Finding freedom and family in the Americas

25 November, 2020

Not long after completing rehab for a spinal cord injury he received in 2010, peer support mentor Lachie O'Brien took up competitive hand cycling. That same adventurous spirit recently took him to a wedding in Mexico, and a four-month trip through the Americas.  

My trip got off to a trying start due to my plane sitting on the tarmac for an agonizing three hours before finally taking off. I sat there thinking about sipping margaritas on the beach, just to pass the time.

The plan was to fly to LA Airport, where I would take a connecting flight to Cancun in Mexico. My changeover was originally meant to be four hours but when I landed in LA, due to the time zone and the delay, there was only one hour until my next flight.

Given that people in wheelchairs are last to leave the plane, and my baggage would have to be checked in again, it would be impossible to make my next flight.

Luckily Qantas had organized new flights to allow me enough time to make my next flight... problem being that instead of going straight to Cancun, I had to fly to San Francisco then down to Cancun. And there was a 10-hour wait between flights (sounds like an episode of The Amazing Race).

Unexpected expedition

As I always remain positive, I looked at it as an adventure, even if it may be just exploring the airport terminals and lounges. It’s amazing how quickly time passes when you are just enjoying pushing around and exploring shops and coffee lounges. Plus the Americans love the sound of a good old Aussie accent.

After a 10 hour wait, I was finally back on the plane and heading towards Mexico. I could practically taste the Margaritas and smell the surf and sand of Envision Beach.

I arrived at the Cancun International Airport at 6.30 am and was met there by my sister. She had organized an accessible van but it was not accessible. No problem: I transferred in the side door, bummed up two steps then up into the van seat. Due to my track cycle training and competing I had developed the strength needed to complete these actions.

I was the first of all the guests invited to the wedding to arrive at the Akumal Principe resort. Everyone else arrived three days later. I finally got my Margherita by the beach. I was in paradise! What an absolutely stunning place.


The wedding ceremony was so beautiful. Amando and his family were all in tears.

A wedding

The wedding ceremony was so beautiful, with Amando (my sister’s husband) and his family - who were mostly Mexican and Americans - all in tears.

We spent the rest of the week eating and drinking by the pool with some sight-seeing thrown in. Special mention goes to my brother carrying me down a huge amount of steps to get to the cenote (a really clear pool of naturally formed water).

After an amazing week at the resort mingling with the wedding guests, it was time to part ways.


Diving in

Amando and his parents, as well as my mum, sister and I, hopped into a rental van and drove to Merida, after viewing the amazing scenery and stopping in Cuba to check out a 40 metre high pyramid. It was surreal to see police officers casually stopping people with their machine guns just hanging around their necks. Luckily we were fine! 

After driving a further four hours, we arrived in Merida. Merida is different than most places in Mexico as it is very accessible and a lot calmer. While there, I learnt to make Ceviche from Amando’s mum and learnt to speak Spanish, not fluently but enough to be understood.

After a week of delicious food we headed back to Cancun International where I would depart on my own for my New Orleans leg of my adventure.

Thankfully my flights went smoothly and I got to my hostel safe and sound. I shared a room with three others. Amazingly, the bathroom was accessible - which just made things so much more comfortable.


Up North to the South

Once I was settled in, it was time to hit the bright lights and music of New Orleans. I pushed the two kilometres to Bourbon St in the French quarter. I could not believe my eyes when I arrived. There are so many bars, clubs, and restaurants with people everywhere. It was just crazy. I had an insane night. 

Unfortunately I lost my wallet, which created so many problems. I had to spend the next day fixing the problems of losing my wallet.

Thankfully I still managed to go out and experience the rest of the French quarter of town. It was very quiet compared to Bourbon St, with so many beautiful French style homes lit up with gorgeous lanterns. Such incredible architecture. That was the night I fell in love with New Orleans.

The next day I was back on my feet so to speak. I’d sorted myself out financially and spent the next week eating some of the world’s best foods and listening to amazing Jazz music. Before I knew it, it was time to gather my belongings and get ready for the next leg, South America.


Friends and freedom

The Louis Armstrong International Airport was the departure point of the last leg of my journey. I waited at the departure gate for an assistant to arrive with my aisle chair. I transferred into it and was pushed onto the plane, where I transferred into an aisle seat.

I was planning on spending most of my time in Uruguay and a few weeks in Argentina, four months in total. As part of the program from the school I attended, I volunteered to talk to the students about Australia and my life. I really enjoyed talking and connecting with the students.

Throughout the whole trip, the biggest challenge that I faced was speaking the language and the inaccessible environment of Uruguay. But where there is a will, there is a way. So I managed to travel on transport with the help of a lady friend whom I had met.

She would often carry my chair as I bummed myself upstairs. We ate some incredible food and experienced a different culture. I met amazing people who now are great friends - some I even call my family.

This trip really helped me break down the physical and mental barriers, and most of all FIND a way to travel where I wanted, when I wanted.

Lachie O’Brien has been living with a C7 spinal cord injury since 2010. He works in market research and hand cycles competitively. This story was originally published in the April 2020 issue of NewsLink.

Tags: Blog, Travel & Leisure