Santorini from atop the hill

As a disabled traveler I have had to accept that wheelchair accessibility is not as advanced as it could (or perhaps even should) be in all of the places I want to see and experience. Sometimes this means that I am simply not able to go certain places. Many of the world’s most famous tourist attractions have been thoughtfully adapted to be fully accommodating. However, some of the best places I’ve visited were extremely difficult to get to. Difficult but not impossible. I’ve been surprised by the places I can go with nothing more than a little trust in people and a willingness to step beyond my comfort zone.

One such occasion was on the Greek island of Santorini. This gorgeous island town is built on the steep slopes of a dormant volcano. Only the ring of the volcano protrudes from the water, forming a natural harbor that is stunning to behold. The most breathtaking view of Santorini is from atop a tall hill. Climbing it poses a challenge even for totally able bodied tourists, but I knew that I would be missing out on one of the highlights of Greek Isles if I didn’t at least make every effort to ascend. So when our cruise ship dropped anchor I headed down to wait in line for a tender.

Tenders are small boats used to shuttle people ashore when the ship is too large to dock. When the Spanish deck hands saw me coming they started muttering to each other. I am far from fluent in Spanish but knew enough to realize that “puta madre” has nothing to do with my mother. The seas were choppy and everyone was being careful stepping onto the tender. There was a hydraulic lift down to the floating dock but it was decided that the simplest way to get me aboard the vessel was for the deckhands to actually pick up my chair with me in it and pass me to their counterparts waiting onboard the smaller boat. Choppy seas meant that the boat and dock were bobbing unpredictably and not in unison. I’d be lying if I said I was comfortable with this arrangement. However, all I could do was just close my eyes and hope for safe passage. Disembarking the tender required the same maneuver, though it was made easier by the stability of dry land.

Once ashore the real fun began.

There were two options for ascending to the top of the hill, where an historic village square and a scenic panorama of the entire island awaited. First was the old fashioned way which meant a donkey ride up a perilously steep and narrow path to the top. This was not really an option. Fortunately there was also something called an ‘elevator’. It was not an elevator. Maybe there’s no word in Greek for ‘gondola’, but that’s exactly what it was. Wewaited for a half hour in line expecting a simple elevator ride, but were disappointed to learn that it wouldn’t be so simple. After convincing the operator to stop the gondola for just a minute to allow me to step on, it still wasn’t all that easy to get in the swaying vestibule. But I was able to without incident. The narrow doorway required that we break down my wheelchair and carefully wedge it in.

The ride to the top was unforgettable and the view once we arrived was worth every moment of the journey. The Aegean’s brilliant turquoise was unlike any water I had ever seen. Set against the rocky slopes of the island and the whitewash homes and churches it was truly a sight to behold.


A ‘Nice’ Story



“Why aren’t any of them stopping?” John asked when the third cab he attempted to flag rolled past without stopping.

            We were in a pickle. Dr. Rhodes, the somewhat absent-minded leader of our study tour, had departed with the rest of the group. John, Drew and I had been left with a few Euros and instructed to catch a cab. It seemed simple enough, or so we thought.

I saw the vein in John’s forehead pound, and the redness of his face increased in direct variation to the growing number of cabs that sped past. The answer to his question escaped me. Maybe there was some different way to hail a cab in France? But that seemed unlikely. For an instant I suspected that it was because of the wheelchair. But I instantly dismissed that as a possibility. Nobody could be that stuck up, not even the French. Right?

Whatever the reason, it was becoming apparent that we were not going to find a taxi. Our group had departed almost an hour prior. Drew was on crutches with a broken foot and I was being pushed by John in my manual wheelchair.

We had been walking three or four blocks in the blistering summertime heat of Southern France. Drew was pouring with sweat and I knew he had to be hurting. He hadn’t uttered a word of complaint, but there was no way we could ask him to hoof it all the way back.

Just as I was losing all faith in humanity and beginning to curse the French, with their inability to spell anything phonetically, a Mini Cooper pulled up beside us. I’m not sure what I expected to happen next. But after ten days of hearing locals speak only French and Italian, I certainly didn’t expect the cheery British accent that came from the driver.

“You mates look like you could do for a ride.”

John and I looked at the diminutive car, exchanged glances, and surely had the same thought. How the hell were we going to all fit in there? Four grown men (including the driver), a wheelchair, a bulky cast, and two crutches.

“Uhh…,” I felt like I could see the gears of John’s mind working double time to untie this Gordian Knot. “Yeah, we can make it work. We have to.”

Just getting us all into the car required not only intense planning of everyone’s position but, as we discovered on our first attempt, the correct sequence of events. It only took us two tries to get all four people in the car, but then we realized my chair was still sitting outside on the curb. Damn it. We spent another ten minutes looking for something with which to tie it to the roof, until it was decided that John and I could each secure it with an arm out of the window

Here’s how we did it. Just in case you’re ever in a similar predicament, I guess. First, Drew got into the back passenger-side seat. His crutches and walking cast could only fit by sticking them out of the front window, which required some impressive flexibility on Drew’s part. John then helped me cram into the front seat, which had been cranked all the way forward. Next, John contorted himself into the backseat on the driver’s side. Each of us grabbed hold of the wheelchair, which our wonderful saint of a driver had placed on the roof. Lastly, the driver got in and put his seat dangerously far forward for John’s benefit. And we were off.

This, however, is where the fun really began. Our journey back into the city of Nice, though only about 10-15 minutes, included a steep hill with winding switchback curves. I only have one good arm and John was in a grotesquely unnatural position just to get one of his arms out of the front window.

Even driving slowly, I felt with absolute certainty that we were going to lose our grip and my chair would go plummeting over the guardrail. And that would have been the case on more than one occasion if our driver hadn’t somehow managed to steer, brake, and reach up and save the chair all in one deft maneuver. When we finally reached the bottom of the hill a collective sigh of relief was issued.

Then he turned to us and said, “Alright mates, where’s your hotel?”

It was only at this point in the journey that we realized we had no idea where we were going.