When Bonnie Arthur and her boyfriend, Barry, of Detroit, MI, dreamed of a tropical paradise with clear ocean waters and friendly island people, they refused to let assured access stand in their way. They leaped into the land of unknown access on their March visit to the South Pacific's Cook Islands and are glad they did.
Traveling without assistance gives me confidence. It gives me the high of independence and freedom, and sets me free. The most important things I take with me are a sense of humor, to keep things in perspective when encountered with an obstacle (there will always be some with each journey, even for the non-disabled traveler), and flexibility for altering plans if necessary.
Good choices I made on solo journeys are Las Vegas, various Florida cities, Chicago, California towns and many locations in Michigan, my home base. Access in these places is plentiful and easy to find. I can rent a car with hand controls when I want one, or take advantage of public transportation, such as buses with lifts, trolleys, and transit systems. Accommodations with wheelchair access are plentiful and available in all price ranges, so the choices are varied, and planning a trip is easy and fun. I can choose a roll-in shower or tub, expect to have lower closet rods and sinks and I expect to have access to all the facilities a resort or hotel offers.
Ignorance is Bliss: So, maybe it's been too easy, and I wanted a challenge. Or maybe it was the lure of a distant, tropical paradise, clear ocean waters and friendly island people waiting to welcome me with lei's of flowers placed around my neck. Never mind that my inquiries on accessible lodging came up empty, never mind flying a 10- hour stretch without an accessible restroom, never mind I was going blindly into the unknown; it was the opportunity to go where few people who use wheelchairs have gone before. This opportunity was provided by my beau, Barry, whose strong back and good humor assured me that with his help we would have a great time, accessible or not.
Rarotonga is the major island of the 15-island group, in the center of the Polynesian Triangle. Tahiti is the nearest neighbor, some 700 miles away. With a total population of 20,000 combined for all the islands, this promised to be an exotic getaway.
Before our departure in March, 2002, I spent many hours looking at web sites on lodging, both private cottages and larger resorts on the main island and also looked at information on a popular outer island, Aitutaki. I found very little that resulted in wheelchair access, but thinking there must be more to be discovered in person, I fought the fear and booked airfare from Detroit to Los Angeles, making a connection with Air New Zealand to Rarotonga.
I purchased tickets through a "bucket shop", or wholesaler I found on the Internet. This was even more frightening than the unknown turf I would visit. I trusted my instincts that the agency was reputable, and mailed them a certified check for two round-trip tickets, Los Angeles to Rarotonga, Cook Islands. Five anxiety-filled days later, the tickets arrived, and everything was in order. Our passports took just two weeks to arrive, due to tourism markets being light. We were going to the South Pacific for 17 days!
Trussed-up and Away: There is no way to avoid the dreaded "aisle chair" if you can't walk to your aircraft seat. Criss-crossed with Velcro straps, I felt like luggage on a handcart as the aisle chair maneuvered through the narrow aisle to my seat. Advice: make sure an aisle chair stays on board during your flight; you'll need it to get to the restroom. The ten-hour flight was made enjoyable by the Air New Zealand flight attendants who pampered me with gourmet meals, free-flowing wine, first-run movies and comfortable seats with footrests. Departure from L.A. was night flight, and we arrived in Rarotonga 6 a.m. the following morning, weary and eager.
Welcome to paradise: How hot was it? From 30 degrees in Detroit to about 90 degrees with 99 percent humidity in Rarotonga takes an adjustment. That wasn't the heat from the jet engines we felt as we left the plane - that was the air temperature, and it lasted throughout the stay. My first sightseeing was the restroom. The terminal restroom had no stalls wide enough for a wheelchair, so as I crawled from my chair to the toilet, I chanted my mantra of keeping a good attitude. A small price to pay for paradise.
Our host, Norman, was there, waiting to take us to the cottage we rented the first nine days. I found this private cottage on the Internet, and chose it for the open layout, the deck level to the living room for access, wide doorways, large bathroom and because he offered to build a ramp at the three steps up to the entrance. I knew I was in trouble when I saw the ramp was straight over the steps, no gradual incline, and no way I could push myself at that angle. Inside the cottage was fine, but I resigned myself to rely on Barry's help to get in and outside.
Roads Less Traveled: There are few cars for hire in the Cooks, and no cars with hand-controls, so I was a passenger in the jeep as we explored Rarotonga. Driving is on the left, and the steering wheel is on the right-- resulting in some serious screaming from the passenger side on occasion.
