Photography by Carol Guzy
Josh Basile has a knack for dreaming big and turning his dreams into reality. Case in point, his plan to visit Havana, Cuba, with two friends who are also wheelchair users, to introduce Slingshot Golf — an adaptive game he invented that enables quadriplegics to play. Getting there took a 90-mile voyage from Key West aboard a chartered 60-foot wheelchair accessible catamaran sailboat aptly named Impossible Dream. Basile planned to propose to his girlfriend while there, and the entire adventure would be documented by an ESPN film crew and photographed by four-time Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Carol Guzy.
What they found is that visiting Havana is like wheeling into a 1950s time warp replete with classic cars and beautiful architecture. On the downside, they also found ’50s style communications, outdated architecture and other barriers.
The plan for the trip started fitting together last fall when Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating challenged Basile’s nonprofit foundation Determined2Heal and his SCI video mentoring platform SPINALpedia.com to recruit participants for a sail on a fully wheelchair accessible catamaran built with universal design. During the sail the captain mentioned to Basile that he was excited that Cuba would be opening up its borders for sailing. This would be his next destination, and if Basile ever wanted to go, there would be a subsequent opportunity.
The pieces of the puzzle popped into place when Guzy talked with Basile about doing a human interest story for ESPN. She had first met Basile in 2005 while working for the Washington Post on a story about struggling through SCI rehab (“The Spirit the Waves Couldn’t Break”), which led to a follow-up story 10 years later on Basile (“The Way Forward”). The idea of sailing to Cuba to demonstrate Slingshot Golf and get a view of Cuba from a wheelchair user’s perspective fit perfectly. The marriage proposal to Gabrielle “Gabby” Ahrens was a surprise bonus. However, Ahrens suspected something might be up when Basile scheduled an unexpected meeting with her dad to ask permission for her hand in marriage.
Basile invited two close friends to go on the adventure — Robby Beckman and Colin Buchanan — all of whom shared a bond formed at various stages of rehab. Basile met Beckman when he was first injured. Beckman, 32, a C5-6 incomplete quad from Chesapeake Beach, Maryland, is a quad rugby player and civilian logistics specialist for the F-35 fighter jet. “I was going through a really dark time, lost and scared,” recalls Basile. “I was 19, a new C4-5 quad with no movement in my arms, still in my hospital bed,” he says. “And Robby came wheeling into my room, smiling and joking with the nurse. It hit me — here is a quad who’s happy and loves life. It really changed my spirit. And we have been friends ever since.” Basile thrived in rehab, finished college and now, at 30, is a medical malpractice attorney in Washington, D.C.
Basile met Buchanan — a project manager for ReWalk Robotics from Chicago, Illinois — when Buchanan was doing outpatient rehab at Kennedy Krieger institute in Baltimore. “We became close friends and spent the entire summer hanging out together,” says Basile. As a plus, Buchanan, 27, in his 10th year as a T4 complete para, would bring serious travel cred to the group, having done several extended journeys throughout Europe with nothing more than his wheelchair, backpack and a thirst for adventure.
However, after months of planning, communications, paperwork and arranging journalist visas, the group, now only a little more than a week from departure, was unexpectedly confronted with a weirdly ironic dilemma: Guzy, nondisabled up to this point, was struck with Guillain-Barré, a rare, serious syndrome that attacks the nerves and causes paralysis. “It freaked me out because everything was going numb, I couldn’t walk,” recalls Guzy. “My throat started closing up and my face started to go numb, and I was worried I was going to be one of the people who ended up on a ventilator.”
Fortunately, she started to recover unusually fast. After a week and several rounds of IV immunoglobulin therapy, she was released from the hospital just days before departure. With a warrior’s spirit, Guzy decided to photograph the trip. “I’ve known Josh for 10 years and covered his story for all that time. Plus this story was my pitch to ESPN, so there was no way I was going to miss it. Josh brought his spare power wheelchair for times when I couldn’t walk, and I figured it would give me a unique look at the trip.”
Havana, Circa 1950
On Sunday afternoon, May 29, the three wheelers, along with Guzy, Ahrens, captain William Rey, first mate Evan Duffy, and Basile’s attendant Kingsley Ndasi, cast the dock lines and set sail riding gentle winds into a brilliant Key West sunset on the start of the 90-mile passage to Havana.
After a smooth overnight crossing, the rising sun illuminated Cuba coming into view as they glided over brilliant turquoise waters. The boat docked at Earnest Hemingway Marina, near Havana, around 9 a.m. to clear customs. “The customs folks were polite, but all business,” says Basile. “They boarded us, checked all of our documentation, took our temperature to check for sickness, went through all of our stuff, and signed affidavits of what we were bringing.”
