Ok, ok, the title is slightly misleading.. I must have spent a total of just 4-5 hours on a wheelchair, and only at the airport. But it is a different world indeed!
Continuing from this post - When I tore a ligament in my ankle, I had to fly home to Bangalore from Mumbai. I had not booked a wheelchair with my ticket, but the authorities saw that I really could not walk, and provided me with a wheelchair.
Now the wheelchair was quite trendy and comfortable. I sat on it and felt very conscious, and I giggled for the first two minutes. Then, as is the case with anything, I got comfortable and made it my temporary home. A wheelchair-attendant(let's call him WA) appeared and took complete charge of me. I zoomed through the check-in counter [no having to stand in the queue, mind you], and I passed as easily through Immigration check. [The flight was an Air India one in transit, hence the Immigration check]. Halls and escalators and people became a blur as we whizzed past them.
Where people used escalators, we used lifts [elevators, for the Americans among you!]. Some of these lifts were so tiny that there was just space for a wheelchair and a man. It was quite uncomfortable, in that cramped space, with the WA standing so close to me. Thankfully, nothing unpleasant happened [sad, how we are always wired to think that a strange male will take advantage of a helpless female] and we arrived at the waiting lounge. "There is still time for the security check, I will be back", he said, and disappeared.
I sat there, immobile, clutching my bag. No company. Totally dependent on someone else to move around, and that someone is nowhere to be seen. I got weird thoughts. What if the WA forgot about me? What if he could not recall where he had left me? What if....? I kept my thoughts in check and busied myself with a book.
A cursory glance at the electronic board revealed that the passengers of my flight were being called for security check. I looked around. No WA. I waited for half an hour. A painful thirty minutes where I could envision all my creepy thoughts coming true. People were queuing up and disappearing inside. And I was still here. I even tried to work the wheels of the wheelchair but it spun out of control. So I just sat and waited. A very helpless feeling indeed. Suddenly I was in motion. I looked behind me, to see the WA pushing me towards the gate. "Yippee! Yay!" I said in my mind, and bestowed upon the WA a grateful million-dollar smile. He just looked at me quizzically, and mechanically continued to push the wheelchair. "Humph!" I said, as I cruised through security check. The WA then deposited me at another waiting lounge, asked me if I needed anything, and then disappeared, leaving me waiting for the boarding call.
This time I was not that uncomfortable. There was another wheelchair in the hall, with an elderly lady, her husband hovering near her. She gave me a smile, it seemed, of compassion or solidarity. I sat, my book forgotten, observing the ways people gaped at me. Some people are so deliberate. They look at me, look at my foot and then back at me, and then again at my foot... sheesh!
The boarding call, finally. My WA appeared surprisingly quickly, and I was pushed through, clutching my boarding pass, and deposited on a kind of portico, overlooking the tarmac. The non-wheelchair passengers [Ha! See how perspectives change?] were getting into the bus which would ferry them to the aircraft. While I was wondering how we would commute, I found myself being pushed on to the tarmac, and taken well near where the huge flights were standing. Then I was suddenly alone. My WA had disappeared. This was the worst bit. Alone in the dead of night in the middle of the airport, with huge aircraft monsters all around me, the noses of some of them pointing menacingly towards me. I know I know, they were still and all that, but I could hear sounds of engines all around me. So what if I was just a few feet from the terminal, I was still immobile. What if one of the aircrafts lost its bearings and came right at me? I would just have to rely entirely on my childhood hopscotch experience! Frightening feeling!
Soon, my WA came back with the old lady, and just then, there came into view, the coolest contraption I have ever seen. People go ga-ga over cars and bikes, I have gone ga-ga over only one machine, and that was this.
It was a van with a closed cuboid passenger compartment. The rear end opened backwards, and touched the ground, and became a ramp. The old lady and I were wheeled up the ramp, into the compartment. The ramp closed up and once again turned into the rear end. The inside was quite plush. It had huge glass windows, and comfortable seats for the escorts. There was place inside for at least 4 more wheelchairs. We moved quickly, and within 5 minutes, we came to the aircraft. Then the entire passenger compartment started moving up, until it reached the level of the ceiling of the drivers cabin. The front end of the compartment opened up and became a platform, and we were moved onto this. Here there was another platform which whirred and extended itself, and adjusted itself beautifully such that the end of the platform came up just to the door of the aircraft. We were moved on to this, and wheeled directly into the craft. How perfect! I was totally impressed. [The van looked approximately like this.]
The wheelchair could not be moved into the aisle, and so I just hopped over to my seat, which was thoughtfully close to the exit. The air hostesses were very attentive and all that. I settled into the seat and turned to thank my WA, but he had disappeared. Sigh!
The flight was uneventful, though it did occur to me that if anything untoward happened, I wouldn't be able to run for my life! Anyway the flight touched down without incident, and at Bangalore, it was not much of a problem. A waiting wheelchair took me through the vestibule from the aircraft to the terminal, and it wasn't too long a distance from there to the exit. My father was waiting near the baggage collection area, and from then on, everything was cool.
On the way back to Mumbai from Bangalore, I had pre-booked a wheelchair, for, though I could walk, my ankle was still painful. But this time, i was a veteran with the wheelchair! The flight was again not very eventful, apart from a particularly charming head steward, who was exceptionally attentive.
Our airports, I concluded, are quite friendly to the physically challenged... but wish I could say that about our cities too! Anyway that's a different story altogether!