I was curious to see the town, so the fist morning's exploration was to the bank to exchange U.S. currency for NZ dollars. You give the cashier $300 U.S. dollars, and you receive $692 NZ dollars. We felt rich until we discovered frozen turkey cost $60 and lettuce $7 a head, etc. The bank entrance was ramped! I was encouraged to see more of the town. Most of the shops were ground level in the main section, but many smaller stores had either one 12" high step or several steps at the entrance. With the exception of the bank and a small grocery store, ramps were something I left behind in the U.S.
In Rarotonga, we drove by the "Home for the Disabled", where people with disabilities, young and old, live. There are no islanders in wheelchairs out and about. I asked about children born with a handicap, and was told the child stays at home with the family, and doesn't go to school. There are no provisions to any disabled person to mainstream into public life. I was looked upon with amazement, and often was complimented on my strength to wheel on my own power.
At the Saturday market, I flagged down another tourist using a wheelchair (the only other wheelchair-user I saw) who was from Switzerland. He chose to stay in a larger resort where access was better, but he still needed help from the resort staff to access areas not ramped. At $400-600 NZ a day for the larger resorts, we decided to hang tough in our private cottage with the ramp from hell.
I Like It Here: I liked the friendly islanders who smiled and waved to us as they went about their day traveling by moped, babies in tow, wearing fresh flowers in their hair -even the men. The islanders speak Maori and English, clipped with New Zealand/Australian accents. Their hospitality and generosity are as alluring as their island's beauty.
I enjoyed the heat (there was a snowstorm at home), enjoyed the abundance of fresh fruit and coconuts we picked, the tropical flowers growing everywhere, and even enjoyed the pigs next door, living on their beach-front digs. I relaxed and slowed my pace. I melded with the island, and left my clothes unpacked, wearing only pareus, (sarongs), and swimsuits, the only sensible thing for the tropics. The sun shined even during the short, frequent rains, and double rainbows were as common as frangipani.
The scenery of the island looks like a movie set, turquoise lagoon, fragrant flowers and a mist over the mountain peaks. The warm ocean invited me to snorkel every day; just a few feet out from our beach we saw blue starfish, corals of every hue. Finding tropical reef fish was as easy as looking into an aquarium. Barry's hope of fishing for big game was dashed by elusive tuna, windy ocean conditions and only three charters running, so we fished inside the lagoon for smaller game like snapper and grouper.
Bugged: Did I mention there are few places that have screens, including restaurants? I love the romance of outdoor dining on patios, sand floors, bare-foot waitstaff, warm island nights with tiki torches and small lizards keeping us company as we eat. This is island life. Having no screens or air conditioning at the cottage is not romantic, and the heat made it necessary to keep all windows open to sleep. One night, a large crawling thing tried to dig its way into Barry's ear as he slept. He hasn't moved that fast in years. A small price to pay for paradise.
Let's Go Where Access May Be Worse: On the tenth day into the journey, we went to an outer island, Aitutaki, flying 45 minutes on Air Rarotonga's small commuter plane. This beautiful island is known for its picturesque lagoon, eight miles wide in some places. Did I mention the 12 steps into the plane that Barry carried me? A short time later and down the steps again, we were met by our lodging hosts for the transfer to our next place. Remote, sparsely populated, untouched by tourist attractions, and blessed by a spectacular ocean, the island was something dreams are made of. We relaxed, swam, fished and slowed our pace.
I was happy with our efficiency at Maina Sunset. There were just two small steps into the room (my access standards had lowered), and there were cement walkways to an accessible pool! I was almost self-sufficient. With the NZ $ exchange rate it was a real bargain at $38 U.S. a night.
Traveling and Traveling Home: On our fifteenth day, we began the long trip home by boarding Air Rarotonga from Aitutaki back to Rarotonga, which by now, looked like New York. While we waited for Air New Zealand flight back to L.A., we amused ourselves observing the travelers arriving in Rarotonga, weary after their long flight. They carried useless coats and jackets, wore long sleeves, long pants, sweatshirts, and sox, wilting as they made their way through customs in the 90-degree nighttime temperature. Our tanned and savvy departing group was dressed lightly and relaxed, finally used to the tropical heat. Not a pair of sox in our group! We left Aitutaki on Monday, and landed in Detroit on Wednesday morning, spending many hours in flight and in airports.
Kiss a Ramp: Would I go back to the Cook Islands? Probably not. I enjoyed all the experiences, even the hard ones. I swam and snorkeled in the lagoons, and saw places that I thought lived only in my dreams. But this is what I learned: Not even paradise is a trade-off for independence. I briefly traded it to visit a place that has no disability access codes or laws. A place where equality doesn't exist for anyone with a disability. I surrendered my independence to the ways of the island for a short time, and I'm thankful that this was my choice, not my fate.
Thank you, Barry, for making it possible. As the chiropractor un-knots the kinks from his back, he tells me it was a small price to pay for paradise!
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