said before, Bubba was a very big man, so I was up and into the van in no time at all. We then disassembled the spare wheelchair into as many pieces as we could, and the employees lifted those pieces into the van. There. It looked like we were finally on our way to the resort. Not so fast.

The driver, who was not Bubba, put the van in gear and pressed his foot on the accelerator. Nothing happened. The driver, and all of us for that matter, made the false assumption that whatever had caused the lift to not operate was also causing the van to not operate. Classic troubleshooting error.

After crawling all over the lift mechanism again, the driver stepped outside of the van and called someone smarter than him. My dear wife, Kim, had been patient all day. She had endured all of our challenges with grace and calm. But this one put her over the top. She looked back at the three of us, me, Andy, and Karen, and let fly some observations, expectations, and ultimatums, all wrapped up in colorful language uncharacteristic of such a lovely lady. Luckily, we were out of earshot of the driver at that moment.

After ending his cell call, the driver sat down in his seat, disengaged the parking brake, and drove us away. The freaking parking break! We all laughed at ourselves and donned smiles that rarely left our faces for the next six days.

The only other odd thing about the trip from Portland, Maine to the Sandals resort was that as soon as we pulled into traffic in Nassau I noticed we were driving on the wrong side of the road. As it turned out, everybody on the island was making the same mistake the very same moment, so no harm done.

2012 02 140When we finally arrived at Sandals, the lift decided to work, and I was lowered to the ground where we were all greeted with chilled champagne and cool, wet face towels with a lemony scent. Here is a picture of Kim applying said towel to my face. That’s Bubba with his back to me. He had followed us all the way over just to make sure everything went well. His level of personal customer service was the rule, not the exception, during our stay in the Bahamas.

What a long day, but worth it!

Click for next post: Bahamas 2012, #4: Settling in at Sandals

Click for previous post: Bahamas 2012, #2: Getting There
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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Bahamas 2012, #2: Getting There

I think that there are at least three people living inside of us at all times. There is an anticipating self, imagining the future. There is a remembering self, recalling the past. And of course there is an experiencing self, taking pleasure in, or sometimes merely enduring, the present.

Regarding our recently completed Caribbean vacation, the handoff from anticipating self to experiencing self was announced promptly at 3:00 am on February 19th, by Kim's shrill alarm clock. Our goal was to get to the ticket counter when it opened at 4:30, for our 6:00 flight. The checklists were checked, the bags packed.

We spent a lot of time at the ticket counter in Portland jumping through hoops to get all of our stuff properly accounted for. Because I had so much disability related equipment in tow, we needed to check three bags instead of only two. I was able to negotiate, without much difficulty, that my iBot, my backup wheelchair, and my third bag would fly for free. The iBot is a wonderful device, but its Achilles' heel is its poor battery management, hence the backup chair so that I'm not a slave to the bars on the iBot battery strength indicator.

My brother Andy and his wife Karen were flying with us on AirTran, which was a tremendous help. My brother Tom and his wife Diane were flying USAir because, this being school vacation week in Maine, we couldn't find a block of six affordable tickets on a single airline.

After we had conquered the ticket counter we marched onward to security. Andy, Karen, and Kim passed through their screenings within minutes. Since I can't go through a metal detector in my wheelchair, I am routinely taken aside for a special pat down. Some disabled travelers are perturbed by this, but I'm not. I'm glad that our airlines are so thorough in this post 9/11 world (in retrospect, it would've been nice before 9/11 as well). They used a little wand with special fabric on the end, taking all sorts of swipes on my wheelchair and my shoes and my hands, and ran it through their magic bad stuff detection machine.

Something on my hands set off their machine, so I was taken, with my belongings, to an even more special room for an even more special screening by a higher ranking TSA agent. Throughout this process the agents were very polite and were simply following protocol. I never became frustrated with them, but I began to wonder if arriving only 90 minutes before my flight was cutting it too close. Eventually I was cleared to go, and rejoined my group, which I later found out had decided by a 2 - 1 vote to wait for me instead of making a run for it. Unidentified sources within the group quoted Kim as having plead, “Come on you guys. We’ll never have a better chance to ditch him."

