Why a fracture boot?
Before setting off for our second autumn/winter sojourn in India, we managed to squeeze in a week with Toby, our youngest offspring, at Phinda in South Africa, the game reserve where he is a safari guide. On the last night of a wonderful safari holiday, I managed to miss two steps and fall heavily on my left foot. Midway through our 23-hour return journey, I finally had to concede that I would not be able to get any further unaided. So the first wheelchair arrived to take me to the gate at Johannesburg airport.
After the long overnight flight to Heathrow, there was a wait while one man ferried three of us in turn to the buggy at the end of this arm of Terminal 5. The BA Captain and the senior member of cabin staff kindly stayed joking with us on the plane, and eventually the Captain went to commandeer a wheelchair himself to speed things up. As he returned, my man arrived, so I missed out on the chance of being wheeled along by the Captain, which would have made a good photo!
As we were at this point one week from our intended departure to Delhi, I decided to check that my foot would recover without treatment. However an X-ray confirmed that I had fractured my 5th metatarsal ‘at the wrong end’, and, before I knew it, my left leg was in plaster up to my knee and I was given a pair of crutches and an elegant hospital gown to protect my modesty as I departed.
Anyone who has had to use crutches with only one weight-bearing leg for any length of time knows only too well how exhausting and difficult this is, particularly in a house with stairs. Worse still, the implications for our trip to India began to sink in. We had planned two weeks of travel at the start of our trip, and, setting aside the difficulty of getting around India on crutches, the GP and physio were muttering darkly about an increased risk of DVTs and advising me to reconsider the whole thing.
I was extremely fortunate to be able to see a very kind orthopaedic specialist the following Wednesday (two days before our flight to Delhi). He looked at the X-ray of my slightly displaced fractured metatarsal, said it would heal perfectly straightforwardly unless I tried really hard to stop it, gave me an Aircast fracture boot,said the additional chance of DVTs on the flight was ‘vanishingly small’, and wished me a pleasant trip. The relief was huge!
Off to Delhi
So two days later there we were again at Terminal 5, checking in for my wheelchair to the gate. Although I relished being a biped once more, the distances at Terminal 5 are considerable, and discretion seemed the better part of valour. Of course this was the day when a whole gang of novice wheelchair-pushers were starting, so several of them were milling around the assistance area waiting for their first guinea pigs and instructions. One senior but sprightly gentleman from the Middle East, who spent his time chatting up the female assistants who had great difficulty in persuading him to stay in his wheelchair, was clearly overjoyed about his trip to LA. We had our misgivings, however, when he was entrusted to one of the novices whose command of English and, as it transpired, his new role was less than perfect. We felt that LA might be much further away than our fellow passenger was entitled to believe when said novice stared blankly at the hand-held tablet he was given, with flight numbers, departure gates, departure times and much more besides to guide him to the departure gate on time. It didn’t seem to bode well when the supervisor asked, ‘Haven’t you used one of these before? Just press “Select”.’ The sprightly gentleman disappeared from sight and we were starting to feel slightly nervous.
As it turned out, we were lucky in that a senior supervisor came with us to guide my equally novice wheelchair-pilot through the maze. There was a moment of hilarity when, at the security checkpoint, I was stuck in my wheelchair, not daring to dismount, as I watched John, apparently taking part in some crazy version of a TV game show, struggle manfully to whip off the conveyor belt all of our hand luggage – picking up iPads, laptops, mobiles, his belt, hat and shoes, and both of our wheelie bags before they could disappear into the maw of the security conveyor belt never to be seen again!
Once through security, a backward glance confirmed our earlier reservations: the LA-bound gentlemen and his minder were still stuck in the process, having set off well ahead of us. Far from joyous and sprightly, our comrade-in-arms was ashen grey and looking despairingly at his watch, his chances of reaching Los Angeles receding rapidly, while his novice wheelchair-pilot desperately consulted his tablet! But our supervisor took them under her wing and we all set off. We were to wait in the BA Lounge until collected an hour before the flight, so waved goodbye to the LA contingent who had at this point only a short distance to travel, mostly in a straight line.
Needless to say, John had just disappeared to the facilities, leaving me in charge of assembled hand luggage (he always has impeccable timing in such matters), when there was an announcement asking me to contact the service desk. I looked around frantically and then spotted a member of staff to whom I explained my predicament. He offered to stand guard by our bags while I hobbled to the desk, where I was met by the next wheelchair-pilot. We eventually set off towards the buggy which would take us and others on the long journey through the bowels of Terminal 5. Our buggy driver proceeded to regale us with stories of his ‘great friends’ Roger Moore, Rod Stewart and Peter O’Toole, apparently frequent users of the buggy. When another passenger asked if he knew Richard Branson, he wasn’t quite so forthcoming, but muttered that he didn’t often use Terminal 5! Our driver confessed to being an Elvis aficionado and indeed tribute artist, bound shortly for another festival where he would sing and play the guitar, dressed as his hero!
So we made our flight to Delhi, and were heartily relieved to sit back and enjoy the journey. On arrival at Delhi airport I quickly realised that wheelchair driving in India is pretty similar to any other kind of Indian driving. I was a little alarmed to be the leading edge of our convoy as we jockeyed for position along the corridors and towards the lift, but Indians have excellent spatial judgement (even though decidedly un-western ideas of personal space) and we never actually made contact with anyone else.
