From South to North America in Wheelchairs

They have been on the road for more than eight months. Their expedition totals more than 20,000 miles covered by traveling through South America and Central America to reach the United States.

From South America to North America in Wheelchairs

By Piotr Chmielinski

They have been on the road for more than eight months. Their expedition totals more than 20,000 miles covered by traveling through South America and Central America to reach the United States. The expedition of Michal Woroch and Maciej Kaminski, traversing the second hemisphere in wheelchairs with their faithful old Land Rover DEFEnder, was originally scheduled to end in Costa Rica. But Costa Rica has long been behind them; since they left it, a new target has come on board – Alaska!

Journey of freedom

Every month, listening to Michal and Maciej, I am getting closer to finding out what traveling really means to these two disabled men. It definitely does not involve beating the records; maybe, apart from personal achievements such as the number of miles Michal has ridden his bicycle, which is a combination of a motorbike attached to his wheelchair. Their trip is also not for the “collecting” of tourist attractions, the must-see places on commercial tours, although it is a pleasure to reach some of them, as long as road, weather or other conditions allow. I am increasingly convinced that in this expedition the most important thing is simply driving, or rather being on the road. The changing landscape observed through car windows, further borders, states, towns and villages are the determinants of the movement. They often seem to be tormented by my requests for the impressions they have from the visited places, because it’s not so much the places that make up the impression, but the fact that they’ve reached them. Especially since achieving some of the goals requires a wheelchair-bound challenge that is unmatched by a fully-fledged traveler.

On the other hand, however, they prove that the barrier to realization of dreams is not limited to physical condition. Feeling lost in the sense of unattainability of goals affects the healthy and the disabled persons equally. On the power of will and determination depends taking one of the paths: to be completely drowned in this state of powerlessness or to break away from it and move on to another adventure, whatever it may be. Michal and Maciej’s expedition generates many quite extreme comments. Some admire and cheer, others ask: What are you doing? Why are you putting yourself through all these troubles instead of sitting comfortably at home? The only answer to this question is: to feel free and overcome limitations, because although it sounds quirky, life should not give in to adversity.

Peru, Panama and … poker

During their journey they have overcome many limitations. It seemed that the boat trip on the Ucayali River, the longest tributary of the Amazon, was an insurmountable barrier, as I reported in my previous account. And yet they traveled from Pucallpa to Iquitos, the largest city hidden in the Amazonian jungle cut off from the road network. In order to be able to continue their journey by car, they had to get out of Iquitos by another ship that took them to Yurimaguas.

“With that ship, it went better than with the previous one, because we already had some experience and we knew what to expect. There were some problems with unloading when we were already in place. We arrived at some other spot than the planned one and we were told that we would have to wait until the next day to get on land with the car. Fortunately, there was a crane that brought a ramp to the ship and we could drive off. Of course, for that crane we had to pay, although I’m not sure that our money has gone to its owner”, laughed Michal.

From Yurimaguas they headed for the Peruvian-Ecuadorian border. The mountain roads they crossed proved to be a major challenge for both the car and the driver. The road going sharply downhill from about ten thousand feet above sea level was alternating with equally sharp hills up to a height of about ten thousand feet, two to three times a day. That way they drove through Ecuador and reached Bogota, the capital of Colombia. The two friends separated here for some time. Michal went to a village about 200 miles away to make repairs to Land Rover, and Maciej indulged in his passion – poker.

“It is fun for me to sit at the mechanic’s shop, for Maciej rather not. He preferred to play, so he stayed in Bogota. And it was great, because each one of us did at the time what he liked”, said Michal.

They met again in Cartagena, where Maciej arrived by plane, and Michal by car, though with some adventures and in the company of Krzysztof Serowiec, traveler and also mechanic, but above all a Land Rover enthusiast who Michal met while repairing his car. In Cartagena, the beautiful Colombian town, DEFE was loaded into a container to head by ship for Panama.

