Wheelchairs on the Amazon

There were already wheelchairs at the Dakar Rally; there was a wheelchair in the mud and swamp; and there were wheelchairs in the Andes, on the Atacama Desert, and at the Lake Titicaca. This time it was a turn for the Amazon.

Wheelchairs on the Amazon

There were already wheelchairs at the Dakar Rally; there was a wheelchair in the mud and swamp; and there were wheelchairs in the Andes, on the Atacama Desert, and at the Lake Titicaca. This time it was a turn for the Amazon, or rather Ucayali, which is the longest tributary of the largest river in the world. That was one of the most important stages of the trip of Michal Woroch and Maciej Kaminski, two Poles who move on the mentioned wheelchairs and travel in South America for several months on board their Land Rover Defender. They already passed by Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and a part of Peru, before they arrived to Pucallpa and “flew” on the board of the ship toward Iquitos.


On the verge between life and death

Pucallpa is no tourist destination. This is an industrial and not very charming port city. But it brought some magic to the expedition of the friends. Thanks to the shamans.

Michal had become interested in alternate methods of treatment, since conventional medicine had ceased to be effective against the disease. Thus, in planning the trip, they included a meeting with the shamans from Pachamama Temple, just near Pucallpa.

– My friend, who for some time has been studying shamanism and natural medicine, suggested that place to me. He recommended that while in South America, I had to undergo a ceremony of ayahusca – says Michal.

The ayahuasca ceremony is considered a form of medical treatment in Peru and other places in the world. The patient drinks an infusion from a mixture of Amazon area plants, and then participates in a session led by the shamans, similar to meditation.

– It is not an easy experience – says Michal – my ceremony took place in a beautiful large hut , called moloka made of bamboo and looking a little bit like a Mongolian yurt. In the Shipibo tribe, which I visited, it is performed at night, in complete darkness. My session started at nine. I drank the brew and then the most difficult stage began – when you needed to “let it go”. I came to the point while maintaining awareness; all the sensations and feelings went somewhere far beyond the boundaries of normal life. It was such a spiritual frontier of life and death.

The ceremony was led by seven shamans. I remember the most Maestra Rosita and her son Feliciano, who spent with me most of the session and looked after me cordially.

When I reached that state, there was a full understanding of the world. One realizes that life is a worthless pursuit, and only meaningful conversation and real connection with others is important. I found out that in my case, to improve my physical condition, it would take a long time to work with this method. However, thanks to the thoughts and sensations I experienced during the ceremony, I realized that now the most important things for me should be my experiences, reflection and humility towards life.

Full of peace and new unusual sensations, Michal and Maciej set out to pursue another goal of their expedition – to run the mighty river by a big boat and visit Iquitos, the largest city in the world that is not accessible by land.


“Tres Capitanes”- which one is real?

In the streets of Pucallpa, it was impossible to miss the off-road car covered with mud, and hundreds of signatures written with a gold marker. Autographs – placed by the travelers’ old and new friends on the body of the twenty-one year old Land Rover called Defe, are symbols of their virtual participation in Michal and Maciej’s extraordinary expedition. It is as if they were with us at those places, providing us with “good energy” (according to Michal) and words of encouragement. Defe was so easy to spot in Pucallpa streets it was no wonder that one evening a person confidently walked over to Maciej and said, I am Gadiel, a friend of Piotr. I was supposed to find you tomorrow, but I just saw your car and thought I’d say hello today.

I asked Gadiel Sanchez Rivera Sanchez called by friends “Cho” to accompany the two travelers and help to handle matters related to travel down the river – a handshake, boat tickets, when and under what conditions they would travel, and what kind of assistance they could count on.

After quite turbulent negotiations with people who supposedly managed the sales of the tickets for ships, Michal and Maciej finally entered the port area, to load up on Gilmer. It was a large vessel with a flat platform on the front where Defe would be parked. The most important for the travelers was placing it in a way that they could use it as living quarters for the trip on the river.

