I made the sign of the cross each time the car pulled out to pass. I don’t normally expect God to get me out of situations that I have freely gotten myself into. Nor am I particularly close to my Catholic roots. But Jesus watches from on top of a hill in every town in South America, evoking my childhood fear that one day I will have to explain how I got myself into this mess. Maybe that day was today.
It was the dry season in Bolivia. The dirt road had turned to a red powder. Each time our little car pulled out to pass one of the slow moving trucks that billowed out a dust storm, there were several seconds when visibility was zero and my heart would stop. Meeting a oncoming vehicle in those few seconds would mean certain death.
It was one thing to take a risk for my own relentless pursuit of adventure but my husband sat beside me in the back seat, both of leaning inward, and my children were riding in the car behind us.Their car would disappear in the dust for a few minutes at a time. I would let out a sigh, or perhaps more of a gasp, of relief when they reappeared through the back window.
I imagined them in the back seat: our 19 year old son Devin and our 16 year old daughter Kasenya. Devin with his arm behind Kasenya’s shoulders to keep her from falling over. Kasenya has Cerebral Palsy. She isn’t able to walk or sit on her own or even hold her own head up very steadily.
I was sure they would be oblivious to the peril of this situation. Petite little Kasenya looking up at her very tall brother: the two of them laughing and telling stories.
I looked over at my husband David. As usual when things got tough, Dave was the one who wore the brave face. I was the one who would collapse into a chair and sob. But once during a picnic with another family, who had three little girls about our kid’s ages, Dave made an abrupt excuse and signalled to me that it was time for us to leave - now. I gathered up our paper plates and quickly repacked the cooler while he put the kids in their car seats. As we drove off he said “I’m sorry, it was killing me to watch those girls running around when Kasenya can’t.” Now, the calm on his face was reassuring. It would be ok. Maybe today was not my day to meet Jesus in person.
Devin was my excuse. I was thrilled when we had just gotten back from a trip to Australia and Devin declared that his goal was to visit all 7 continents - while his Dad and I were still paying for it. I was proud that he had inherited a sense of adventure. He was 12 and even though he could fully understand the challenges that our family faced, it hadn’t jaded his enthusiasm: he didn’t see any reason at all why a wheelchair would prevent us from traveling.
I needed Devin to know that he was right, that there was nothing that couldn’t be overcome. And I needed Kasenya to know that too.
Having a child with a disability was a detour. I could feel my face flush when people asked if we brought Kasenya when we travelled. They would NEVER have asked that about Devin. She had the right to everything that Devin had in life - including travel.
Cerebral Palsy has its degrees and Kasenya’s is severe. Although some kids with CP are cognitively affected, Kasenya isn’t. So it wasn’t just about dragging her around so we could tick off a list of continents and make a point. There was no medical reason why Kasenya couldn’t travel. It was just harder for us.
I am the one who sees only the opportunities - sitting in the comfort of my home in the planning mode. Dave is the one who deals with the obstacles once we are already in the middle of them. And I hate detours, they are so inefficient.
Our flight between Peru and Bolivia had been cancelled. The only way to get there was by bus - two days on a bus. Detours make me squirm on the inside. Trying to think of ways to fix this problem: like an itch I just couldn’t scratch.
We were sprawled out on the hotel beds, listening to music or checking our email when Dave got back from the bus station.
“I got us onto a tour bus” he said “Not a local bus. No chickens on the bus. It stops at a few sites and even includes lunch. It won’t be so bad”.
There are many things to be learned from travel: patience, problem solving, being part of a team. When things go wrong, as they inevitably do, the lesson is that you may be in foreign territory but you can figure it out. Two days on a bus through the mountains of Peru and Bolivia was certainly a lesson in patience. It also forced us to slow down.
The bus wound its way around Lake Titicaca. It stopped in a town where it was market day. Women dressed in their traditional clothing sat beside their commercial scales, surrounded by huge piles of alpaca and lama skins. There was something soothing and meditative about the long flat drive across the Altiplano which looked like a moonscape.
The bus ride forced me to slow down. It gave me time to reflect on how some of the most memorable moments had not taken place beside the Pyramids of Egypt, or Angkor Wat in Cambodia or even at Machu Picchu in Peru. Looking over at my kids, asleep in their seats on the bus, I realized that the most amazing thing was being in all of these places together and now here we were in South America - our sixth continent.
