Dan Eley, a 34-year-old Guildford, England native, returned to Colombia this November for the first time in almost two years, after an accident near Leticia, Amazonas left him paralyzed in January 2010. He came back to lay the groundwork for the Dan Eley Foundation, a non-government organization dedicated to helping underprivileged youth in Cali.
After a grueling day of physical therapy, Dan relaxes in a comfortable Bogotá hotel room as his care assistant prepares dinner in the kitchenette. A motorized wheelchair makes travel a little difficult these days, but with his golden wavy hair and disarming grin it’s easy to imagine Eley before the accident– a charming, adventurous idealist wandering through Latin America.
“Life can be very not fun,” Dan mentioned, looking exhausted but upbeat. “But it can be very fulfilling as well, and that’s where I am right now.”
Dan was born to a hardworking and scholarly English family and traveled often thanks to his journalist mother, Carolyn. He graduated from the University of Greenwich with a degree in psychology, but never wanted to work as a clinical psychologist.
“I just felt really disillusioned with the rat race,” said Eley describing his first post-college job with the London Underground. “It wore me down and I was depressed, so at 25 I left it and went to Spain.”
Teaching English to Madrid businessmen was a revelation for Dan, and he was praised for his ability as an instructor. Still, he felt a nagging desire to “do something more– something humanitarian.”
That desire led him to backpack through South America. Starting his journey in Ecuador, Eley was deeply affected by his time traveling through humble Andean villages.
“I saw for the first time people living such simple lives, but with such joy. I met people with materially nothing, but very open and generous people,” recounted Eley. “I was euphoric and absolutely astounded.”
Eventually arriving in La Paz, Bolivia, Dan began to feel a sense of guilt for traveling and spending money in a country where so many lived in extreme poverty.
On one occasion, he remembered buying food for street children in the Bolivian capital. “I just sat and watched them eat and, after that, I had a compulsion to work in Latin America and to work with street kids,” he said.
The backpacking trip eventually ended, but Eley’s passion for Latin America followed him back to England, where he researched opportunities to work with NGOs. He settled on Casa Alianza, an organization working with at-risk youth in Central America.
Choosing to work in Guatemala City, he was assigned to a street intervention team attempting to form relationships with street kids and break down their distrust and fear. The experience gave Dan a hands-on introduction to the world of international NGOs and set the direction for his future.
Taking a break from the rewarding but intense work, Eley traveled to Cartagena, recalling that Colombia always seemed to come up in conversations with fellow travelers as a beautiful and inviting destination. From there, he couch surfed his way to Cali. Though only passing through, the sultry Pacific town left a profound impression on Eley.
“The urban poverty right in the city center really impacted me,” he said. “I hadn’t really witnessed that kind of poverty outside of Guatemala.”
He soon returned to Cali and started teaching English at a private school, but his passion for charity work began giving way to a complacent expatriate lifestyle.
“I spent most of my time learning Salsa and enjoying life, but getting a little distracted,” Eley remembered. “I was just slipping into being a ‘gringo in Cali.’”
To escape that rut, Eley decided to take a New Year’s trip to the Amazon. After enjoying street carnivals and holiday festivities, he left Leticia with a small group to spend time in the jungle. They stopped along the road to take a dip in a pond.
Plunging into the lagoon changed Dan’s life forever.
“Next thing I know, I’m looking at the sky and a guy told me an ambulance was on its way. I wasn’t in pain, but I knew I had broken my neck,” recalled Eley.
While such a realization would send most people into a panic, Dan remained calm. His mother also broke her neck while traveling and made a complete recovery.
Conscious and cogent, Daniel called his mother from the hospital in Leticia and began to arrange transport to better-equipped facilities in Bogotá. The process was slow and his condition worsened until, on the last night in the Amazon, he came down with pneumonia. Alone except for an old nurse, he started to panic as it became harder to breath.
“I could hardly speak, but I said to the nurse ‘I think I’m dying,” Eley said, the power of the memory apparent on his face. “I thought ‘don’t shut your eyes or you’ll die.’”
Dreamlike, he remembers the nurse standing at the foot of his bed praying. She kept him breathing with a rusty oxygen tank until the plane arrived to carry him to Clínica El Country in Bogotá.
Doctors operated immediately on arrival to remedy the infected sores that would likely have killed him had he remained in Leticia.
The worst was hardly over, however, and Eley suffered three heart attacks in the next few days. After the second, he signed a “do not resuscitate” order.
“I had some very disturbing near death experiences. The first time I was terrified,” Dan recalled of his first heart attack, which left him apparently dead before doctors were able to revive him.
“But by the third heart attack, when my heart started beating again on its own, I felt completely calm for the first time since the accident.”
Dan considers himself a spiritual person but hesitates to attribute religious significance to his brushes with death. “I do believe everything happens for a reason,” he mentioned, adding that the experience reignited his passion for people.
“I started telling everyone what I’d been through as soon as I could speak again,” remembered Eley, who quickly became a star patient. “I look back on those two months in Bogotá as one of the happiest times in my life.”
“I was probably drugged though, to be fair,” he adds with a dry English smirk.
His presence at the hospital was clearly memorable. Almost two years after leaving to finish his treatment in England, Dan’s visit to the clinic was filled with hugs and smiles as doctors and nurses gathered to say hello and congratulate his progress.
Of course, Eley didn’t travel thousands of miles just to catch up with doctors. His focus in returning is the Dan Eley Foundation, a project he organized in Cali with the help of the Fundación Educación Para Todos (FEDUT) to provide practical education to kids with little or no access to quality schooling.
FEDUT provides children and young adults with basic education in addition to encouraging participants to develop “life projects.” Eley envisions a similar system for his foundation, providing hands-on job training in growing career fields like accounting or micro-business. Another possible project involves intensive pre-K programs.
Support for his project sometimes overwhelms Eley, who again flirts with spirituality when describing the ease of creating the Foundation. “The process of starting this organization has been so easy that I can’t help but think there must be some sort of divine influence,” he said.
There’s no question that the past two years have been very difficult for Dan, but returning to the country that changed his existence in so many ways, he remains incredibly upbeat and sure of his life’s direction.
“I just follow where it takes me.”
*This story is the property of The City Paper Bogotá and Ed Buckley. Photos are the property of the Dan Eley Foundation.