So this is the first of 3 blogs on my recent trip to the US of A. Part 1 will show the importance of planning and then layout the awesomeness that is San Francisco! ‘Awesomeness’ is a word as I heard it on American radio – ok.
It is not unheard of to say planning is key, but with my disability and additional needs it is 10 times more important. Having completed my trip of a lifetime to Australia 5 years ago much of the steps were the same. However this trips original idea was conceived back in May at the Sunnier Days event I ran. My friend Srin said during the seminar he was planning a trip to South Africa for his social enhancement. I mentioned my interest to join him. Soon after I coincidentally had a catch up call with my ex girlfriend and now good mate Tina. She said if I needed help with care she would be happy to assist. Unfortunately the trips costs ran away and we knocked the safari on the head, but stated a trip of some description would happen that would be hardcore!
We looked at Brazil and Cuba first. The problem here was access but more so the time we had before November to nail it. Cuba did not even have an accessible vehicle anywhere. I will make one of these destinations happen in future but nonetheless they were dropped for now. Having been to New York, Florida and DC we felt confident in USA access, plus the west coast was unexplored terrain. Suddenly San Francisco, Vegas and LA looked do-able but challenging.
When booking a holiday I go about it as anyone else, but as you saw sometimes I have to take practicalities into account and be flexible. Once we knew California was the one, we checked flight prices. Airlines are obliged to cater for wheelchair users but if the prices are similar the bigger airlines are safer bets for service. So we went with BA as it was a good price and a direct flight. As soon as you have booked your flight, go through the airlines website pages to indicate your disability and needs. Information required varies and often a phone call may be necessary too. For me they need to know my chairs dimensions, that I need the chair until boarding at the gate, I need assistance lifting on the plane and that the chair has dry cell batteries.
Regarding accommodation, having been messing about with the destination for too long and knowing the USA was good for disability, we were quite relaxed about not booking everything before we flew. We booked the San Francisco hotel straight away. Using the normal rule of location and price like anyone else would, a couple were identified. Then using their website and making a couple of calls we ascertained whether they had accessible rooms and roll in showers. We stayed at http://www.sfocp.com/. Simples.
Transportation in the past has been accessible taxis or public transport. In America you need the freedom of a hire car anyway, but with a wheelchair its the sensible option. We tracked down 2 companies using google (“wheelchair accessible vehicle hire”) and http://www.wheelchair-getaways.com/ could take both wheelchairs for £1000 less than their competitor. Their service also enabled us to have the car delivered to San Francisco and leave it on our departure day at LAX airport. The car door jammed on day 2 and they were amazing by coming out on a Saturday and giving us a replacement. This one also had some issues and they allowed us a better (third car) before the 10 hour Vegas journey. Not ideal but the company ensured it didn’t ruin our trip. So Srin and I were both fully transportational, while Hugh (Srins PA) and Tina were insured and ready to drive on our Cali road trip.
Packing is always a little stressful. I boil it down to the essentials on a list and anything else can be bought and replaced. However being disabled means the essentials are sizeable. Srin brought his mo-lift hoist and shower chair. I have often hired a hoist after googling local organisations and managed without showering. Being a longer trip, bed baths would have struggled to keep me from smelling so I was glad of the shower chair. I had to remember my sling for the hoist (the material placed under me, attached to the hoist – a crane type machine to lift me), the knee pad to stop my knees getting pressure sores at night and my chair charger. I just kept my luggage within the weight limit but I know Srin struggled. If issues arise at check-in explain to the people there are disability aids present, they should make special allowances for you.
To be honest parts of the journey itself is harrowing, but I have learned to pre empt issues and chill out as much as possible. Up at 5am, I drove Tina and I to Heathrow (having worked all day and delivered a training session in the evening the previous day). We managed with the luggage getting on the bus from the car park to terminal 5. The boarding went ok but as the video shows I am a little vulnerable here. The 11 hour journey on a different seat hurts my bum and I need help eating and moving. Tina was ace. So after nearly 24 hours I was back in my own chair and acquainted with Srin and Hugh in California.
Tina had not met Srin or Hugh, I hadn’t met Hugh and so we were 4 people thrown together by fate. Srin and I have SMA and met at a http://www.jtsma.org.uk/ conference where we arm wrestled years ago. We hadn’t ever spent so much time together either. It all clicked straight away though. We took a ride into San Fran that evening to a cool organic restaurant. However Tina and I hit the sack by 9pm and knocked out.
The next morning we had the car issues as mentioned but we still managed the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and the Pacific ocean at Golden Gate park. The video indicates the view but wow. I had goosebumps all day long. I love travelling for that feeling of new experiences, new people and new thoughts. These kicked in straight away I can tell you. Any stress from London, work, chest infections etc dissipated. The only way we were able to fit so much in during the time we had in San Francisco was by using the San Francisco city guide that our hotel had given us when we checked in, it really was a god send, if we hadn’t of been given it I don’t think we could have planned our day out as well as we did.
On the Sunday we took the most amazing trip to http://www.yosemitepark.com/. Tina was very excited as she is a keen climber and had heard lots about this place. Unfortunately November means there is snow there, being a mountainous terrain. So having marvelled at the views we hit a sticking point. We were unable to enter the actual park without snow chains for the car. Costing $75 we felt it might not be worth it and it all sounded quite treacherous. Suddenly we all came over brave and said we’d come all this way and should bite the bullet. Check out the pictures on flickr! Luckily the resident Austrian knew how to attach them as the 3 brits had no clue.
I can say it was totally worth it. We saw the rock face El Capitain through the beautiful falling snow and astounding waterfalls. We were all in awe.
On the way home the first running gag occurred. All road trips need them. A cute waitress was asking after our accents and where we lived. She then came back and said – “can I ask you a question”? we said of course. So she proceeded to ask if London is a big place in England. Bless. The rest of the trip we would ask each other, if we could ask a question. Silly but got a giggle everytime. On the Monday we explored more of San Fran. That evening we met my dads friend from school days who lives out there now. He took us to an amazing Japanese restaurant http://www.benihana.co.uk/ where they juggle, cut and cook the food in front of you
Overall San Francisco was very good for wheelchairs. Having the car solved transport issues but I think in the city we would have managed. Most buildings were accessible and the people were great. It is known for being a liberal and open city and I really felt that. I love diversity and openness. I really felt San Fran offered this and our stay there was magnificent. Final analysis after part 3 but needless to say we left happy and set for our 10 hour road trip to Vegas on the Tuesday. Brace yourselves for this one 😉