[from the States] after buying it off eBay,” says Beckman. In the United States, his two chairs would be considered basic wheels, but in Cuba they are more like a Porsche and a Ferrari.
Finlay explained that in Cuba there isn’t an institution that provides wheelchairs. People who are fortunate to have relatives in other countries have them send chairs. He also said there are workshops that provide wheelchair maintenance, but they don’t have essential parts like brakes and tires and can only do simple repairs.
Jorge Gutierrez, a Cuban-American translator who works at Shake-A-Leg adaptive sailing in Miami, added further details about wheelchairs. “There are no wheelchair manufacturers in Cuba,” he says. Manual wheelchairs are received through nonprofits from other countries and distributed through government hospitals and Cuban nonprofits like the Cuban Association of People with Physical and Mobility Impairments. “Most of the wheelchairs are used and lots of times not in good shape. Power wheelchairs are very difficult to get. You need to know the right people and pull the right strings.”
According to “Cuba Needs Wheelchairs,” a 2014 article in the Havana Times, the number of people who need wheelchairs far exceeds the amount that are donated.
Meeting Camilo Finlay and staying at his accessible villa was a highlight for everyone.
The Cuban Economy: A Puzzle of Opposites
Communications in Cuba is also caught in a ’50s time warp. Basile had planned to file daily blogs on his websites as well as stay in touch via cell phone but found that cell coverage was nonexistent and internet access was rare and spotty. “It was tough at first, but after a while it was great to have a break from constant information overload,” says Beckman. “Cuban communication happens by word of mouth. You tell your friends where you are going to meet. I grew to really appreciate speaking with people to find out where to go, and having to pay attention to where you are.”
Photo courtesy of Kennedy Krieger Institute
One of the things that really shocked the group was low Cuban wages. According to Best Cuba Guide, the average monthly wage in Cuba is $30/month, possibly because living in the communist/socialist country is highly subsidized — including free education, medical care, food allowances, subsidized utilities, stores, and rent control. Ironically, there is a high rate of home ownership. Most family homes are passed down for generations, and people live in the neighborhood where they grew up. The World Health Organization rates Cuba’s water quality, nutrition levels, health and life expectancy among the best in the world. But the standard of living is just enough to get by and nothing more.
“I’m kind of at a loss trying to wrap my head around the wages of the average Cuban,” says Buchanan. “We went to an amazing show at the Tropicana, which was a riot of color, dancing and music, another throwback to the ’50s. But it cost $75 a person. And another day we had a phenomenal lunch overlooking Havana Harbor at the famous Hotel Nacional, a Havana landmark since 1930 that once hosted Winston Churchill and Frank Sinatra, where rooms start at $250 a night. I found the prices for meals and daily living to be on par with the United States or Europe.”
After ascending to the roof in the outdoor elevator, the guys enjoyed amazing meals and conversations about life for wheelchair users in Cuba — and the occasional cigar (below).
If this is not sufficiently confusing, articles on the Cuban economy say that cab drivers, bartenders and people that receive tips in the hotel industry make as much as 10 times the $60/month salary of the average Cuban physician.
Buchanan wonders if the best way to make money would be to open a business and make and sell handmade goods. He and Beckman visited a flea market in Old Havana. “It was really big, with all kinds of cool local crafts,” says Buchanan.
At the market Beckman and Buchanan struck up a conversation, through an interpreter, with a 72-year-old amputee in a beat-up hospital type wheelchair with hard rubber wheels run down to the rims. “I saw a couple other wheelchair users in similar beat-up old chairs, using folded up towels for cushions — stuff I’ve seen in other developing countries,” says Buchanan. “One of the cool things about travel in a wheelchair is it instantly breaks down barriers. We had a 10-minute talk and it was clear he enjoyed the conversation. As an afterthought I gave him $20 as a nice gesture and he broke down crying. It drove home how fortunate we are to have access to so many things, including great wheelchairs and cushions.”
Buchanan found an interesting mix of architecture in Old Havana. “One row of buildings would be kept up and painted and the next would be trashed and falling down. It is like a lot of other places I’ve been in the world where poverty is right next to wealth.”