One of the their first adventures was a guided tour of Havana in a classic ’50s pink Cadillac convertible. “I felt like I went through a time warp,” says Beckman. “Buildings are beautiful, colorful and the architecture is from another era. Another thing that struck me is you don’t see any advertising — no signs, no billboards.” Buchanan adds, “Driving around is like being in a classic car show featuring autos from the ’50s, including the taxis. I learned that local taxi rides cost around $10 and our two-hour tour in the convertible was $50.” And Basile sums up: “In Cuba cars are so expensive and rare that there isn’t much traffic. People walk or ride bikes everywhere.”
During the tour, although the streets were bustling and alive with people, few other wheelchair users were visible, something that would become more evident during their stay. “I don’t think I saw more than three wheelchair users on the streets the entire time we were there,” says Basile. “And the ones I did see were in old banged-up hospital-type chairs, most missing cushions and one or both foot rests.”
They stayed at Casa Camilo, a wheelchair accessible Spanish colonial style villa owned and operated by Camilo Finlay, 49, a Cuban born in Sweden and a graphic artist and chef in his 17th year as a T6 paraplegic. The house was handed down from his grandfather, Carlos Finlay, a famous Cuban doctor and scientist who discovered the disease vector for yellow fever. Camilo’s father was a Cuban ambassador to Sweden in the ’60s, and his sister Carla is assistant director of engineering at Columbia University in New York. With his background, Camilo could live anywhere in the world; however, his love of Cuba and the Cuban people drew him here, and he started renting out rooms in his house in 1994. Current room rates are $50 a night. He modified the house to be accessible after his injury.
Basile, knowing that wheelchairs and accessories are difficult to come by in Cuba, and having heard that Finlay’s cushion was in bad shape, brought a ROHO cushion as a gift.
Finlay and his wife, Terre, were wonderful hosts, says Buchanan. “There is a bar and restaurant on the roof where he prepared amazing feasts, including a lobster dinner with many side dishes one night, and a roast pig another,” he says. “To get to the roof you ride a unique, three-story elevator located on the outside of the building, which seemed bare-bones comparable to the sheet metal-type lifts you would see in the states. It wasn’t enclosed, just railings to hold you in, but it got the job done.”
During evenings there were conversations about life for wheelers in Cuba. For mobility Finlay has a three-wheel power scooter and an old lightweight folding chair. “His sister brought the wheelchair down to him
Finlay explained that in Cuba there isn’t an institution that provides wheelchairs. People who are fortunate to have relatives in other countries have them send chairs. He also said there are workshops that provide wheelchair maintenance, but they don’t have essential parts like brakes and tires and can only do simple repairs.
Jorge Gutierrez, a Cuban-American translator who works at Shake-A-Leg adaptive sailing in Miami, added further details about wheelchairs. “There are no wheelchair manufacturers in Cuba,” he says. Manual wheelchairs are received through nonprofits from other countries and distributed through government hospitals and Cuban nonprofits like the Cuban Association of People with Physical and Mobility Impairments. “Most of the wheelchairs are used and lots of times not in good shape. Power wheelchairs are very difficult to get. You need to know the right people and pull the right strings.”
According to “Cuba Needs Wheelchairs,” a 2014 article in the Havana Times, the number of people who need wheelchairs far exceeds the amount that are donated.
The Cuban Economy: A Puzzle of Opposites
Communications in Cuba is also caught in a ’50s time warp. Basile had planned to file daily blogs on his websites as well as stay in touch via cell phone but found that cell coverage was nonexistent and internet access was rare and spotty. “It was tough at first, but after a while it was great to have a break from constant information overload,” says Beckman. “Cuban communication happens by word of mouth. You tell your friends where you are going to meet. I grew to really appreciate speaking with people to find out where to go, and having to pay attention to where you are.”
One of the things that really shocked the group was low Cuban wages. According to Best Cuba Guide, the average monthly wage in Cuba is $30/month, possibly because living in the communist/socialist country is highly subsidized — including free education, medical care, food allowances, subsidized utilities, stores, and rent control. Ironically, there is a high rate of home ownership. Most family homes are passed down for generations, and people live in the neighborhood where they grew up. The World Health Organization rates Cuba’s water quality, nutrition levels, health and life expectancy among the best in the world. But the standard of living is just enough to get by and nothing more.
