Traveling with a handicapped person, you do less than you might otherwise. But what you do counts a lot more.
When I took my mother to Bermuda recently, I expected her to slow me down -- and I suppose she did. But the experience also taught me how little I sometimes see in my mad dashes over hill and valley.
One day, as I was complaining about a patch of rain, she suggested that the gray skies lent a whole new aspect to the landscape and should be relished for that. She was right, of course. I was trying to blot out brooding skies. She was storing away the images so she could also enjoy them at a later date.
I always thought she should have traveled more. But by the time she was finally able to take it easy and dream about the places she'd never been, she'd developed what she calls her "bum" leg. Climbing a flight of stairs became, at best, a once-a-day challenge. Walking more than 50 feet without a rest was pretty much beyond her forces. Much as she longed to go abroad, she thought it no longer in the cards.
So for her 79th birthday, I decided to give her a trip. I picked Bermuda, because I'd been there before and had some idea of what to expect. Although it has the exotic appeal of a "foreign" country, my mother could fly there directly from Boston in less than two hours. Finally, I thought she could get a good feel of the place in four days and the "bum" leg wouldn't preclude her seeing any of the major sights.
Still, if Bermuda seemed feasible in a way that Paris, a destination I briefly entertained, wasn't, I was less sure just how feasible. And because I made our plans on the spur of the moment -- with no time for searching out guidebooks or other sources of information -- we were traveling a bit on faith. But my mother's is strong and it's always been buttressed by a robust sense of humor. Here's what we found out.
Lesson No. 1: Emphasize, when making plane and hotel reservations, that one of your party is a handicapped person. There is help out there, but not if you don't insist on it. Alerted in advance, the airlines cope fairly well. Facilities at the Bermuda airport, however, are fairly outmoded. Debarking passengers still have to use a steep staircase, rolled up to the side of the plane, and then cross a long stretch of tarmac by foot. Gurney chairs and wheelchairs are available for the disabled. But a certain disorganization reigns and it's hardly a reassuring introduction to an island that tends elsewhere to function like clockwork.
I had booked us into the Waterloo House, a charming compound on the harbor of Hamilton, the toy village that is Bermuda's capital. Self-contained within stucco walls, the Waterloo House has the casual dignity of an English country manor. Yet it's only blocks from the bustling center of town and the shops that are a magnet for the tourist dollar. As I remembered it from a prior trip, it seemed an ideal choice.
Upon arriving, however, I discovered with dismay that the hotel was, like many in Bermuda, actually built on a series of descending terraces. There were no fewer than four flights of stairs to navigate and no ramp or elevator in sight. Fortunately, the hotel manager had a solution at hand. The taxi, she explained, could drive us down a side alley to a large double door in the outside wall. Pushing it open, we discovered a cheerful garden at the water's edge.
From there, a walk of about 25 feet -- and two gentle steps -- led to my mother's room. It was not the most glamorous way to make an entrance, perhaps, but we came to look on it as our own secret access to the kingdom.
I had now learned a second lesson about traveling with the handicapped. Whenever possible, check things out in advance. Make a dry run of the day's comings and goings. Where is the unexpected staircase? How close to the restaurant door can a taxi get you? Which table is most accessible? There's usually a way around every obstacle. But solving problems on the spur of the moment does not incur peace of mind.
My mother had her own response: Make a virtue of necessity. Slipping in and out of the garden gate, she allowed as how we could have been celebrities, escaping the paparazzi.
Locating a wheelchair was my next challenge. Normally, the Bermuda Red Cross rents them to vacationers. When I phoned, however, I was informed that all 100 chairs were in use and none was expected back soon. Panicking, I darted off to the Visitors' Service Bureau in the heart of Hamilton and enlisted their help.
On the whole, Bermuda is one of the more hospitable spots in the hemisphere. The waves of tourists are viewed with neither the disdain nor the hostility you can encounter on many of the Caribbean islands. An employe at the center listened understandingly, then took to the phone with dispatch, orchestrating a scenario that involved two hotel doormen, a taxi driver and the manager of the Bermudiana Hotel.
An hour later, the latter presented me with a spare wheelchair. I gathered it had been rustled up from another part of the island at some inconvenience. But when I reached for my wallet, he dismissed any notion of payment with a wave of the hand. "No problem at all," he said. "Just bring it back when you're through."
With the basics under control, we were ready to explore the island. This is where lesson No. 3 kicked in: It is better to do too little than too much. My natural tendency was to want to pack the schedule. My mother, however, was much more comfortable with the idea of a single excursion a day -- preferably two to three hours in duration. That left her plenty of time in the morning to prepare and meant that we were back at the hotel in time for afternoon tea and pastries.
Our evenings were given over to leisurely dinners at the Waterloo House, where the guests are asked to dress up (and do), the waiters have European panache and a harpist supplies pleasant, if watery, mood music. The nightly four-course meal turned into a highlight. More than once, we looked up from conversation, discovered it was 11 p.m. and we were the last remaining occupants of the cozy room.
