The Locked-In Traveler
(Kati’s Wheelchair Traveling Journals)
The Longtail Boat
(Click here for audio version)
Our stay in Phuket, Thailand in winter 2001 was one of the sun, sand, and sea. The opposite of the gray, snow, and cold of back home. We did not do anything more but drink, eat, and enjoy the warm weather. The only thing we saw in two weeks was the hotel and the surrounding areas. Well, except for a two-hour trip to the city center and a night out to see Phuket Fantasia, which is the city’s biggest show in town.
Our friend Harry (a friend of a friend actually) who lived in Phuket told us about this marvelous island. It sounded beautiful, like paradise. He said that if we wanted, we could go there. “It would not be a problem to do this in a wheelchair,” he assured us. Without going into details, we accepted the invite.
Early the next morning, we arrived at the harbor where the boat was waiting to take us to the island. First, we had to walk along this long never-ending old fashion unequal wooden pier to get to the ship. The boat seemed accessible, all right. However, there was one problem. The ship was one meter lower than the dock and some steps needed to be taken to get on deck like cutting off the safety fence of the pier.
It took many men to lift me in my wheelchair from the pier into the boat. That was one crazy stunt. I always have my safety belt on attaching me to a wheelchair, meaning that if they had dropped that wheelchair into the water, I would have sunk like a stone straight to the bottom. Scary thought!
After a couple of hours on the ocean, we arrived at that island. However, the boat was too big and could not get to the shore. So again, I needed to be transported. Now from the boat to a traditional Thai Longtail boat, what is just a big version of a canoe. It felt awful to sit that high in a wheelchair in such an unstable boat. Besides, to make it worse, there were forty more people in the “canoe”.
After finally reaching the beach, Harry had to carry me to sunbed because it was impossible to use the wheelchair on the sandy beach. It was noticeable that he was worried and stressed. Harry could not relax and enjoy the beach. He was all the time thinking and planning how he would get me to the restaurant that was a distance away on a rocky cliff.
After long planning, he just decided to carry me like a sack of potatoes on his shoulder. I made a grand bottom first entrance to the restaurant. At the restaurant, they told us that I was the first person ever to visit the island in a wheelchair. I cannot say that I was surprised to hear that. After the restaurant, Harry carried me the same way back to the beach chair.
His day was not over yet though. He would still carry me back to the long tail boat at the end of the day.
I was the first in the long tail boat with my wheelchair sideways and my mother sitting in front of me to keep the balance. Then a terrifying thing happened. One of the other passengers, a chubby woman decided that she would not climb into the canoe but instead she jumped. She rocked the boat in such a way that it rocked from side to side and almost tipped me over.
Thank God that mom was there in front of me and reacted quickly pushing me back into my wheelchair.
A lift to the big boat and both Harry and I sighed. I taught that was the last I would ever see from a longtail boat. The tide was low when we arrived at the harbor, leaving the ship with no chance to make it to the pier. There was only one option, yes one more trip on the tail boat to the shore.
Finally, we reached the shore. One last lift for Harry. He still had to carry me from the boat through the soft sand and up the stairs unto the pier. A quiet half-hour ride back to the hotel. Everyone was tired, especially Harry, from all the heavy lifting.
(Kati & Henning van der Hoeven)