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We adore China, and have been there several times on extended trips. There is such a difference in lifestyle and culture from what we are used to in the States. It is ancient. It is modern. As a civilization, it dates back thousands of years. But it is also a country very much in the "here and now". China is growing like a teenager, sprouting and bursting out in all directions. The old ways are giving in to new ways of thinking. Of doing. Construction everywhere. Attitudes changing and reshaping. The country is flexing its muscles in areas of world trade and political influence.
China is a place we have wanted to visit for years. As a clinician, the Chinese system of medicine, and particularly acupuncture, intrigued me, and I wanted to see things first hand for myself. When we finally found ourselves in China, however, the most important thing was to see the Great Wall. Nothing could stop us. Well, almost nothing.
To get to the Great Wall, it is a long drive out of the city to the locations of the main tourist entrance. The roads are narrow and choked with slow moving, smoke spewing vehicles. Old Russian tractors that have been cannibalized to supply power to carts and wagons clog the roads. If any one of them breaks down, the traffic snarl can take hours to unravel, and in the meantime, you are breathing air so polluted it makes your lungs burn. But after all, you remind yourself, it is THE GREAT WALL.
When we got to the entrance, I was horrified. There were stairs, lots and lots of stairs we would have to climb to get into the Wall. And not smooth, easy to climb stairs. These were rough, hand hewn stairs of uneven depth, slanting this way and that. A disabled traveler's nightmare! We had come much too far to turn back, and too many dreams would go unfulfilled if we left now.
How could we possibly negotiate these stairs, or would we have to yield to this seemingly impossible situation, skipping the completion of something we had long dreamed of doing? "No", we decided, "it meant too much for us to simply return to Beijing without completing this experience." To turn our backs on what might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity would be a mistake. We had to find a way to do this.
We were with a pre-hired English speaking guide and a driver who spoke only Chinese. But language wasn't really necessary, as the driver could see the situation. He was the one who came up with exactly what we needed. Going around to the trunk of his car, he pulled out a steel rod, something like a crowbar. He slipped this under the front wheels of the wheelchair and with him on one side, our guide on the other, and me at the rear, we started to carry the chair up the stairs!
On our way to the Top of the Wall
At some point in this assault on the stairway, I realized I had suddenly gotten older. The guy who used to be able to do anything and go everywhere was gone, and in his place was this new fellow, me, a man with decided limitations. The angle of the stairs was too great for me, and I was not strong enough to hold up my end of the wheelchair. It didn't help to know that my age was more than that of the guide and driver combined! There was no place to stop where we were, so I gamely stuck it out until we reached the first landing. We put Nancy down there, and I sat down to catch my breath and think up another solution.
Between gasps of breath, Nate works out "Plan B."
Over to the side of all this stood two young Red Army soldiers, smoking and chatting casually against the wall, as they enjoyed their cigarette break. I walked directly toward them. Knowing there was little chance they could speak English, I beckoned for them to follow me over to where Nancy was sitting in her wheelchair on the landing. They knew immediately what I wanted when they saw the driver holding the steel bar. The driver, said nothing, but he was clearly alarmed at the approach of the two armed soldiers. I reassured him by patting his shoulder and signaling they had come to help- nothing more! He understood, and immediately placed the bar under the front wheels of the chair. He took one end, the guide took the other, just as they had done previously. The two young soldiers put their rifles under the rear wheels, and the four of them carried Nancy up the stairs to the top of the Wall
You would have thought some movie star or rock singer had come to the area. Flashbulbs were popping off, video cameras were rolling, all of the tourists already on the Wall were taking pictures of us coming up the stairs. When we got to the top, many of them broke into applause at our accomplishment. As you can see in the photo that follows, it was no small deed. But certainly worth the effort! How many people do you know who have been on the Great Wall of China? How many of those were in wheelchairs?
If we can make it here, we can make it anywhere. So can you.
