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Wheels in Wonderland
Miriam Feinberg Vamosh and Aharon Vamosh

Sunset. From the observation dock of Telecom Tower high feet above Canberra, Australia we watch the last embers of dusk fall towards the horizons turning the artificial lakes below into glowing red-hot pools. The rising full moon bathes this futuristic city in pearly light. Our eight-year-old Nili, no less inspired than the rest of us by the eight whispers "I think we must be the luckiest family in the world."

By most people's terms "lucky" might not be a word to connect with our family. They would be wrong.. though.. and they know it when they meet Nili's dad Arik. Arik is a D-10-11 paraplegic as a result of a war injury suffered in the Israeli Army during the 1973 war with Egypt. Though confined to a wheelchair, Arik refuses to be defined by it. He has traveled the world and made it his own. In his most recent adventure we, his "entourage": wife Miriam and two daughters Nili age 8 and Maya age 9 accompanied him for two marvelous months from home in Israel to Bangkok, Australia, Fiji, Hawaii, and California.

Even if the economic side of traveling presents no hardship many families with a handicapped member stay close to home for fear of the seemingly insurmountable challenges involved in travel. On the contrary we feel that many doors at home are closed to us, and by meeting the challenges of travels we have seen other doors, doors to exotic and memorable adventure open before us. We would like to share some of the ups and even the downs of our experiences in the hope of "liberating" other families to the joys of travel.

Airline travel Though some of these "ups" can definitely be "downs" airline travel has become much easier over the years for the handicapped traveler. You may fly as we didn

And no matter what airline you travel, and how many times you alert them to your condition be prepared for the inevitable question "Can you walk a few steps?" It was clear to us from the number of times Arik was asked that their idea of "handicapped" is limited mainly to people with difficulty walking not those who cannot walk at all.

We had an eight-hour lay-over in the Frankfurt Airport. Arik was dying for a little lie-down (I admit we all were) and so I took courage and approached the Quantas desk to ask if there were any place in the airport to stretch out. We were even willing to use the infirmary! Sure enough, we were directed to one of those inevitable blank doors marked "no entry" don

The Somerset Hotel was our address for two nights in Bangkok. We had seen it listed in put out by RADAR the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation 25 Mortimer St. London, WINP 8AB England. Although we had requested and been confirmed for one of what it lists as "suites designed for use by disabled guests". Suffice to say that the first room to which we were shown to was definitely not one of them. A phone call to reception - a flurry of activity - and two worried staff members appeared at our door to unravel the difficulty. We were then shown to a lovely suite where the girls were able to have their "own room". We were as surprised to find a stereo set in each room, as we were to find that the bathroom was one 5-inch step down from the bedroom level although not as nearly as pleased ... Remember that the information going into guidebooks for the disabled may not be researched or compiled by disabled people. The existence of one little step or even a few big ones may escape their notice. Whenever you travels planning ahead will mean that you will have done your utmost to find and ensure accessible accommodations.. Be prepared to insist on the conditions of your reservations.

A six-lane main street, choked with every possible conveyance whizzing and dizzying by us made getting around Bangkok seem a little daunting at first. Forget around it, try crossing it! What an adventure that was. Pedestrian cross-walks are mainly pedestrian overpasses so if you want to got across the streets with a wheelchair you must wait for a lull in the traffic and hope you're not in a hurry.

We only had one full day at our disposal for sightseeing in Bangkok. Between the inaccessibility of a bus and Arik's personal hygiene schedule, a bus tour was out of the question, so we asked the hotel to looked into hiring a government-licensed guide for us. The cost was about $8O for the day, including guide services, driver, car, and entrance fees. Every cent was worth its the guide catered the day to our special needs patiently waiting out every delay and listening intently to our suggestions for alternative access to sites.

She arranged help from local attendants at the various Bhuddist shrines so that the many steps were not a barrier. We had also asked her to arrange a river cruise for that evenings but cautioned her that the boat must be accessible. "Completely so!" she assured us. Upon arrival at the dock after our very full day we did indeed find our vessel waiting. The boat was level, true enough... but let me tell you about the dock! In order to get onto the boat you had to pass through an old-fashioned turnstile that could not be lifted out and the turnstile was positioned at the very edge of seven steep you-know-whats.

What is our advice here? Be prepared for disappointment when you travel? No way! In Thailand the folks are warm caring friendly and in plentiful supply. Seven or eight men materialized from what seemed like thin air and after discussing the issue heatedly among themselves decided an a course of action which they then pursued without delays and without consulting us. They lifted all 196 pounds of Arik and his chair high into the air over the turnstile then half the gang held him up in the air while the other half ducked under the turnstile and lowered him gently down. I think Arik understood what the Bhuddists mean about reincarnation because according to him during those moments in the sky he saw several lifetimes pass before his eyes.

