Make it a Double

As I looked out my cabin window at the feisty steel-gray seas of the Aegean, I knew the day was going to be challenging. Our ship had anchored in the caldera harbor of Santorini, Greece, consistently voted one of the world’s most beautiful islands by travel magazines. Oh so beautiful, they gush. Those white-washed blue domed churches are a must see, they urge. But travel magazines don’t have a category for world’s most inaccessible islands for those with multiple sclerosis. I know, right? A little warning would have been appreciated.

The very definition of not-glassy-seas.
The first sign of trouble appeared before I even left the ship. Santorini is a tender port for cruise ships, meaning you have to board smaller boats to get ashore. While cruise ship tenders tend to sync decently with their own ships, Greece requires ships to use their tenders, which sync not at all. This fact is compounded when the seas are not glassy flat.

As I stood waiting to board the tender, watching it bob up and down like a whack-a-mole game run amok, I naïvely thought “totally doable.” And then I tried to get on, putting my forearm crutches on the lip of the vessel, which promptly dropped several feet. Forearm crutches, it turns out, offer little support when they are both in midair. To avoid becoming fish food, this was going to require perfect timing, luck, and Scotch. Lots of Scotch.

The zig-zag climb up to Fira.
After what felt like a minute of false starts listening to instructions from the crew—“go now, wait don’t go, okay now, nope hold on, NOW NOW”—four large men helped me clamor down into the tender as fellow passengers watched on. I’ve never seen eyes so large in my life. I broke the tension the only way I knew how.

“Well, I guess we’re moving to Santorini, because I’m never getting out of this thing.” I was only half joking. Maybe a quarter joking. Fortunately, large and muscled Greek longshoremen were waiting at the dock to lift me out whether or not I wanted to permanently reside on the tender. Probably a good thing in the long run as it lacked restroom facilities and Laura wasn’t thrilled with the décor made up primarily of uncomfortable seats (my wife is so nit-picky). Little did I know the fun was just beginning.

To get to any of the towns in Santorini, which are all perched on the cliffs 800 meters above the bay, you have to go up the side of said 800-meter cliff. There are three ways to do this: take a donkey up 600+ steep and slippery steps holding on for dear life, climb the 600+ steep and slippery steps while avoiding donkeys and donkey poo, or take the cable car. Option C seemed most practical.

This is steeper than it looks.
After taking an elevator (reserved for the disabled), then a wheelchair lift (restricted to wheelchair users), I arrived at a cable car that was not wheelchair accessible. Really. To get on, you had to fold your wheelchair, duck down, and slink inside. Finally, after nearly an hour—tender, elevator, lift, cable car—we arrived in Fira, pronounced (appropriately) FEAR-ah. Why appropriately? See, the narrow, cobblestoned streets in Fira primarily go in two directions: straight up and straight down. This is a challenge for many tourists (I overheard one say he was going to die, and I believed him), but it is especially challenging in a wheelchair. At least there were no steps. But there were also no blue-domed churches, either. Those were in the town of Oia, known as the “eagle’s nest” or as, loosely translated by me, “town of many friggin steps.”

Oh crud. Fortunately our guide assured us the main, albeit narrow, marble pedestrian thoroughfare through town was flat with no steps. Brilliant! Except for the minor complication that it was neither flat nor step free. Ah, details, details. I was going to see those damn blue-dome churches one way or another after this escapade.

Busted? Really?
After playing tourist dodgeball, walking a bit and rolling a bit, there they were. Blue. Domed. Churches. Now, I could say that the trials and tribulations of getting to this perch were not worth the effort, but as the morning cloud cover had burned off and the skies turned an aching blue, the sight was every bit as pretty as advertised. This was worth it and I had the photos to prove it. Then reality sunk in. I still had to make it back to the ship in one piece. Santorini, that little devil, wasn’t done messing with me.

Naturally, almost predictably, in the few hours between our morning ascension, the wheelchair lift at the cable car had broken down. Could I do steps? the attendant asked. Oh yeah, I said (pronounced conveniently like Oia). Finally, epically, all that was left was the tender ride. After “boarding” the small boat as safely as one could with balance and wonky legs, knuckles began to whiten, faces began to ashen. All of my fellow passengers were genuinely concerned for my safety. Me? I was just calmly freaking out.

