Around the World with Wheelchair and Cane



“Don’t think like an invalid!” – the parting words that Quick Draw offered as I hobbled out of his office after my last visit.

“Yeah, yeah, easy for YOU to say,” I muttered under my breath.

But now my handicapped sticker has expired (as some eagle-eyed city policeman noted when I left my car in a handicapped slot during my Washington trip), my physical therapist has renounced me, and my regular doctor pronounced me ‘wonderfully well.’ (He didn’t have to add that last sentence that began with “Considering how you were a couple of months ago…”).

Ok, then. I started Tai Chi again, and walk every day, and went to Eleuthera and Washington DC. I’m well. And to prove it, I said to myself, I think I’ll take a little trip to Bosnia!

Actually, Sarajevo was not a vacation destination—I was off on a consulting job for the International Real Property Foundation, one that I was supposed to undertake a year ago. It’s time. I am NOT an invalid.

However, as I thought about it, I did have a few nagging memories of the last trip to that corner of the world. It was long, I remembered. You can’t GET there from Traverse City. That thought was echoed by the company travel agent: “Ye gods,” she said. “I am having a tough time getting you there!” And then, after a pause, she added, “Well, I can get you there; I just can’t get you HOME. That last leg from Detroit to Traverse City is a b…, a BAD connection.”

Should have been my first clue. But hey, I can do a five-airport flight to Bosnia. Just not on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Given the circumstances, though, I ignored Quick Draw’s advice, and ordered up a wheelchair to meet me at all the gates.

“Do ya need one in Traverse City?” asked the agent. “No, “ I said. A wheel chair inside a six-gate airport isn’t necessary. It’s the part where you slog from your car in long-term parking (back of the lot, too—no more handicapped spots for me), dragging a suitcase, a carry-on with computer, a purse, and a cane. Picture it at 7 AM, still dark, rain beating down—but I’m no invalid!

The Detroit Airport however, can be daunting for even the most able-bodied. Particularly these days, when they’ve taken away our full sized jets which used to fly into the flossy new Northwest terminal. Now passengers are relegated to commuter jets with VERY steep steps leading into the plane and terminals B and C, not A. Terminals B and C are connected to the Big Peoples’ terminal by a tunnel masquerading as a night at a cheap disco bar—and it’s very long, too. So I was glad to have a wheelchair waiting, even though the person who was supposed to push it was in absentia. But I sat there, and she came, yawning a little, and the journey began: around the corner and down a service elevator, then down the garish tunnel, around a corner, up another elevator, and into the ‘real’ Northwest terminal and to my gate. Then she parked me and left—but that was ok: I am not an invalid and I can make it down the jet way with the best of ‘em.

The Tunnel between Northwest's Terminal A and Terminals B and C

People with canes usually get to board first, and that’s a plus. Gave me plenty of time to store my cane and computer in the overhead compartment reasonably near my seat. And 8 hours later to be able to retrieve my gear without having to fight my way backwards to find my squashed coat and carry on.

“Do you need a wheelchair to get up the ramp?” the stewardess asked me as I made my way out of the plane in Amsterdam. “Because if you do, you could just sit here and someone will be right along.”

“No, thanks,” I said. “Walking up the jet way will feel really good.”

What was waiting for me was a shiny electric cart, complete with a very handsome young man in a suit and tie (this is the Netherlands, remember). He fastened me in with a seatbelt, hooked my computer bag over a secure hanger, and away we zoomed.

This airport is huge, reputedly one of the worlds best, with all kinds of restaurants, shops, even a casino. It glistens and sparkles as thousands of people rush to and fro, making connections with the over 80 airlines which service it. Almost everyone spends time here (you’d be in real trouble with a tight connection), and so there were bright yellow plastic shopping bags hanging from the arms of many travelers and Christmas merchandising was in full swing. There was even a full-sized replica of a two-seater plane hanging from the high ceiling, recreated in thousands of white Christmas lights and red bows.

Airport in Amsterdam

Airport in Amsterdam

Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport

Me, I just zipped through it. My driver, infinitely polite, kept moving people out of the way: “Excuse me sir. Excuse me please. Thank you, thank you so much.” When we came to a security checkpoint, he took me to the handicapped entrance and I, of course, set off the beeper with my titanium joint. “Hip,” I said. “Very good,” she said, giving me a couple of friendly pats and waving me on. “No shoes to take off?” I asked, but she just smiled and I got back on the cart.

