Destination: the changing horizon

“We dream about making a documentary film about our travels and our friendship: two boys on wheelchairs set off on a journey to a shaman in Peru, not with the hope of being healed but for the sake of the journey itself. On November 9th we are starting a six-month journey across the Americas – South, Central and North America,” Michal Woroch and Maciej Kaminski tell Poland.pl. The Polish Embassy in Argentina has assumed patronage of their travels.

Poland.pl: How did you meet?

Michal: We met 14 years ago in a hospital in Bydgoszcz, in the rehabilitation unit. We were put in the same ward.

Maciek: It all started thanks to Prof. Jan Talar, who at the time was the head of Rehabilitation Clinic of the University Hospital in Bydgoszcz. This is a person who woke around 500 people from their comas, half of whom were moments away from being cut up and having their organs taken out. At first, contact between Michal and myself was limited to the hospital.

Michal: When we were in hospital together, in 2011, I asked Maciek if he would join me on a trip if I bought a car. I always travelled with friends. He told me to that I should let him know when I buy the car. One day, I call him up and tell him that I have a car and that we need to go. It was a spur of a moment decision.

Maciek:  We managed to piece together our budget within two weeks. People liked the sound of our idea and supported us, giving us money and making pledges. In 2012 we embarked on a journey across Europe. Along the Mediterranean Sea, we went down to Morocco for two weeks and then back up through the continent. The trip lasted 3.5 months, during which we covered 17,500 km. We adapted the car to match our needs, for example we installed a small lift.

What did a day during your journey across Europe look like? 

Michal: You wake up in the morning, get out of the car, wash your teeth and put the coffee on. You sit and enjoy the wonderful view. After drinking coffee you look for a toilet. Finding a good petrol station or a McDonald’s was a good option as they offered us three useful services: coffee, a toilet and the Internet. And getting out of the car was not easy. It meant that you have to go from the front to the back on the bed, open the door, activate the lift, open up the wheelchair and go down using the lift. It is a pretty complicated operation. It also teaches us not to forget anything, because it is difficult to go back afterwards.

Maciek: Normal things such as these: eating, drinking, using the toilet. Everything rotates around them.

Michal: Later on everyone asked us if we visited this or that place. Sometimes we simply didn’t have the energy and there were times when we focused on simply reading a book in a beautiful setting rather than sightseeing. My plan, however, was to visit museums as I am a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznan. I dragged Maciek to these museums, which importantly were all adapted to our needs.

The first day of our trip was very different to the last day. It was full of euphoria, it was very joyful. We started our journey in Hungary and had a very tough time due to the heat. It took a lot out of us physically. In our case it’s as if you’re driving around completely drenched, you see people swimming and get annoyed that we aren’t able to join them. There is no way to go down the beach without assistance. At first this really got to me, but the trip taught me that some hurdles cannot be jumped and that one has to be happy with what one has. Later on I found a way for us to bathe at petrol stations, in the disabled toilets. We took showers and made a bit of a mess.

Maciek: We even bathed in a toilet at the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.

Did you park your car at camping places or did you choose other spots?

Michal: Completely at random. For example, when we were in Avignon we parked in places where one wasn’t allowed to drive into. In most EU countries, disabled people are allowed to ignore entry bans. In Avignon we parked right in the centre. We slept on the main promenade. The police would wake us up every day, but there was not much that they could do. They couldn’t give us a parking ticket. We parked as close to the centre as possible. Also because I don’t have that much strength in my hands and can’t go that far from the car.

Driving out of Avignon we heard Chopin’s music playing. Someone was playing it on the street, at eight o’clock in the evening. It turned out that they were Poles, we introduced ourselves and ended up staying in the city for another five days.

Maciek: We also weren’t afraid to go to places that have a bad reputation. We drove into Marseilles’ 13th District, where white people normally don’t go. There we met a boy in a wheelchair who was injured during a street shooting. I can confidently say that when we sat around the table with him and his friends, there was at very least one gun among them. They were rather shady guys, but we got along. There was a special connection between us.

Did you make any friends during your travels?

Maciek: If we met someone then it was usually someone similar to us, that is someone travelling or perhaps a homeless person or a gardener. People from the lower ranks of society, people who have time to talk. People in the big cities would look at our car and smile, but they don’t even have time for coffee.

Michal:  There was this time in Italy, in Castello di Popoli. We parked our car in the centre and met this gardener who invited us to attend the town’s annual festivities. The mayor gave us very special treatment. All of the town’s residents came together in the square and celebrated for two days. First a procession, then dinner. Everyone came up to us, talked to us, it was beautiful.

Which place did you like the most during your travels across Europe?