“I’m kind of at a loss trying to wrap my head around the wages of the average Cuban,” says Buchanan. “We went to an amazing show at the Tropicana, which was a riot of color, dancing and music, another throwback to the ’50s. But it cost $75 a person. And another day we had a phenomenal lunch overlooking Havana Harbor at the famous Hotel Nacional, a Havana landmark since 1930 that once hosted Winston Churchill and Frank Sinatra, where rooms start at $250 a night. I found the prices for meals and daily living to be on par with the United States or Europe.”
If this is not sufficiently confusing, articles on the Cuban economy say that cab drivers, bartenders and people that receive tips in the hotel industry make as much as 10 times the $60/month salary of the average Cuban physician.
Buchanan wonders if the best way to make money would be to open a business and make and sell handmade goods. He and Beckman visited a flea market in Old Havana. “It was really big, with all kinds of cool local crafts,” says Buchanan.
At the market Beckman and Buchanan struck up a conversation, through an interpreter, with a 72-year-old amputee in a beat-up hospital type wheelchair with hard rubber wheels run down to the rims. “I saw a couple other wheelchair users in similar beat-up old chairs, using folded up towels for cushions — stuff I’ve seen in other developing countries,” says Buchanan. “One of the cool things about travel in a wheelchair is it instantly breaks down barriers. We had a 10-minute talk and it was clear he enjoyed the conversation. As an afterthought I gave him $20 as a nice gesture and he broke down crying. It drove home how fortunate we are to have access to so many things, including great wheelchairs and cushions.”
Buchanan found an interesting mix of architecture in Old Havana. “One row of buildings would be kept up and painted and the next would be trashed and falling down. It is like a lot of other places I’ve been in the world where poverty is right next to wealth.”
They also found architectural barriers to be similar to the ’50s. No curb cuts or ramps (with the exception of the Hotel Nacional) or accessible rest rooms. “I can’t tell you how many times I discreetly cathed in public when we were down there,” says Beckman. “And there were curbs everywhere, but fortunately the people were really helpful and happy to help us up and down them.”
Accessibility for Basile in his heavy power chair was another matter. In Havana, Gutierrez arranged the rental of an ambulance with a lift on the back — for $25 an hour — from an expensive upscale hospital that caters to wealthy Cubans or international patients who pay cash, called Centro Internacional de Salud, La Pradera. Basile brought a folding 7-foot ramp. “I also brought custom 16-inch long ramps that fit on the back of my wheelchair for the seemingly endless number of curbs.”
Basile’s ramps came in handy on a visit to an “accessible” cigar factory. “There were five stairs going into the factory, so we put both my ramps together to create a dangerously steep ramp,” says Basile. “A bunch of Cuban men hanging outside the cigar factory pushed me and my 400-pound wheelchair up the ramp.” After a very cool tour of the factory, Basile realized going down would be perilous. “After feeling like I might spend the rest of my life in a cigar factory, the ambulance driver backed up to the stairs and extended the lift, which reached the top of the steps and saved the day.”
Highlights of the Trip
Two of the trip’s highlights for Basile were, in order, proposing to Gabby and teaching Slingshot Golf to Finlay (see sidebars). “I love golf and invented the Slingshot Golf game so I could compete like an athlete again,” says Basile. “I’ve taught over 25 paraplegics and quadriplegics how to play but never through a translator. He caught on quickly and was making extremely long drives with the slingshot and sinking very difficult putts in no time.”
Unfortunately, the ESPN film crew wasn’t able to capture the game. The crew and Guzy had journalist visas, but you also need a specific permit to shoot at each government facility, and the ministry wouldn’t issue permits for the golf course or cigar factory which, like many things in Cuba, are owned by the government. However, they did use “stealth GoPro cameras” to capture the footage. “At the golf course they let me shoot stills, though it may have been because I was using a power chair,” says Guzy. “And any type of photography was strictly forbidden inside the cigar factory, not even smart phone photos. I have a journalist friend that was recently arrested in Cuba for taking a photo of a building she wasn’t supposed to. The Cuban people were fabulous, but it is going to take some time for the bureaucracy to catch up with the changes that are taking place.”
Other highlights included sailing up the Cuban coast, one time at sunset with everybody out of their chairs lying on the nets between the hulls. “It was like flying over the water,” says Beckman. On another sail they were propelled by a stiff breeze, the hulls slicing through 4-foot seas at 10 knots. ”We were getting blasted with spray — a welcome relief from the constant 95-degree heat,” says Basile. “And there were flying fish all over the place. By the time we got back to the marina, the ocean water had dried and we were caked with salt.”