While the friends will remember Panama as a paradise on earth, especially with its Caribbean beaches, Costa Rica is associated with accidents and pain. First, Michal spilled boiling water on himself and had to be treated in the hospital for extensive burns on his legs. Some time later he fell from the roof of DEFE. How did that happen? Michal was using one of the elevators to get on the roof. Unfortunately, the cable pulling it upwards had been wrapped in the reverse direction and broke when the elevator had reached its highest point. Michal fell down from about 10 feet. That Michal ended up with only bruises is a miracle. No wonder he wanted to leave this unlucky place as soon as possible. Ominously, a fate followed them in Nicaragua. They were near the Honduras border when the timing belt broke on DEFE. But there was some happiness in misery that in the Nicaraguan capital, Managua, I managed to find for them a Land Rover service facility that repaired it within a couple of days, and the travelers were charged only for the cost of the needed parts.

With the new timing belt fitted, DEFE quickly passed through Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, and then Maciej and Michal entered into the United States.

Land Rover Lovers

Apart from the earlier mentioned excitement from visiting new places and the personal challenges of Michal and Maciej’s journey, the fascination with “Land Rover” is a very important aspect of it. Twenty-one-year-old DEFE, also called by them Charapa, is a peculiar theme of this expedition. This is not just a vehicle taking them places; it is a home where the two travelers can sleep, cook, and work. Thanks to Charapa, they met many other enthusiasts of that make – mainly through internet websites that had posted lots of useful information, advice, and above all, addresses of mechanics that in fact should be called Land Rover engineering artists. In this way, they found Ben Gott in Las Vegas.

“He is the best mechanic we have ever met on our trip. He has repaired Land Rover his entire life; he was even a mechanic for Dakar. His father also repaired Land Rover”, says Michael, who spent eight hours a day in Gott’s shop. “He saw me doing something on the car, and he showed me what and how to fix it. And one day, he pulled down the front wheels and lowered the entire car so that I had easier access to it”. Ben’s praise of Michal’s work was a special treat for him, who already knew each bolt in Charapa, and soon became an expert in the 1996 Land Rover DEFEnder 110’s engine, electronics, and body.

Americas full of friends

By paraphrasing the saying “the sailor has a girl in every port”, it can be said that Michal and Maciej have friends in almost every place they visit. They are extremely quick to reach out to people who are willing to offer them help and hospitality. In Panama, they visited Christian, a friend they met online, who in addition to the invitation to his house inspected their car. Later, accidentally, they met Steve, a Canadian who has lived in Costa Rica for years. Without hesitation, he welcomed them under his roof pleased to have such friendly company. It is a long list of people, who have embraced the two Poles in their wheelchairs on this trip!

“This is one of the things that I love on the go. Suddenly, you meet someone who shows you that life can be viewed from a completely different angle.

In seconds, this can infuse energy and positive thinking, which will stay with us for a long time”, says Michal about his experience. “Such good energy has infected us in particular around the Polish missionaries in Iquitos: Dominika, Ania and Beata. I cannot say what that was. Shared breakfast, thinking happy about meeting at dinner, smiling as we passed in the courtyard, all this felt so much warmth and cordiality”.

The two friends talk about the help offered by the people of Latin America with huge appreciation and nostalgia,

“When in Mexico, oil leaked from DEFE, I stopped a passing car and it took me to the city. The driver waited until I bought the oil and drove me back. And then he helped us find a man who repaired a water leak in our car that happened at the same time. The man fixed it for free”, says Maciej.

The two travelers can also count on the company of their loved ones. In Panama, Magda and Kasia, Michal ‘s sister and a friend, joined them for two weeks.

“They came and everything changed its place in the car,” says Maciej with the laugh, commenting on the visit of the ladies. He didn’t want to dwell on that subject, but you can guess that it took some time to restore the old order in their household on wheels!

Then, in Los Angeles, Maciej’s brother Tom and his friend Bartek, also in a wheelchair, joined the expedition. The four of them went to the Grand Canyon Colorado, thus fulfilling a great dream of Bartek.

“I dreamed to see the Canyon and I am so happy that the dream came true thanks to Michal and Maciej. For me this trip is very long and very hard”, says Bartek. “Even getting in and getting out of their car is a problem for me. I admire them; you have to be very determined to travel as they do”.

The new goal of the

expedition, set by Michal and Maciej – Alaska – is about four thousand

miles away. The two travelers are already hurrying to drive through the

USA and Canada to get there before the weather changes and snow arrives, which

may appear soon, posing a serious obstacle for them.