The port looked like a construction site. Cranes with their roaring engines and trucks with wheels covered with red clay stood close to the ship and worked steadily. There were scattered boxes and barrels everywhere; everything seemed like a one, big mess. One by one the porters, with several bags on their backs, were running up the many improvised ramps, which were actually just wooden boards propped against the ship.

– First, a man came to us and said that he was the captain – said Michal. – We agreed with him on all the details of our stay on the ship. After some time, another man came and said that he was the captain of Gilmer. Well, we also made some arrangements with him and the loading began.

The crane raised its arm, slowly pulling the wide tarp that wrapped Defe. A slight jerk and the car and passengers broke away from the ground and carefully “flew” onto the platform.

– As we were already boarded, a third man came and said that he was the captain and that we could not be there, because it was too dangerous – Michal continued his story.

They told the man, that already two “SUCH” captains had accepted that arrangement and they didn’t even think to move away from the spot. From the man’s face it could be seen that his mood was teetering on the edge of surprise and anger. At that moment, Michal and Maciej realized that the real captain was standing in front of them. Fortunately, barrels and other cars had already surrounded Defe, so pulling it ashore would have required the removal of almost everything that was on the platform. The captain gave up. His objections, however, were justified. The location of the car was not safe – less than a meter from the edge of the platform without any barrier, such that even a slight movement or one violent jerk threatened them landing in the river.

One day passed and then another, and Gilmer was still moored in the harbor. For the question when they would leave, passengers were served the same answer: “Tomorrow at 10 am”.

On the third day, on Sunday, just few minutes after 6 pm, I looked at a map recording Michal and Maciej location and I jumped up with joy, they have moved! Finally, the travelers were on the way to reach their next goal – to travel on the largest river in the world.


Difficult River

For most passengers of Gilmer, the river and the ship serve simply as a mean of transportation. It is often the only link of the small villages with the outside world. The journeys, which villagers take less often, usually are associated with the performance of duties or due to the necessity of dealing with administrative matters; sometimes it is a family visit, replenishing inventories, or making purchases. That is why, on board, there were countless packages, boxes, crates, and next to them livestock: cows, goats, and chickens. The natives were spending most of their time in hammocks, dozing or chatting among themselves. Then they were falling into a kind of lethargy with their eyes staring at the river. On this last point, a few tourists, because there are not too many of them and not too often onboard, didn’t differ from the locals – they also spent hours gazing at the great, ever-changing Ucayali and Amazon.

Water trapped in the riverbed cutting through the middle of the jungle seemed to spill beyond the horizon in the direction of the mouth in the Atlantic, some 2,500 miles away. It was steaming from the heat of the sun, calm and smooth like a mirror in the moment, then quickly it was sinking in a brown blaze created by the dense ominous clouds announcing the imminent rain and wind. The green color of trees mixed with the blue of the sky and the natural brown color of the river. The passengers were especially delighted seeing the sunrises and sunsets, when sunbeams shot light onto parts of the surroundings, as if trying to turn the viewer’s attention to the illuminated spot.

One can write for a long time about that specific Amazon spectacle, if not for the fact that sometimes climate, weather or health conditions interfere with full enjoyment of this charm. Unfortunately, Michal personally experienced that.

– It was difficult because of my physical condition and some stomach problems, and also because of swarms of mosquitoes and the tropical heat. I sat in the car and sometimes I was thinking more about my physical condition than watching the marvels of the river. When I felt better, I climbed up to Maciej’s terrace and enjoyed the view. It was nice to look at the movement of water passing by the horizon and hearing the voice of the river.


Unexpected Visit

It was one of the most memorable events that Michal lived through on the Ucayali. On the third day of the cruise, at dawn, a military boat caught up to the ship. One of the marines started shouting to stop the ship. The captain complied with the order. His face froze slightly.

– It could have been a very difficult situation for the captain. When the ship is fairly heavily overloaded, with some suspicious barrels, and such were on board, a visit of the marines wielding long firearms was not welcome. – commented Michal, who was watching the situation from the car. In his wildest dreams Michal wouldn’t have suspected that the cause of that military “raid” was because of the two of them!