We had the most marvelous evening on the river. although we would not recommend this method of embarkation to everyone. Once we got there, we could see other cruises leaving from points further down the river that looked like they might be more accessible. If you have more time than we did go down yourselves ahead of time and check out accessibility from some of these other points.

Next stop, Sydney, Australia. We stayed at a serviced apartment in the Medina Complex, on Glenmore Road. Our two bedroom flat was perfect for the family, and the bathroom was roomy enough for the wheelchair. Although the shower-stall was not accessible, the management provided us with a hand-held shower head with a hose that attached to the bathtub faucet. I cannot recall any place in our many travels where accessibility was less of a problem than in Australia. Access was assured .virtually everywhere with people quick to respond to our presence with discounts directions elevator keys, or whatever was necessary The handicapped are anything but ignored here. Sydney will be hosting the Olympics in the year 2000 as banners and billboards proclaim everywhere. At Darling Harbour we saw a huge mural depicted the silhouettes of various sports people, among them a handicapped archer. This is Arik's favorite sport, and we took a few photos in front of this symbol of the acceptance we sensed of the differently-abled in this society.

Any family with a handicapped member knows how vital it is for everyone to pull together. Traveling out of our natural element, there were new barriers to overcome of course, but the motivation was so great that we all learned new ways to adapt ourselves to the new circumstances. Maya and Nili improved their wheelchair-pushing skills and if that hill was just too high, we developed a technique called the "tush-push".- Mom pushes Dad pushing the wheels the girls get behind Mom -literally - and off we go. More than once I caught someone's eye and just knew that someone close to that person was in circumstances similar to Arik

Getting around Sydney by taxi is a breeze. A cooperative of all the cab companies maintains a pool of wheelchair accessible taxis. Sometimes the cab took a bit of time to show up, But to wheel straight into the cab without all that shifting in and out of seats for Arik and lifting the wheelchair in and out of trunks for map made it well worth the wait. In Queensland Northern Australia we spent three days in the resort town of Cairns. Well, we slept at Cairns (a beautiful Holiday Inn equipped for our every need) but were too busy seeing the sights to do much else there. One day a cruise boat took us to one of the islands along the Great Barrier Reef where we rented a canoe for Arik and a paddle-boat for me returning to shore to switch daughters so the girls could each experience both conveyances.

As we paddled along the island's densely forested shore-line, the heavens opened up and we were drenched with sweet tropical rain. Now you know rain is not a favorite among wheelchair-users but out in the canoe Arik felt free enough to enjoy it. Another day we rented a four-wheel drive jeep and drove three hours up the coast deep into the rainforest. Not even ferocious crocodiles or raging streams could.. what? Alright so I'm getting a-bit carried away. The point is it was the most adventurous thing we had ever done and we felt lifted out of ourselves and our every day existence to a new dimension where anything seemed possible. One late afternoon on a quiet street near the beach in Port Douglas on the Queensland coast we sat, enthralled by a flock of brilliantly colored parrots flashing their bejeweled wings among the palms. No we said to each other this isn't a dream its a dream we've made come true.

Fiji was most unlike anywhere else we had ever been. Stepping into the terminal building we felt more than a little trepidation at the facilities which were sparse and seemed out-of-date. Thank goodness we breathed a sigh of relief therethe elevator. But our escort made it clear that the elevator was too small for all of us. The girls and I would have to take the stairs two flights down to the baggage hall. Let me say a word about so-called "hand luggage". In our case it was hand, crook-of-the-arm and back-luggage. Let's just say, now I can understand why it took the Children of Israel forty years to go through the desert.

Of course the children each had a back-pack full of schoolbooks since we "home-schooled" them during their two month absence from the classroom and then there

Our escort found us all our luggage, heaved it for us onto the baggage cart and out the door we went. Into the cool tropical breeze? Nope. It was hot and muggy, we were sweating buckets and trying to figure out whose bright idea it was to stay two days in this place instead of the required overnight to let Arik rest. Just in time, a tall, stately lady approached us with our name and am I a welcoming smile on her lips the contact person for our Israeli travel agent. As she took us to the taxi that would ferry us to the hotel I began to relax and saw that we had merged with a flowing stream of beautifully clad peoples both the men and the women dressed in brightly colored skirts.

Our hotel the Nadi Travelodge, was five minutes from the airport. Our RADAR guidebook had listed it as having "9 rooms designed for disabled guests". Room number one, nuh-uh. (Flurry of activity - etc., see above Bangkok) Room number two, no again. Room number three ... you guessed it. Arik could just squeeze through the bathroom door but not much else. Keeping my cool and my proportions I inquired politely where the rooms for the disabled might be, and learned that I had been in two, and was now in the third. In what sense exactly, are they "designed for the disabled"? I asked sweetly. Because they are on the first floor and close to the dining room came the answer. We gave up!

