In July 2018, I had undertaken an adventure venture into the remote high Amazon of Northern Peru. Several agendas were in play, including basic survival, bioprospecting, basic survival, surviving basically and looking for opportunities to have a positive social impact through charitable initiatives. Little did I realize that the opportunity for the last agenda item would occur in a very unexpected way in the very last minutes of the trip.
We had used, as a sort of base camp, a town called Bagua Grande. It would be our last taste of semi-civilization, and a bed, before heading to the end of the road and beyond. Our adventure took us in rickety boats to extremely remote Awahun villages, many of the inhabitants of which had never seen a gringo, let alone a “fish belly white” Canadian. We returned to Bagua exhausted and dirty (fear of the candiru enough to prevent bathing in the Amazon) so I took a cold shower (hot water not an option) and set off in search of a unique man called Margarito, a man who was considered a giant in a country where the average male height was 5’4”. I suffer from a nasty case of chronic curiosity, likely terminal, and was intrigued as to why there was such a fuss about this guy. I was expecting to see a big fella, but I was not expecting what unfolded in front of me. He was sitting in a large chair but upon seeing me enter the room, Margarito unfolded, and unfolded and unfolded, more than seven and a half feet of him! But it was not easy, like watching a wounded baby giraffe struggle to it’s feet. Standing was obviously very difficult for him so I motioned for him to please sit down. But he was up and he wanted to be respectful and shake my hand from a standing position. I soon learned that he thought more about how others felt than his own comfort. He put his massive hand on my shoulder, which disappeared, and my translator Marco began talking. “Canadian medico…..blah blah… amigo… blah blah.…cerveza….blah blah Gloria Estefan….” Maragarito was not used to laughing or even smiling all that much. But having lived on a remote island in Vanuatu, I had learned that humour crosses all cultural boundaries. Soon, mostly courtesy of keystone coppish performance humour, we were all laughing. I spent the better part of the afternoon with Margarito, but also surrounded by others with assorted physical disabilities, many in wheelchairs (one glance and there was no guessing as to why as the Amazon can be cruel to those with any deformities) who were also smiling and laughing at our antics. It felt like a hospital ward. Margarito spends his time helping those with disabilities; he works in a centre he had helped set up for those with a myriad of physical problems, in a place where there wasn’t exactly any social programs. As the afternoon wound down Rodrigo, a double amputee who was interacting the whole time, said to me “If anyone needs a wheelchair it is Margarito. Someone promised him one a few years ago but it never happened. They ended up wanting him to pay first and he can’t afford anything like that. But he can’t walk five meters.”
I often try to ground myself by reciting a simple yet powerful song of my youth called Have I Done Any Good.
Have I done any good in the world today?
Have I helped anyone in need?
Have I cheered up the sad and made someone feel glad?
If not, I have failed indeed.
Has anyone’s burden been lighter today
Because I was willing to share?
Have the sick and the weary been helped on their way?
When they needed my help was I there?
There are chances for work all around just now,
Opportunities right in our way.
Do not let them pass by, saying, “Sometime I’ll try, “
But go and do something today.
Instantly the lyrics came to my mind again and I replied, almost too reflexively, “Rodrigo, tell Margarito I will build him a chair.” I had no idea what it would cost and if I’d have to mortgage another child, but I knew I had to be this good man’s karma. The wheelchair, of course, would have to be custom made to his crazy dimensions. “I will need to get his measurements of course.” Turned out that wouldn’t take long. He had all the measurements already on a sheet of paper, perhaps just in case a fish belly white Canadian showed up out of the jungle.
On my return home, I began to investigate the options of how and where to have this built. I decided on having it built in the big city of Lima, so that if adjustments and maintenance were required, at least it was in the same country as Margarito, even though in a different world. I told this story to Richard, a colleague at work, who was also CEO of Plena Global, the company that had sent me to Peru to work in the first place. I was pleasantly surprised when Richard responded within two seconds of hearing about Margarito “We want in.” I was even more surprised when he clarified that he wanted Plena to cover all the costs. I was going to argue but my kneecap got itchy and distracted me.
A man named David Bernal agreed to undertake building the world’s largest motorized wheelchair. He updated me with photos as this project, which looked as though it came out of a Detroit motor plant, came together in front of my eyes.
Margarito would have to come to Lima in order to be properly fitted before having the chair shipped to the jungle town. Margarito doesn’t leave the boundaries of Bagua much, if at all, unless he really stretches out in the morning. I tried to get him a plane ticket from the nearest airport, a couple of hours drive. But Margarito declined as there would no way for him to get on or fit on a airplane. Instead he took a bus for… 20 hours. I met him at the bus station and watched him, once again, painfully unfold out of the bus. He used a cane in one hand and the top of his 11 year old son’s head in the other. A smile like I’ve seldom seen in a grown man came over his face when he saw the “super silla.” But it got even bigger when he sat in the chair and realized that his life was about to change. His son burst into tears at his father’s reaction, as well, I suspect, out of relief that his neck would no longer be compressed to his ankles.
There were a few options on this model and Margarito reached tentatively towards a button as though he might eject himself into the stratosphere. It was the horn. He laid his giant mitt on it and let it sing (obviously any self respecting giant motorized wheelchair in the jungle has a horn). If that was the only thing that worked I think he still would’ve been happy. But this was Christmas, a whole flock of Christmases to Margarito. He turned the key and that chair began to growl. Slowly he turned the accelerator, Houston began the count down, all systems were a go and the chair edged forward. Then to a crawl, then faster. Within 15 minutes he was flying across the parking lot like he’d fallen into a pool of Red Bull and jalapenos. Back and forth he went with his son standing on the back of it, tears having turned into whoops of joy. This was a very cool toy for him, but for Margarito it was a new lease on life.
We shipped the chair back to the jungle and when I last checked, the chair was working great…. horn included.