For my husband Paul’s seventy-fifth birthday, I proposed we take a cruise—an educational cruise to some fascinating place we had never seen. The Metropolitan Museum offered appealing cruises. Inquiring about one, I described how polio had limited my mobility. I wear a full-leg brace; I use forearm crutches to walk about six city blocks and a motorized scooter for longer jaunts; I climb a couple of flights of stairs. The trip adviser said she’d have to consult someone who knew the trip’s demands. She called back: This is not the trip for you.
For each of four other appealing trips, the same routine ended in the same bleak verdict: This is not the trip for you. Was there any trip for me?
Someone recommended Exploritas, formerly Elderhostel (and now called Road Scholar). Since 1975 this company has provided trips with lectures and locally guided tours to people over fifty. For many retirees, Exploritas was a way of life.
Exploritas ranked the activity level of its programs from 1 to 6—easy to very athletic. Level 3 adventures demand the ability to walk over rough terrain for up to one mile at one mile-per-hour and to climb one flight of stairs without railings. The “Voyage to Antiquity from Venice to Istanbul” was the only level 3 trip on offer. Tracing the growth of the Venetian Empire—along the Dalmatian coast and through Greek islands to Constantinople—sounded offbeat and exotic. (Name five facts about the Venetian Empire.) The cost was reasonable and airfare was thrown in. Paul was reading a 600-page tome on the history of Venice. Let’s do it!
The day we registered my physical therapist put me on an endurance regimen: seven blocks this week, seven-and-a-half the next.
When I told the Exploritas adviser I’d be bringing my travel scooter, she said she’d have to look into that. She got back to me. No scooter. Why? The ship, the Aegean Odyssey, has just been renovated, and the company fears it might blow a fuse! I explained that the Pride Go-go, a state-of-the-art model used all over the world, automatically converts from 110 to 220 volts. Wait two weeks, she said finally; one of our staff is going to Rome to check out the ship. She’d get back to me.
I’d walked nine blocks the day an adviser called to say the ship could accommodate my scooter. An hour later, another adviser phoned: Sorry, there was a typographical error. The Voyage to Antiquity is not Activity Level 3, but Level 4.
Level 4 requires walking for up to two hours a day at two mph. My PT urged me to keep on walking the walk. He simulated uneven ground and loose rocks, and sometimes kicked one of my walking sticks to improve my balance.
A merciless heat wave hit Manhattan. Simply being at sea would be bliss. If I had to skip some excursions, I’d sit in cafes and sketch the locals.
The several advisers engaged on my case were sending mixed messages. A Turkish guide weighed in: She’ll survive, but she’ll have issues in Istanbul.
Survive! Any way I can communicate directly with this person?
Well, no, that’s not possible.
My resolve stiffened. This no longer concerned me alone, but the rights of my fellow gimps—and the temporarily non-disabled who are getting older–to judge our own capacities. Not everyone can afford such travel, but we all want the right to define our abilities and our needs for assistance.
Although I feared exposure as a Level 3 stowaway on a Level 4 cruise, I had to undergo this trial, for the future of my people.
Exploritas met us at the Venice airport and whisked us to San Basilio pier, where the Aegean Odyssey lay basking in the sun. Crewmen ran my scooter up the gangway, and its handrails made it easy to climb. We fell into bed.
At 8 a.m. we walked to the vaporetto. Forgotten Italian erupted inside me, burning through the thick crust of Spanish, as thrilling as the view of Piazza San Marco. The vaporetto left us at the stop nearest the Doge Palace, which was four bridges away. To cross each bridge, one mounted a full flight of stairs and descended another. My training had hardly prepared me for eight flights, but with Italian phrases surfacing on each one, sheer delight propelled me. Desire is the best crutch.
When it began to rain, Scott, our group leader, was concerned for me, but we told him to go ahead, we’d catch up eventually. I didn’t fear falling—there was always a wall or Paul’s shoulder to lean on—but my wrists began to burn from the effort. In front of the Doge, strips of white marble—slippery when wet—crisscrossed rough black stone. I maneuvered hop-scotch-wise through mobs of tourists.