By the time we got to the gate, they were ready to start pre-boarding the disadvantaged people, and me.

Each time I board or disembark a plane, there are at least two and sometimes three transfers involved. Each one presents its own challenges. When boarding this first plane in Portland, I positioned my iBot near the mouth of the plane at the end of the jetway. Then we initiated a set of highly orchestrated steps which we became more and more adept at accomplishing over the course of the week (4 flights, twice per flight).

imagesI powered down the iBot, and Kim started disconnecting the joystick controller module. We like to take that expensive and fragile item on the plane with us so it doesn't get damaged by those oh-so-careful baggage handlers. Then I removed the foot pedals so that they too would not be damaged in transit. I handed these off to my sister-in-law, Karen, and she carried them on the plane, placing them in the overhead bin. I then instructed the airport employee who was managing the aisle chair (a special, narrow, wheelchair that can fit down the aisle of an airplane) to place it alongside my iBot, as close as possible, facing in the same direction as my wheelchair.

Then, little by little, I slid off my iBot and on to the aisle chair. Andy moved my feet a few inches every time I moved my butt a few inches. Eventually, the transfer was complete. At that point Kim lowered the seat back on my iBot, putting it in what I fondly refer to as “armadillo mode,” and instructed the baggage handlers on how to set and release the parking brake. Then the iBot was whisked off into the luggage compartment of the plane.

2010 04 04If the gate agent is doing their job correctly, the rest of the passengers are waiting patiently in the terminal while I complete this delicate process. About 50% of the time, however, succumbing to the pressure to stay on schedule, the agent prematurely allows the healthy flyers to start down the jetway so that 20 or 30 people can observe my elaborate boarding dance. I know time is money, but that's not cool.

Next, I was strapped into the aisle chair with about five different seatbelts. Finally, I was backed into the airplane by an entourage of concerned relatives, airport employees, and airline staff. As we were squeezing down the narrow aisle in the aircraft, inevitably we would drift too far to one side or the other and have to go forward a little bit to reset. Throughout the process everyone had an opinion, including me, so I guess you could characterize this as "boarding by committee." Eventually I was pulled alongside my assigned seat and my seatbelt leviathan was slain, releasing me from its many-tentacled grip (okay, maybe that's a bit over dramatic).

Ideally, the armrest on an airline seat should rise up so that I can easily slide into it from the aisle chair. However, on these AirTran flights the armrests were not movable. That made things a little more interesting. I somehow lifted myself up onto the armrest with Kim steering me from the inside and Andy guiding from the aisle. An airport employee anchored the aisle chair, and several other folks tried to figure out, mostly unsuccessfully, how to help (these situations often pull forth the better parts of human nature). I then slid down off the armrest into the seat.

Note to self: moveable armrests used to be a nice-to-have for me, but because of my disease progression I will consider them a must-have going forward.

As soon as I was in my seat the airport employee with the aisle chair shuffled out of the plane so that the thundering horde of passengers could begin funneling in. During the flights themselves, you wouldn't know I was handicapped unless you recognized me from the gate area, or if perhaps you asked me to stand in the aisle so that you could get to your window seat.

When we arrived in Baltimore, we allowed everyone to exit the plane ahead of us, which is standard procedure. There's no hurry, since I usually have to wait for my wheelchair to be taken out of the baggage area of the plane and brought up to the jetway. In this case, although we were changing planes to fly to the Bahamas, this particular aircraft was continuing on to Fort Meyers, Florida, and so was my iBot! Eventually, we convinced them to pull the iBot out of the plane and bring it up to me, even though it was improperly tagged for the sunshine State.