This was not the first, nor would it be the last set of stairs we would struggle to conquer. There are other stairways leading to equally fascinating experiences. There are stairs into aircraft. Stairs on and off a ship. What pleasures await if you can do those?
There is always a way to resolve stairs, usually involving the kindness of strangers who will pitch in, like the Red Army officers. A few times I have paid someone to help out, but usually this is very little money and certainly worth it to permit us the pleasure of the experience.
In the photos that follow, you will see virtually every type of situation you may encounter. This first shot is one where I was able to hire some guides waiting around for customers at the Li River cruise in China. These five guys split 250 yuan, $24 at prevailing exchange rates. Had I hired local "hanger-outers", I could have probably gotten away with half or less.
Was it worth the cost and the energy? To look at this picture, you might think NOT. But before you judge, look at this next picture- and then you tell me...
Sights along the Li River
Once down the steps, we got aboard a large river cruiser. This is one of the scenes before us. You won't see upside down ice cream cone mountains anywhere else. We had no trouble communicating what we wanted. No trouble, either, negotiating how much it would cost. When you are bargaining or negotiating, think in terms of THEIR economy, not yours.
Here is a similar situation, with a different solution. These photos were taken on our very first cruise, aboard the Dawn Princess in Alaska. The crew have loaded Nancy onto their "Spyder", a device with rubber treads like a tank. She is locked in for safety, then the device is activated and it climbs the stairs automatically. Problem is pre-solved!
Next, another cruise, this time in the Antarctic. I had spoken with the captain of this vessel by ship to shore telephone months in advance to be sure he and his crew would be able to assist us. He told me there would be no problem- as long as the seas were calm. If the seas were rough, and he would be sole judge of whether she could or could not leave the ship and get into the Zodiac rafts for landings. I decided to take the chance, and booked the trip. First time out, seas were calm, and the crew easily brought her down the gangplank.
Nate (in white pants) and Nancy in Zodiak
In truth, the transfer from ship to Zodiac raft was disarmingly simple. In all such situations, the willingness of people to help is critical. No one refuses, because, "There but for the grace of G_D..." Nancy made 8 of the 11 landings on the Antarctic Continent. Two she missed because of rough seas, where it clearly would not have been safe for her to be loaded off the stairs into the Zodiac. The remaining landing was at Cape Horn, where the only way up the very steep cliff was by climbing a rickety set of wet and icy stairs.
Next photo shows an amusing landing. We headed for an old whaler village located on the shores of a volcanic lake. The water was 43 degrees F, and a swimming hole was dug. Everyone who actually went into the open water, then into the warmth of the 'swimming hole' got a certificate. The rest of us just marveled at the craziness of it all
Nancy decides NOT to join the Antarctic Swim Club
Speaking of crazy, perhaps you think we were out of our minds for even considering such a trip. I think that misses the point. What is important is that we took the chance- played the cards, and won! To take the trip was a decision not made lightly. Here's how it came about:
We had gone to Yellowstone National Park for a week, and Nancy was absolutely thrilled at the sight of all the wildlife. She just could not get enough of it. Wanting to give her more of that kind of experience, I next booked the trip to Alaska, and we had the time of our lives. Then, I was stumped. Where could we go for another adventure that would give her more outdoors, more wildlife, yet be different from the previous two trips?
In surfing the Internet, I happened upon someone's web site where the owner posted pictures and descriptions of his trip to Antarctica on behalf of National Geographic Magazine. What I saw there completely captivated me, especially in terms of "never been there, never seen or done that". It didn't take more than 2 or 3 of his pictures, however, to convince me it could never be done with a regular wheelchair. I would simply have to find some form of transport able to handle the difficult terrain.
To do this, I reasoned, would require a chair with large wheels, at least larger front wheels. I went online with a search engine, and typed in "Big Wheel Wheelchair". I was amazed at the result. There must have been close to 5 or 6 pages of names and addresses that came up. I checked all of them out, then decided the Natural Access chair from Landeez offered the greatest flexibility and safety. As discussed in the chapter on wheelchairs, this chair wa approximately $2,500- certainly not cheap. However, knowing Nancy's situation was not going to change, that is, she was never going to be able to do without some sort of assisted transport, I decided to forego some things I had planned to buy, and "invest" the money instead on this chair. Buying that chair is a decision we have never regretted, for no other type of assistive device has given us as much opportunity or as much enjoyment as that chair has provided.
