Tenerife - A Holiday with my Extended Global Family
Thalidomiders from Germany recently organised a group holiday at Tenerife's fully accessible hotel facility the Mar Y Sol. Simone Illger from the UK was among those who packed their bags and hopped on a plane.
Having been one of the key organisers for the previous two international Thalidomide gatherings (Netherlands 1992 and Sweden 1998), I didn't need to give too much thought as to whether to join in the planned international thalidomider gathering in Tenerife, 4th - 11th July 2015.
Tenerife is an island I have visited about seven times before. I feel at home there and I know the area of Los Cristianos is particularly great for wheelchair users, boasting the very best accessible beach I have ever seen where - not only can one get onto the beautiful sandy beach - but one can also get into the sea via a special beach wheelchair and trained lifeguards located on the Las Vistas beach.
I knew that for many of the group, this holiday would be a challenge. We are all almost 20 years older than the last time such an event took place. Comfort is much more important to us, as is reducing the amount of walking required. The choice of venue - Mar y Sol Hotel in Los Cristianos - turned out to have contributed significantly to the success of this week.
Disabled Ghetto or Accessibility Paradise?
When I first heard about Mar y Sol from a fellow thalidomider, I thought it sounded like my idea of a holiday nightmare: a hotel with all sorts of facilities to enable disabled people to fully participate in every aspect of their holiday; every room in the hotel is wheelchair accessible, the pool has hoists and chair lifts, the doors are all wide and every part of the hotel is accessible with lifts and ramps; a hotel which has on-site care facilities that one can hire out to assist with personal care; physio and other treatments readily available. That would result in a disabled ghetto, right?
Mar Y Sol is a fully accessible hotel with a disability equipment hiring facility right next door: you can also hire electric scooters and wheelchairs, and there are fully accessible minibuses for airport transfers or visiting some of the island's attractions.
Suddenly this all makes perfect sense, especially when you are bringing together over 150 people with varying levels of disability, many of whom will travel independently and from destinations as far away as Australia and America.
Yes, we were going to be surrounded by a LOT of other disabled people. But these are fellow thalidomiders. My past experiences of enjoying a week together like this had been truly memorable and most enjoyable. These people are all friends - some whom I have known for over twenty years and some whose acquaintance I have yet to make.
My daughter Lois and I flew on an early morning flight from Gatwick. As previously organised, we were met in Tenerife Airport by LeRo, the company that works in partnership with the hotel with regards to disability and mobility equipment as well as accessible transport.
Our room was spacious - a large living area with a kitchenette, an accessible bathroom with a shower above bath AND a separate wheel-in shower. There was a separate, large bedroom with plenty of storage space and a balcony. Ok, it was decorated in 80s fabrics, but it was spotlessly clean and meticulously maintained.
Out and About
The organisers of the week (German) had thought of everything. Several excursions had been arranged which we could sign up for. There were also various workshops - jewellery making, photography, salsa dancing, singing and yoga. It was nice to know that you could join in as much or as little as you wanted to. The important thing was that we had all been brought together in one place.
Lois and I signed up for the whale and dolphin watching boat trip and the Spanish evening. The boat trip turned out to be quite eventful - a large boat laden with thalidomiders and a rather large sea swell. Soon, there were people staggering about the deck and looking rather green about the gills. Having experienced sea sickness myself in the past, I did feel for these poor folk, as we sailed in search of sea life for over two hours. I soon started to feel rather queasy myself, but this was more as a result of being a spectator to people experiencing varying degrees of sickness.
Once we dropped anchor for lunch, things started to calm down. A wonderful meal of roast chicken, salad, rice and meatballs was served. Quite challenging as trays were provided, but these don't really work for those of us with short arms and no lap!
The pilot whales didn't make an appearance, however, we did get to see plenty of dolphins.
On the third day of our holiday, I travelled with others to see the centre of the island. I'm rather embarrassed to say that I've never been outside of Los Cristianos in the past because of the wheelchair - but with a hire car and someone else doing the driving, we set off into the national park.
