Journalist Jessica Paula (@jessicapaula) has been to unconventional countries, traveling alone through some of Africa’s most troubled regions, and recently took a three-day trek in Lençóis Maranhenses.
The most remarkable thing about this 30-year-old woman from Goiás is the fact that she has traveled the world alone on crutches.
“The crutch ends up being secondary for me because the story that I live on the trips is much bigger. It is the challenge, the nonsense and the interest in the unknown”, says the journalist in an interview with Nossa.
Disabled since the age of six due to acute myelitis, Jessica completed a grueling hike through Brazil’s largest sand dune field in Maranhao in October.
“The first dunes are beautiful, but crossing the Lençóis Maranhenses on foot for three days is much more interesting,” challenges this traveler who has already visited 34 countries and has jobs on her resume such as threatening arrest and crossing the border by bus where she used to be only woman
“Why did you come here?”
To complete the 30 km trek in Maranhão, about 10 km a day, Jessica was accompanied by a local tour guide and a horse, who helped lighten the eight-kilo backpack of clothing and photographic equipment that she took on the trek.
The start of the trip was at dawn to avoid the high temperatures that hit the area after 11 in the morning.
To counter the harsh weather, Jessica recommends wearing long-sleeved UV-protective shirts, a bandana to shield your face, and plenty of sunscreen. In her case, her bag also carried crutches and extra rubber, including a stabilizer bolt, “bigger than traditional crutches and doesn’t sink into the sand.”
However, her biggest challenge was not dealing with the height difference, let alone walking on crutches over uneven ground of soft sand. The worst part was dealing with the mental state that always seemed to sabotage the trip.
I looked around and there was no one there, and I thought that I was the only crazy one out there. The first day, I wondered if it made sense to do that.”
Another difficulty was crossing the oases, so called the little towns where the few inhabitants lived in the middle of the dunes, whose deeper terrain is characterized by soft sand, vegetation and muddy expanses.
He compares: “I went up the sand dunes and the wind pushed me backwards. It was like walking backwards on an escalator.”
To reassure the relatives who stayed on this side of the country, I used a satellite tracker, through which it was possible to trace their path and exchange some messages.
According to locals she met while crossing, Jessica is the first person on crutches to cross the Lençóis Maranhenses.
These stories can be an inspiration to many people. I want to show that it’s possible [to travel as a disabled person],” she explains.
Even if you have to cross borders to do it.
On Crutches Around the World
Jessica grew up on a farm in Rio Verde, in the interior of Goiás, and she always wanted to know what was on the other side of the river that separates her home from the rest of the world.
So great was her curiosity that she ended up where not all travelers would have the courage to go.
In 2013 she traveled to Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda, in a personal project in which she visited African towns affected by wars or political conflicts, she met child soldiers and was in a refugee camp.
From her two-month experience in Africa, the book “We are here” (Shoba Publishing House) was born, whose title was inspired by a phrase that the journalist herself heard during the trip: “When they return to their world, tell them that we are here .”
Jessica not only kept her promise, but also indicated permanent business on the mainland.
She remembers that they threatened to arrest me in Ethiopia at the border with Sudan because I was trying to enter the Blue Nile, one of the most conflictive countries in the region, where foreigners and journalists are prohibited.
Jessica says that they suspected that she was a journalist and turned her entire bag around looking for evidence. She decided to enter the region, and crossed all of Ethiopia from south to north to try to re-enter through another border.
“I was so determined to enter Sudan because it was forbidden,” says Jessica, who was reported on her second attempt by an employee at the hotel where she was staying.
“Either you leave or they arrest you,” recalls the journalist. “Even the Red Cross has just been expelled from there.”
As she explains, “I’ve always loved telling stories, but [in Africa] I looked for bigger problems than mine.”
The only thing she didn’t take into account was the nearly 50 degree Celsius desert heat, she reported, which melted the rubber on her crutches.
Among the most tense moments of the trip, the journalist also remembers when she got on a bus in which the only woman was traveling, between Morocco and Mauritania, and to the hotel where she stayed in Sudan, where there were only men.
However, all this is nothing, given what Jessica goes through in her daily life.
“When I go to a conflict zone, I expect difficult conditions. But when you look at the main economy of South America [Sao Paulo], the situation at the docks is even more worrying”, Jessica analyzes.
For her, more than a social struggle, “tourist accessibility is a market demand.”
As the journalist recalls, according to data from Puertas Abiertas, in the US alone “more than 27 million disabled passengers made 81 million trips, spending a total of 58.7 billion dollars” between 2018 and 2019.
America has a wide variety of service options, like that little motorcycle for the disabled. They have learned to deal with it,” he says.
In his opinion, it was in Europe where he found the best (and worst) conditions for disabled travelers, such as Luxembourg, a very accessible country, as well as the interior of Germany.
The same cannot be said of the two capitals, Paris and London.
“Subway trains are very old and it was very difficult to cross the gap between the platform and the carriage with an 80-liter backpack on your back,” recalls the journalist.
Jessica asks for better conditions for disabled travelers, as long as they don’t carry her on their lap.
“We carry a briefcase and a backpack, but it is not very common to carry people on our legs. It is a lack of commitment to people with disabilities, because it is embarrassing for everyone. Usually it’s the guys who suggest carrying us and I feel like an item,” she says.
But her latest breakthrough was embracing her body while she was traveling, when she began to gain the confidence to take full body photos.
“Thanks to my crutches I have been in all these places and today it has become an extension of my body. It was a process of acceptance,” concludes the journalist who is currently preparing for the “Seven Elements” project, with experiences such as how to climb Pão Sugarcane in Rio, skiing at a handicapped resort in California and climbing cold lava in Hawaii.
And so, with his hands firmly on the handles of her crutches, Jessica continues to travel the world with training wheels at her feet.