They also found architectural barriers to be similar to the ’50s. No curb cuts or ramps (with the exception of the Hotel Nacional) or accessible rest rooms. “I can’t tell you how many times I discreetly cathed in public when we were down there,” says Beckman. “And there were curbs everywhere, but fortunately the people were really helpful and happy to help us up and down them.”
Accessibility for Basile in his heavy power chair was another matter. In Havana, Gutierrez arranged the rental of an ambulance with a lift on the back — for $25 an hour — from an expensive upscale hospital that caters to wealthy Cubans or international patients who pay cash, called Centro Internacional de Salud, La Pradera. Basile brought a folding 7-foot ramp. “I also brought custom 16-inch long ramps that fit on the back of my wheelchair for the seemingly endless number of curbs.”
Basile’s ramps came in handy on a visit to an “accessible” cigar factory. “There were five stairs going into the factory, so we put both my ramps together to create a dangerously steep ramp,” says Basile. “A bunch of Cuban men hanging outside the cigar factory pushed me and my 400-pound wheelchair up the ramp.” After a very cool tour of the factory, Basile realized going down would be perilous. “After feeling like I might spend the rest of my life in a cigar factory, the ambulance driver backed up to the stairs and extended the lift, which reached the top of the steps and saved the day.”
Highlights of the Trip
Two of the trip’s highlights for Basile were, in order, proposing to Gabby and teaching Slingshot Golf to Finlay (see sidebars). “I love golf and invented the Slingshot Golf game so I could compete like an athlete again,” says Basile. “I’ve taught over 25 paraplegics and quadriplegics how to play but never through a translator. He caught on quickly and was making extremely long drives with the slingshot and sinking very difficult putts in no time.”
Getting into the cigar factory was hard enough. Getting out required a whole different method.
Unfortunately, the ESPN film crew wasn’t able to capture the game. The crew and Guzy had journalist visas, but you also need a specific permit to shoot at each government facility, and the ministry wouldn’t issue permits for the golf course or cigar factory which, like many things in Cuba, are owned by the government. However, they did use “stealth GoPro cameras” to capture the footage. “At the golf course they let me shoot stills, though it may have been because I was using a power chair,” says Guzy. “And any type of photography was strictly forbidden inside the cigar factory, not even smart phone photos. I have a journalist friend that was recently arrested in Cuba for taking a photo of a building she wasn’t supposed to. The Cuban people were fabulous, but it is going to take some time for the bureaucracy to catch up with the changes that are taking place.”
Other highlights included sailing up the Cuban coast, one time at sunset with everybody out of their chairs lying on the nets between the hulls. “It was like flying over the water,” says Beckman. On another sail they were propelled by a stiff breeze, the hulls slicing through 4-foot seas at 10 knots. ”We were getting blasted with spray — a welcome relief from the constant 95-degree heat,” says Basile. “And there were flying fish all over the place. By the time we got back to the marina, the ocean water had dried and we were caked with salt.”
Exploring was easier when Beckman and Buchanan could hitch a ride on Basile’s power chair.
With the lifting of the travel ban for U.S. tourists, Cuba seems to be in a state of flux, for the better. An April article on Telesur’s website claims that Cuba’s iron and steel industry will be building 2,000 wheelchairs for Cubans with disabilities this year. Also, until recently, Cuban Americans with American passports could fly in and out of Cuba but were strictly forbidden to enter or exit the country by boat, even for a sail up the coast. However, according to an April 2016 Miami Herald article, Cuba is easing the restriction, at least for travelers on cruise ships.
When asked about their favorite memories of the country, Basile and his friends’ responses were unanimous — the welcoming warmth of the Cuban people. Basile said this becomes especially evident in the evenings when everybody is out on the street playing cards, dominos and other board games, having coffee and actually talking with each other. Like people did in the old days.
All three friends agree, given the chance, they will make a return visit.
Saying goodbye to Finlay and his wife, Terre, the guys realized how much they had bonded with their new Cuban friends.
