Puerto Vallarta

 

A Community with Warmth

It had been three years since the original Canadian Abilities Foundation (CAF) journey to Puerto Vallarta – three years since Raymond Cohen, president of CAF, and I had been introduced to this beautiful little town.

That first adventure lasted less than two weeks, but what an amazing time it was! Drinking in the sights, sounds and tastes of Puerto Vallarta, while constantly surrounded by the warmth of everybody we met, truly made for a “Fiesta of the Senses” (Spring 2001 issue of ABILITIES).

But we were on a mission – and although we spoke to community leaders about ways and means of encouraging accessibility for Puerto Vallarta’s huge population of people with disabilities, not to mention the financial benefits of attracting tourists with disabilities, none of us really predicted just how beautifully these ideas would blossom.

Nelson Jabbaz, who at that time was a volunteer with DIVAC (the local equivalent to an Independent Living Resource Centre), introduced us to Ivan Applegate, DIVAC’s executive director. Together, we met with many of the town’s officials, including the mayor. Together, we conceived of a plan to help Puerto Vallarta become an accessible paradise by the sea.

Back in Toronto, our collaboration continued long-distance. Later, during a meeting with Nelson Jabbaz in our city, Nelson mused out loud about how wonderful it would be if the people of Puerto Vallarta were blessed with something even remotely similar to the Wheel-Trans bus system that serves people with disabilities in Toronto.

Ours may be a system crying out for improvements, but it is a system nonetheless. Puerto Vallarta had nothing in the way of accessible transportation. And, as a member of the Disability Issues Committee of the City of Toronto, I was scheduled to be at a meeting with Wheel-Trans that very evening!

After a few inquiries, and a whole bunch of follow-up calls, the transaction was secured. The Toronto Transit Commission agreed to donate two Wheel-Trans Orion-model buses, scheduled to be retired from service, to the Canadian Abilities Foundation – to be transferred to Puerto Vallarta!

Furthermore, thanks to some very special efforts, it was not long before the buses were filled with donated walkers, wheelchairs and used computers. ScotiaBank and the Rotary Club of Streetsville, Ontario, sponsored CAF to ensure that the buses would complete the long road trip from Toronto to Puerto Vallarta. The buses were carefully loaded onto a flatbed truck and given a send-off. After travelling for three weeks, which included 4,648 miles and the crossing of two borders, they finally arrived at their destination!

How concise all of this seems now. But the truth of the matter is that it took almost three years, and a great deal of commitment from many exceptional individuals, to deal with the logistics, cut through the red tape, and finally see Access Puerto Vallarta become a reality.

Thus it was we were heading back to Mexico once again. Our official reason for going was to participate in the official welcome of Puerto Vallarta’s first accessible buses. But we were also more than a little curious about any access changes in and around the town since our previous visit.

The truth is, in addition to our early lobbying, it may have been Mother Nature’s firm hand that nudged Puerto Vallarta in the right direction. On October 20, 2002, Hurricane Kenna rolled in at a whopping 225 kilometres per hour. Its abrupt force quickly devastated this beautiful oceanside village. This was one of the strongest hurricanes to hit this area of the Pacific in over 50 years. Much of Puerto Vallarta’s downtown core was left in mounds of watery rubble.

The citizens of Puerto Vallarta rose quickly to the call and, in a relatively short period of time, the restoration process was in full swing. Their vision and spirit quickly turned a bleak pile of rubble into a pearl by the sea once again!

Many people were consulted as renovations began to heal this town. Ivan Applegate talked to city officials about universal access. Nelson Jabbaz, now Coordinator Regional for Sindicato National de Trabajadores con Discapacided (SINTRAD), a regional federation for injured workers, also contributed his views on how best to address issues of accessibility.

In some ways it appeared that the hurricane had stepped in to force a longstanding issue to the forefront. Previous administrations of Puerto Vallarta had fallen far short of commitments to the local community of people with disabilities. A promise of 1,000 ramps in the downtown core was eventually modified to be 100 and, in the final analysis, only 12 new ramps were installed. That was one of our last impressions of Puerto Vallarta – 12 ramps to serve a population of 30,000 people with disabilities. No wonder the disability community was largely invisible. They had no way of getting out – and no way of getting around.

You can imagine our surprise, then, as we drove into town from the airport for the first time. Almost all of the city sidewalks had curb cuts. The Malacon, a seaside promenade stretching through the entire centre of town, previously had but one ramp at either end. Now, frequent ramps dotted the entire length of this most popular thoroughfare. Crosswalks were now made of flat bricks rather than cobblestones, and a crossing guard was posted to provide assistance!

Most visible were people with disabilities, both tourists and locals, going about their business – or simply enjoying a seaside promenade. What a difference!

Raymond and I arrived in good time for the official welcome of the buses – but we were far from the only ones present to celebrate. Dignitaries had come from Mexico City and other out-of-state locations; officials of the business and political sectors were there; and, most importantly, there were members of the local disability community.

Before long, the buses were parked and their donated contents put on display. Each bus bore three logos – ScotiaBank, Streetsville Rotary Club and (drum roll, please!) the Canadian Abilities Foundation. As the crowd increased, people spontaneously began to form a large circle under the noon-day sun. Maybe it was the heat (multiple sclerosis and direct sunlight make for a poor combination), but Joni Mitchell struck a chord from somewhere, and Circle Game became my personal anthem of the day. Somehow it seemed appropriate.

An overwhelming feeling of warmth came over each of us, a feeling of knowing that we had contributed to something good – really good! We knew we had helped to make a difference. The buses meant that people could more easily get out and explore their own community – some, for the first time ever! Ultimately, accessible transportation means that it is possible for people to get to work, school, or even the local café to meet their friends. And it also means that tourists with disabilities can travel to this destination and be assured of a means of getting around.

The long haul had been worth it. After all this time and effort, the buses, now in their second incarnation, had finally come home to serve the people for whom they were intended. And although we do not speak Spanish, the heartfelt gratitude evident in the eyes and the smiles of all present spoke volumes.

(Michelle Amerie is a Canadian Abilities Foundation volunteer and a freelance writer.)

 

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