Guest post by Caroline Chadderton
Kathleen Collis can only walk a few steps. But nothing was going to stop her from visiting her son in the Amazon jungle.
Kathleen Collis was 72 years old at that time and for 16 years she had been in a wheelchair. Her son Mick moved to Iquitos Peru in 1998 and she missed him very much.
Mick opened a small shop in Iquitos, Mad Mick’s Trading Post, which rents and sells all sorts of things for jungle trips – hammocks, mosquito nets, ponchos, and fishing tackle and he also publishes the only English newspaper in Peru, the Iquitos Times. “I just got the idea in my head that I wanted to go and see him” says Kath. “Everyone thought I was mad and my husband George wasn’t that keen, but I was determined to go. We set off on the long journey and towards the end, we flew over the rainforest and the Amazon River, so that alone was worth the trip.”
Touching down at Iquitos airport they were greeted by some school children from a local school singing the national song accompanied by a brass band. The children held posters saying “Welcome Momma Kath and Pappa George”, and they were presented with flowers.
Kath had taken her own wheelchair but when it wasn’t practical to use, she had a chair made for her by a local man called Juan Maldonado. “We called him One Dollar because”, she said, “he would do most jobs for just one dollar!”
Every day of their three-week holiday Kath was busy making new friends. A school teacher at a local school called Doris Padilla Vargas, took her out every day, and Kath and George joined the children on a picnic, enjoyed trips to the Plaza de Armas, walks along the riverfront boulevard and she was even invited to a wedding.
Kath also swam regularly in El Dorado Plaza Hotel pool. “I had to buy a swimming costume because I hadn’t swum for years. I just crawled on my knees – my way of getting about – to the edge of the pool, put my hands over my head and in I went, I did two lengths and the waiters all cheered!” Swimming was a welcome relief from the heat, as the temperature was often over 80 degrees, rising to as much as a 100, although the frequent heavy thunderstorms helped to cool things down for a while.
One of the highlights of her visit was a trip up the Momon River to meet the Bora Indians at San Andres. Her wheelchair was loaded aboard the boat and then the Boras carried Kath in her wheelchair through the rainforest to their village. “There was dancing to welcome us” Kath recalls. “The Indians couldn’t get over ‘the white haired old lady who travelled in the jungle on a chair with wheels’. It was really lovely there with all the parrots flying about.”
The next day we travelled up the Amazon River to a lodge called Refugio Altiplano near the village of Tamshiyacu. The owner Scott Peterson is a friend of Mick’s and allowed us to stay there overnight. “We slept in a very basic wooden bungalow, with just a hard bed and a mosquito net. I wasn’t very well in the evening, probably because of the journey and the heat. Our meal was cooked over an open fire, but when I looked at the plate of bananas and eggs – and a mug of black coffee-I just couldn’t face it”.
Another memorable moment was a trip to a local day center for poor children. They call them wawawasis. This one was run by an American called Leo Jones and is called “Los Ninos de Leo”. Kath and George donated 200 english pounds which was raised by Mick’s daughter Helen earlier that year when she took part in the first River Amazon Raft Race. Mick is well known back in Herefordshire, England as the organizer of the River Wye 100 Mile Raft Race which has now been going for 38 years. When Mick came to live in Iquitos he started The Great River Amazon Raft Race which is now in its 13th year.
Getting around in Iquitos was never difficult for Kath because willing hands were always ready to lift her up the stairs, or into her wheelchair for a trip around Iquitos. “It was the trip of a lifetime going to South America – especially in a wheelchair!”
Written by Caroline Chadderton with the kind permission of Your Magazine in the UK.
Bill Grimes, reporting from Iquitos Peru.