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 an oncoming vehicle in those few seconds would mean certain death.
And 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 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 release a sigh of relief, or perhaps more of a gasp, when they reappeared through the back window and I could breathe again.
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.
Petite Kasenya looking up at Devin, slouched so his head would not hit the roof of the car on the bumps. The two of them laughing and telling stories, oblivious to the peril of this situation; trusting fully that their parents had known what we were getting into and that everything would work out just fine.
I looked over at my husband, David. 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. He looked unconcerned. I liked to pretend this meant there was nothing to be concerned about, but I had learned that sometimes that brave face was a facade.
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.”
On that dusty back road in Bolivia I clung to the hope that Dave really believed everything would be ok. Maybe today was not my day to meet Jesus in person.
Devin was not the reason that I put my children in danger from time to time but he was my excuse for traveling. 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 only 12 but could fully understand the challenges that our family faced and had already been forced to make sacrifices to accommodate Kasenya’s disability. That hadn’t jaded his enthusiasm: he didn’t see any reason at all why a wheelchair would prevent us from traveling. I needed to show him that he was right. That there was nothing that couldn’t be overcome. And I needed Kasenya to know that too.
Cerebral Palsy (CP) has its degrees and Kasenya’s is severe but there was no medical reason why she couldn’t travel. Unlike some kids with CP she is fully able to comprehend and appreciate the people and places we encounter in our travels. So it wasn’t just about dragging her around so we could tick off a list of continents and make a point. I could feel my face flush when people asked if we brought Kasenya when we travelled. They would NEVER have asked that about Devin.
Having a child with a disability was a detour in our lives, it wasn’t the end. It had forced me to slow down, to reflect more deeply, appreciate small accomplishments and recognize what is really important in life. I had come to appreciate the ways that this detour had enriched our lives … it had taken time, though.
I am the instigator; the one who sees only the opportunities in life but is deflated when things don’t go our way. Dave doesn’t like to start things but is the one who deals with the detours and obstacles and pushes through to a resolution.
In order to get to Bolivia, we were going to fly from Peru. We were already in Peru, when we were notified that our flight had been cancelled. The only other way to get to Bolivia was by bus - two whole days on a bus. Dave went to the bus station to check it out.
We were sprawled out on the hotel beds, listening to music or checking our email when Dave got back.
“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”. Detours are so inefficient. I wondered if Bolivia was going to be worth it.
There are many things to be learned from travel: patience, problem solving, being part of a team. Even when things go wrong, as they inevitably do, you discover that even 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.
The bus wound its way around Lake Titicaca. One stop was at a town where it happened to be market day. Women dressed in their traditional clothing sat beside commercial scales, surrounded by huge piles of alpaca and llama skins. After that we started the long drive across the moonscape of the Altiplano. There was something meditative about spending hours with nothing to watch but the horizon.
Looking over at my kids, asleep in their seats on the bus, I realized that our most memorable moments had not taken place because we were at the Pyramids of Egypt, or Angkor Wat in Cambodia or even at Machu Picchu in Peru. The most memorable thing was being in all of these places together. And now here we were in South America - our sixth continent - together.
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. Dave had found a “wheelchair friendly” hotel to spend the night at after our first day on the bus. “Wheelchair friendly” 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.
We had taken risks in our travels and not all of them had worked out. Would Bolivia be worth that gruelling bus ride? We thought we were risking disappointment. We didn’t know we would be risking our lives on the last leg of the journey during the car ride to our lodge in the heart of the Amazon Basin.
When the cars finally pulled to a stop beside the river we noticed the small flat boat that waited on the shore to take us across to the lodge. The boat had a platform on the front. The waters on this tributary of the Amazon are calm. Kasenya could sit in the front of the boat while still in her wheelchair with a completely unobstructed view.
The water shimmered with the reflection of the sun, now low in the sky. On the trip between the dock and the lodge, the pink dolphins put on a show, playfully jumping out of the water. We made a game of guessing where they would emerge next.
The next four days were spent gliding up and down the network of small rivers that surrounded our lodge. We spotted several species of tropical birds. Spider monkeys jumped into our boat from the branches that overhung the river. We saw porcupines, bats and turtles. We floated by giant caimans which look like huge crocodiles and were sunning themselves. Our guide assured us they are vegetarian. We even spotted 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 can be 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”.
Arriving safely back in La Paz, (the capital), a few days later, I looked up at the huge white statue of Jesus on the hill. He was standing with his arms open in love as if embracing the whole world.
Reflecting on my life, its challenges and all of the things I had to be grateful for, I whispered: “Thank you. Thank you for all of it”.
Laverne is an inspirational adventurer whose spirit is contagious. Sensitive, witty, experienced and wise, Laverne will "enlighten your load" and have you running home to pack your bags—or unpack your baggage—so you can explore your world with as much enthusiasm as she and her remarkable family have explored theirs.
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Travel can change your life. This blog is a series of my real travel experiences and stories.