Written by Oswaldo Muñoz*
Over the years I have had the privilege of meeting tourists that have set an example for their travel companions as to the importance of determination, despite their physical impediments that have not stopped them from enjoying their trip. As standard practice, we always request a pre-trip profile from our guests in order to be aware of any special needs or restrictions they might have in order for us, as tour operators, to prepare all logistics accordingly. Nevertheless, there have been individuals that kept that information from being disclosed for fear that they could be rejected when the circumstances could be trying for everyone. In the long run, they set an example of how their personal condition would not be an impediment, but rather an asset. Following are three examples of what I am referring to.
John was the first to sign up for two of our destinations in Ecuador, one to the Galapagos Islands and the other to the Amazon rainforest. He was part of a group of friends that enjoyed traveling together and sharing their experiences. What caught my attention as soon as I saw him was the fact that he was minus one leg! I wondered how he expected to get around and do practically everything everyone else was ready to do, especially in terrains that required to carefully “watch your step” before moving forward. He had previously traveled to Kenya, Antarctica and Peru’s Machu Picchu with his girlfriend and never missed any of the scheduled activities. Moreover, he was indeed the most enthusiastic member of his group, ready to go for it, no matter what the circumstances were. He never asked for anyone’s assistance, though I was ready to give him a hand, literally, throughout the travel itinerary. However, he used his trusty crutches that gave him the advantage of having three legs instead of only two like the rest of us! This factor did not dawn on me at first, until I saw him effortlessly hop in and out of the tender boats and walk over irregular lava terrain and even snorkel in the Galapagos. The same went for the Amazon, forging streams and venturing into the wild through thick jungle and muddy trails that would make anyone else think twice before going for it. In fact, he was the only one that did not once “trip” on the trip! I even borrowed his crutches on one occasion to see what it was like, though I could not manage it, given I had one leg too many which made walking around quite trying! But walking and hiking was just a couple of his aptitudes, aside from skydiving off planes! His only regret was not being able to ski, but just snow board. Admirable was indeed an understatement to describe this gentleman’s attitude!
Then we have Steve who partook of pretty much the same activities, being blind since his mid-teens when he was attacked by a black bear while hiking in the Rockies. Instead of playing dead with his face down to deter the attacker (bears rarely attack dead victims), he laid right side up, exposing his face to the bear’s fury that almost completely ripped his façade off. It was only when the bear thought he was lifeless that it left the scene of the crime, leaving him in a world of darkness for the rest of his life. But that did not keep him from what was left in life to enjoy, and one of those pleasures was traveling. However, what came to my attention was how he was going to manage himself on the excursions while not feeling left out as an outcast for the rest of his group. Little did I know that that circumstance was precisely why his companions loved to see the world with him, since he had the acquired ability to enhance his other senses, i.e. touch, smell, taste and hearing which he would teach and share with everyone else. Sure enough, he taught me to enjoy the sounds and at the same time silence of nature, its aromas, its textures and subtle features that created a “visual” picture of where you were, perhaps more vivid than what the retina could reveal. Closing your eyes meant trusting your other senses to get a picture that was framed by your own imagination. I remained indebted to him for the rest of my life for “showing” me to “see” for myself – when imagination alternates with reality. Certainly, he also deserves an Academy Award for his performance under such adverse circumstances, just like Leonardo DiCaprio. In short, it’s the “bear truth”.
Finally, there’s Margaret, an avid hiker who had her heart set on reaching the glaciers of Cotopaxi Volcano in the Ecuadorian Andes, just a few miles south of latitude zero and just above the snowline. Alexander von Humboldt, Edward Whymper, Charles Marie de la Condamine and other explorers and naturalists had been blown away, at times literally, by the magnificence of this snow-capped volcano’s perfect cone-shaped symmetry, as well as its wildlife, in many cases species endemic to this corner of the world. Hiking to its awe-inspiring summit at almost 20,000 feet above sea level was not on our agenda, but rather enjoying the scenario from its 16,000-foot mountain shelter. Being in rather perfect physical condition was a pre-requisite to partake of such an adventure, and 60-year-old Margaret could not be the exception. However, while taking her picture in the snow, I noticed her skin turning pink and white, characteristic of altitude sickness. And each minute her breathing became short and exasperating. I asked her if she had some sort of altitude sickness medication, like a diuretic, which she did not. Fortunately, I had one of those pills in my wallet, which I immediately gave her before descending to a more manageable altitude, plus an emergency oxygen tank. Sure enough, the only way was down, and fast. Upon arrival back to her hotel room in Quito, her travel companion spilled the beans. Besides being a clandestine chain smoker, she had only one lung, facts that were conveniently covered up by her ambition and determination to experience for herself one of Ecuador’s most prized visitation sites. Five years passed when I received a Xmas card from her, thanking me for that opportunity that continued to be high on her list of travel accomplishments. Moreover, she had quit smoking after that survival episode that made her reinvent her entire life style.
Without a doubt, the mind can many times win over the physical self, if you are determined.
*Oswaldo is the founder and CEO of Nuevo Mundo Expeditions. This is the fourth post in the Anniversary series.