With the lifting of the travel ban for U.S. tourists, Cuba seems to be in a state of flux, for the better. An April article on Telesur’s website claims that Cuba’s iron and steel industry will be building 2,000 wheelchairs for Cubans with disabilities this year. Also, until recently, Cuban Americans with American passports could fly in and out of Cuba but were strictly forbidden to enter or exit the country by boat, even for a sail up the coast. However, according to an April 2016 Miami Herald article, Cuba is easing the restriction, at least for travelers on cruise ships.
When asked about their favorite memories of the country, Basile and his friends’ responses were unanimous — the welcoming warmth of the Cuban people. Basile said this becomes especially evident in the evenings when everybody is out on the street playing cards, dominos and other board games, having coffee and actually talking with each other. Like people did in the old days.
All three friends agree, given the chance, they will make a return visit.
• Best Cuba Guide, bestcubaguide.com
• Casa Camilo, www.casakmilo.com/Camilo_Frameset.html
• Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating, Accessible Sailing, www.crabsailing.org
• Cuban Association of People with Physical and Mobility Impairments, translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=es&u=http://www.aclifim.sld.cu/&prev=search
• Determined2heal, determined2heal.org
• Kennedy Krieger Institute, kennedykrieger.org
• Shake-A-Leg, shakealegmiami.org
• Slingshot Golf, slingshotgolf.org
• SPINALpedia, spinalpedia.com
Proposing With Style
Josh Basile and Gabby Ahrens started dating in October 2015. The couple met through eHarmony.com, exchanging messages for about a week and a half until Basile mustered the courage to ask for an in-person date. “She is the love of my life, and I wanted the proposal to be just right, starting with asking her dad permission to marry her,” says Basile.
The proposal went into play Wednesday afternoon. The plan included everybody on the trip and numerous details, including where to mount cameras (the proposal was filmed by ESPN). The ruse involved hiring a sketch artist who would draw each person sitting on the sea wall in front of Impossible Dream. Gabby would be sketched last, and everybody would be onboard the sailboat.
“In her sketch, I was sitting [in the background, unknown to her] on the front of the boat holding a sign that read ‘Will You Marry Me?’” says Basile, who also had an engagement ring in its box held between his legs. “She got the sketch, looked at it, smiled and cried all at once, then ran around the back of the boat with everybody cheering and clapping, and when she got around to the front, there I was, just like in the sketch. She said yes and gave me a big kiss!”
Slingshot Golf — A New Game
Josh Basile loved playing golf before his injury. Early on after his injury he would go out with his dad, but it was frustrating not being able to play. Now Basile is back on the links with a new version of the game he invented — “Slingshot Golf.” A quadriplegic, with the help of a caddie or friend, or a paraplegic, uses a slingshot to hit the long shots and get the ball on the green. The pendulum putter is then used by all players to put the ball in the hole. In February 2014 and March 2015 Basile received two separate patents for the pendulum device. You can watch a detailed introduction video on how to play the sport at www.slingshotgolf.org.
The Floating Dream
The Impossible Dream is a 60-foot catamaran that is universally designed so every area of the boat is wheelchair accessible, including wheelchair lifts that descend into the sleeping quarters and accessible bathrooms located in each hull. Designed and built for Mike Brown, a paraplegic who wanted to be able to sail independently, the Impossible Dream has push button hydraulic controls that hoist and control the sails. In 2010 Geoff Holt, a sailor and quadriplegic, made history when he sailed the boat solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
After sailing Impossible Dream for 10 years, Brown sold it to Deborah Mellen, 62, a gem dealer, jewelry designer and L1 para 27 years post-injury. Mellen made the purchase when she fell in love with sailing through Shake-A-Leg Miami. “My dream is to have as many wheelchair users sail aboard her as possible,” says Mellon, the boat’s owner for three years. She runs it as a nonprofit organization whose purpose is to introduce sailing and accessible design to as many people as possible. “This summer we will be sailing up to Maine and back, stopping at ports and taking people with disabilities sailing for the day.”
In January 2016, Mellen and two other wheelchair users, Harry Horgan, a paraplegic and founder of Shake-A-Leg, and David McCauley, a quadriplegic, along with three nondisabled crew members, raced Impossible Dream in competition with 50 other sailboats in the Conch Republic Sailboat race from Key West to Varadero, Cuba. They finished third place in their 11-sailboat division. “It was a great race, and we were the only boat with sailors with disabilities,” says Mellen.
For more information, visit www.impossibledream.us.