Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Disabled Cruising 2017 Part 3: Cozumel and Jamaica

Why do Kim and I go on elaborate, expensive vacations? Why does anyone? It can’t be that these weeklong excursions make us happy only during the time we spend away, 2% of our year. It must be that they have a lasting effect, or at least we believe them to (is there a difference?). Midway through this cruise vacation, I lamented how this is only fleeting. I can’t make it stick. I can’t make it last. In just a few short days, it will be gone, and will it have been worth it? Then I ordered another margarita, watched the sun melt into the ocean, and went back to living in the moment.

I can’t explain or justify why, in recent years, we’ve been traipsing all over the Caribbean. I’m sure it has something to do with stress reduction, mental health, living life to the fullest, etc. But for Kim and me, there may be another reason. We go on vacation because we still can, and we want to show the world that we still can, and we want to show one another that we still can. But most importantly, I think, we do it because we still enjoy it. We do it to feel alive.

I am still alive.

Cozumel, Mexico

Kim and I had been to this tourist mecca before, on our first cruise seven years earlier. We had a blast that day, but we weren’t sure that the experience would be repeatable. Back then, it was spur-of-the-moment kind of fun. So we didn’t recommend that in 2017 the six of us walk into town and randomly bounce around bars until we got drunk. Instead, we asked the concierge on the cruise for ideas. She suggested a hotel within walking distance of the pier, which might be a fun place to hang out for the day.

This time, Tom and Andy volunteered to be the advance team. They found the hotel, confirmed it was wheelchair accessible, and learned it would cost us the enormous sum of $20 per person to hang out by their pool and on their Caribbean beach for the day. Oh, did I mention that included a $12 credit toward lunch? Cozumel is so affordable and so fun.

On the walk from our ship to the hotel, we encountered various vendors. One of them kept repeating the same request to us and our fellow cruisers: “Don’t build that wall.” This is a serious issue to many people on both sides of the border, but we couldn’t help laughing about it several times during the day.


This was our third trip to the enchanted island of Jamaica. Our ship docked at the relatively obscure port of Falmouth. This time, Tom and Diane were the advance team. Kim had identified a highly-rated restaurant on Trip Advisor where we could get authentic Jamaican jerk chicken. Tom texted us around 8 o’clock to say that he had found the restaurant and it was wheelchair accessible.

The city of Falmouth has invested in upgrades to the cruise ship terminal. When we stepped off the ship, we were greeted by an almost Disney-like caricature of Jamaica. Modern shops, clean streets, friendly proprietors, curb cuts, accessible public bathrooms, no scary people, no police. We spent an hour or so walking around that area, then it was lunchtime.

When we left the “Green Zone” we encountered the real Jamaica. In their scouting run earlier in the day, Tom and Diane had enlisted the services of a local to guide them through the craziness to the restaurant. The same local approached the six of us as we emerged. For a handful of greenbacks, he led us through the gauntlet of vendors — clothing, memorabilia, drugs — toward the restaurant. I noticed that the seas parted ahead of him. He was a man not to be messed with, and I wondered what he must have done to earn that reputation.

Of course, I was in balance mode in my iBOT, and the natives expressed their amazement. For the first couple of blocks of our walk, there were police officers everywhere. I couldn’t decide if that was more comforting or concerning. When we got further from the port, and the police presence dwindled, I didn’t feel unsafe. The scene can be intimidating in Jamaica, but we were very much their guests, their guests with money to spend.

The restaurant was a hole in the wall. Well, actually, there was no wall. A collection of run down tables and chairs surrounded what looked like an outdoor bar. We sidled up to one table and placed six orders for Jamaican jerk chicken, and a round of RedStripe beer. The chicken was accompanied by local side dishes — rice and vegetables — with optional hot sauce. It tasted amazing.

After devouring the chicken, our guide led us back to Disney-Jamaica. We hung out at Margaritaville another hour, boarded the ship, and set sail for home.

To be continued…

For part 2, click here.