• Best Cuba Guide, bestcubaguide.com
• Casa Camilo, www.casakmilo.com/Camilo_Frameset.html
• Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating, Accessible Sailing, www.crabsailing.org
• Cuban Association of People with Physical and Mobility Impairments, translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=es&u=http://www.aclifim.sld.cu/&prev=search
• Determined2heal, determined2heal.org
• Kennedy Krieger Institute, kennedykrieger.org
• Shake-A-Leg, shakealegmiami.org
• Slingshot Golf, slingshotgolf.org
• SPINALpedia, spinalpedia.com
Proposing With Style
Josh Basile and Gabby Ahrens started dating in October 2015. The couple met through eHarmony.com, exchanging messages for about a week and a half until Basile mustered the courage to ask for an in-person date. “She is the love of my life, and I wanted the proposal to be just right, starting with asking her dad permission to marry her,” says Basile.
The proposal went into play Wednesday afternoon. The plan included everybody on the trip and numerous details, including where to mount cameras (the proposal was filmed by ESPN). The ruse involved hiring a sketch artist who would draw each person sitting on the sea wall in front of Impossible Dream. Gabby would be sketched last, and everybody would be onboard the sailboat.
“In her sketch, I was sitting [in the background, unknown to her] on the front of the boat holding a sign that read ‘Will You Marry Me?’” says Basile, who also had an engagement ring in its box held between his legs. “She got the sketch, looked at it, smiled and cried all at once, then ran around the back of the boat with everybody cheering and clapping, and when she got around to the front, there I was, just like in the sketch. She said yes and gave me a big kiss!”
The wedding is planned for winter of 2017.
Slingshot Golf — A New Game
Josh Basile loved playing golf before his injury. Early on after his injury he would go out with his dad, but it was frustrating not being able to play. Now Basile is back on the links with a new version of the game he invented — “Slingshot Golf.” A quadriplegic, with the help of a caddie or friend, or a paraplegic, uses a slingshot to hit the long shots and get the ball on the green. The pendulum putter is then used by all players to put the ball in the hole. In February 2014 and March 2015 Basile received two separate patents for the pendulum device. You can watch a detailed introduction video on how to play the sport at www.slingshotgolf.org.
Finlay, using his scooter for the golf course, tries a long “drive” with the slingshot. The pendulum putter can be seen to the right.
Sponsors of the Cuba trip, including United Spinal Association, got their logos on the sail. Photo courtesy of ESPN
The Floating Dream
Sailing to and from Cuba on this accessible catamaran was part of the adventure.
The Impossible Dream is a 60-foot catamaran that is universally designed so every area of the boat is wheelchair accessible, including wheelchair lifts that descend into the sleeping quarters and accessible bathrooms located in each hull. Designed and built for Mike Brown, a paraplegic who wanted to be able to sail independently, the Impossible Dream has push button hydraulic controls that hoist and control the sails. In 2010 Geoff Holt, a sailor and quadriplegic, made history when he sailed the boat solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
After sailing Impossible Dream for 10 years, Brown sold it to Deborah Mellen, 62, a gem dealer, jewelry designer and L1 para 27 years post-injury. Mellen made the purchase when she fell in love with sailing through Shake-A-Leg Miami. “My dream is to have as many wheelchair users sail aboard her as possible,” says Mellon, the boat’s owner for three years. She runs it as a nonprofit organization whose purpose is to introduce sailing and accessible design to as many people as possible. “This summer we will be sailing up to Maine and back, stopping at ports and taking people with disabilities sailing for the day.”
Colin Buchanan descends into the sleeping quarters with the push of a button.
In January 2016, Mellen and two other wheelchair users, Harry Horgan, a paraplegic and founder of Shake-A-Leg, and David McCauley, a quadriplegic, along with three nondisabled crew members, raced Impossible Dream in competition with 50 other sailboats in the Conch Republic Sailboat race from Key West to Varadero, Cuba. They finished third place in their 11-sailboat division. “It was a great race, and we were the only boat with sailors with disabilities,” says Mellen.
For more information, visit www.impossibledream.us.
Josh Basile and now-fiancée Gabby Ahrens enjoy the trip of a lifetime.