A few years later, ageing changes caught up with me and I was having trouble pushing the chair over difficult terrain. I decided to motorize the chair, replacing the large rear wheels of our "Dune Buggy" chair with motorized wheels made in China for use with electric bicycles. It took me nearly a year to find someone willing to build it, and nearly another year to actually make the modifications.
There are always new possibilities. Be open to them. Work hard at not letting anyone, yourself included, poke you into a syrup jug. If you break free, let your imagination fly upward. "Ideate" yourself. Change 'Cannot' to "Can". There is almost always a solution. Forgive our preaching. Back to the story.
A boat of a different sort. This one, the sloop "Elsie", belonged to the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell.
Sailing in the Canadian Maritimes
It was available, on charter, as an excursion for another cruise we had booked, crossing the Atlantic, through the Canadian Maritimes. The cruise company here also did not want to permit us to sign up for this excursion because we might somehow endanger the other passengers- or be swept overboard by a giant wave, or whatever. Employing the "Just Say No Rule", I mad a similar offer to this cruise line as I had to Princess: Let us at least try it. If it really is an endangerment to anyone, we will let it go, but pay for it anyway. Take the chance...
They bought it! When we got to the dock, we simply stepped aboard the boat from the pier. We had the Elsie for a most delightful afternoon sail around the lake. After, the sail, we all had a lobster feast that was out of this world! It was another marvelous experience we never would have had if we allowed others to decide for us what we could or could not do.
We run into this again and again. And again and again, you'll be rewarded take the chance. The odds are nearly always in our favor. In all our travels, we have been disappointed only twice. Think of that- only two times it didn't pan out. Those are not bad odds at all.
And finally, this shot- loading Nancy into a small plane, about to leave Churchill, Manitoba, Canada for a lodge somewhere in the wilderness.
I am inside pulling, These guys are doing the heavy lifting. First, we had to remove one of the seats in this 6 seater craft to make room.
Despite what it looks like, Nancy was nice and comfy while the rest of us worked hard to get the wheelchair, gear, and other passengers into the plane. This was at the start of an adventure to see the Polar Bear migration. Now, the rest of the story and the arrangements we made:
We flew direct into Winnipeg, Canada from DC. Then into Churchill from Winnipeg on a regular commercial 737 jet. We were met by the pilot and the tour leader at the airport, then taken out to the runway to board this little plane, with the intent of flying further out in the"boonies" to Dymon Lake Lodge. We have found people are eager to meet us more than halfway. We have come to rely on knowing they will unerringly help us find a way to solve whatever problems we encounter.
Here, to get Nan aboard, the pilot had to remove one of the six seats in the plane, a lovely DeHavilland all the bush pilots use in that part of the world. Yes, it was hard work, but if you think it was a pain or bother for him to do so, think about it from his perspective. Like every job, his became mundane after a while. Yet here is a challenge for him. Something unique. As he, himself told us any number of times during our stay, he was absolutely thrilled at being able to help people as obviously intrepid as the two of us. He figured if we had the "guts" to do this, the least he could do was help make it happen.
All over the World, strangers come over and remark on our courage. I guess all of us tend to look at someone disabled and think, "There but for the grace of G_D"... So we gladly pitch in to help any way we can. Nancy and I do not take that for granted, but we do take comfort in knowing Albert Einstein was correct. When someone once asked, "Professor Einstein, why are we here? What is the reason for men and women to be on this planet?" He answered, "We are here for one reason only. And that is for the purpose of serving others."
