… to Malapascua, Philippines

The 7P principle

Odd, you might think, to write a travel blog about a place that you haven’t yet visited. But scuba-diving this remote Philippine island, lying off the northern tip of Cebu, will present something of a challenge for Johnny Sombrero and his trusty steed. And as the departure date approaches, as is Johnny’s wont before any trip (ask Juanita), he starts to worry.

It’s not that he’s alone. Ryan and members of Cheryl’s family will be there to provide all the support he needs. His concerns have nothing to do with the distance, or the flights, or the Hong Kong stopover, or climbing into the minibus for the four-hour drive north — or even the scuba diving itself.


The paraw dive boat

It’s getting on the damn boat. Ordinarily, this is my favoured method of starting a dive. You get driven to the site, you kit-up, you sit on the side like a frogman and, boom, there you are surrounded by bubbles, above what you came to see. Getting on a modern dive boat is also a cinch; you wheel along the side of the marina and balance onto the stern dive platform. Still in the chair, job done. Well, more or less.

In this case, the stem of the local vessel, a paraw outrigger, faces the beach and access is via a plank. For an able-bodied person, negotiating this requires no more than a few steps up (maybe with arms outstretched for balance/effect). For me, well, I’m still not sure.

Plan A

If the plank is wide enough for my arse-cheeks, and if I can get purchase on it with my hands underneath them, I propose to sit on it and bum-shuffle my way backwards, up to the stem. If someone is standing either side of me in case I overbalance and if a third helps me reposition my feet in front of me as I mount. I can see that working.

My concern is that, from a manoeuvering point-of-view, my arms and shoulders are all I have. And after decades using them to pull myself up from the ground into my chair, my shoulder joints aren’t as secure as they once were. They have no effect on my day-to-day mobility and, for weeks now, I have been exercising to re-stabilise these joints. I have made progress, but I don’t want to undo this good work by being manhandled.

And while I’m at it, helping me out of the water after each dive needs some thought too. After passing my kit up, I do not want to be dragged up by my wrists until my belly folds over the side of the boat. That will hurt. We should find a point from where I can be pulled up using a twist-lift.

IMG-20171002-WA0006Most sailors will be familiar with this method. The deal is,  from in the water I face the side of the boat with my upstretched arms crossed above my head. A crewman takes each hand. We start a plunging motion into the water and, on my count, we all lift on the upstroke, untwist the arms and (in theory at least), I end up sitting on the edge. Minimal strain on the shoulders that way.

If this option isn’t available, again, we will find an answer. I may end up being towed. As long as we talk it through first. Because, as we used to say in the Navy, Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance

Johnny feels better now. Andale andale muchachos!


Photos courtesy Cheryl Kng


… with a new bedroll

The Unstoppable gearbag clips to the rear rail of a wheelchair for hands-free carriage. It is not only hugely practical but possibly the first bit of kit ever designed for the disabled community that actually looks cool. Consisting of an 87 litre capacity main bag and a 31 litre back pack, the two fasten together for towing behind the chair or, if required, separate for check-in and carry-on baggage.

Unstoppable_1Designed in the UK by Andrew Slorance, the Unstoppable also features a nifty set of wheels that turn in two axes, allowing the user to spin as well as roll. It doesn’t affect balance in the chair so you can cop a wheely up a kerb as usual. The zips and materials look pretty hard-wearing too so we shall see how they behave during next month’s Far East trip. While the wheelchair clip appears tough as well, it protrudes and so appears more likely to be vulnerable to the tender ministrations of the world’s airport baggage handlers. If damaged, the component is simple to replace.

Zips, straps, handles and clips abound on the Unstoppable in fact, so much so that Andrew thoughtfully places stickers next to the ones you need to fasten the bags together. Another zip at the top allows access to the main bag while it is attached to the wheelchair, if say you feel the need to panic-stow your liquids at check in. There’s a telescopic handle too, for the use of a companion.

20170913_172723The Unstoppable costs £289. If you’re a regular traveller, Johnny doesn’t even think that’s overpriced.

Which makes a change.

… tall in the saddle

Johnny has experienced something of a breakthrough in terms of pain control. A disagreeable feature of his life since becoming paraplegic, he has finally dealt with its nastiest manifestation simply through paying more attention to his posture.

Decades mostly spent sitting in a chair doesn’t do a cowboy any good. I heard talk of the ‘becoming wheelchair-shaped’ phenomenon but assumed that applied to one’s lateral, dog-legged position. To mitigate that tendency I still get vertical (or horizontal) as often as possible. But over the years one also tends to slump downwards, into the cushion, and that generates curvature of the spine and compression on nerves — such as the sciatic one.

As a result for many years I have suffered from acute sciatica, a condition familiar to many but, in my case the resultant pain was distorted by the Spinal Cord Injury into a throbbing bitch of a thing, radiating down the back of my leg and foot that would routinely continue, without relief, for three days and nights at a time.


Thanks to the OU Disabled Students Allowance scheme

In the search for relief I subjected myself to several nerve block injections, various powerful drugs including opioids, and a make-or-break operation on my spine that, er, broke. After attending a two-week pain management course at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, I was that close to having a modulating device (like a pacemaker) inserted in my arse. It was a last throw of the dice. Over last winter, I have to admit, life was getting pretty desperate.

However at about the same time I acquired, through the #OpenUniversity God bless-em, an orthopædically-designed office chair (together with other kit visible in the headline photo) to help me in my degree studies. It took some months for it to have an effect (and for the Son of Satan to knaw through most of the adjustment cables) but by April I realised it had disappeared and I was living through a whole six weeks completely pain-free. That was a huge deal; it hadn’t happened since 1986.


600 quid’s worth of carbon fibre replaces nylon uphostery

Since then some pain, including the sciatica, has returned but to nothing like the same extent. I can deal with it and I haven’t yet finished paying attention to my posture. I push myself into the curves of the office chair. I have spent an absolute frickin’ fortune on a carbon-fibre seat-back for my wheelchair, to replace the stretchy uphostery. I try to drive the car while sat upright, rather than leaning casually on the door arm-rest (not that easy a technique to master, given the hand-controls on the steering column). At night I try to fall asleep on my back. Sleep-disrupted nights have reduced by, I would say, about 80%,

I sit more upright in the day-chair and, when pushing, try not to lead forwards. On advice from my masseuse I am learning the Alexander Technique, to help me stay upright and depend on “the body’s natural balancing organisms”.

Will Johnny keep it up? Indubitably. He now has a huge incentive to stay erect. Hallelujah!