Once we reached our destination in Delhi, I was able with relief to walk the short distances on two feet. It quickly became clear that fracture casts or boots are virtually unknown in India and mine drew much attention and many enquiries about what I had done. I encountered one fellow fracture-boot wearer, at our hotel, and we greeted each other with knowing smiles and exchanged tales of woe!
Two days later we set off for Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, which I had long wanted to visit after reading accounts of the events during the Indian Mutiny or 1st War of Independence, depending on your point of view. Another wheelchair took me through Delhi airport, and an explosives wand was applied to my boot to make sure I was not hiding anything other than a broken foot within. On arrival at Lucknow airport we looked down from our small aircraft and saw a wheelchair heading toward us. At the foot of the plane steps John was told to get on the bus as I sat in the wheelchair. We proceeded to race across the tarmac, skirting planes and tractors, with me clinging on for dear life! The bus carrying able-bodied passengers was about as ancient and decrepit as you could imagine. John and his Indian neighbours agreed it was the archetypal bone-shaker, and one local said, ‘No need to go to the gym; with this bus you get a full-body workout!’ As the bus (top speed, according to John, 4.5 mph) began to catch up with me in my wheelchair, John’s neighbour said, ‘You know, I think we’re going to win!’ He had obviously failed to take into account the bus’ lack of anything resembling brakes and the necessity for the driver, with a hundred yards to go, therefore to take his foot off what might once have been an accelerator to allow his charge to roll to a standstill by the arrivals hall with wheelchair and its cargo gaining fast. But we were cut up by a passing tractor and had to settle for a close second. When we finally met up in the arrivals hall we were weak with laughter! Who would have thought that travels with a wheelchair could be so entertaining?
After this, I decided that it was probably preferable to take my time and walk through the small domestic airports from now on, so I dispensed with this mode of transport.
But I soon had my first encounter with an Indian historic monument which required all visitors to remove footwear. This was the Bara Imambara in Lucknow, an 18th-century Muslim shrine.
There was no concession for my boot, so I had to wait outside, sitting on a bench. I sat happily watching the other tourists (almost all Indians) coming and going. One young Sikh woman (unusually, for a woman, wearing a turban and the Sikh dagger or kirpan) came up and chatted, asking about my foot and where we were from. After visiting the shrine she came up to me and sweetly told me not to worry as there were lots of Sikh gurdwaras which I would be most welcome to enter with my boot!
At the second monument, the Chota Imambara,
a slightly more understanding supervisor agreed to let me enter with my right shoe off and a plastic bag covering the offending boot. So I hobbled unevenly through this interesting shrine most gratefully.
The British Residency, site of the famous Siege of Lucknow in 1857, posed no such problems,
and I was fascinated to see this huge campus, its ruins pockmarked by cannon shot,
its cemetery containing the graves of many of the thousands of British who died during the siege, and to feel the atmosphere of this important site.
A blessed boot
A couple of days later we travelled by car to Varanasi, a tough 7+hour drive on very poor roads, with only a stop at a closed railway crossing to allow for a stretch of the legs. When we went with our guide down to the ghats on the banks of the Ganges, I realised how lucky I was – never in a million years would I have got anywhere near the river on my crutches. We had to walk with many pilgrims
and shoppers through crowded, dirty streets from where the car dropped us, down a number of steep and uneven steps to the river, and then climb onto a boat.
Challenging with my boot, but quite impossible with crutches.
The dawn boat ride,
as we watched hundreds of worshippers immerse themselves in the holy river
and welcome the day as they prayed to the rising sun and Mother Ganges,
was wonderful – so much so that we did it twice. Varanasi, with its jigsaw of decrepit palaces,
interspersed with two burning ghats, lining the western bank of the river, and its deserted sandbanks on the eastern bank, is magical.
When we went for the evening ceremony or aarti at which Brahmin priests daily perform a ceremony putting Mother Ganges to bed,
our guide asked if we would like to make a contribution to an NGO that worked to make the Ganges cleaner (very necessary) which would entail taking part in a short ceremony with the priests. Little did we know that within minutes we would be standing (John barefoot, me with one bare foot and my well-travelled boot) on the banks of the Ganges, receiving water and then rose petals from the priest, circling round clock-wise and throwing our petals onto the water – in front of thousands of spectators in boats on the river and in serried ranks behind us on the ghat. I did not dare look up, but just kept concentrating, in my unevenly shod state, on not falling in. Thousands of camera-clicking tourists must have some very strange photos indeed of that particular evening aarti!
From our rowing boat on the Ganges, we saw the burning ghats where all Hindus wish to be cremated beside the holy river,
and the beautiful little leaf boats, laden with flowers, holy basil (tulsi) and candles, offered by many of the spectators and worshippers, floating down the dark water.
Varanasi, as well as being a major focus for Hindu pilgrims, is a fascinating tourist destination, but is probably best tackled once you have become a seasoned Indian hand.
We are now back in Udaipur, and as the temperature inside the house with all the fans on rises to over 32 C, and up to 38 C outside, I am eternally grateful that I can remove my trusty boot to rest and cool my foot, and for sleeping and washing. I fear that it will be a little while before I am able to stride across the fields of southern Rajasthan on field trips with Seva Mandir, or trek up to the temple at the top of the hill behind us, but I am so lucky to have my boot and not crutches – and of course not to have done more damage. I dare say that having an X-ray here to confirm, as I fervently hope, that my metatarsal is healing nicely, will be a further adventure…