I am amazed at how often people will say to me, "Your wife is certainly lucky to have you for a husband". In the spirit of Dr. Einstein's observation, I tell them they have it wrong. It is I who is lucky to have her. If it is true that we are here for the purpose of serving others only, and I certainly do believe it is true, then I have been blessed with the opportunity to care for someone I love and respect most in the whole world. I am able to serve someone whose needs are so great, any effort I make on her behalf is significant. All of us who are caregivers know our job is most difficult, but without a doubt, it is also the most rewarding. We do it without complaint, paid by the appreciation of those we serve. We have no regrets, Nancy and I. We wouldn't trade our life together for anyone else's.
What did we gain, going to the High Arctic? Into the cold, staying in some far distant lodge with no television and none of the amenities we are used to? This is what!
The age old battle for survival.
These pictures will not only show you why we went- but why you should go too. The photos are real life, real time. A confrontation between the polar bear on the left, and the red Arctic fox on the right. Because he is closer to the camera, the fox looks to be nearly the same size as the bear. He isn't. The bear outweighs him by close to eight hundred pounds! The fox had been chasing a rabbit and did not see the bear approaching from downwind until the bear was nearly upon him! I took this shot just as the fox realized he was being stalked and turned to face his attacker. Although now no more than 15 feet apart, the fox is in no danger because he is many times faster than the bear. And yes, he got away, but then, so did the rabbit.
From behind a snowbank, up popped these two Polar cubs.
Another fabulous experience: Here are two bear cubs suddenly peeking over a snow drift. A moment earlier, their Mom came from behind the drift to "scout around", and has now signaled them it is safe to reveal themselves.
With Momma nearby, the cubs are not afraid to come out.
Out they come, brother and sister, the larger male cub leading the way.
"Dancer" doing his thing.
The bear is a 'regular'. He has been named Dancer, and he is the largest polar bear in Churchill at the time. He recognized the guy in the Tundra Buggy. Notice the driver does not reach out to pet him. To do so will cost him an arm. To Dancer, the driver is just lunch.
As you have now seen with your own eyes, it was an utterly breathtaking experience! We saw literally dozens of Polar Bears in Churchill, though not a single one at the lodge which was some 30 miles outside of town. Make no mistake. This is hard work, not a piece of cake by any stretch of the imagination. But it can be done. And look what rewards you reap for your efforts.
I'll throw in one more photo, just in case your appetite has not been whetted enough for you to make the trip to Manitoba. Below is a picture of the famed "Northern Lights", the Aurora Borealis. To set the scene for you, we were coming out from dinner and saw this weird phenomenon in the sky above. Our local guide suggested we all pile into the van and drive to the outskirts of town to get away from the lights of the houses and businesses. Inside the van, it was warm and cozy. Outside, it was bitter cold. Fingers freezing. I set my camera on a miniature tripod for a two minute timed exposure. Here's what I got:
You never know what form these lights will take. It's really spooky, but neat at the same time. Tell us- Could you use some of this adventure, excitement and vitality in YOUR life? Here's the rest of this story:
After viewing a PBS special on the Polar bear migration, we decided to try to go. I "Googled" for 'Polar bear migration' and 'Churchill, Manitoba', then contacted the various agents sponsoring these excursions. We selected the one we thought best suited what we wanted, and hired them. Your choices are mostly dependent on the length of time you will be in Churchill, and how much you want to spend on other "niceties". All of the travel agents will arrange for you to rent cold weather gear in advance of your trip- boots, coats, gloves, etc. You pick this up on arrival in Churchill. We rented only the parkas and down filled pants. Cheap- like $25. The only other thing I considered renting is boots for myself- but I didn't. Instead, for both of us, I bought special thermal insulated socks at a local ski shop near our home in Washington. I also bought a number of chemical warm-up packets. You "break" the packet, then put it into your boots or gloves. They do a great job of keeping your hands and feet cozy. Additionally, I purchased a special pair of thin, thermal gloves so I could take pictures. It is hard to work a camera when you are wearing mittens, and it is too cold not to protect your fingers.
