JoLt 1996 – Texas through Central America to Venezuela
A group of teenagers relaxed on a coral island in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Venezuela. A few swam and snorkelled in the crystal clear waters; others soaked up the sun on a fine white sandy beach fringed with palm trees – a paradise that they had only ever dreamed about. They laughed loudly and confidently; they were happy, excited, tired yet safe. They were enjoying themselves without a care in the world.
…but it wasn’t always like that! Exactly 28 days before, 23 young people converged on Gatwick airport from all parts of Britain. They were apprehensive, unsure of themselves and nervous at the thought of travelling half way round the world with 28 others who they had met only briefly for a weekend. A quick good-bye to family, friends and social workers and the group moved away from the noisy crowds in the check-in area to the airport observation landing. A boy and girl communicated in sign language oblivious of the noise of the roaring aircraft overhead. She is profoundly deaf and lives with her disabled father. He has been deaf since birth with virtually no speech; brought up by his grandparents, he has been suspicious of ‘the hearing’ since being stabbed by a member of the hearing community.
They were a remarkable group: Some were suffering from varying degrees of cerebral palsy but, watching the jets, they start to mingle. A bubbly, ever smiling girl who suffers from congenital epiphyseal displasia (dwarfism), and who lives with her severely depressed parents, chats from her wheelchair with a leader; another girl with congenital dislocated hip leans on her crutches as she describes the scene to one of the two visually impaired young people on the expedition. A paraplegic with evident burns and skin grafts checks his hand luggage while another boy confined to a wheelchair due to a stroke , bites his nails as he almost moves himself into the foetal position. A boy with arthritis talks incessantly to a new friend and here and there, interspersed among the group are physically able young people who in their short teenage lives have experienced long histories of severe neglect, repeated rejection and emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
They were accompanied by six adults (including a doctor) as they made their three thousand mile (mostly overland) journey from Texas through Central America to Colombia and Venezuela.
It all began in late July when we headed over the Atlantic to Dallas, Texas, to start our long journey, using almost every conceivable means of transport, to Caracas in Venezuela. Almost missing our connecting flight we made the short hop from Dallas to Midland/Odessa and then travelled 300 miles by road before we could fall exhausted into our beds in Big Bend National Park. Here we saw our first lizards, vultures, roadrunners and eagles. An excursion in a severely leaking metal rowing boat towed by a burly Mexican up to his chest in the murky, brown water of the Rio Grande gave us our first taste as ‘gringos’ as we ‘illegally’ entered Mexico. We also had to learn to protect ourselves from, and to adapt to, the 115 degree heat of the Chihuahua desert. A cookout with real life cowboys, several ghost towns and Boot Hill were followed by our first real taste of genuine enchiladas, fajitas and tortillas as our hosts in Mexico made us welcome with games of ‘piñata’. ‘Firsts’ started to pile up: long train journeys, the Copper Canyon, Indians from the Tara Humras tribe (amongst others), the intricacies of bartering, the Spanish language and coping with time zone and climate changes.
At Los Moches we discovered our first stowaway; a black scorpion had hitched a ride in one of the girls’ suitcases! As we left the desert cacti behind, we entered the semi-tropical climes of Southern Mexico. Another plane journey over the Gulf of Mexico saw us land in the sprawling mass of Mexico City, fortunately without the smog. The group rode in rickshaws around the Spanish part of the city, mixing with thousands of yellow and white or green and white Volkswagen Beetles that made up the huge taxi population. Here, one of the highlights took place: In the evening we crossed the Garibaldi Piazza to a restaurant where we were entertained by a fabulous band of Mariachi musicians in black tuxedos with ornate silver buckles. The group that started as solitary people began to gel as they danced; those who were shy and introverted were encouraged by the more outgoing. and the wheel chair bound strutted their stuff to the magical music. Surprisingly so early in the journey, they all became involved, as the sounds of laughter echoed around the restaurant, there was evidence of a new awakening.
After a short flight to Villermosa, we swam in the impressive Agua Azul waterfalls before visiting the mysterious and majestic pyramids at Palenque, sited on a plateau above the forest canopy. On the border with Guatemala lies the San Pedro River and here the Guatemalan version of speed boats whisked us upstream past primitive dwellings. Back on the buses, we drove (on ‘major roads’ that looked like dirt tracks) for hours on end through vast tracts of deforestation. Geography and global problems came to life!