– When the boat was close enough to the ship, one soldier jumped on board of Gilmer, followed by an elegant, well-dressed man – Michal continued. – And that man came straight to me and said Hola, Michal! Hi, Michal. Not Miguel, as most locals would call me, but just Michal.

That elegant Latino was Jeff Jasser Respaldiza, a young and very resourceful entrepreneur from Requena. Jeff is one of my Peruvian friends. When Michal and Maciej left Pucallpa I informed señor Respaldiza that they would pass through his hometown in a few days time. He really wanted to meet them and additionally, at my request, to discretely check if they were okay. He even planned to “kidnap” them from the ship and take them for a dinner at his house. Unfortunately, Gilmer stopped by Requena in the middle of the night and was already on her way to Iquitos, when I was able to get in touch with Jeff. He gave up on dinner, but he couldn’t miss meeting the guys. Therefore, he jumped into the boat of his military colleagues and they chased the departing ship. We already know what kind of commotion that chase caused on Gilmer. Surprising everybody, Jeff just had a brief conversation with Michal, checked out their unusual car and left back to Requena. For a long time, the captain watched, from the bridge, those unusual gringos who were receiving such special visitors on the moving ship.


Crushed Maciej

Another memorable event from the ship was not so funny. Unfortunately, the captain’s fears came true as far as the precarious location of Defe on the platform. That night was windy and rainy. It is hard to talk about weather anomalies, because it rained and blew so very often. Due to the power of the strong gusts, the ship was becoming almost motionless, so operators were trying to wait out the bad weather by steering the ship towards coastal bushes. In the darkness, a person leading the ship did not notice a tree, before the ship hit it. Maciej, who, as usual, was sleeping in his tent on the roof of Defe, only heard the cracking of branches and a tree trunk. The ship went further into the bushes and the broken tree was crushing into Maciej’s tent. Cursing badly, what he rarely does, Maciej managed to get out of the trap. Then the operator’s ear caught the word “idiot” in a stream of invectives, and he realized that his maneuver almost killed the gringo sleeping on the roof of his car.

In retrospect, the travelers told that story a bit like an anecdote, but actually it could have ended tragically. Maciej himself, while breaking out through the branches of the tree, thought that perhaps it was precisely that moment from which Michal would have to finish the trip alone. The friends had agreed earlier that in the event that something happened to one of them along the way, the other would continue the expedition, giving it the name of the lost friend.


In Iquitos!

On Saturday afternoon, after a five-day cruise, Michal and Maciej reached Iquitos. Unfortunately, they had to wait one more day, or rather one more night, before being able to disembark. The reason? During that Saturday there was no working crane in the port to move Defe off the ship.

On Sunday, the crane wasn’t there either, but the service workers decided on their own – simple, though causing goose bumps when one thought about it – a way to help the gringos get off Gilmer. They propped two wooden boards to the platform of the ship at an angle of almost 40 degrees forming a make-shift ramp. Maciej aligned the rear wheels with the boards and reversing down, began a slow descent, inch by inch. The boards bent under the weight of the car, but still managed to withstand it. Several minutes later Defe was on the shore.

The two friends had reached their next destination. They had completed one of the most difficult stages of their expedition, which had initially seemed so simple, in a truly idyllic manner.

– While on the ship, I thought about mountaineers, heroes of the books that I had read. For them, climbing to the peak was associated with a huge effort, but the real satisfaction was to stand at the top. I decided that for me, that summit was to reach Iquitos. Struggling with food poisoning and a great weakness, as well as heat, rain and extremely painful bites from swarms of mosquitoes, I asked myself if I would do again. The answer to the question is only one: yes, I would do it again! – said Michal.

I recently received a message from Michal and Maciej that they have renamed their home on wheels to Charapa, after a large turtle that inhabits portions of the Amazon. “It is such a special turtle, green in color and a little aquatic. Everything about it seems correct, not only the color, because if it rains hard, we get water inside the car!”- wrote Michal.

Charapa is already on its way to Panama!

By Piotr Chmielinski





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