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One-legged Venezuelan crosses South America on foot

Manuel Rueda Cajica, Colombia
August 20, 2018

A Venezuelan man who lost a leg in a traffic accident has set out on a quixotic journey around South America, hoping to inspire his daughter and his beleaguered compatriots to pursue their dreams despite difficulties.

Yeslie Aranda walks along a rural road in Cajica, on the outskirts of Bogota, Colombia
Image: DW/M. Rueda

Yeslie Aranda left his hometown of San Cristobal this summer with a sleeping bag, a backpack and an aluminum prosthesis that functions as his left leg.

The former bus driver only had $30 in his pocket, as his savings have been ravished by Venezuela's out-of-control hyperinflation. But Aranda is hoping to walk all the way to the southern tip of Argentina, in a 10,000-kilometer (6,210 miles) journey that could take more than a year. And then he will walk back home.

Read more: Venezuela: A country in meltdown

"I am living my dream right now," says Aranda, 56, as he adjusts his prosthesis and gets ready for another day on the road. "I want people to know that whatever we set our mind to and pursue we can achieve, despite our current condition."

Aranda says that he always enjoyed the outdoors. But he only became fond of long walks five years ago, after he survived a road accident in which he and his 23-year-old daughter Paola each lost a leg.

Inspiration for Paola

The accident took place on an interstate road, as a truck driver lost control of his vehicle and crashed head on into Aranda's double-decker bus. Aranda and his daughter spent weeks in the hospital recovering.

"After the accident I was in an induced coma for almost 15 days. When I woke up I checked my leg and noticed it wasn't there, and I thanked it for 51 years of service."

On day 44 after the crash, Paola was informed that her left leg would be amputated.

"It was very tough on her," Aranda recalls. "But I always tried to lift her spirits and tell her that we are like sailboats that need to go forward, even if the wind blows against us."

Yeslie Aranda shows the joint of his prosthesis
Aranda's prosthesis was donated by a Venezuelan company that wanted to help him with his journeyImage: DW/M. Rueda

As his wounds healed, Aranda started walking with his crutches to religious shrines in the mountains around his hometown of San Cristobal: It helped him to come to terms with the accident and also provided motivation to Paola, who sometimes accompanied Aranda in her wheelchair.

During those walks, Aranda also started to notice that the sight of him making the strenuous uphill effort made some people's faces light up.

"People stared at me and thought, 'What is this crazy guy doing?,'" Aranda said. "I think seeing me gave them some perspective on their own problems."

Read more: For Venezuela HIV patients, lack of medicine 'a death sentence'

After Aranda was able to get a proper prosthesis he started to dream big. And last year he began to plan the trip across South America, seeking whatever help he could get from local companies: A shoemaker donated some sneakers. A Venezuelan prosthetics company reinforced his aluminum "leg."

Solidarity on the road

Then, on June 28, Aranda set off towards the Colombian border city of Cucuta, where a nephew suggested that his back would give out if he carried all of his belongings on a backpack during such a long trip.

Yeslie Aranda ties down the cart in which he carries his belongings
Aranda carries his belongings in a two-wheeled cart that he built on his wayImage: DW/M Rueda

With the help of a local motorcycle repair shop, Aranda and his nephew built a sturdy two-wheel cart that he now pulls through South America's rugged roads. He calls the vehicle "Jesus" because it is his "eternal companion."

"I now see myself in Ushuaia [Argentina] taking a photo under that sign that says 'Welcome to the end of the world,'" says Aranda, whose previous international travel experience is limited to a year working in the Canary Islands. He never really had much money to travel and still doesn't.

"But I'm an adventurer at heart, and I'm willing to put up with whatever it takes to get there," he says.

Yeslie Aranda's trek through South America

So far, Aranda has travelled about 900 kilometers from his hometown in Venezuela to the Colombian city of Medellin. There he will meet an engineer who will make some adjustments to his prosthesis, for free.

Read more: Medellin takes victims' side as 'narco tours' bring tourists

The Venezuelan man says that solidarity on the road has been immense. People he's met on the way have given him a jacket for cold weather, food for the journey and a tent in case he doesn't find a place to sleep.

Leaving a legacy

On his long trek Aranda has had to sleep on the floor in gasoline stations and bus terminals. But he's also been hosted by people who have been intrigued by his unexpected journey.

On the road out of Pamplona — a frigid Colombian town located almost 3,000 meters (9,840 feet) above the sea — Aranda was hosted by a farmer who gave him shelter from the freezing cold.

Yeslie Aranda poses with children in Villa de Leyva, Colombia
Aranda has met people from all walks of his life. Here he poses with children in the Colombian town of Villa de LeyvaImage: DW/M Rueda

In the Colombian capital, Bogota, a businesswoman who empathized with his cause paid his hostel bill.

"I think what he is doing is fascinating, given his physical limitation," said hostel manager Oscar Ragua. "It's also a wonderful way to leave a legacy and live on in the stories people tell about him."

Read more: In Colombia, it's dangerous to be left wing

Aranda has hitched some rides along the way on trucks, in order to avoid getting stuck on freezing cold mountain roads at night. He's shared those rides with Venezuelan immigrants who are fleeing their country's economic implosion on foot and with no money to spare.

The United Nations estimates that more than 1.6 million Venezuelans have left the country since 2015, most of them via neighboring Colombia.

"It's pretty sad what our country is going through right now," Aranda says. "But when I see these migrants on the road, I tell them to make plans for the future and do their best with this new opportunity life is giving them." 

Yeslie Aranda and Yorelidi Castilo pose for a photo in Cajica, Colombia
Yorelidi Castilo, a nurse, hosted Aranda for a night when he was in Cajica, ColombiaImage: DW/M Rueda

For the moment, Aranda doesn't have any plans to migrate. He wants to return to his family in Venezuela in two to three years to share his travel stories and possibly write a book about his "one-legged" trip through the South American continent.

"I think this journey will provide enough material for a book," Aranda says. "I want to do something good, and leave something for my grandchildren to remember me by."