The vista changed spectacularly with every bend in the road - pine forests, luna landscapes, volcanic lava beds, colourful layered rock strata. What was more striking was the perfect and absolute silence that one can experience once the car engine is turned off.
The Spanish evening was very hot. We drove up into the hills as the sun was setting, around several hairpin bends - very exciting as we were aboard a 52 seater coach! Sheer drops on one side accompanied by breathtaking views of the sea below. We were warned it would be much warmer and there would be mosquitos. It was hot! About 150 of us were seated in a large gazebo where we were treated to various local dishes such as tortilla, chick peas in tomato sauce, soup, sausage and cheese and a hog roast. The wine and sangria flowed freely - but to be honest it was so warm, that many of us drank large amounts of the soft drinks provided. The local culture group provided entertainment - dancing in traditional costume. There was also singing, a traditional band and flamenco dancing.
The evening's excitement was not over. Thankfully, Lois and I decided to take one of the smaller wheelchair accessible coaches for the journey home. The largest coach set off ahead of us. As we rounded one of the bends, we came face-to-face with the back end of the large coach. It had broken down! All the electrics had failed. There then began the exciting manoeuvre of all the smaller coaches inching past the large and now immobile coach, the wing mirrors of each vehicle just a few centimeters apart. We later learned that the smaller buses had to return to collect the stranded bus passengers.
Meeting the Mobility Cube
I also had the opportunity to try out a 'Mobility Cube'. This is a segway-based wheelchair and belonged to German thalidomider Stefan Stoffel Keekamm. The man who designs these amazing 'vehicles' was coincidentally on holiday in Tenerife and came over to the hotel so that several of us could try out the Mobility Cube and be adequately insured whilst we were doing so.
I had seen Stefan on his Mobility Cube around the hotel and, like many others, was intrigued and interested to understand just how it worked! It's a very robust and solid piece of machinery that makes light of any terrain thanks to its two chunky wheels.
No effort at all is required to remain upright and speed is controlled by moving one's body slightly backwards or forwards. Steering is done via the t-shaped handlebars that are moved left and right.
It was fantastic to have the opportunity to try something like this - which otherwise would involve quite a bit of travel. They cost about £2,950 (for the basic model) but sadly it seems that you wouldn't be able to use one on a pavement or a road in the UK for the time being. However, I am certain that Segway-based wheelchair design will soon be the norm.
It's Good to Talk
The highlight for me of the whole holiday was spending time with other thalidomiders around the pool or in the bar, chatting over dinner - sharing memories of past events and learning what was going on within one another's countries with regard to Thalidomide.
One evening we were honoured to see a screening of "50 Años de Vergũenza" (Fifty years of Thalidomide). This was an award winning documentary film made by Spanish film directors Javier Almela, Fernando Rodríguez and Ana Salar.
It was both powerful and thought provoking - featuring interviews with about 50 individuals from all around the world, including Martin Johnson (ex-Director of the Thalidomide Trust), Fred Dove (German beneficiary living in the UK) and Craig Millward (UK beneficiary).
Our final evening arrived much too quickly. The group came together for a cabaret evening with performances from the hotel staff, workshop leaders, Germans, Swedes, as well as English speaking delegates. Although a little was lost in translation, there was a lot of laughing and applause. The singing workshop shared their rendition of the Beatles song "Yesterday".
In the hotel reception, there was a quiet corner decorated in red, yellow and orange material. Many candles burned here, alongside pieces of paper bearing the names of thalidomiders who are no longer with us. I added just some of the names of those UK beneficiaries who I was honoured to have known as good friends - Janette Cooke, Rob Moreton, Tina Gallagher, Veronica Packham, David Loughran...
Here in the UK, we thalidomiders sometimes take for granted that we are able to enjoy frequent contact with each other; that we have access to the growing body of expertise and knowledge which is the Thalidomide Trust. Travel is easy within our small group of islands. Being able to meet thalidomiders from other countries and continents is an incredible opportunity and one which I am very pleased to have taken part in.
Tags: Thalidomide Tenerife Holiday Accessibility Disability Contergan International Reunion Travel Mar Y Sol Article