The splendid halls of the Doge and its Tintorettos amply repaid the effort—and there were benches. More stairs to the Bridge of Sighs. Skipping the descent into the torture chambers, I waited by the cells for the condemned.
As I climbed the four bridges back to the vaporetto, pain shot up my forearms. On board at lunch, I couldn’t lift a glass with one hand. But I was exhilarated to have discovered such a reservoir of strength. I couldn’t recall so much climbing since 1957, when polio changed my life’s course.
And there was a spa on board! The manager, Jessica—“Jissica” in her charming New Zealand twang—massaged my aches away.
For the evening we had an exclusive invitation to the Basilica San Marco. The gold mosaics in the domes, virtually invisible in the dim light of day, were going to be illuminated. Wonderful, but I couldn’t face those four bridges. Scott granted us permission to take the public water taxi, which would drop us two bridges closer. The taxi stopped often and we were late when we landed. I persuaded Paul to go ahead and save me a seat. I’d be slow but I knew these bridges by heart now.
But after ten minutes, I saw Paul coming approaching with the woman who was our local guide. What’s going on?
They wouldn’t let me in, he said. They said, you can’t let your wife walk alone!
We’d never have stayed married for forty-five years if we’d been fused at the hip!
The woman nodded. But this is Italy.
We entered the basilica just as floodlights bathed the golden universe above.
Afterwards, while our compatriots hiked to the vaporetto, Paul and I celebrated in the Piazza, in a cafe just opened—the daylong drizzle had paused—sipping Campari spritzers. People came out to stroll, tossing their hands as they talked—Italy at last! Four musicians mounted a bandstand, wiped off their chairs, and began to perform for us, their sole audience. Bravi! The clarinet and the accordion were particularly allegro and vivace.
A private water taxi sped us back and we just made our eleven o’clock curfew.
We sailed south from the Basilica San Marco, whose portal was topped by gilded horses stolen from Constantinople in 1204 during the fourth Crusade. Beginning in the sixth century, Venetian ships set sail to colonize, invade, trade, exploit raw materials, enslave labor for its factories, build an unprecedented maritime power—with fortresses to protect it—and pillage treasure for the ever more brilliant island-city.
Voyaging through ten centuries of Venetian dominance, we would call at six ports in what is now Croatia, six in Greece, and disembark in the city renamed Istanbul after the Ottoman triumph over Constantinople in 1453. Venice’s power was thereafter curtailed. All this happened a few decades before Columbus’ first voyage.
In Pula, our first stop in Croatia, we saw the most intact of Roman amphitheaters. A ramp leads into this handsome red-rock structure. [Fellow gimps: The huge arena is scootable and the wheelchair-accessible restroom is superb.]
We went back to the ship as we had come—by tender. The tender draws alongside the ship and you step on a rubber lip bridging the gap between vessels. As there was nothing to grab while crossing the lip, two sailors grabbed my arms and lifted me upright into the tender. This was awkward and I almost lost my balance.
That evening Scott said the ship manager wanted to discuss his concerns about my safety. Good. I welcomed the chance to describe the kind of support I needed. The manager—call him Odysseus—said, You have a choice. Either we’ll take you off the ship at Dubrovnik and send you home on the plane or you agree never to take a tender again.
Send me home! They could throw me off the ship, but they couldn’t deport me. Send me home like a package?
What triggered this? Paul asked. She had no big problem.
Did the sailors helping me say they were worried?
No, said Odysseus. It’s not coming from the ship.
It’s not? Who, then, is making the ultimatum? Exploritas?
Neither Exploritas nor the ship, said Odysseus, it’s complicated.
Scott was tense. We’re just the messengers, he said.
How Kafkaesque is this? I thought. No one will tell me who’s my judge.
I asked, Could I talk with this person face to face? If he doesn’t know what I can and can’t do, it’s just prejudice.
Odysseus shook his head. They’ve given you a choice.
Obviously I’m not going to quit in Dubrovnik. But I want to be able to go ashore. Now that I’ve seen the tender, I said, I can do it. Let me hold onto the boats and give me a hand for the one step on the rubber lip. I’ve been a boat person all my life. I can adapt to your tender. People with disabilities have to invent ways to fend for ourselves. Our life is improvisation, every day.