We had always said that “Where ever a wheelchair can go, Kasenya can go” - even if we have to push pull drag and carry it, which was what we had often had to do. On the stop after the first day of travel, Dave had found us a “wheelchair friendly” hotel. That meant that the friendly guy at the front desk would help you carry your wheelchair up the stairs because there were no rooms on the main floor and no elevator.
Having a kid in a wheelchair was also a detour that also forced us to slow down: to appreciate small accomplishments to see the things that most others don’t ever see or appreciate.
We had taken risks in our travels and not all of them had worked out. We new we were taking a risk by going to the Bolivian pampas in the Amazon basin. We thought we were risking disappointment if Kasenya couldn’t be accommodated properly because of the wheelchair. We didn’t know we would be risking our lives in the car ride to get there.
When the cars finally arrived beside the river we knew immediately that the risk had be worth it. The small flat boat that waited on the shore for us, had a platform on the front. The waters on this tributary of the Amazon were calm. Kasenya could sit in the front of the boat with a completely unobstructed view.
On the trip between the dock and the lodge, the pink dolphins started to put on a show. The water shimmered with the reflection of the sun which was now low in the sky. We stopped to watch them playfully jumping out of the water and made a game of guessing where they would emerge next.
We spent the next four days gliding up and down the network of small rivers that surrounded our lodge. We saw several kinds of bird including macaws along with monkeys, porcupines, bats, turtles, dangerous looking caimans which look like crocodiles and which our guide assured us are vegetarian. We even saw the elusive capybara, the larger cousin of the guinea pig. Our guide joked that the frog that lived in our toilet was a bonus.
Sitting on the porch of our cabana with Devin one evening I said “I’m sorry our life has been such a gong show”.
He thought for a moment and said “I don’t know of any family who has done as many cool things as we have”.
Safely back in La Paz, (the capital of Bolivia), a few days later, I looked up at the huge white statue of Jesus on the hill. What I saw was a man, standing with his arms opened in love and embracing the whole world as if to say: all of this is for you.
Reflecting on my life, my challenges and all of the things I had to be grateful for, I whispered “Thank you. Thank you for all of it”.
If you google “Moquegua, Peru” one hotel will be listed and little other information. But if you have a reason to travel there, you will not be disappointed. Moquegua has to be one of the cleanest, safest and nicest places in Peru. It has narrow European-like streets. At its centre is the beautiful Plaza de Armas, with a fountain designed by Gustave Eiffel (think Paris tower) and surrounded by huge trees. And at one corner of the square sits the Cathedral.
Moquegua is located in a beautiful green valley that is in surreal contrast to the barren desert that surrounds it. It is irrigated by a river and the fertile soil grows many fruits and vegetables as well as vineyards. You can buy locally produced fruits and vegetables in the market and even cheeses that are produced locally. We had fresh strawberries which we bought from a woman pushing a wheelbarrow full. The gouda cheese was a nice treat as well.
There are plenty of amenities in Moguegua such as restaurants and hotels. We stayed at the Hotel Moquegua. (Check them out at www.HotelMoqueguaPeru.com.) They are about two blocks from the plaza. People are friendly in Moquegua and unlike other places in South America, they will actually stop to let you cross the street.
There are few street sellers in Moqugua but lots of clean and organized little shops selling everything you need. And because there are next to no tourists, there is little begging. Moqueguans are proud of their city and this shows.
Moquegua enjoys the economic prosperity of being near a copper mine located just outside of town. But of course it also has its issues as any city does. Our reason from coming to Moquegua was to visit an orphanage. Hogar Belen is located at the edge of the city on a beautiful piece of farm land that provides produce and livestock for the it.
So what is there to do in Moquegua? You can visit the Geocliffs which are a mini local version of the Nazca lines. They are images of llamas or alpacas on a hillside in the neigbourhood of Chen Chen.
You can also visit the local museum (Museo Contisuyo) which has some interesting archeological artifacts. But ask the friendly staff to interpret as much of the narrative is in Spanish.