For part 4, click here.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Disabled Cruising 2017 Part 2: CocoCay

In the weeks and months leading up to an elaborate vacation, I build visual models in my mind. Before this cruise, I imagined a virtual state room, various parts of the ship, the ports of call, and more. Some of this modeling was based on research and previous experience. The rest, I probably acquired from the same image store I shop at for my nocturnal dreams:
What can I get for you today, Mr. Sturgeon?
For my upcoming cruise, I need visions of typical Jamaican city streets, and don't skimp on the olfactory sensations—need to keep it real, mon. I also need a cruise ship swimming pool, and a few hundred extras, preferably good-looking ones, but I'll take whatever you have in inventory.
And for tonight’s dreams, I need images of my father morphing into a grizzly bear and chasing me through the woods. Oh, and you might as well give me a replica of my 8th grade classroom so I can realize in the middle of my math exam that I am not wearing pants. 
That’s all?
Oh, don’t worry. I’ll be back for more.
Inevitably, when these vacations begin, my newly formed memories overwrite the models I constructed in my mind. The visions I spent so much time cultivating always disappear, except that one time I made a conscious effort to remember them, just as an experiment. The actual overwhelms the anticipated, forever erasing these abstractions from the hard drive of my mind.

I’m certain that my brain isn’t the only one that works this way. Right?

Please tell me I’m right.

First stop – CocoCay, Bahamas

At some ports of call, the cruise ship ties up to a dock, and passengers walk onto shore. This was not the case at CocoCay. Everyone going ashore had to board a tender boat, which shuttled passengers from the cruise ship to the island. I decided to use my iBot wheelchair on CocoCay, because I knew there would be a lot of sand to navigate, and the iBot is the only wheelchair I have which can operate on sand.

We had reserved a cabana on CocoCay. This would give the six of us a private spot with some shade for the day. Tom and Diane, early risers that they are, took the first tender to shore and claimed our cabana. Somehow Andy and I became separated from Kim and Karen, and we each took separate tenders. Ship personnel arranged it so that I got on the tender last and got off it first, which suited me fine. Below is a photo Tom took as my tender approached, and a zoom of the same photo. Note that Andy and I are on the open deck, and all the other passengers are stuffed into a lower or upper compartment. I liked my spot.

As soon as I disembarked from the tender and headed for the cabana, an employee intervened to inform me that power wheelchairs can’t operate on sand. I politely told him to stand aside and watch. I left my signature all over the island.

We had a wonderful day on CocoCay, and on our voyage back to the ship Andy went out of his way to again stand with me on the deck of the tender. I suggested that his gesture was 20% brotherly love and 80% personal comfort. He didn’t deny it. Traveling with me isn’t all bad.

To be continued…

For part one, click here.

For part three, click here.

More pictures from CocoCay:

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Disabled Cruising 2017 Part 1: Getting to the Ship


It began at 4:00 am at the TSA checkpoint, Logan Airport, Boston. My brother, Andy, and his wife, Karen, zipped through without a problem. Kim did too. A TSA agent shouted, “MALE ASSIST, MALE ASSIST.” I waited a long while for the male assist.

He noticed I had my backpack hanging off my wheelchair. To remove it, I explained, he would need to take off the headrest. Male assist dude couldn’t figure out how.

“My wife just went through security. Go get her, and she’ll help you.”

After a few minutes, Karen, not Kim, arrived and explained that Kim was in the bathroom. Karen couldn’t figure out how to remove the headrest either.

As I sat there, the current of busy travelers flowed around me like I was a boulder in the middle of a stream. Eventually, I spied Kim. She and Karen changed places. Kim removed the headrest, placed the backpack on the conveyor belt, and reinstalled the headrest.


The male assist dude guided me to a spot where he could pat me down and inspect my wheelchair. I soon discovered he was a mere trainee. Two senior personnel directed his every move and criticized his numerous nonconformities. Several times, they made him go back and repeat steps until he got them right. By the end, he was quite flustered, and so was I. When I finally arrived at the gate, it was time for me to board, so my plans for a leisurely breakfast never materialized.


Wheelchair people use the word transfer to describe the process where we move from our wheelchair to something else or from something else to our wheelchair or from something else to something else altogether. Transfer is an appropriate word for the controlled manner I move from my wheelchair to my bed at home, for example.

Transfer, however, was not an apt description of how I moved from seat to seat when we flew to Fort Lauderdale last week. Better words would have been: dragged, stuffed, tossed, yanked, ejected, eighty-sixed, or given the ‘ol heave ho, in no particular order.