Odysseus was unmoved. It’s your safety we care about, he repeated. We all knew safety was code for liability.
The next day while Jissica did wonders with my arms and legs I filled her in. That’s not feh! she said. You’re so eendipindint! The management of this ship is so terrible, crew members are quitting every day.
Not many of us had heard of Zadar before we docked there at dusk. On the pier below, the scene was surreal. Dark silhouettes strolled across a large disk lit from below by an explosion of colored light. Our Croatian guide told us the next morning that the disk was a solar panel; energy collected during the day powered the computerized light show. It’s called Salute to the Sun. Nearby we heard unearthly music, barks, groans and whistles. Pipes of varying lengths extended to the sea, and a line of holes perforated this magical promenade, creating a sea organ.
I scooted on streets paved in rosy stone to the ruins of a Roman Forum and the stunning ninth-century Greek Orthodox church built above it. Pointing out a drab box of housing, our guide said, Here’s an example of our marvelous socialist architecture. Now we are capitalists, capitalists without capital. But if we can create the sun and the sea organ, who knows what we’ll accomplish next?
That evening Scott told us he’d felt confused about my situation. To clear his head he’d run on the gym’s treadmill. I’m gay and I’m an atheist, he said, so I know discrimination (he lives in Salt Lake City). You have to keep educating everyone. You’ve certainly been educating me. So I’m going to propose that Paul and I will help you onto the tender so the ship won’t be liable.
Fine, but don’t knock yourself out. I don’t mind missing a few excursions, I said. It was true. The fight had been invigorating, not depressing. All travelers have to do their own cost/benefit (pain/pleasure) analysis, and I desired to see and experience only as much as I reasonably could.
Scott returned from his battle looking gray. I struggled with them for forty-five minutes, he said. But this is it—you have a choice: Dubrovnik airport or no more tenders.
No worries, Scott. You’ve been great.
When under ship arrest, I resolved, I’d make the most of it. Get a massage and conspire with Jissica. Maybe foment a mutiny.
I ended up missing four shore excursions. Paul brought back postcards and full reports. As often as not I had a session with Jissica during his absence.
[My chief advice for a Level 3 person undertaking a Level 4 program: find Jissica.]
With my spectral antagonist, I used a martial art: letting him “win,” causing no liability—and having my own great time.
Paul went the extra mile; I sat it out. While the group pursued history, I sampled local wine in the present. In Split, Emperor Diocletian’s ambitious retirement palace encompassed not only the museums and temples he’d dreamed of but the city too. A resounding Gregorian chant rewarded our climb to a domed stone room. Skipping the flights to Diocletian’s mausoleum, I lounged in the columned peristyle with ancient black-clad women selling heady wands of lavender.
On Korcula, the walled Old Town tops a round peninsula. Too many steps, so I scooted the lovely perimeter road, cafes on one side, pines and purple vistas on the other. The road was barely wide enough for a single car. When one approached, the laughing driver begged me not to break his car with my vehicle.
In these small encounters I learned some Croatian. Having a few words provides half the pleasure of travel. We’re strangers. Speaking to our hosts in their tongue transforms our contact—especially if we’re from the U.S., and more if we’re crippled.
Strangers have so long been enemies in Croatia, and tourism is so new, that the faces meeting ours were guarded. Many stared—some frowned—at my walking sticks or scooter, but they didn’t meet my eye—until I said dobar dan, good day, dobra vecer, good afternoon, or hvala, thank you. Then came the direct look, recognition.
Greek hospitality is legendary, and I felt warmly received, both as an American and as a wheeled centaur. In Crete, we walked through the Palace of Knossos. Sir Arthur Evans had excavated the site in the 1920s. Though his restoration was speculative and controversial, we were glad to see the bold colors and shapes of dolphins, snaky-locked girls, and a bull-riding boy acrobat. My practice walking on uneven ground paid off; Knossos was the toughest turf I trod. I was slow and weary, but happy.