Churchill is a funky little town- all basics, nothing fancy. All the guest houses will be able to accommodate the disabled traveler, just don't expect luxury. Fly to Winnipeg from your hometown. Then, the choices are to take the train from Winnipeg, or fly directly to Churchill. Most take the train (cheap), but it is a long ride and rather cramped. We chose to fly (expensive), and pre-arranged for someone to meet us at the airport. If you go with a large group, the train gives you time to 'bond', and everyone we talked to seemed to really enjoy the experience.
Side excursions, such as the one we elected to take to fly to Dymon Lake, are available, but your adventure will be just as exciting if you just stay in Churchill. Arrange for 2 days on Tundra Buggies and you will be well rewarded.
There is another mode of transportation we have found especially enjoyable. Helicopters.
Nan is all smiles aboard this helicopter.
If you can get aboard, helicopters offer some unique and extraordinary views. We have flown over the mountains of Hawaii and hovered in front of waterfalls; we have flown over herds of animals in Africa; flown over the crest of Denali in Alaska. We have had little trouble getting aboard because Nancy is able to use a step stool. Even if you can't walk, don't assume you can't do this. Please read the next story:
Nearly all of the staff of one of Hawaii's Senators were patients of mine. Learning Nancy and I were going to Hawaii, they knocked themselves out making sure we would have a fabulous trip. All of them urged us to take a helicopter flight over the mountains, valleys and waterfalls, so I arranged for this. When I called the helicopter company, they had already been alerted by the Senator's staff. They assured me we would have no trouble getting aboard.
I had rented a car, and we drove out to the heliport. I transferred Nan into her wheelchair, than we checked in at the office to let them know we were there, and sat down in the office to wait for the pilot to arrive.
As the pilot's car pulled into the parking lot, a fellow I assumed to be a clerk came over and asked us to follow him out to the aircraft. He was a pleasant enough chap, a good bit overweight, I thought, wearing the traditional flowered shirt and mandatory flip-flops. As we approached the plane, we grew alarmed. We saw no step stool, no ramp, no nothing. For fully abled passengers, there was a grab bar inside the cockpit to grab hold of and swing into the aircraft. But Nancy would not be able to use that as a means of getting aboard.
"What's your plan?", I asked, trying to be as "cool" and "laid back" as the natives. "Not to worry, doc. Got the situation well in hand".
Indeed he did. He instructed me to get into the helicopter first, and slide over to the far side. Then, he brought the wheelchair as close to the plane as he could. Assuring Nancy she was in no danger, this fellow reached under her arms and lifted her straight up out of her wheelchair, straight up over his head! Then he stepped a little closer to the helicopter, still holding Nancy high in the air. He rotated slightly and put her into the cabin. I was flabbergasted! Got her seat belt fastened, seated myself, the pilot joined us and we were off!
As we have said, you poke yourself into the syrup jug when you pre-decide something is not possible. There is nearly always a way to accomplish what you want to do- you just have to take that chance, figuring the odds are in your favor. Everyone around you wants you to succeed, and you will, if you let yourself. On the other hand, if you pre-decide you cannot do it, or you aren't going to make it, or it's too hard, or isn't possible, or too risky, or isn't worth the effort- or, or, or- then, for sure, it isn't going to happen. Nancy and I feel life is too short to deny ourselves the opportunity to experience all that we possibly can. Negative thinking is never going to gain anyone the fullest measure of life!
The aim of all these stories and pictures is not so much to impress you with what we've done, but to stimulate your interest and give you the incentive to do some exploring of your own. There really isn't anything to fear, as long as you are not foolish. Be realistic about what you can and cannot do. In our own situation, we've given up hang gliding and pole vaulting, but we'll get over it ;>)
Once, a travel magazine writer asked if we regretted the things we weren't able to do. We told her we had so many things we could do, we didn't have time to worry about what we couldn't do. We think it was an intelligent answer.
Our first ever dogsled ride- Churchill, manitoba, Canada November 2004
Don't let our red noses put you off. We were not cold, and this was great fun!