Project U/Turn: Freedom in nature

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In a pioneering project for Chile, 13 Belgians with various disabilities participated in an expedition to parks and nature areas in the Los Lagos Region in March. Many of the areas they visited were supposedly not apt for the disabled, yet they successfully met the challenge. Patagon Journal joined them on a trail at Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park.

Text and photos by Ignacio Palma
Translation by Taylor Ffitch

Night has fallen in Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park and the most difficult day of the expedition is almost over. Faces showing fatigue but also joy reflect the fading light of a dying campfire at the Playa Petrohué campground. Drinks, beer, and wine are shared amongst us amid laughter and conversation in Flemish, the official language of the Flanders region of Belgium. All this accompanied by the sound of an acoustic guitar on this starry night in the Chilean foothills.

There are plenty of reasons to celebrate, but this group sums up their recent wilderness experience in a single word: freedom. And it isn’t a foolish way to describe the experience of these 13 Belgians with various physical, visual, and auditory disabilities who came to participate in 17 days of adventure tourism in the Los Lagos region. “Here we’ve done things we could never do at home,” explains Sanne Van de Velde, who suffers from Friedrich’s Ataxia, a degenerative muscular disease that means she must move around in a wheelchair.

The 29-year-old, like the rest of the group, completed the 12 kilometers of the Paso Desolación Path, which is supposedly not adapted for disabled access, in 7 hours. Led by the Belgian NGO Project U/Turn, and supported by the Chilean consultancy Hola Chile and the tour operator Jass Puerto Varas, the team totaled some 30 members, including participants, specialists, guides, a doctor, paramedic, physiotherapist, and volunteers.
The beginning of a common dream
Some hours before that campfire, at around 7 in the morning in a private campground on the outskirts of the Osorno Volcano, Glenn Crynen went from tent to tent waking up the participants. One by one, helping one another, they came out of their tents to pack their belongings, eat breakfast, and prepare for the long day ahead. 
Crynen is one of the founders of Project U/Turn. The project came together in 2012, but it had been in his mind for many years prior. First, when he was impressed by the boundless energy of his friend Marc Herremans, a recognized Belgian triathlete who became paraplegic in 2002 but nevertheless continued to be a high-performing athlete. Then, in 2008, when he collaborated on a television program in his country in which 10 people with disabilities made a grueling independent journey across Nicaragua.
“I saw these people so happy being out in nature, going to hike or camp, that I had to do something,” he recalls. So Glenn left his career in the Belgian Special Forces to lead his first expedition in the aforementioned Central American country.
Over the years, he added tours on the Spanish island of Tenerife, Morocco, and Iceland, places they returned to every season.  Currently, more than 200 people have benefitted from the program, with Chile being their 17th trip worldwide, but the first in South America.
The visit to this corner of the globe would not have happened without the tenacity of Nury Trompa. Years ago he developed a lymphatic cancer that led her to her own firsthand experience with disability. After a long fight, she beat the disease. She left her hotel business in her native Colombia and decided to dedicate herself fully to the cause of more inclusive tourism. She knocked on doors in both her home country and in Chile looking for support. Finally, in 2014, she received seed money from CORFO (Chile’s economic development agency). This co-financed Hola Chile, her consultancy firm that designs accessible tourism services, with routes, accommodation, food, and tours.
Trompa contacted Glenn to suggest the Coquimbo region as part of the Project U/Turn tour. However, after some exploration by Glenn himself last season, they chose the Los Lagos region for its better tourist attractions and Jass Puerto Varas as their logistics and organizations agency. In addition to the Paso Desolación Trail, the expedition has planned visits to the Chiloé area, kayaking in the Reloncaví estuary, cultural experiences in Cochamó and horseback riding in Llanada Grande.
“There’s a serious problem with the attitude in Latin America: they think that a person with a disability can’t do things on their own, but they can,” says Trompa, who is taking note of what Project U/Turn does in our country in order to repeat it soon with Chilean participants (see postscript below).
It was after 10:00 o’clock by the time the whole group found themselves braving a strong wind at an altitude of some 1,100 meters. A truck made two trips to bring the team to the La Picada reserve, located on the western side of the Osorno Volcano, whose majestic cone could be clearly seen on the cloudless day.
Four of the five people who usually use special wheelchairs for this type of trail had duct tape on their legs for safety reasons. The fifth individual was Kilian Pannier (25-years-old). The ataxia that overcame him after a fall from a second story window did not stop him from leaving his wheelchair and walking the entire route, accompanied by Hanneh Bertels (24) a young blind woman who supported “Skinny,” as he is also called, by letting him lean an arm on her shoulders. “Project U/Turn really helps me a lot in my rehabilitation to be able to walk again. Every time I get back from a trip my physical therapist tells me I’ve made great progress,” Pannier tells us.
And it is exactly this teamwork between Kilian and Hanneh that can be observed in most of the participants. Another example was when the group came to a desolate volcanic area which offered some of the first views of Lake Todos los Santos and the Puntiagudo and Tronador volcanoes. Sven Van de Velde and Pieter Van Tieghem were leading the long line. The first, an athletic blind man, pushed the second, who was in a wheelchair. But it was not all about strength; Pieter directed Sven to the correct path.
