The last couple of trips my partner, Dee, and I have taken to Mexico, he’s been having some issues with mobility, so we’ve needed a wheelchair to get from one flight to the next. It’s been awkward and odd and amazing.
Overwhelmingly, I am grateful that airports have a system designed to allow us to travel. I had no idea. When we ask for a wheelchair, a staff person is assigned to push it. That person may go with us to pick up luggage and take it though customs, walk us through immigration and document checks, and go through security. They may be with us for 15 minutes or for hours.
It’s no longer just me and Dee traveling, we’re a little parade. Dee and the wheelchair and the staff person, me, and often a second staff person with the luggage. There are some benefits. We breeze through immigration and customs now. No waiting in line for security.
The staff people are invariably nice and helpful. In Mexico City, they don’t always speak any English, which matches our lack of Spanish speaking skill, but Dee makes an effort to communicate and they do too and it all works out.
Well, that one time when we wandered around the airport for about 3 hours trying to find our luggage and figure out what we were supposed to do to get a flight the next day was not so much fun. Our person kept stopping to ask different people for advice, they would speak rapidly in Spanish, with some gesticulating, and I wasn’t sure what he was even asking, much less what they were saying. Then he would be back, taking the wheelchair in hand, heading off in some direction, and all I could do was follow him. At one point, he gestured to me that I had to go through some security check – I didn’t know why, but the security guy spoke a little English, and he explained that they needed me to look for our luggage. So I headed back into some baggage area, while our guy and Dee headed off in the opposite direction to “los banos,” and I did wonder what would happen if I came back and they were just gone.
What would I do then?
But they were there when I came back, and I had the luggage too, so it was all good.
We had a young woman in Charlotte who was warm and reassuring. “Don’t worry,” she said, “You’ve got plenty of time to make the next flight,” and of course she was right. In Charlotte, their system involved her getting us to the right cart, which then carried us on to the right gate, where they had a wheelchair to get us to the door of the aircraft. The young woman and I chatted for a minute or two – she’s just working at this until she can get a job with one of the airlines, and then she’ll be able to travel. She was telling me about the many places she wants to go, and I hope she gets to do that.
I’ve begun to see the networks of people who staff the airports and the way they relate to each other. Sometimes, our person – our helper? I don’t know what the right term is – but sometimes they’re really outgoing, flirting and joking with everyone along the way. Sometimes they’re more quiet, but alway helpful and kind.
Yesterday, we left Mexico City, landed in Dallas, headed for home. The wheelchair attendant (there, does that sound better?) is a soft-spoken woman, wearing a burkha. Her name tag reads “Ayisha.” She is pleased to hear we have three hours between flights, “Plenty of time,” she says, “No need to hurry.”
She directs us. “You’ll need your passport and boarding pass,” or “show him this form with your passport,” telling me, “follow me,” or “you go ahead.” We move a bit more smoothly than usual.
We are delayed at security. “Only two wheelchairs can go at a time,” she says, “so we just wait. Sometimes, people get so upset, but it’s ok, there’s lots of time.”
We get to customs, and she helps us scan our passports, answer the appropriate questions (no, we have not visited a farm) and get our pictures taken. With our printouts in hand, we are heading on, when a male voice behind us says, “Ayisha, help her with this!”
She turns, I turns – Dee is up ahead just a bit – and there’s an older woman in a wheelchair in front of the machine, passport in hand, saying querulously, “I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how.”
Ayisha says to the man staffing the wheelchair, “You can help her,” but he turns his head away, and the woman in the chair says again, “I don’t know how to do this.”
I think Ayisha is going to say something sharp to the man, I think she starts to, or maybe I just want her to, but she doesn’t. Instead she takes the woman’s passport and shows her how to insert it to start the process. She gently and kindly walks her through the couple of minutes it takes to complete it. Then, without waiting for thanks, she turns and we move on.
“Why didn’t he help her?” I ask.
“Oh, he’s very – busy,” she says, in a tone that I think means he thinks he’s too important to do that.
“But – he was right there, he could have helped her,” I say.
“Yes,” she agrees, “He could have,” and she says it in a tone that allows me to let go of my own frustration at what seems like him being unreasonable.
We pick up our luggage – two bags, about 40 pounds each – and Ayisha stacks them on a cart. She takes the wheelchair with one hand, the cart with the other, and starts off. “Oh, I can help with that,” I say, meaning the luggage, but she laughs. “I’ve got it,” she says.
I’m a bit awed. Often the wheelchair person will take one bag and ask me to push the other – which is fine if we aren’t going miles. And sometimes they’ll recruit a second person to help. But she’s handling both wheelchair and baggage as if it’s nothing. “I’ve been doing this job for 15 years. Sometimes,” she says, “I push two wheelchairs.”
She hands the luggage off again effortlessly.
We’re about to get on an elevator – there’s a couple standing there with a full cart of luggage, about to go up. Ayisha says, “Are you going to check your luggage?” They shake their heads no. “Are you looking for a taxi?” Nods this time. “You need to go that way,” she says, pointing. Off the elevator they come, heading down the hall in the right direction.
“How did you know they were going the wrong way?”
She shakes her head, “Easy, you don’t need to go up with luggage. You either go that way to check in baggage, or the other way to go out. You don’t go up.”
We are pre-TSA, but are delayed while they check Dee’s hands for evidence of explosives and pat him down from head to toe. “He is new,” Ayisha says, talking about the security guy. “He doesn’t have to do all that, he was pre-TSA, but that guy, he’s new, new ones, they always do too much.”
She delivers us to an electric cart, “You stay with this cart,” she says, “Don’t take any other one, this one take you all the way to your gate.” I assure her we will, and thank her profusely, as she sends us off with a smile and a wave.
I hate for Dee that he’s had to use a wheelchair. I would not have chosen this experience for either of us. But I am left with such lovely images of the network of people who make it possible for us to travel. So many times, I’ve seen wheelchairs at the end of the ramp as I exit the plane, without giving them another thought. Now I feel connected to the people who do that work day after day. And to Ayisha, who did it with such warmth, dignity, and grace.