A small step for a man,
a giant leap for an MSer.
As the tender lined up with our ship, my shoulder felt many comforting pats as mumbles of Good luck and Godspeed rippled through the cabin. I am not joking. Finally it was just me and Laura on the tender as it bobbed fitfully. I climbed up the stairs and went for it. Nope. Then went for it again. Nope. The step was nearly three feet—we had to time my exit with the bob. Finally, and with a huge heave from the crew, I made it to the ship’s platform. Almost. My right foot, the weak and stubborn one, was stuck on the lip of the ship as the bobbing tender threatened to crush it against the side of the ship. I knew it was getting serious when the crew’s eyes began to widen, apparently the theme for the day. Their shouting also gave away their concern. And then… Laura reached up and popped my foot loose. I made it back aboard.

I saw my blue domes. Hot diggity!
Every adventure one takes with MS is going to deliver challenges, that’s a given. And some will be bigger than others. When that happens—when that challenge looks more like a mountain than a molehill—you are left with only question: how does one rise to meet such a challenge? For me, rising to such an occasion in Santorini was a bit more literal and included a fortuitous bob and four big dudes, but whatever. I survived to enjoy another day, and another day when I could enjoy my beloved beer and Cheetos. But today, this day, I was going to have a Scotch. Make that a double.


Unknown said…
Can I just say I love you, love your forge on no matter what attitude, and love your writings? I can't? Well I just did- you are amazing ! Thanks for your candor - Laura
Dave Bexfield said…
Laura, my wife (as you know, also a Laura) might have a small beef with your affection. But she'll get over it. Thanks for the nice comments!
Belinda said…
Dave, I also enjoy your travel posts. It is refreshing to see a fellow MSer move forward to travel despite the obstacles we encounter. I also LOVE to travel. My husband and I traveled to Israel in October and London in May.
We made plans to travel to Africa in August to visit a relative in Angola. However, we are required to obtain yellow fever shots as a visa requirement. This vaccination contains a live virus that the MS Society recommends we avoid, as there is a high risk of an severe relapse within 6 weeks of inoculation. I've already experienced a horrible relapse after the Shingles vaccine last year.
Have you taken the yellow fever vaccine in your travels? Do you have any experience with this?
Thanks for any feedback you can offer.
Dave Bexfield said…
Belinda, great to hear from a fellow traveler. I have not had to get the yellow fever vaccine recently (all pre MS), so I don't have a great answer for you. But I know a study showed a high relapse risk. Hopefully your MS specialist will have a recommendation. Happy travels!
Belinda said…
Thanks for the feedback, Dave. After weighing the pros and cons (and consultation with my doctor), I decided against the trip. Thank God that I take out travel insurance. However, it is disappointing. The good news is that the yellow fever shot is not required (plus no visa requirement) in South Africa. I believe that Botswana and Zimbabwe also do not require the shot. So, we are looking into changing plans for a regional meet-up. Maybe I will get to see Victoria Falls. Wish me luck. Thanks, again!
Dave Bexfield said…
Belinda, that's probably smart. Keep me posted on your travels. I just read about groups in Africa that specialize in wheelchair-accessible safaris, so I may try that in the future. And avoid the YF shot!
Aaron Cohen said…
We cruised to Santorini in November 2015.
After a delay because of heavy seas, I perched with my walker on the ship next to the pitching launch and said to my family, "I don't think I can do this." One of my sons in law said, "Oh yes we can!" Walker, scooter, Aaron and ten other family members visited Santorini. Wonderful trip, but none of the Greek Islands had any toilet seats.

Aaron Cohen
Dave Bexfield said…
Aaron, you rock. I was more like, OH, HELL NO. And then, bam, I was in the tender, and not turning back. As for the lack of seats, maybe we should come up with a portable toilet. I run into that all the time, even in restrooms dedicated to us gimps (at the Venice airport of all places!).
Unknown said…
Last year I tried to book a mediteranian cruise and was refused because of the tender landings; they also were insisting that my travel scooter would have to be constrained to in-cabin use only. Strange thing was that I had done a China Sea cruise on the same ship about 5 years earlier when it was owned by Seabourne (Beijing to Hong Kong with several port calls -- could have sold a dozen travel scooters; I was a tourist attraction myself; your accent of the cliffs in Santori brought back memories of my climb of the Great Wall). Windstar has aquired that ship, the Pride, refurbished and freshened it up. They assured us that none of the bulkhead ramping had been removed (allowing scooter travel the length of the small ship), and claim to have upgraded and still offer the accessible cabins, but this is the first ship in their fleet that could be called accessible and they had never had a wheelchair traveller. I was VERY disappointed. Hopefully their attitude will change if only they can relax their anxiety over potential liability and allow a few of us on board.
Love your blog, BRIAN
Dave Bexfield said…
A scooter for in-cabin use only? Uh, what? I was just thinking that Windstar was permanently off limits to me, then this gave me hope, and promptly dashed it! Thanks Wood for the insight.

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