Bertha Olga Ospina is a seasoned and daring traveler, with some serious bucket-list items checked off in the last decade: exploring Machu Picchu, riding a hot-air balloon over the pyramids of Teotihuacan in Mexico and paragliding over Cape Town’s wilderness. She’s taken in jazz in San Francisco, and tango in Buenos Aires.
If the 63-year-old had an Instagram account, it would be trending.
“I love traveling because I think it’s the only thing that stays with you as memories,” she told me. “The other things pass away.”
The above is a bit more poignant and impressive when you consider this: Olga has been confined to a wheelchair and spent the last decade re-learning how to communicate after waking up from a coma following a brain procedure completely paralyzed. “When I woke up I could not move anything,” she says, able to communicate back then only by blinking - twice for yes, and once for no. This is called locked-in-syndrome. "To remember these moments is not easy.”
When Olga tells me about those first rehabilitation years over Skype, the progress she’s made is obvious.
“In the beginning, I was very limited,” she says. “But slowly and little by little, I proved to myself and showed others that I could do anything I set my mind to.”
She can now motion with her hands and arms, and although her speech is still compromised (her son Andres is helping in translating), she can communicate: “My condition does not deter me from saying what I have in mind. If I notice that a person does not understand me, I will repeat the phrase or change the words so they get it.”
There is a certain thread that binds those we talk to, an indomitable spirit and an attitude that suggests obstacles are there to be overcome. Olga’s story is perhaps the most superlative example of that we’ve featured.
But it’s not just her present, it’s her past as well. Olga spent the 20 years before her medical spiral as Colombian consul in Boston. She studied law at Harvard raised three children, and gave love plenty of chances in three adventurous marriages. In her book, Apesar de Todo (Against All Odds), she tells those stories, the day of the operation and the twelve years since.
Her daily activities of working, interacting, gardening and cooking were replaced by strange physical therapies, diaper changes, and tube feedings. Her life goals, so ambitious yesterday—she had just started a new job in marketing for an investment bank in New York—were replaced by more elementary ones: strengthening her neck muscles so she could hold her head up, relearning how to utter words, and being able to move a single finger or toe.
Against the worries of some doctors and the will of her then-husband, Olga decided in 2008 to move back to her native Colombia to continue her recovery there. She embarked on the journey from Cape Cod to Bogota with the support of her family and accompanied by her two Dachshunds Max and Taco: “I told my children, if I die in the plane it’s my decision.”
Instead, she’s punched her passport more times in the last 12 years than most have in a lifetime. And the adventures are both magical and comical. Her and Andres (who’s accompanied her several times on her voyages) light up when they talk about the details: The long stretches of unpaved road they had to wheel Olga through in Peru, the “escape plan” throughout for her in the occurrence of a lion attack in the safari, the famous circular stairs she was carried down at the notorious Buenos Aires tango joint, Cafe Tortoni. Then there was the time she spent convincing everyone around her to let her go up in a hot-air balloon and go paragliding.
“My mother is very insistent,” says Andres,
And never have I understood as clearly as now how a smile really does go a long way.
“I’ve been asked, why do you smile all the time? And I reply, because I have no other option. I think I have always been a very optimistic person.” Olga tells me.
Olga’s love for good food has remained unscathed despite the fact that she can’t eat, properly speaking. She experiences dishes by appreciating their appearance and aromas, things sometimes overlooked or quickly dismissed in the anxiety to consume. “I love to cook and I can imagine every flavor that goes into cooking,” she says. “Last week I made shrimp with curry. I also have a blog where I share very easy recipes of my favorite dishes.”
You also get the feeling there is more than just a blog in her as well. The challenges of traveling in a wheelchair are well known and imagined, but less heard of are the cities, hotels and airlines that get it right, providing unparalleled service and attention to detail. Luxury, Olga explains, isn’t only to be found in the hotel rooms and bathrooms with the right infrastructure, but also in the kind men and women willing to go the extra mile to accommodate to a person’s needs. “The human touch is everything” says Olga.
As for what’s next, Olga and Andres plan to travel to Russia later this year. “I think a lot of limitations are in people’s minds,” she says. While Olga’s first book is about her life-the defining operation, her daily victories since, and her resoluteness to keep smiling ‘against all odds’- we’re guessing Olga’s second book will be a travel guide.
This article was contributed by writer/producer, Gaia Lutz.
All photos courtesy of Andres Corredor Ospina.