Howie wheeled his chair up to the front desk after we had cleaned up from the morning’s race. “Hey man, we want to do a jungle tour. Something REALLY dangerous. Do you think you can hook us up?” The hotel concierge eyed us all warily. “What do you mean, dangerous?” “We want to see snakes, and jaguars, and sloths, and piranhas and stuff. Like a total-immersion kind of thing. You think you can help us out with that?” “Let me see what I can do sir.” “Oh yeah, do you think it’s wheelchair accessible?” “I’ll see what I can do.”
The five of us giggled like teenagers and headed upstairs to savagely attack the buffet for a late lunch. Racing triathlon in 90 degree heat and humidity takes a lot out of you, especially if you’re a disabled athlete. We returned to the desk and found a trip willing to take the 5 of us on a river adventure. We were stoked. We agreed to meet in the lobby at 9am on Sunday and get ready for an 8 hour day on the Amazon River, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
As Howie skillfully dropped himself from step to step down the precarious staircase in his wheelchair, I began to re-think this whole “wheelchair accessible” tour we had agreed to. There was no ramp, and no railing, and I waited for Howie to go careening off into the rainforest at any moment in his chair to be eaten by jungle cats. His skills as an Army Ranger may make him a fantastic para-triathlete, but I wondered how he’d fare against a Jaguar in hand-to-claw combat. As he nearly missed the next 90 degree turn, Team USA teammate Michael stepped in.
“Howie; just get on my back.” And with that, the guy with one leg (and one kick-ass prosthetic) CARRIED Howie down the remaining precarious jungle stairs while Joel, another disabled athlete with arm paralysis, carried the nearly 30-pound wheelchair to the boat, as I, the token blind athlete, navigated a plank with my cane to board our vessel. We were giggling like teenagers. We were already in over our heads.
When we boarded the boat, it became readily apparent that the best seats would be on the top of the ship. There was a ladder. Hmm. Guy in a chair, guy with one leg, girl with one eye, and a guy with one usable arm. The math seemed impossible. But climb the ladder we did, and sat back to enjoy our day on the river.
We viewed the magnificent ‘meeting of the rivers’ where the green waters of the Amazon meets the black waters of the Rio Negro. The two do not mix. It’s fascinating. Like oil and water, they run parallel for miles, the waters staying entirely separate. While this was really cool, we wanted DANGER.
The boat pulled up to a colorful dock and we de-boarded for lunch and souvenir shopping. We ate local ‘pira-cu’ fish (red fish) that was delicious and hoarded the little coffee shots they were dispensing, much to the chagrin of our fellow travelers. We even got to catch Piranhas with a wooden pole using meat as bait. They frenzied around the dock and I was grateful we didn’t hold our triathlon any further downstream than where it had taken place. These suckers would mess you up!
With full bellies and lots of trinkets, (who knew they took Mastercard at a dock in the jungle?) we boarded for our next destination- a hike in the jungle. We were fired up, hoping to see snakes and all kinds of animals lurking about. Our next dock was a little less ‘modern’. Children ran about without clothes and lots of elders were sitting around drinking beer at noon. A man in a shed was smoking cigarettes and splitting coconuts to sell with his giant machete. We weren’t in Kansas anymore.
While we had attracted some obvious attention on the boat from our fellow tourists, we were even MORE of a sight to see for these local folks. Even with their stares, we felt pretty badass and cool going for our adventure. This is exactly what we wanted. A real jungle experience. The tour guide pointed out our next mobility challenge. A skinny plank we would need to walk across to get off the dock and into the jungle. Joel picked Howie up and Michael grabbed the chair. It was game ON.
About 30 feet into the jungle, Howie remounted his chair and prepared to push into the Amazon. And sunk. He sunk so deeply into the mud, his tires were no longer visible. Rather than become disheartened, we all started cracking up. Time for four-wheeling in the jungle with a chair. My guide Karen pushed Howie from behind, Joel pulled the front of the chair, and Michael hoisted Howie, chair and all, each time we came to a fallen log we needed to climb over. I bush-whacked with my cane and couldn’t stop laughing. This was awesome.
At the third log, a host of overly-helpful Japanese tourists decided to assist us in the lifting of Howie and his chair, proceeding to FLIP him on his back in 4 inches of river mud. We looked like the cast of ‘Survivor’ meets ‘X-Men’. I couldn’t stop thinking that Michael looked like Captain America. I used my water bottle to hose off Howie’s muddy hands and we pressed on to view one of the oldest trees in the rainforest. Sweaty. tired, breathless and exhilarated, we stopped for a photo with the excited tourists and prepared for the treacherous hike back to the boat. All that work for a photo with a tree and to look at a pond. But it was totally fun getting there!
On the way back, one of the German tourists asked me, “So WHAT happened to all of you?” I almost peed myself trying not to snort in laughter. I suppose we must have looked like quite a sight. 5 Americans, one in a chair, one with a prosthetic, another with paralysis, and a blind girl with her guide must have looked quite ‘different’ indeed. I choked with laughter as I tried to respond. “No, no. We didn’t get hurt all together, although that would have made for a great story of how we became friends. No, we’re part of the USA Paratriathlon team, and we were here racing together yesterday.” “And you decided to go HIKING in the jungle together after your race?” “Well, yeah, I guess so. Here we are!” I realized that it probably didn’t sound wise or logical, and I shook my head. “We are having THE best time. This is more fun than the race!”
We laughed, slid, fell, pulled and shoved our way back to the waiting boat, fully earning our machete-opened coconut waters and carefully washing our hands in the piranha-infested waters below the dock. Howie got a lift from Joel across the plank, and the three of us set to work washing the thick, clay and mud from his wheelchair and wheels. We took it apart and scrubbed the tires as best we could in the muddy Amazon, smiling at our accomplishment and sweating profusely. I truly think the effort was harder than the previous day’s race. We high-fived Howie, who rubbed his sore arms from pushing through the mud. “That was awesome,” he beamed.
On our way back to the main dock, we passed kids in a boat, holding a ‘baby’ 7-foot long Anaconda. “WHOA! Check that one off the list!” we exclaimed in delight. In another ten minutes, we were psyched to see some kids playing with a baby sloth on an adjacent boat. “Check!” yelled Michael. “Hey kids, $100 bucks for your sloth,” but our boat powered on towards the hotel. “No sloth-petting for us today,” Joel lamented. “That’s ok, we’re going out with this crew again tomorrow for a private tour. We hope to see some then.” We laughed the entire trip back to the hotel, even when we realized that again, we’d have to CLIMB those stairs back up from the boat to the hotel this time, the same dangerous steps that Howie almost careened off of.
Without batting an eyelash, the guys took up the charge, mounting Howie on their tired back and the other grabbing his chair. They had it down to a science. Walk the plank off the boat, across the dock on unsteady feet, and climb the broken concrete steps up to the parking lot with no handrail. I heard the German tourist behind us whistle. “Wow, now THAT’S impressive. Teamwork for sure.” Smiling and shaking my head in agreement, I picked my way carefully up the steps with my cane. Being part of Team USA and racing the Amazon? The experience of a lifetime. Successfully hiking the rainforest with four disabled triathletes and one sighted guide? Absolutely priceless.