Overlooking the city is, of course, like almost every South American city, a statue of Jesus. Ask a taxi to take you to the "Mirador Turistico". There is a small park near Jesus and the panoramic view is breathtaking. Especially at sunset.
The cathedral is worth the visit but as far as we could tell it is only open during mass, when you can catch a few quiet meditative moments.
Catch up on your email and enjoy a latte at the El Descanso Spa Cafe. The closest thing you will find to Starbucks. Find them in the 300 block of Lima Street or on Facebook. Enjoy a manicure, pedicure or massage.
The port town of Ilo is about a hour away by bus and apparently an enjoyable day trip. It boasts a beautiful malecon, although we didn’t actually get to see it ourselves.
The only way to get to Moquegua is by bus. Travelling from either Arequipa or Puno, it is a mesmerizing trip through the desert arriving at this gem in the river valley. Moquegua might just be Peru’s best kept secret.
On the way from the airport to our lodge we saw a sloth, tapir, pink dolphins, caymans, bats and frogs. The last two being resident in our rooms. We named the frog who lived under the toilet rim, Jorge. Its a little unnerving to use a toilet that has a frog in it.
Our tour included three days in the pampas and one in the jungle. The pampas are the wet lowlands. We moved around the pampas in a small shallow boat which was surprisingly stable and easy to get Kasenya’s wheelchair into. The picture above shows us fishing for pirhanna.
Dave went swimming with the pink dolphins on the first evening. This was before he knew about the pirhannas.
Nine taxis, three buses, two teacher protests, one double hooked hotel and one ferry ride later we arrived in La Paz. Backpacking is a series of new experiences strung together with various means of transportation. The last two days have been gruelling transportation day, but the reason for coming to Bolivia was to see the jungle.
We were supposed to have flown from Cusco Peru to La Paz, but our flight with Amazonas Airlines was cancelled due to government regulatory issues. We are considering suing for mental anguish as anyone who has spent two consecutive days on a South American bus through the Andes will fully support.
It started with our taxi forgetting to pick us up for the first bus, followed by an “Amazing Race” with a series of taxis to catch up with our tour bus. As in South East Asia and Africa, if you are told your bus will take 8 hours, it will actually take at least 10. And it did.
We had an overnight stop in Puno where our hotel had been double booked. Which added extra time and stress to our travels.
The next day our bus followed the shoreline of Lake Titicaca to get to La Paz. This is a beautiful scenic route which involves a border crossing, ferry crossing and a stop in Copacabana.
We still have a short 45 minute flight to Rurrenabaque where we start a four day pampas / jungle tour which we hope will make the hell bus worth it.
Our visit to Macchu Picchu had the potential to be either amazing or deflating. When we arrived we discovered that only the entry and a few meters past it could be accessed by a wheelchair. So we used the only reasonable strategy: divide and conquer.
Kasenya and Natalie formed a home base while the other three of us scouted out the paths of least resistance. If we carried Kasenya down several steps we could get her through a narrow walled pathway that eventually opened onto a terrace.
This is how we spent the afternoon. Stopping to take in the view, scouting for a new path and then pushing dragging and carrying Kasenya to a new vantage point.
Kasenya never did reach the “Visa” viewpoint which is probably the highest in elevation, but we did get her to the farthest point from the entry gate, which is directly behind us in the picture. We had done it in twos, threes and fours (Natalie being the fourth sherpa).
As usual we had gone until we were tired and then tried to figure out how to get back. We thought of several creative strategies including one of us faking a heart attack so that we could all be medi-vacced out. As has happened many times in our lives, help arrives when you least expect it and most need it. And it was right in front of us.
One of our strategies was to ask the security guards if we could take a short cut across a smooth grassy terrace instead of taking the path and stairs. These poor fellows had the mind-numbing job of standing in the sun all day and blowing their whistles at tourists who stray out of bounds. They looked grumpy and bored and had the vacuous look of people who are forced to do meaningless work.
We sent Natalie over to ask a couple of them about the shortcut since she is young and pretty and speaks Italian. We figured she had the best chance. When she couldn’t get them to understand, she brought them over to see our situation.
The guards were adamant that even for “la nina” we could not cross the terrace. So Dave asked them to help us. To our surprise they said yes. They grabbed the front two corners of Kasenya’s wheelchair with Dave and Devin grabbing the back. The four of them carried Kasenya from the far end of Macchu Picchu back to the entry point.
