Monday, March 4, 2013

Jamaica 2013, #1: Hello Paradise

Vacations come at a relatively high price for disabled people. I’m not referring only to dollars and cents. We also must deal with the considerable effort and even risk involved in leaving our safe havens and modifying the routines that we have so carefully crafted to get through each day.

Despite the challenges, we decided to vacation again. My brother Andy and his wife Karen were not able to join us this year, as they did in the Bahamas last year, but my brother Tom and his wife Diane were on board once more.

When we landed in Jamaica (more about the flights in a later post) I was placed in an airport wheelchair, and an employee pushed me through customs to the baggage claim area. Fortunately, we found all of our luggage and both of my wheelchairs, undamaged. My greatest vacation worries were behind me- a snowstorm would derail our flights or my iBot wheelchair would end up in Albuquerque instead of Jamaica.

I only needed to transfer from the clunky, old airport wheelchair to my iBot, and we would be ready to roll. I planned to hoist myself up ever so briefly (all the while holding onto something with each hand) before doing a 180° pivot, which was fairly standard stuff for me. However, I felt a sharp pain in my left ankle when I put any weight on it. This sort of thing happens once in a while, and I have no explanation. I tried three times to stand up, but on each occasion I plopped back into the airport wheelchair. My strategy was to be patient, rest between tries, and just keep at it until I succeeded. The airport employee who had been assisting me had another plan.

She said, “Look, you are a good man. Now just stand up and move your butt into that chair. We’ll all grab on and help you. Ready, 1, 2, 3…”

I guess I just needed that pep talk (plus the assistance), because I stood up and, with six or seven helping hands grabbing me from my waste to my elbows, I finally completed the transfer. If that maneuver had somehow failed, I would’ve considered what she said to have been rude, pushy, and insensitive. But because she was proven correct, it felt more like tough, Jamaican love. Ya Mon.

It was empowering to find myself in the iBot, once again in control of my personal mobility after a long day of total dependence on others. I felt a little frisky, for lack of a better term, and scratched that itch by immediately elevating to balance mode and doing things nobody else can do in a wheelchair, in front of people who couldn’t believe their eyes.

2013 02 905Because there are several Sandals resorts in Jamaica, they have a nice reception area at the Montego Bay airport. We checked in with the Sandals personnel, helped ourselves to a beer or two, and changed from our northern New England clothes to our Caribbean clothes. Sunglasses were donned, attitudes adjusted.

But we knew that one more obstacle faced us before we could truly unwind – a 1½ to 2 hour drive through twisting, mountainous roads to get us from the north coast airport to the south coast resort.

Sandals provides complementary transportation from the nearest airport to each of their resorts. However, their busses are not wheelchair accessible. If this situation arose in the United States, social convention and perhaps even legal requirements would compel the resort to provide me with accessible transportation at no cost. Not so in foreign countries. I had to hire my own wheelchair van taxi from a private company (which Sandals put me in contact with). The round-trip cost was $240.

We found our driver without difficulty and jumped on board the van.

It turned out to be rush hour in Montego Bay, Jamaica, so we inched along for a while. Once we broke free of the city the road became very narrow and kind of treacherous. There were no dividing lines painted on the center of the road. There were no sidewalks, curbs, shoulders, streetlights, or traffic signals. Goats and dogs wandered freely in the road. But like our unwritten agreement with our own neighborhood squirrels in America, our driver didn’t slow down for the goats or dogs and just assumed they would get out of the way in time, which they did.

The stark poverty in the rural areas was disheartening. It didn’t appear that the people were malnourished, and their clothes were not shoddy, but the houses and cars and stores and gas stations were dilapidated. It didn’t remind me of inner-city American slums where idle young men stand on street corners with nothing to do. These Jamaican villages probably are part of a fully functioning economic system, but a system that is primitive compared to modern countries. I can only assume that the social safety nets are few, and benefits like quality medical care are scarce. I would further assume that extended family bonds are stronger as a result, like they were in America a hundred years ago.

2013 02 864 Finally, as the sun was setting into the Caribbean Sea we saw the marker for Sandals Whitehouse, and turned onto the access road. In an instant, we left the authentic Jamaica behind and passed into the fantasy world of a luxury, all-inclusive Caribbean resort. Although the abrupt transformation from poverty to opulence struck us as bizarre for a moment, we were too caught up in our adventure to dwell on it.

Having been to a Sandals resort just a year earlier, we knew what awaited us. There were moist, lemon-scented towels to wipe our faces and hands with. There were the uber-friendly attendants who would carry our bags and help us check-in. There was champagne.

We were starving, having eaten only airline scraps all day. We grabbed a handful of Red Stripe beers from our fully stocked refrigerators and wasted no time joining a weekly feast they called the Beach Party. This consisted of a Caribbean buffet, and hundreds of people seated at tables on the beach, devouring food and sipping fruity, alcoholic concoctions. Later, the feast was topped off with a variety of live, outdoor entertainment.

Only after we finished our first drink and our first plate of food did the four of us feel that we had recovered from our travels, and the vacation had truly begun.

Hello Paradise.

To be continued...

Other posts in this series:

Jamaica 2013, #1: Hello Paradise
Jamaica 2013, #2: The Good Stuff
Jamaica 2013, #3: Challenges
Jamaica 2013, #4: Taking the iBot to Jamaica
Jamaica 2013, #5: Flights - The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Jamaica 2013, #6: Final Thoughts


  1. Hi Mitch! My brother,Bill Stark , is down there at one of the Sandals resorts. Maybe you will run into him! He is there with his wife Peg. They go every year. I so can relate to your trying to get up from the airort wheelchair. Enjoy your stay!

  2. Yippie! Another Mitch Vacation!

  3. Looking forward to the rest of the story!

  4. Sal, I should have clarified. We were in Jamaica from the 18th to the 23rd of February. I was having too much to fun to write blog posts from there!

    Daphne and Muffie, I will do my best to entertain you with my vacation posts.

  5. Glad you were having so much fun!Can't wait to hear all abot it!

  6. Mitch, I visited Sandals Whitehouse 5 years ago. At the time I had a Jazzy chair and could maneuver much of the resort, just like you. I now use an Invacare TDK which I like much better. It is a chair designed for indoor/outdoor activities. I like to walk my dog at parks and have found that I can transverse nature trails as long as they are not made of loose sand or newly laid mulch. We visited a Secrets resort in Jamaica and it was terrible! So this year I am planning our trip and I think I will return to Sandals Whitehouse (if I can find a really good deal). I was surprised that Sandals did not foot the bill on your airport transportation. On both visits to Jamaica we only paid $100 each way. I'm scared to try another resort because I don't know how accessible they are.
    I'm so glad you had the chance to visit Jamaica. The warm, salty waters are so soothing.

  7. keebs, thanks for stopping by and sharing your story. I have an Invacare TDK as my "home chair." I also like it very much. Since I have the iBot, I haven't taken my TDK on an airplane yet. How do you protect it when you fly? It seems that lots of pieces that can be abused.