Impressions from #Crimea (1/3)

After visiting Crimea in 2010 and 2012 before the reunification and again three times this year, I want to share my impressions and the differences I have observed first hand during this trips. These are my personal observations and impressions, describing what caught my attention. A personal experience, seen through my eyes. In following posts, I will share my observations and opinions about what I have seen and experienced after leaving the airport but now I have share my experience with the airport. The same airport that was once in Ukrainian hands and left my with the most horrible travel experiences I have made since I’m handicapped.

In the past, Ukrainian Air Lines left me fully exposed to my handicap in the worst travel experience since I became handicapped!

The first impression Crimea made on me this year is a very personal and positive experience which you might only understand when you depend on your wheelchair to be mobile and independent. To put this in the proper perspective, you need to understand that with my wheelchair I am fully independent except for those odd moments where I need someone’s help to overcome an obstacle. I work out and exercise a lot to be able to overcome as much obstacles as possible without any help because my independence is very important to me. My girlfriend sometimes complains that I’m so stubborn and refuse even her help when I’m convinced that I can handle the situation alone. Once, so long ago that it seems like a different lifetime, I could climb mountains and jump from staggering heights to land on my feet with my parachute and after that run for miles with heavy package without getting tired. Those days are gone and done, nowadays my wheelchair have replaced the legs that once carried me wherever I want to go and I am proud of being able to go (almost) wherever I want with my wheelchair. Almost like in the old days.

Without my wheelchair however, I am handicapped and even need the help of others to do simple basic things. Even something as simple as going to the toilet becomes fully impossible for me without the help of others. My wheelchair makes the difference for me, the difference between being fully independent or fully handicapped! Yes, the world is covered with obstacles which people bound to their wheelchair can’t take and there are people who just couldn’t care less about the fate of us, and a lot of them worked for Ukrainian airlines and at the Ukrainian airport in Crimea… On both trips to Crimea (2010 and 2012), I made the same disastrous experiences of being fully exposed to my handicap and dependence on my wheelchair.

After landing in 2010 and most passengers had already left the plane, I was finally brought off the plane and to the terminal where I was placed on a bench and had to wait for my wheelchair to arrive. I had to wait for over an hour until my wheelchair was finally brought to me, without even the slightest sign of attention during the wait. Try to imagine sitting on an uncomfortable bench for over an hour without being able to move. Not even being able to go to the toilet, and believe me when I tell you that I had to! When my wheelchair finally arrived, I was finally able to go to the toilet and after that pick up my luggage. The shuttle to Yalta where our conference was had already left so I had no other choice than to take a taxi on my own expenses.

Bad enough? Think again! The same Ukrainian airline was capable of handling a handicapped guest even worse, much worse as demonstrated during my trip to Crimea in 2012! It started with having to wait on the plane for 20 minutes after all passengers had disembarked before I was finally brought to the terminal. The cleaning team was already working their way through the plane and nobody was able to tell me when I would be brought from the plane. The last remaining flight attendant on the plane, though friendly at first, became rather annoyed about my questions when and how I would finally be helped to disembark and continue on my journey to Yalta.

Finally a young man arrived with an old flimsy standard wheelchair. The bumpy ride down the stairs of the plane was horrible and terrifying, to say the least and I was glad that we arrived on the platform without any injuries. When we arrived at the terminal, the friendly young man explained me that there was a shortage of service personnel because the plane had arrived about an hour late from Kiev which really wasn’t I problem I created and shouldn’t have to bear the consequences for. I told him that I urgently needed to go to the toilet and I would appreciate it I would receive my own wheelchair as soon as possible or at least an airport wheelchair for the duration of the wait. Unfortunately, the young man had to leave immediately “to take care of other passengers” and took the flimsy wheelchair with him. Although he promised to take care of everything immediately, I have never seen this young man again. So there I was, once more placed on a bench without any idea or information when my wheelchair would arrive…

After about half an hour, a friendly lady from the airport shop came over to ask me if I was ok and I told her that I very urgently had to go to the toilet and needed my wheelchair, some wheelchair or someone strong enough to carry me. She dashed over to the service desk where 3 people were busy doing absolutely nothing. She came back after a few minutes and explained me that there was apparently a problem with my wheelchair and that they had no service personnel available to help me. We both looked at the 3 service employees at the counter and had the same look of disbelieve. “Wait here” she said and I honestly thought “where do you want me to go?”. Every time when I’m exposed to my handicap and dependence on my wheelchair I get grumpy and cynical and I was already thinking that I wouldn’t see her again. Yes, I know this is bad behavior but try to imagine being in my situation.

The lady was a real lady and she gave me reason to smile and forget my cynical thoughts. She returned with 2 guys just a few minutes later, strong arms carried me to the toilet and a personal disaster was prevented… This fantastic lady made a difference for me that year. Not the personnel of the Ukrainian airline that was responsible for my wellbeing, they couldn’t have cared less! After waiting for close to 3 hours (!!!), during which the friendly lady of the shop brought me coffee and a sandwich, during which I haven’t been contacted by anyone from the airline or the airport service personnel, my wheelchair finally arrived. Badly damaged…

The left main wheel bended and cracked, the left front wheel broken off. I was told that I could file a damaged material report with the airline the next day because at the moment there was no service personnel available and that’s it. There I was, a broken wheelchair I could barely use at an airport which claimed to have no service personnel available although I could see various people standing around doing absolutely nothing while the airport was abandoned and the next flight wasn’t expected for another 2 hours.

