Bound for Uganda in Wheelchairs… and Otherwise

Being in Uganda is marvelous. Getting here was another story. A good one this time.

As Ron and I checked out of the hotel in Doha, the front desk clerk was contrite. I gave him my best stern bitch lecture about NEVER again asking a woman alone in her room to come outside in the middle of the night and he agreed he never would so perhaps I made a difference for the next woman. It’s still a fabulous hotel, and I’d go back. Just not soon.

An experience I would replay any day is flying Qatar Airways (QA). In Business or First, anyway. Economy, even E-comfort, is an exercise in agony for my long legs and right knee. And with flights that last 5 and 13 hours, not ones I want to repeat soon. The customer service, though, is unmatched by anything I’ve experienced.

I told you about the first flight but even that was eclipsed by the second. We checked in at the desk at Hammad International and they sat me down immediately. I was surprised by the scale of QA’s management of people who travel with disabilities. I was hardly allowed to stand, even when I wanted to.

Because I’ve seldom been a member of that community and because the ratio of disabled to able passengers is low in my experience, I was unprepared for the great number of people downstairs behind the famous big yellow bear in the center of the airport. We were waiting for cart and chair transport there next to duty-free, glamorous Bulgari, and perfume shops. My fellow wheelchair-bound passengers didn’t appear to be patrons of such places.

Deposited in the wheelchair lounge, I joined young but mostly elderly people traveling to every destination imaginable. The QA attendants stood with clipboards. They’d yell “Teheran, Atlanta, LA, Tokyo!” and people would rush (some figuratively, others actually) forward. There was a sense of urgency, but only because they waited until the last minute to transport us to our flights.

I’ve developed a newfound compassion for these semi-invisible travelers who are allowed to board before the able-bodied. I saw an old lady wearing a sari resting her worn face in a tired hand, a doddering old gent with a cane trying to make a way for his wife onto a cart, and wondered how I could not have really seen them before. The sheer concentration of their presence was an exclamatory marker to this trip that I hope I never forget.

Not one of us was glad to be there, being processed through the airport like livestock, although most were glad to be going wherever we were going, I suppose. But more than people to be pitied, we were and are all individuals with our stories. Not one of us wouldn’t gladly exchange our disabilities, permanent and temporary, for mobility. Big lesson learned.

That lounge and another that followed were the only (undrstandable) drawbacks to the QA system. At the second lounge, Ron, who had gone ahead, found me and suggested I just go down the escalator to where our flight was boarding. I did, and it wasn’t far. I’d been there just minutes when an employee with a wheelchair found me again and insisted on helping me board. “The plane is on the tarmac,” he said. “The stairs are too steep for you. I will take you in the lift.”

So after the bus let off every other passenger but Ron and me it took us around to the other side of the plane where I was wheeled into a gleaming lift that allowed me to progress through several levels of platforms and onto the plane, not unlike the way ships move through locks on the Panama Canal. Amazing.

Once on the plane, I had another great attendant, male this time, who made me feel he had been personally assigned to me for the duration. He and others apologized for the seat (the flight was packed) and did whatever they could to make me comfortable (short of an upgrade). Dang!

When we landed in Entebbe, the other passengers were impatient and surged forward for the exit. Despite being told to wait so my attendant could help me get my luggage down, another passenger helped me. I was intercepted and told to sit in business class so they could bring the lift. They gave me water and asked if I wanted my picture taken sitting in the spacious and comfy seat. Every single QA person was interested in me and went out of their way to help. I was last off the plane but in my magic wheelchair, taken to the head of the line. I cleared customs well ahead of Ron (and the others who met at Hammad).

As I waited, I met Denis and Elly, who are Ugandans. You’ll meet the entire team over the next weeks. It’s quite a team. We laughed and bonded over beers, fish, and chicken. We’ve an early start in the morning.

Being in Uganda is sort of like waking and remembering a dream dimly. I am delighted to be here, on some level, because it feels familiar to my 5 year old self. As we drove the expressway through Entebbe on the expressway, I had a memory of women and men walking along a similar road balancing large loads on their heads. A few miles later i saw a woman walking through a rough’looking shanty town area doing just that.

Being at the Malaki Eco Lodge brings back memories of Uganda from long ago. Memories of lush banana trees, vines, monkeys swinging through trees, and such. Memories of red earth and muddy creeks. Of torrential downpours. It’s all here.

If I went home tomorrow, I would be profoundly grateful for everything I’ve seen and done so far. Much later I’ll attempt to synthesize this experience, but for now, you get these blog posts. There’s so much more ahead. I hope I can keep up.

Thanks for coming back In To Africa with me. Even if it is, at times, in a wheelchair.

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