Just over two years ago, Oxana Simens was on top of the world. With a slew of modeling contracts under her belt and more in the works, this tall, blonde Russian immigrant had a bright modeling career ahead of her in Israel. That is, until she was hit by a bus - and life as she knew it was over. Oxana survived the accident, but was paralyzed from the waist down.
Last week, after two years of rehabilitation, Oxana climbed all 120 steps of the Big Buddha statue on Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand - on her hands. She didn't have to; she could have been carried up by the many Thai minders who were paid to carry her, but Oxana decided she was going to climb up the monument by herself, step-by-step, hauling her torso over each step, hand after hand, until she reached the top.
It is with this fighting spirit that Oxana and five other extraordinary Israelis, each with serious disabilities, wrapped up an incredible journey to Thailand - a pilot program for disabled tourists - whose aim was to allow the disabled to do anything that "normal" tourists do in Thailand, including elephant riding, jet skiing, and trekking.
The idea started with Oren Shaibi, a disabled IDF veteran who became involved in helping others like him, and his in-laws Sammy and Netta Reshef, who live on Koh Samui.
Shaibi, who was seriously wounded when his jeep hit a landmine in Lebanon, spends much of his time convincing other disabled Israelis that they can live full and active lives, including travel to exotic countries.
Sammy and Netta Reshef, themselves tour operators on Thailand's third-largest island, contacted their friend and fellow tour operator and guide, Erez Levanon. Levanon had been living on Koh Samui for the past nine years, steadily building his tourist business and spa [the Magnolia Spa].
On his most recent visit to Israel, Levanon met with Shaibi, and the two began planning a program that would allow disabled visitors not only to tour Thailand and see the sites, but to take part in activities not normally undertaken by people with disabilities.
The secret lay in logistics, teamwork, imagination, and not a small measure of Israeli hutzpa.
The idea was that whatever the tourists wanted to do, Erez and his team would try to make happen, within reason of course.
For 10 days, six disabled Israelis went on jeep treks, rode elephants, petted tigers and held snakes, got front-row seats at Thai boxing events, went jet-skiing, visited markets and temples, climbed monuments and dined at sea-side restaurants - and one even bungee-jumped! The tourists were carried onto and off of trucks, ramps for their wheelchairs were built for them in a sea-side villa where they stayed, other ramps were improvised on the go where needed, and local helpers were hired to attend to their needs, including supervision where necessary, washing, moving around and carrying.
"We built the tour so that all the solutions for the specific problems were treated as solutions that needed logistics and engineering and did not come at the expense of the activities," said Levanon, the tour operator whose many years of regular and reserve duty in the IDF armored corps in charge of transporting tanks and other heavy vehicles gave him the logistical wherewithal to mount a challenging tour for his special clients. "We built the infrastructure so that the disabled could do the activities like any healthy person." But it is not just logistics Levanon had a harking to. He empathized deeply with his group's drive to tread where others had not dared, and their burning desire to prove that they were capable of doing anything non-disabled people could do.
Like Oxana, who climbed the stairs of the Buddha Temple on her hands. Lilach Avni, who was in a vegetative state for seven months after a car accident, still has difficulties walking properly and suffers from frequent disorientation, was determined to feel the thrill of bungee jumping, which she did.
According to Levanon, some of the others in the group also wanted to jump, but weren't allowed to this time, because not all the logistics of carrying a wheelchair on top of a crane had been worked out.
Jawad Massarwa, an Arab Israeli from Taibe who was wounded by a bullet in the crossfire between rival clans, and is paralyzed from the waist down, wanted to try a jet ski. He was carried onto one, but once he was on, Jawad managed to maneuver the machine entirely on his own, using his arm muscles.
The group was also taken elephant trekking, a staple for tourists to Thailand. One by one, the tourists were lifted onto the elephants, and some were tied to the chairs at the top because they couldn't use their legs to stabilize themselves. The sight of six disabled people riding elephants through the jungle enthralled the Thais.
The trip was around 30 percent more expensive than it would be for regular tourists, due to the large amount of logistics, the extra cars and number of local helpers, according to Levanon. Oxana, who could not afford the trip, was actually financed by her fellow travelers. Planning it also took a long time - some three months - largely because special insurance needed to be organized with Israeli travel insurance companies.
Access for disabled tourists in Thailand ranges from the excellent to the non-existent. Like most countries with a developed tourist infrastructure, the major towns and attractions are best suited for the disabled tourist, while off the beaten track, access becomes more challenging.
For Levanon, the tour was similar to taking care of his soldiers, the ones he had watched over for years as an IDF officer. Watching his special tourists overcoming formidable challenges, taking risks, and proving that they could enjoy adventure travel just like everyone else gave him immense satisfaction.
"We wanted to prove that if you do it properly, it can be done, and just like all other tourists, the disabled do not have to be given the feeling that there is something they can't do," Levanon concluded with satisfaction, a day after seeing the group off at the airport to fly back to Israel.