“It’s really important to bring together people with different disabilities, so they can realize that they aren’t unique, and that way help each other. I think that is the most important part of the project. If you did a trip with just 10 blind people, it would never be the same. We wouldn’t achieve the same goal. It’s really important that everyone learns from each other,” explains Glenn Crynen.
That was how Sven learned from day one. More than a decade ago the 43-year-old was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa and cataracts, which caused him to gradually lose his sight at the height of his career as a professional water skier (ranked seventh in the world). He met Glenn as one of the participants in the Nicaraguan TV show, and founded Project U/Turn with him. Since then he has been on all the trips and has won five world titles in water skiing for the vision impaired, including a world record. He is always supported by his partner, Tamara Nolens, who accompanied him to Chile. They have two children.
About the way they work as a team, Sven reflects: “Everyone is pushing themselves toward the same goal. It’s hard, but we don’t think about it that way. It’s challenging, but that’s life. You can see something as a difficulty, but really it is just a challenge. Everything in life is a challenge.“
Freedom and independence
The end approaches as the group crosses through the forest that surrounds Lake Todos los Santos. The ash-turned-sand left by the last eruption of the Calbuco Volcano provokes a cautious, but not impossible, advance. Some of those in wheelchairs are hauled with ropes over this land of volcanic rock, with its traces of floods and its creeks and streams with brown-colored water and thick sand. Occasionally, steep inclines and rocky fissures oblige them to take special care. Sometimes, someone maneuvers badly and one of them falls, but it doesn’t matter. They stand back up with a smile and continue their hike.
“Here I’m not worried about a little bit of dirt. When I’m at home everything has to be clean,” says 29-year-old Maartne Motmans.“ On June 3, 2008, his life changed completely. Returning home after a day at work, he was in a car accident that left him in a coma for six weeks. When he woke up, as a result of serious fractures, he was in a wheelchair. In August 2013 he joined a Project U/Turn expedition in Tenerife and since then has traveled with them nine times. Today, he can move his legs with some support from another person, and even go to the restroom on his own.
“Here I can walk in the sand. If I was at home, my mom would tell me to be careful. But how will I learn if I don’t try? I can’t do it if I’m in a safe zone. Here I can develop myself. It’s fantastic,” says Motmans, who, in his native city of Bilzen, lives in his own apartment and works in administration for the local police department.
These comments are in tune with what Glenn says: the most difficult part is not convincing the participants, but their inner circle of family and friends, who are overprotective. “We give them confidence. And when you give people the confidence to do things like climb a volcano, they open up. They realize that they can do it and they go home mentally strong. They go back and they want to work again, look for a relationship, dare to go outside, make friends, etc. The social horizon is huge, and that’s what they need,” says Glenn.
The group arrives at the Playa Petrohué campground around 5:00 pm. Everyone sets up their tents to spend the night after the strenuous but fantastic day. Dinner is almost ready, but there is still a final whisper of sun. Sanne, Kilian, Hanneh, Sven, and Maarten are among the participants who take a dip in Lake Todos los Santos before night falls. Many of them do it naked and smiling, symbolizing the freedom they feel once again visiting wilderness areas like this one. 
Postscript: Including Chileans in the future
The three principal organizations behind this expedition—Project U/Turn, Hola Chile, and Jass Puerto Varas--, agree that Chile, especially the Los Lagos region, has great potential to be the epicenter of accessible tourism in South America. It’s no wonder that they all share the same enthusiasm for returning to run a similar trip next season, but this time with Chilean participants. 
“For us, it’s very important to open these new doors. We’re interested in adventure tourism, but we want to create change, including more people who normally don’t have access to tourism like this,” says Jass Puerto Varas director Jacynthe Boudreau.
One of the main obstacles to overcome in Chile is resources. Expenses like logistics, tickets, lodging, and equipment (the specialized wheelchairs alone cost 10,000 dollars each) are important to consider. In Project U/Turn’s case, both the participants and the volunteers pay an equal fee for the program. The NGO, not receiving public or private financial support, covers its own expenses. 
At least since the National Tourism Service (Sernatur) has worked closely with Hola Chile, they have committed to supporting upcoming projects. “Of course we want this initiative, which is the first in Chile, not to be the last, and we want it to continue to develop in the region. Because of this we also have the desire and commitment to keep working with the organizations and with everyone who can participate,” affirms Claudia Díaz, regional director of Sernatur Los Lagos.  
These statements align with the work Chile’s national tourism office carried out along with CONAF (Chile’s national forest service, which manages the country’s parks), to strengthen the design of the infrastructure designed for people with disabilities --including access points, ramps, paths, and bathrooms, among others--, in 32 units of the National Wilderness Area Protection System (Snaspe).
Additionally, the World Tourism Organization declared this year’s slogan to be “Tourism for everyone, universal access,” in order to emphasize that accessibility in tourist facilities, products, and services should be an essential component of any responsible and sustainable tourism policy. Accordingly, Diaz proposes that public and private projects be developed to incentivize more inclusive tourism in this country.