by MaryKate Zee © 1998
MaryKate Zee is a 51-year-old physician with M.S. who has visited l9 countries in a wheelchair and has completed a book of her adventures, "Disappearing Windmills." Many thanks to"ACCESS to Travel" for allowing us to reprint her article.
On arrival in Manaus, after a five-hour flight from Miami on Varig Airlines, heat and humidity settled around me like a too heavy cloak. Warned to avoid such conditions, I worried I was in over my head. Fortunately, during the journey to our jungle lodge, I found that one beats the heat by traveling in a fast boat on the small rivers used like roadways by the locals.
I had chosen to stay at the non-air-conditioned Amazon Village to make my experience more authentic. Since it was difficult for my companion to push my manual wheelchair over the uneven dirt path to my cabin, I either walked the short distance with his support or rode in the Hoyer sling he had brought.
Except for rough paths to the dock, and a somewhat awkward transfer to a powerboat, the lodge-based tours posed little problem. Life quickly settled into a lazy rhythm of piranha fishing by day, and caiman hunting at night, interspersed with boat rides into the igapos (swamps) and igarapes (flooded forests.
The highlight of my stay came one very dark, moonless night. As the slim beam of light from our boatman's torch fashioned a silver trail on the ebony water, he suddenly made a shallow sweep towards two red eyes which glared at us from the murky shore. They belonged to a caiman, a South American alligator.
Using them as a beacon, our boatman brought us closer and closer to where land and water merged like shadows. In the plant-choked shallows he shut off the motor, freed the propeller, then quietly poled the boat to shore.
Our guide pressed his finger to his lips. The adventure for which I had waited a lifetime was about to begin. Handing me a long pole, his whisper was barely more than a puff of air on my cheek as he taught me how to use the tiny hangman's noose at the end.
Unable to stand in the gently rocking boat, I flattened myself from head to mid-thigh across the flat aluminum bow, holding the pole carefully to one side. Suddenly, the eyes disappeared. We were almost on top of our prey.
"Do you see it? Do you see it?" urgently whispered the guide.
Peering hopefully into the mottled darkness below I couldn't, at first, find the creature. Suddenly, a move so slight as to be only a suggestion gave away its position. Taking a deep, shaky breath, I stealthily lowered the noose to the ground, dropping it just ahead of the pointed nose. Springing into action, the caiman ran frantically forward--straight into the noose!
Praying not to lose the creature, I jerked the line sharply to tighten the hangman's knot. Desperate to keep tension on the slippery line as the caiman began to thrash, I hurled myself back, crash-landing on my bottom. Moving so fast his hand was only a blur, the guide grabbed the desperate amphibian by its neck and swung it deftly into the boat.
Nothing in my life had prepared me for being this close to an angry, five-foot-long caiman. Moving at a speed I hadn't known I possessed, I lifted myself to a respectful distance away from the snapping jaws. To my dismay, the guide removed the noose from the creature then sat down beside me.
Still tightly holding our unhappy guest with one hand, he lifted its round, scaly belly onto his lap with the other. I tensed as the long tail landed on my thighs. With effort, I finally managed to smile for a photo.
Suddenly, the great tail slashed across my waist as the creature began thrashing about. Alarmed, the guide leapt to his feet, holding it as far away as he could. With a weak smile, he asked if we had enough pictures. A resounding "yes" virtually leapt from my throat....
After our guide carefully returned the caiman to the mud, it froze in place for an instant. Then, with a great flip of its tail it was gone. To my surprise, I was sad to see it go. For a few priceless seconds, I had been Ramar of the jungle, Indiana Jones, and Wonderwoman, all rolled into one.
Capturing the caiman was one of the most exciting adventures I've had during my wheelchair travels. This not terribly accessible trip was made possible with the help of a strong companion and careful planning by Accessible Journeys. Although not an easy trip, it was well worth the effort. Having a dream come true usually is.
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