I looked up from my yellow-cased kindle at the flight schedules and my shoulders slumped comfortably. I relaxed, assured my flight was due to arrive right on time. The droning hum of the nearby vending machine lingered in the distance, as the smell of instant coffee teased my nostrils and reminded me that soon enough I’d be in a place where I could wake up to coffee and Spanish pastries. In a matter of seconds the quiet lounge room, or “Sala Amica” (“Friends’ Lounge”) as they call it in Malpensa Airport, was abuzz once again…with new passengers in wheelchairs and their family members and carry-on in tow. Men in gray uniforms and bright yellow vests accompanied them, as all kinds of friendly Italian banter swirled back and forth. The men in gray spotted me parked in my usual corner and chuckled, “Buongiorno Signora! Dove va questa volta?” (“Good morning, Miss! Where are you off to this time?”). In an instant, my heart was warmed and I knew I would be just fine.
Over the years, the men and women of Sala Amica have been instrumental in how I journey across the world. They have become the travel antidote to years of self-imposed inertia and reluctance. For a long time I questioned whether I’d be able to travel on my own, so I was relieved to hear of a service that catered to the special needs of disabled and elderly travelers and that any passenger would be able to fly the friendly skies without letting a physical limitation get in the way. This handy service has given me an autonomous lead on life, making the next adventure, or even the hope of one, always a more tangible reality. From my first solo trip to Berlin to my latest holiday jaunt in South Africa, the crew of Sala Amica have been by my side and have proven to be worthy companions.
The journey starts the moment I arrive at the check-in counter. Fortunately for me, disabled passengers get priority check-in, which means I avoid the nosy shuffle of long lines and exasperated morning travelers. Shortly after check-in, they appear; the conspicuous yellow attire discernable in a sea of color. I hand over my boarding pass, my excitement mounting at the thought of getting on a plane and heading someplace new. It’s that rush of unfolding newness and mystery that I get every time.
We wheel through the security checkpoint, the occasional “permesso” vibrating through the crowd. Once again I cut through the mass of people soon to be herded onto a plane, where the promised land of polyester blankets and duty-free brochures await them. There’s a look of bewilderment as they all pass through metal detectors and surreptitiously pick up their scattered belongings from plastic purple bins. The smell of tired leather and handbags yearning to be free permeates the air, as shoeless passengers wait for the much-anticipated nod that will get them back into their shoes. To me, there’s no truer sense of humility and parity in a group of people than the security process in an airport. At that moment, before we branch off to our selected destinations, whether big or small, we are all prey to the merciless and benevolent screenings of airport bureaucracy. It’s evident when even the most well-groomed businessman tries to shield his defiant toe bursting out of his ripped sock. Believe me, I’ve been there a few times myself!
I wheel past the metal detectors while my assistant makes sure my personal items are rolled through the x-ray scanner, like supermarket findings on a conveyer belt. A lanky female officer is signaled over, and she greets me with a warm grin spread across her face. We exchange pleasantries as I show her my passport and boarding pass before she gets to the job she was sent to do: check me and Rita for suspicious activity. She lets me know she has to pat me down before her white-gloved fingers graze across my limbs and shoulders. As expected, a puzzled arch in her eyebrow appears when she pokes my left side and discovers that, instead of muscle, she’s squishing foam, plastic, and silicone. An audible gasp escapes her and immediately I assure her that I’m not concealing any drugs or weapons of mass destruction, but have instead very bulky prosthetics. One time I might have jokingly added that I was kind of like a Latin Barbie doll, with a little bit of ‘plastic’ here and there. Somehow, the reaction was never what I was hoping for! That certainly didn’t stop the security staff at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam once, when they insisted both prosthetics be removed to check for hidden cavities. Now I’m wondering whether there was a prelude to this order?! Who was this rogue amputee that decided it was a clever idea to use a prosthetic leg as an illegal locker room? If I knew her or him, I’d take off my arm and hat and salute their valiant efforts.
Once the routine security check is cleared and all jokes have been spared, my assistant takes over and pushes me along, our exchange becoming a little more personal by the minute. We talk about our backgrounds, the places we’d like to visit, our jobs, life in our respective cities, and just about anything we can muster on this short journey together through glass corridors. Like the film on a movie reel, I catch snippets, small personal glimpses, of their lives. I absorb the wide spectrum of their aspirations; from hoping for a career breakthrough in photography, to simply hoping for a decent meal at the end of a long day. They’re all coming from a personal place, a place they call their own, and for a few minutes that day I’m a witness to its unraveling. And soon after, when we’re ready to board, that brewing excitement is now intermingled with the cozy sense of familiarity and ease that you feel when you realize that your safekeeping is the sole responsibility of someone else. Bubbled with hope, I’m ready for the next step.
In the absence of a jet bridge, a small, sparsely equipped bus is used to transfer the passengers and their fluffy neck pillows from the gate to their designated aircraft. Assisted passengers in wheelchairs are instead carried through a passenger boarding lift, or what I like to call the Thunder Cat (cue Thunder Cat theme song here). This heavy-duty mammoth of a vehicle looks like a modern-day western caravan, only with metal replacing the canvas exterior and a driver substituting the horse-drawn carriage. Once wheeled inside, I’m stationed in a corner, where the assistant pulls my brakes back and signals the go-ahead to the driver. Seating about five or six wheelchairs at a time, the Thunder Cat steadily bounces past the menagerie of airport traffic and life, making its way to its rightful place. During the ride, the passengers and assistants chat eagerly, the occasional ribbing between crew members creating a jovial space. Upon arrival, the aircraft crew releases and opens the right door, allowing the Thunder Cat to glide beside it. A narrow electric ramp extends to the door and faster than I can say “peanuts,” I’m ushered inside, where Rita (my wheelchair) and I then part ways.
My assistant walks me to my seat where we then also part ways and wish each other well. I make an earnest effort to remember his or her name at that moment, to somehow encapsulate what we’ve briefly shared. I don’t always remember who they are, but I remember their kindness and cheerful disposition. I remember the irrepressible laugh of some and the deep knowledge of others. I remember the good-natured teasing and the stories they share. Sometimes, that’s all you need. As I lean back and buckle up, I’m comforted by the few moments of silence before the swarm of passengers arrive.
People will sometimes ask me whether I have a significant other in my life, a special someone to call my own. It never occurred to me to say that I actually have plenty of significant others. From the disabled assistance crew in an airport, to the people that deliver groceries to my doorstep, to the medical teams that keep me going, these figures – although fleeting in presence – have made my life easier, and I cherish them just the same. They are kernels of hope, reminding me that help is always around the corner, and all you really have to do is reach out for it. And while I may never see many of them again, I know I’m all the more independent because of them. For a disabled person, that alone is worth it all.