In the room we found the electric kettle and a supply of tea coffee, sugar and cookies that we often enjoyed in hotels even simple ones, outside of the U.S. This can be a lifesaver for a family who rises a good three hours before departure time with their handicapped members but needs to wait for him or her to finish their personal hygiene routine in order to enjoy breakfast together.

In Fiji we had two days to tour. What to do? In the hotel lobby was a whole rack of colorful pamphlets full of places just begging "tour me". That is if you can join a guided bus tour. If you're like us and can't do those bus-tours don't despair. Thereyou can forget about hand-control if your renting on-the-spot the non-disabled spouse should have his or her international driver's license at the ready for just such an occasion. We inquired of the tour consultant on duty in the hotel lobby how to find some of the places enticing us from the pamphlet rack, and off we went!

Whew, it was a long time since that road had been fixed, and, do you know how to play "chicken"? Better brush up that's all I have to say. After nearly four hours we covered a hundred miles of road that ribboned along with the coastline on one side, jungle and sugar cane fields on the other. to our destination the "Pacific Harbor Culture Center". Just in time, we were informed for the afternoon show. No, the wheelchair won't be any problems we were told, just come back here when you hear the drums beat. I consider the next three hours as one of the absolute highlight of our entire trip.

As our group (consisting of our family and two American ladies) was escorted to a large boat by three grass-skirted Fiji gentleman singing and accompanying themselves on guitar and ukulele I found myself already wishing that these moments would never end. I did not know that the best was yet to come. The boat was level with the walkways and although there are benches to get down into, a wheelchair-user can remain in the chair if he or she wishes to. A man was sitting cross-legged in the prow of the boat, manned by four rowers. Shortly after they pushed off we spied a portly man hunkered down in the brush by the water's edge. Around his neck hung an important looking amulet - obviously a chief. He rose to greet us ... Oh no! Not to greet us, but to inquire in strident tones of the man in the prow how he dared to bring us to this sacred spot (that is, we imagine that was what he said, because the exchange took place in their native language.)

The moment was so exciting.. that just for an instant we got carried away and imagined that this was real and we were the "first white men" to see this spot. Not so the American lady seated behind us, who whispered to her companion "This is better than the jungle ride at Disneyland" Never mind. The man in the prow of the boat soon revealed to us in musically accented English, that he was to be our guide, and for the next 45 minutes we steeped ourselves in old-style Fijian cultures gliding across the water to various stops near the shoreline where we saw cloth being made from bark, learnt the myriad uses of the coconut tree and it

A caring attitude friendliness and curiosity seemed to characterize all the people we met. The next day, which we spent on the beach folks would approach and ask us about ourselves with a rare openness. We left, through the same terminal that had seemed daunting and backward two days earlier wishing we had more time to spend in this magical place.

Honolulu and our family welcomed us to the U.S. We strolled along the main drag and the beach took the Pearl Harbor trip, and then flew off to Maui where we had rented a car and accessible condo. Arik, a lover of water sports, could hardly wait to take advantage of Hawaii's famous azure waves. We have a lot of experience canoeing, and so we asked my sister to arrange a canoeing or kayaking trip for us. A few phone calls and we were set for the following morning. The girls opted out of this experience in favor of a morning at home with their cousin. That was just as well, because at the jump-off point I took one look at the aquatic conveyances to be ours for the next four hours and was ready to head for the hills. I would have to, but the determined Arik was already transferring to the - definitely not a canoe or kayak ... get ready for a new term here - "wave ski". Now I know why we had been told to bring little gear, and disposable cameras only.

This baby has the approximate dimensions of a surfboard and enough depth for about threequarters of an average posterior. I was the last of our party to push off, and by the time I was on the water Arik and everybody else were about a half-mile away. "Well". I said to myself "it must be working out all right". When I paddled up along-side Arik, what I found was not a happy camper. He was having difficulty keeping his balances and as a matter of fact, did capsize at one point. Fun, fun, and more fun. But wearing a life-jacket he was in no danger, and our guide and friends helped right him. He paddled along bravely for another hour but finally had to throw in the towel. Our guide helped put us ashore at a deserted inlet that looked like the first and last human presence there was during the filming of "Blue Lagoon". The rest of the folks continued according to plan to pick us up later with the car.

I couldn't stop talking about the charm of this little corner of paradise how if Arik hadn't had to come ashore we would never even have seen this place. "What more could we even wish for?" I enthused. "For my wheelchair to drop out of the sky",. drawled my sand-encrusted mate. Two hours later the rest of our party showed up toting fresh fruit and cookies. "How're ya doin? they called out cheerfully. "Fine!" Arik returned gaily. ("as fine as a capsized turtles" he muttered to me through gritted teeth).

True, no one would know how hard he had worked to have the same experience the others took for granted. But they could also not know the depth of satisfaction at his achievement. When we look back on every aspect of our trip we know this satisfaction to be it's own rewards a precious memory to carry us through the gray times until our next adventure!

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