“Mitch, how many of these transfers does it take to fly from Boston to Fort Lauderdale?” I’m glad you asked. Let’s count…
  1. from my personal wheelchair to the Boston airport’s aisle chair*
  2. from aisle chair to airplane seat
  3. from airplane seat to Dulles’ aisle chair
  4. from Dulles’ aisle chair to Dulles’ wheelchair
  5. from Dulles’ wheelchair to aisle chair for second flight
  6. from aisle chair to airplane seat, second flight
  7. from airplane seat to aisle chair, Fort Lauderdale airport
  8. from aisle chair to my personal wheelchair, Fort Lauderdale airport
That’s right; it took eight transfers using a slide board and brute strength. I had assigned Andy, Karen, and Kim specific duties during these transfers, and they dispatched said duties with aplomb. Airport personnel helped too, but they hadn’t attended my mandatory training sessions (worth 10 Continuing Education Credits) and received my certificate of completion, suitable for framing, as the others had.

Four Hundred and Forty Pounds

Transfers and TSA pat downs weren’t the only problems. While our 737 sat on the tarmac at Logan Airport on Sunday morning, one of the baggage handlers came down the aisle to ask me a question. “How do you either fold down or remove the back of your power wheelchair? It’s too tall to fit in the luggage door.”

I responded, “I don’t think there is a way. You’ll have to lift the chair and turn it sideways, like moving a sofa through an apartment door.”

“How much does that chair weigh?” He asked.

“Four hundred and forty pounds.”

He rolled his eyes and said, “We’ll figure something out.”

Looking out the airplane window, we watched a group of baggage handlers wrestling with the wheelchair, and this made us a little queasy. After a time, the captain announced, “We’re still loading the final pieces of luggage. It shouldn’t be long.” I appreciated how he didn’t point out that I was the one holding up the entire flight.

After a 20-minute delay, we took off. At Dulles Airport, we exited the airplane without incident, zipped down the terminal and were the first to board our connecting flight. Once again, we looked out the window and saw baggage handlers examining my wheelchair, pushing on the seatback, and scratching their heads.

“Wait a minute!” I said to Kim. “If we re-attach the joystick controller we can recline the seatback. That should solve the problem.”

Kim rummaged through her carry-on and found the controller we had removed from the wheelchair, for safekeeping, after I transferred to the aisle chair in Boston. She swam upstream against the passengers still boarding and approached the flight attendants with this simple, elegant solution.

“I’m sorry, but you can’t go down there,” said one attendant.

“But all I need to do is…”

“No. You absolutely cannot do that,” said the other attendant, looking down his nose at Kim as if speaking to a small child who had asked if she might sit on the pilot’s lap and steer the plane.

How foolish of us.

Then we saw the baggage handlers open a toolbox and begin operating on my wheelchair. Although I couldn’t read their lips, I imagined them saying:


… Scalpel


… Clamp


… Suction

I think I’ve got it. There it is, success…

… You are such a brilliant surgeon

And you are such a lovely nurse. Now wait for me in the doctors’ lounge, and I’ll show you some of my other skills. (Perhaps I’ve been watching too many hospital dramas over the years.)

Somehow, these baggage handlers lowered the seatback and got the chair loaded into the airplane.


When we arrived in Fort Lauderdale, they brought the wheelchair up to the mouth of the plane, and I transferred to it. Sure, the seatback was too low, but we cared only about getting to the ship. Seating adjustments could wait.

Less than an hour afterward, the four of us joined my brother, Tom, and his wife, Diane, who had wisely flown down a day earlier. We lounged on the deck of our stateroom on the Celebrity Silhouette, relieved that the journey we had worried about for months was behind us. Although we experienced some rough patches on the flights down, we made it in time and intact. And, like a mother who endured unbelievable pain and discomfort throughout childbirth, only to say a year later, “That wasn’t so bad. Let’s have another,” we agreed that the trip from Boston to Fort Lauderdale had gone well. Perhaps the rough edges were smoothed over by the chilled bottle of champagne that greeted us in our cabin.

Things were about to get much better.

For part 2, click here.

*An aisle chair is a narrow wheelchair designed to fit down the aisle of an airplane, depicted in the photo at the top of this post. Also note that I had checked my iBot wheelchair at the ticket counter, all the way through to Fort Lauderdale. I like to travel with two wheelchairs.