Two of the three modes of transportation open to the Bermuda tourist -- the bus and the moped -- were out of the question for us. We relied on the taxi, requesting a "blue flag" driver each time. On the whole, Bermuda's taxi drivers are a gregarious bunch, easily engaged in conversation. The "blue flag" driver has, in addition, passed a government exam that qualifies him as a guide.
For $16 an hour, he'll show you magnificent vistas, take you down hidden lanes, answer all your questions and philosophize willingly about the weather, the 20 mph speed limit or the Bermudian temperament, which incorporates a British appreciation for orderliness with none of the British priggishness.
One driver, learning of my mother's interest in gardening, made a point of pulling over to the side of the road periodically to snip a sprig of rosemary here or a branch of allspice there, and would have picked her a bunch of bananas from a mini-plantation along the way, had she asked. Subsequently, she got into a long discussion with another driver on the construction of the typical Bermuda roof, how it gathers rainfall and drains into a cistern. The mechanics were all beyond me, but she was absorbed.
The scenery is, of course, breathtaking in a tidy, miniaturized way, especially along the South Road, where one coral-flecked beach succeeds another and the aqua sea dashes up against the rocks, sculpting some of them into natural arches. Gibb's Hill, Bermuda's highest point and the site of a picturesque 19th-century cast-iron lighthouse, commands a stunning 360-degree panorama of inlets and islands, stately mansions and bobbing boats. There, we descended from the taxi, took a brief stroll and then sat down on a bench to drink in the view.
If you can see a lot by land, you can see almost as much by sea. The government-run ferry boats that ply the Great Sound, linking Hamilton with Watford Bridge (the world's smallest drawbridge, or so they say), Cavello Bay and the village of Somerset, are the way to go. Round trip costs $4 and lasts two hours. The boats are equipped with loading ramps, so that passengers can push on their mopeds.
My mother took to the wheelchair for the occasion, and we, too, rolled on easily. As the ferry pulled away, a gleaming white cruiseship, the Homeric, crossed our bow, bringing in one last boatload of tourists for the season. That day, the drama was above us -- a sudden squall giving way to shafts of sunlight, obliterated in turn by great billowing cloud banks. By the time we landed back in Hamilton, the sun was poking through again.
In the late 1970s, the city fathers saw to it that ramps were installed on many of Hamilton's street corners and the stop lights emit a beeping noise, indicating that it is safe to cross. (The device, intended to aid the visually impaired, proves equally useful for the American at large, who instinctively looks the wrong way in this country where the drivers hold to the left-hand side of the road.)
The majority of the stores along Front Street open right on to the sidewalk, so shopping by wheelchair is possible, although the crowds can sometimes be a problem. A less conjested alternative can be found at some of the big hotels -- The Hamilton Princess, the Elbow Beach -- which have indoor branches of most of Hamilton's main shops. We explored both options by wheelchair, which allowed my mother to put a serious dent in her Christmas shopping.
She ended up with English wool sweaters, Scottish plaid shirts, bottles of the local perfume, appointment calendars, note cards, canisters of tea and the mandatory T-shirts. What she considered her greatest find, though, was a flat, retractable ball-point pen for $2. The flat design prevents it from rolling off a table and she bought several for her bridge club. By most shopping yardsticks, it wasn't much. She proclaimed it a veritable spree.
It was, in fact, her unfailing excitement that compensated for the slower pace we necessarily adopted. Since seeing everything was impossible, details became important -- a piece of china, a passing face in the crowd, the windblown curve of a tree by the roadside. I knew fatigue was setting in the day my mother decided to save St. George, the original colonial capital, for "another time." What she did see, however, she saw well and savored long afterward.
The pastel colors of the houses -- great and humble -- inspired her, she said, with new decorating ideas. (This, I should note, is a woman who once went against every accepted canon in small-town New England by painting our house blushing pink.) The unadorned spires of the Methodist church in Southampton parish, rising starkly against the blue sky, suggested a Georgia O'Keeffe canvas to her, while the clumps of sweet-smelling oleander bushes brought back the days she'd lived in Arizona.
The day of her departure, we arrived at the airport an hour before her flight took off. Cutting it close can engender particular anxiety in the handicapped. That was the last lesson we learned: Allow yourself the luxury of time. I found a wheelchair and rolled her up to customs. Since I was taking a later flight, an official turned me back.
So I stood for a while on one side of the barrier, while my mother waited on the other. I noticed the branch of allspice protruding from her purse. Then an airline attendant appeared to escort her out to the plane.
She looked back, one last time, beamed broadly and, as she disappeared through the door, suddenly picked up the branch of allspice and waved it triumphantly in the air.
It was then I knew for sure that together the two of us had gotten the best of her "bum" leg