Almost back at the beginning, they stopped at a beautiful spot where they told us we should take a picture. We invited them to be in it. They were delighted. They had transformed from bored civil servants to men who were empowered by being of service to others.
The day had been wonderful. We had seen so much more than we expected we would be able to. And maybe by asking for help we had in some small way given the security guards a gift too.
See the wheelchair on top? The boat captain and Kasenya's father thought it would be ok for her to ride up there!
Its pretty much impossible to visit the Galapagos Islands without eventually finding yourself on a boat. They are a group of Islands a 1,000 kms from the mainland of Ecuador. In fact many people spend almost their entire trip on a boat, travelling from one island to another. We decided to do a “land based” tour because of Kasenya’s wheelchair. But it also turned out to be a good choice because Laverne is prone to seasickness. But “land-based” doesn’t mean we avoided boats all together.
We had our first boat ride almost immediately. The airport is on the Island of Baltra but the main town where were staying is on the Island of Santa Cruz. You have to take a short ferry ride across a strait to get to get between the two.
We arrived at the ferry by bus. The ferry driver wanted to load Kasenya (still in her wheelchair) onto the roof of the boat with the luggage. There were no sides to it. We yanked her out of her wheelchair before that could happen! We had just gotten off a plane and hadn’t applied sunscreen yet. We didn’t want her roasting in the sun or falling into the ocean.
After a couple of nights on Santa Cruz, we decided to go the Isabela Island for three nights. Isabella is a much less visited place and some of the animals are easier to see there. It is one of the places where you can see the rare Galapagos penguin.
But the only way to get there is by boat. The video above shows how Kasenya got onto that particular boat. The ride was extremely rough, but the ride there was worse. We had a cross wind and a couple of times, we thought we were going over. We kept only one strap holding Kasenya in so we could ditch the wheelchair if we capsized.
A couple of times we had to transfer in the harbour from the boat to a water taxi in order to get to the dock because of low tide. Another nerve wracking experience!
The last boat trip was between the main Island of Santa Cruz going to our last stop in the Galapagos, San Cristobal Island where we will fly back to the mainland from. Again the seas were rough as they are this time of year. But the boat was bigger with more engines which made us feel more confident. Along with the fact that they actually handed a life jacket to each person. (On the previous boat none were in sight). And they had a dispenser for little black puke bags. Hmmmm .... should life jackets and puke bags make you feel more confident or less?
This bigger boat (the Areciffe) flew across the ocean, literally. We had seen others like her. Sometimes she would come up one side of a wave and we definitely caught some air coming down the other side. For a moment you would feel weightless like when you hit the highest point on a swing. Then she would land hard on the other side, often jolting Kasenya’s wheelchair a few inches. When we finally got off the boat Kasenya had a headache and proceeded to throw up. Boats were definitely one of the most memorable but not enjoyable parts of our visit to the Galapagos Islands.
Arriving in Quito, Ecuador, we spent a night in a guest house before heading to Galapagos. You can learn so much about a country by staying in a guest house or small hotel. For example the important safety tip posted in the foyer, reminds us that we are in a poor country (sorry that’s not politically correct, but it is accurate). In poor countries people sometimes resort to robbery. The high walls and locked gates tell us that its not only tourists that might be robbed.
The guest house itself is a grand old building with a story to tell. The beautiful wooden floors speak of expensive woods being available. The ceilings are high and the walls painted in pastels and terracotta.
It was listed as wheelchair accessible which clearly means they will help you get your wheelchair up the many stone steps under the shrub arch at the front.
Quito is the second highest capital city in the world, and although it is in the tropical zone it gets very cold at night. We knew that from the five woollen blankets on each bed. Altitude sickness can also affect tourists.
And they use 110 electricity like us with the same outlets! No adaptors required.
We try to find guest houses that include breakfast and in South America breakfast includes Cafe con Leche (coffee with milk) as well as pastries, eggs and cheese. (Unlike SE Asia where cheese was virtually non-existent).
On our return from Galapagos at sea level we will spend a few more nights in Quito. This will give us some time to acclimatize to the altitude before heading to Macchu Pichu and Bolivia for more adventures.