Jissica kept feeding me the scuttlebutt. The ship company’s management was being shaken up. There were so many complaints about disorganization, confusion, and about my invisible nemesis himself—that his days were numbered. The mutiny was called off.
My own rebellion had long since mellowed. The cruise had become the trip for me in heartening ways. I may have been a Level 3 stowaway, but Venice’s hurdles had brought out my inner Level 4. When my stamina flagged, the opportunities for falling back, smelling the lavender and engaging the Croatians, were a revelation. I gained a resource for future travel.
So I was on a different level altogether when, nearing the Dardanelles, the final ultimatum was thrown down. We’ll send you home from Istanbul, unless you agree to let a young man push you in a wheelchair for $100 a day. I simply smiled.
Will he be a Turk? I asked. Handsome? Will he teach me Turkish?
In the end, along with the pusher, Ercan, we got Esra, a translator, both happy to be released for three days from routine work in the tour agent’s office. I never regretted this solution, though Ercan’s gleeful races over the cobblestones did make my butt sore.
Tips for Istanbul tourists in physical condition like mine: Find your Ercan and your Esra and set some ground-rules. Ask at the outset for a thick cushion to sit on; insist on walking a little to stretch your cramped legs; explain that you’ve been going by yourself to the bathroom for years, that you’ve been drenched before without calling it a day, that you’re able to walk through the harem, that you’re not too tired for the spice market and grand bazaar. And climbing bumpy stone ramps to the high balcony of the Hagia Sophia, tell Esra you’ll make it in the dim light if she tells you where the step is high and where slanted. And, slowly, you will make it and enjoy it, and, perhaps, on the way down get strong support from a pair of merry professors from the University of Istanbul.
Then, waiting for the others to descend into the Byzantine Cistern, Esra will teach you Turkish expressions as long as you take her picture and tell her she’s a melek [angel]. Ercan will teach you street Turkish and gestures, if you show him high five. And when you skip the many-staired tour of the Topkapi Palace to sit in the lovely garden, you will learn a child’s song (one correct version, one street version) about a little bird in your window that you rescue from the cold.
Whenever I said merhaba, chok iyi, ochay, sagol, or harika (hello, very good, okay, thanks, wonderful) in Istanbul, the Turks laughed.
The Roma went further. On our last evening, Paul and I taxied across the Bosporus to the Hodjapasha Art & Culture Center for a Sufi music concert and whirling dervish ceremony. It was held in a handsome round, high-domed room, built five hundred years ago as a Turkish bath. The lights went off and six musicians filed in. A young man sang a haunting melody, with microtones I’d never heard before. Five black-cloaked dancers performed an intricate series of paces and bows before shedding their black cloaks—a gesture, we learned, expressing the death of the ego. Their white garments bespoke the birth of the spirit, and in its spell they began to spin. Arms aloft, one palm down, one up, the dancers went into deeper trance. Ever faster, eyes closed, they kept ecstatic balance.
We returned to the charming (and completely accessible) Armada Hotel. The rooftop restaurant offers the Sea of Marmara to one side and to the other the Hagia Sophia, brilliantly lit when we dined. Calls to prayer from three different mosques mingled. We asked the waiter about plaintive singing from nearer by.
He snickered. It’s just the gypsies in the street.
We forewent dessert to hurry downstairs. The young bellhop was radiant. A Roma and a Sufi himself, he told us they were mourning for someone who had died. He directed us to the alley behind the hotel.
A small crowd was opening their hands in prayer. A man brought a folding chair and sat me in a row of cordial women, dressed in every fashion, old and new. Others arrived, lifting their hands. When the praying finished, drinks—plastic containers of yogurt’s whey with salt—were passed around. They shook our hands warmly when we left.
The next morning, our plane blessedly delayed, Paul and I returned to the alley where elderly Roma were sitting in the doorways of old wooden buildings. Merhaba, we all said. Several asked questions, pointing at my leg, or pantomiming my walk on sticks. The words were unintelligible to me, but the empathy was clear. A fit finale to a trip most unexpectedly for me.
Ochay, I said, sagol. They nodded.