It had been a year since I had flown, and I had grown weaker over that period. So, the first time I tried to get myself out of the airplane seat and into the aisle chair, it didn’t work. Our first idea was to have Kim lift on my left shoulder and Andy on my right shoulder. That didn't work, and I landed back in my airplane seat rather awkwardly, crying out briefly in pain and urgently instructing Kim and Andy to adjust my position. I was embarrassed, but recovered quickly (something I’ve become adept at).

I decided that I would have to figure out a way to rise up out of the seat by myself, which I eventually did. For me, these situations are like solving an engineering problem, something that I did every work day for 23 years. Sometimes I solve these equations satisfactorily; sometimes I don't. After crunching some numbers with my slide rule (not really) I was able to get up onto the armrest, have Andy move my feet out into the aisle, and then slide down to the aisle chair. After being properly strapped in, I was squeezed down the aisle and out to the jetway, where we reassembled my iBot, and I transferred into it.

2010 08 10bFrom the time I leave my iBot on a departing flight until I am reunited with it upon arrival, I feel somewhat helpless, completely at the mercy of others. But once I plant my butt back in the iBot I become a new person. At these moments my attitude is not all that different from my big-dog-in-a-little-body West Highland Terrier when I let her out first thing in the morning, full of piss and vinegar and ready to take on the world. I just don’t bark as much.

Click for next post: Bahamas 2012, #3 Still Getting There

Click for previous post: Bahamas 2012, #1 Deciding Where to Go

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Bahamas 2012, #1: Deciding Where to Go

I recently heard something on a Ted talk, which, although obvious, I hadn't given much thought to before. Your parents leave you too early in life. Your spouse and your own children join you later in life. It's only your siblings who might be with you for the entire ride, if you're so fortunate.

It only makes sense, therefore, that my two brothers and I, and our wives, after having lost both our mother and father within a three-year period, would take a portion of our modest inheritance to commune on a tropical beach this winter – just the six of us. The concept of using some of their nest egg for a sibling retreat is something that our parents would have endorsed wholeheartedly. Dad, however, would have preferred that we fish for salmon in a remote region of Alaska or go on an African safari, the kind with guns not just cameras. But we’re not stupid men. We knew better than to even suggest such trips to our wives.

Kim and I thoroughly enjoyed our cruise two years ago, but the group decided to investigate various Caribbean resort options this time. The only problem was that, although there is much information on the relative accessibility of various cruise ships and ports of call, there is disappointingly little information about the relative accessibility of Caribbean resorts. Both our disability travel agent and my favorite disability travel author told us about one Mexican resort that is designed specifically for wheelchair users, but it is a bit small, and one of my sisters-in-law vetoed the whole country of Mexico out of fear of their drug war, so that was out. Her opinion is somewhat justified (click here).

We all agreed that we wanted an adults-only resort, so we started zeroing in on the various Sandals options. Eventually we decided on the Sandals Royal Bahamian, near Nassau, Bahamas. They have one class of room that is considered handicapped accessible, so we booked that room for five nights, and my brothers booked their non-accessible rooms at the same resort.

I'll be sharing these travel experiences with you in the next few posts, not because I want to make you jealous, but for the following reasons. If you are a healthy person, you might never have been aware of the difficulties associated with disabled travel. This will be eye opening for you. If you are disabled person who is hesitant to travel, you may benefit from hearing how we met our various challenges. This will embolden you (or scare the crap out of you). If you are a seasoned disabled traveler, you might get a few chuckles out of recognizing situations that you, yourself have faced. This will be validating for you.

Here's the bottom line. To a person, we had the time of our lives, and I’d recommend this vacation to any healthy couples. I’d like to do this again in the future, but unless Sandals makes some changes, it will not be at this particular resort. There were just too many accessibility shortcomings.

Did I mention that we didn’t see a drop of rain in 6 days? Jealous?

Click for next post: Bahamas 2012, #2: Getting There