Maciek: The whole trip. But if I had to choose only one place, then it would be Italy. We were really hungry and there weren’t any places close-by where we could get something to eat.  We deviated from our route and made our way up into the mountains. As we were about to lose hope of finding something we drove around randomly and came across a wrought-iron gate. However, the restaurant could only be accessed using steep vertical climb, there was no chance to get there. And yet somehow we managed to get something to eat, using our broken English and Italian.

Michal: We drove past the kitchen. The cook called for the boss, who said that she doesn’t speak a word of English and therefore called for her daughter, who also didn’t speak much English. We ordered one fish and one portion of pasta, and she brought us two fish and two portions of pasta. And then brought everything down to our car. It turned out that she also included two glasses of wine. It was the best fish I’ve ever eaten. We could see everyone that left the restaurant rubbing their tummies, literally. It was a restaurant for locals. When we had finished the girl also brought us a dessert. We told her that it wasn’t necessary. She replied that it was on the house and gave us a homemade tiramisu. It was then that I grasped the meaning of tiramisu.

Maciek: And we too patted our stomachs for the rest of the day. Unfortunately I don’t remember where the restaurant is any more.

Did you drive around at random – or did you plan your travels meticulously?

Michal: At the start of our journey we had a plan.

Maciek: For example, we planned to go to Croatia. But we then looked at a map and decided to go to Italy instead.

Michal: Sometimes we planned to go somewhere and when we arrived there it turned out the place is a disaster for two people in wheelchairs.

But at the end of the day, Europe probably has a lot of places adapted to the needs of wheelchair drivers. How about somewhere like Morocco? Did you have troubles there?

Maciek: It was terrible. I like what a friend of ours once told us, a guy who takes Poles around South America who actually just flew off to Buenos Aires a few days ago. He once read in a book how a certain traveller once entered a tourist office and asked: “what is the most interesting thing to see in your town?”, after which he crossed one place after another off a list each time he heard them being mentioned. He only went to places that weren’t crossed out. He only went to places where one could feel at home and meet people.

Michal: Places where you’re not treated like the typical tourist.  In our case, the most important element of our travels was the journey itself.

What are your plans for your upcoming trip to the Americas?

Maciek: Our car is already being transported by boat to Buenos Aires. We got it specially for our trip to the Americas.

Michal: We have a Land Rover Defender, in which we changed the gearbox from manual to automatic. We adapted the acceleration-brake function so that you can drive with your hands. We changed the brakes because they weren’t that good. We created a lift on the roof, a tent on the roof, a side-lift and heating. The beds and sofas are at the back. There is not that much space inside. There is a kitchenette and a table with metal containers fixed onto the back of the doors, equipped with pots and pans. Everything is based on the winches - engines that draw quads out from the mud. It is a loud car, but it is reliable.

Maciek: We’re setting off on November 9th. We’re travelling there by plane. We’re picking up the car at the port and from then we’re free to go. We’ll definitely start by heading off south to Cape Horn.

Michal: We’re going to go to the most far-flung place, where there is nothing apart from wind and space.

Maciek: After that we’ll go north, through the Andes. We’re worried that we might have problems with the altitude there. In Bolivia we’re going to be 5,000 metres above sea level.

Michal: My dream is to see the plateau situated 4,600 metres above sea level, close to Titicaca Lake. This plateau is a dried up salt lake. When you stand in the middle you only see the horizon. The most beautiful sight is when the plateau is covered by 15cm of rainwater. Then the clouds bounce off the earth. The earth and sky join as one.

Maciek: In May we will probably meet up with our friend, who also sent his Defender to America and is already driving around. We want to travel together by boat from Columbia to Panama.

Michal: Our plan is to travel for half a year. But I recently met a great girl who will go crazy when I leave, and I will go crazy if I won’t be able to see her, which is a problem.

What is your biggest journey related dream?

Michal: The changing horizon.

Maciek: Although I would also add Las Vegas. The World Championship in cards is taking place there next summer and as I play poker I would like to take part in some of the contests.

Michal: During our last journey across Europe we went to around five such tournaments. Maciek said that he would take part if we both stake 20 euros: if he wins then we’ll stay in a Four Star hotel, if he loses then we’ll stay in the parking lot next to the hotel. And he won twice.

Maciek: We were in San Remo for the festivities marking the one-hundredth year of the casino. We drove up to the reception in our flip-flops and t-shirts. The woman there asked me to put on a shirt. And everyone there was dressed up in tailcoats. My opponents were women dressed in evening gowns. We got food and drink for free. Such an adventure.

Michal: I’m on a budget, Maciek isn’t.

Interviewed by Magdalena Majewska, Bartosz Marcinkowski

For more information, visit: wheelchairtrip.com