I handed my escort some money in thanks for the ride, the assistance through security, and the dignity with which the whole thing was handled. “Oh, no,” he said. “That’s not a problem. It’s my job.”

My next stop was Vienna. As we neared the airport the stewardess leaned over to remove my coffee cup and croissant plate and said, “Please, Madame. Stay in your seat and we will assist you.”

So I did. There was no jet way (this is common in many European airports) but the steps are wide sturdy, with room for two or three people on the same step and REAL handrails (not like those bungee cords in the commuter planes). A young man in a yellow rain slicker (yes, it was damp and grey) came onto the plane and took my laptop case and escorted me to a waiting small bus, a special little thing with a hydraulic undercarriage and wide seats. I was the only passenger, and my driver took a few outside ‘shortcuts’ around freight areas and terminal service areas—my fellow passengers went in a huge double bus, moving very slowly and sedately, while I was shown to my own special entrance where another young man in an airport uniform marked ‘passenger service representative’ met me with a wheelchair and again I was whisked through service doors and freight elevators.

The Airport in Vienna

The Airport in Vienna

Since I had to change airlines to Vienna Air for the final leg of my trip, I had to go to a service desk to obtain a boarding pass—but guess what! No lines for me: Wilhelm took my passport and flight information, smiled engagingly at the pretty counter agent, and away I went.

Again another security check, but Wilhelm guided me through the special line. He met me on the other side (of course I set off the alarms again, but I pantomimed ‘artificial hip’) and we were on our way down a couple of long corridors to the gate area. The gate clerk there smiled at Wilhelm (and no wonder!) and immediately led me to my seat on the airplane.

The Bosnia airport is really quite small, in comparison. Despite its history (there’s actually a tunnel underneath it where escaping refugees hid out less than 20 years ago), everyone is casual about arriving there. No wheel chair: all I had to do was collect my bag, declare I had no meat or cheese or goods for resale, and limp through the doorway that said “Nothing to Declare.”

Sarajevo--no wheelchairs needed!

Sarajevo--no wheelchairs needed!

The return trip to the US was pretty much the same, except that instead of Amsterdam, I changed planes in Paris at DeGaulle Airport. I don’t imagine that DeGaulle International is anyone’s favorite airport—it’s way too spread out and labyrinthine. People appeared absolutely terrified everywhere I looked—afraid they’d get lost or miss a plane or something, I’m sure. Amsterdam, as I said, has 80 airlines servicing it: DeGaulle has 150. However, moving people around seems to be done fairly efficiently—there are busses and people movers of all sorts. And each terminal (there are several terminals surrounding the main one) has a feature I have always admired for its elegant simplicity: right in the middle of each is a big round circle painted on the floor. It’s the ‘meeting place’. If you’re lost, or need to meet someone, just go to the circle. Soon enough someone will come to find you.

Wheelchair people were managed equally as efficiently by a relay team of Passenger Assistants. Justin (“my Franch ees not so good, because I had othair thangs to do in school” “Yes, Justin, I can just imagine”) handed me off to a perky female van driver, who called ahead as we approached the terminal and yet another young man met us at the door. Again the ever-practical French put little clickers on the spokes of the chair so that we made a distinctive warning sound as we hurried through the crowds—none of this calling out “Move Please.” Pierre took me through security—even he had to remove his jacket and pass through, because he was determined to see me parked safely at the gate.

DeGaulle from the air

Which all brought me back to Detroit, and Antonio. Now Antonio is a baggage handler turned wheelchair person. I don’t think he had an official title, but he didn’t have a suit, either. Just jeans, a DTW sweatshirt, and a tag around his neck. Antonio was a marvel in his own right: he managed two wheelchairs and a baggage cart simultaneously: on the elevators, through customs, retrieved a boarding pass for me for my final flight, more elevators, and a trip through the Northwest Big Peoples’ terminal—all with considerable good humor. Then he raced me (the other wheel chair now empty of a passenger) at breakneck speed through the tunnel, and up the elevator, all the while carrying on a running monologue about his plans (“I likes to stay home, I be a homebody”) for pizza and beer and TV on a Friday night in Detroit.

Of course it wasn’t his fault when, an hour later, they announced a gate change from gate 5 to gate 26. Nor was he there when I got home to Traverse City and dragged my suitcase and my computer and my cane through the short term lot to the long term lot, slogging back the way I had come a week earlier—only this time through the wet and slushy snow.

But hey! I am not an invalid!


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