Native Russian citizens of Crimea made the difference to me, the Ukrainian Air Lines couldn’t care less about their guest!

The same friendly lady came to the rescue once more, organized her guys again and with their help I got my luggage and towards a taxi. The taxi driver asked me what happened to my wheelchair and brought me to a friend of him who was an enthusiastic hobby bicyclist. “He will know what to do and how to get this fixed” and 30 minutes later my wheelchair was fixed enough so I could use it again. No thanks to the Ukrainian airline…

I wrote down the names and addresses of those people who reached out to me and helped me in any way they could while the Ukrainian airline just turned their backs on me. During my vacation this summer, I visited those people and brought them some presents to show my gratitude for their help. The bicyclist was very happy with the souvenir of the Tour de France in The Netherlands, the taxi driver proudly showed the street plan of Amsterdam where he spend many years as taxi driver to his son and the shop lady was smiling the clouds away over her bouquet of flowers with Dutch chocolates. And all explained that there was nothing to thank them for because they just helped a person in need and they knew I would do the same for them when they needed help.

Going back to to the same place in a different country and arriving in a different world!

This year while flying to Crimea a different world opened up to me although I was flying to the same destination. The same airport, the same city but a in different country. Already before landing, the stewardess told me that service personnel would be waiting and help me off the plane before the other passengers would disembark. My wheelchair would be offloaded as soon as possible and she even explained that my wheelchair was loaded in a special compartment to make this possible. We had a good laugh together when she couldn’t find the wheelchair registration for my daughter and I explained her that my daughter doesn’t have a wheelchair yet so all was ok. She returned after a few minutes to tell us that she received confirmation that my girlfriend and my daughter could disembark directly with me so we could stay together. That was a nice surprise, especially after the experiences I had on my previous trips to Crimea with Ukrainian airlines.

All wend as announced. The first to enter the plane were 2 service personnel with a special tilting wheelchair which most airlines use for their handicapped passengers. Once off the plane after descending safely, I was placed in a standard and relatively new wheelchair and brought to the terminal, together with my girlfriend and my daughter. A friendly young man welcomed us in the terminal, escorted me through the checking of our papers and to the waiting area close to the luggage area and told me that my wheelchair would arrive in a few minutes. I am ashamed to admit that at this moment I thought “yes, I’ve heard that before…” and he proved me wrong in my cynical thinking. Because a few minutes later he arrived with my wheelchair and someone who checked our papers and boarding passes again so we could go directly to the luggage area. Now I was waiting for my luggage instead of my luggage waiting for me for hours like it was in the past! Although just a little thing compared to all the horrors in the world, this was something special for me and I enjoyed every minute of waiting for my luggage in my wheelchair and having fun with my daughter trying to spot our suitcases!

Was this a onetime positive experience? Far from! On departing after our vacation, we experienced the same level of service and that although the airport is as least twice as busy now as it was in 2010/2012. Earlier this year, when we flew to Crimea to meet my beloved aunt for the first time, we had the same experience and respectful service during arrival and departure. There was a very funny conversation with the man who brought my wheelchair during that trip. I have a lightweight sports wheelchair and he was ashamed to admit that he didn’t know how to unfold it, so I showed him how the mechanism works. On his defense I have to admit that this wheelchair is rather complicated when you don’t know how it works. He asked permission to try it himself because he wants to help his customers. Yes, he said customers! So he practiced a few times and promised to make sure that the next time I would arrive in Crimea my wheelchair would be brought to me ready to be used.

Last week I returned to Crimea with a business partner for a couple of days and again the same routine. The same man who practiced unfolding my wheelchair on my first trip, now a team supervisor by the way, brought me my unfolded wheelchair with a big proud smile. After a cheerful “Welcome to Russia, welcome to Crimea” he explained that he already thought it was me because he recognized my wheelchair when it was offloaded by his team and he insisted to bring it to me himself because he knows how it works and he wanted to welcome an old friend back to his Crimea. You should have seen the look on the face of my business partner who visits Crimea almost every second month since the reunification. Priceless! After my horrible experiences with the Ukrainian airlines I would have never thought that it would be so much fun to arrive on the same airport!

At all 3 trips to Crimea this year, Crimea provided the same level of service and respect for a handicapped passenger and guest. Again, I wasn’t exposed to my handicap in the manner it was done twice by the Ukrainian airline and airport only a few years ago. Again, I was ensured full mobility and independence by the Russian airline and service personnel. And that means the world to me, no matter where I am.

Thank you Crimea, for treating your handicapped guests with respect. Thank you for allowing me to be an independent man and not just a crippled handicapped veteran. Yes Crimea, I know you think this is normal and that there is nothing to thank you for, and to be honest with you, so do I but I have seen another face when you were still in the hands of Ukraine. So thank you Crimea, for showing your real face now. Welcome home Crimea!

Thank you, Crimea and welcome home where you belong!

This experience I made this year in Crimea is so important to me that I had to share this before sharing all the other experiences and impressions. In the coming days I will write about all the other impression Crimea made on me. Comparing those impressions to my first hand experiences from 2010 and 2012.

Kind regards,

Pavel

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