The eerie temples of Tikal visited in the pouring rain thanks to a hurricane lying just off the coast, were left behind as we set up camp at an old ranch called Finca Ixobel. A relic of the hippie days of the Sixties, Finca Ixobel had its own menagerie consisting of scarlet macaws, Amazon parrots, Toni the spider monkey, a honey bear, and a pet dog – all free to roam at liberty. Some of us went riding while others went for a trek in the jungle as the rain continued to pour down. Next came Lake Atilan where a boat trip took us to visit some of the few true Mayan descendants left at Santa Catarina. After two weeks of travelling, we had reached Guatemala City. From here we started the long drive through El Salvador and Honduras to Nicaragua where tired and dirty we arrived late for a reception given for us by the British Embassy in Managua. Here local people invited us into their homes and we spent the night in groups of twos and threes, enjoying briefly the luxury of home life before we continued our “Journey of a Lifetime”.
We looked into the massive crater of the Masaya Volcano, visited Granada and its magnificent Moorish buildings and made a boat trip around the mangroves of Lake Nicaragua, the only place where one finds fresh water sharks. We crossed in darkness to Ometepe Island to spend the next day visiting craft shops and swimming off a beach of black sand in the shadows of Volcano Conception. On to Costa Rica with the forest getting thicker and greener, to MonteVerde Cloud Forest at 5000ft above sea level: Here we enjoyed walks in the rain forest, humming birds feeding on nectar, roosting toucans and a butterfly farm with leaf cutting ants.
The next port of call was a ranch on the coast of Nicoya, which was idyllic. After surviving another scorpion scare we rafted down the river to experience the sights and sounds of the jungle; howler monkeys, crocodiles, iguanas and assorted bird life. Then to Panama City where we saw the ruined villa where Noriega was held by the Americans but this was overshadowed by the Miraflores Locks in operation on the impressive Panama Canal where two gigantic freight ships were being lowered 38 feet, enabling them to cross from one ocean to another.
From Colon we boarded the Crucero Express ferry to Cartegna in Colombia accompanied by some bottlenose dolphins and the odd brown Pelican. We swam in the Caribbean Sea before touring the city in a Chiva and then onto Venezuela via a route change due to hurricane damage to the main highway. Past the Sierra Nevada on a 33 hour bus journey that should have taken 12 hours, stopping to visit an Andean village near Merida and later, a glimpse of the house where Simon Bolivar started the liberation of Venezuela in 1825. Once again our hostel resembled a menagerie, which we shared with a crocodile, parrots, monkeys, tortoises and vultures but we did not mind as we spent our last day on the magical, coral island of Boca Seca in Morrocoy National Park.
The journey had not been plain sailing; such expeditions never are. Meeting unexpected challenges and overcoming problems by learning to work as a team are all part of a JoLt expedition. Logistic problems were caused by Hurricane Caesar which made some roads impassable and others slow, wet and muddy. Friendship problems are also inevitable as youngsters with low esteem gradually learnt that they could trust each other as well as the accompanying adults. Slowly and gradually their self belief and self esteem began to grow. During the journey many had been able for the first time to talk about painful and unhappy experiences and to gradually come to terms with situations that had previously left them feeling ashamed, worthless and helpless.
For a whole month, the youngsters were able to put many of their everyday problems and troubles on the backburner and were able to enjoy four weeks crammed with adventure, discovery, excitement and much happiness. We hope that their time away has been part of a healing process and that the different challenges they faced on their “Journey of a Lifetime” will better equip them to deal with their life’s hardships. Friendships were formed and with the realisation that they were not alone, they gained the strength to face their problems with more confidence and with a growing sense of self worth thus encouraging them to take control of their lives, to strive for independence and for better times. They achieved much more than we, or they ever expected. They have every reason to be very proud of themselves.
The success of the journey owes much to the teamwork, courage, good humour and personalities of the youngsters and adults who participated. We wish every happiness to the twenty-two young people who contributed so much as well as benefited so much from the journey and we hope that they will continue to be able to turn to us in times of trouble and in times of happiness.
We owe much to His Majesty King Hussein of Jordan who has continued to support our work since the JoLt Trust was founded in 1983. We are delighted that Her Majesty Queen Noor has become President of The JoLt Trust.
Without the help of many individuals, companies and charitable trusts, the 1996 ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ would never have been possible. We are greatly indebted to them and to our many friends who have worked so hard for us. We thank you all for your support and for your friendship. Above all we thank you for caring.
Participants: James Beer, Melanie Bielby, Sasha Clark, John Couley, Elizabeth Darling, Christopher Dodds, Michael Dodds, Kenneth Franz, Robert Gardner, Moira Hamilton, Jason Hunter, Joanna Knowles, Mark Lansdown, Matthew Lavers, Stuart Linden, Paul Link, Arwen Lockley, Patrick McCann, Roberta Ramsey, Vincent Robertson, Wayne Turner, Mark Willcox.
Leaders: Dorothy Dalton, Claire Walford, Alan Buzza, Grant Close, Paul Gaston, Alan McDougall.