A Survivor’s Tale

And sometimes a journey of 5,000 miles begins with an armed kidnapping on the edge of the Amazon.

It was Aug. 5, 2012 and Mickey Grosman was barely three months into his trek through the thickest jungles that cross South America’s midsection, traveling from Ecuador to what he thought would be Brazil’s coast, when he encountered the first of many obstacles that would put his life and those of his companions in jeopardy.

Grosman, a former Israeli soldier who credits his time in the special forces with giving him the skills needed to trek across forbidding terrain, was leading a group of six porters on an expedition he dubbed “Amazon 5000—The Impossible Possible Journey.” His odyssey’s aim was to sound the alarm about the curative potential in the jungle’s ecosystem and how the disappearance of the rainforest affects progress on the cancer treatment front. It is a topic with special meaning for Grosman, who underwent treatment for an aggressive form of skin cancer in 2010.

Numerous challenges would threaten to derail the sojourn, but this one, at this moment, was in the form of crude spears and firearms brandished by Ecuadorean Indians called the Huaorani. Grosman was well aware of the danger. The thoughts that next made their way through his mind diverged into two threads: First, how to keep his charges’ lives and limbs intact. And second, “We are so far off course. How far?”

Drifting down the various waterways that crisscross Yasuni National Park, the canopy almost mitigates the sweltering heat. Every inch of the place pulses with life. As raw and undeveloped a locale as any on Earth, the topography leading to the Huaorani village consists of a foliage so dense it is often impossible to see more than a few feet in any direction.

Ever encroached upon by corporations exploiting their ancestral lands for oil drilling, the Huaorani are distrustful and disdainful of foreigners. Ironically, Grosman’s trek was partly devoted to curbing such environmental degradation by corporate interests. But deep inside the Yasuni National Park in the eastern reaches of Ecuador, set upon by this group of 20 or so diminutive natives who saw him only as a white invader, those common interests were lost.

As the tribesmen were not well acquainted with modern technology, Grosman was able to maintain intermittent communication with his wife, Noga, via satellite phone and a Google mapping uplink, apprising her of the situation. Back home in Orlando, Noga began contacting press outlets and law enforcement agencies. As dual U.S. and Israeli citizens, the Grosmans had diplomats from both countries working feverishly alongside their Ecuadorean counterparts to negotiate a solution. Noga spent hours staring at her computer, waiting for the occasional bleep from Mickey’s GPS to register his location and fill her with some hope. At least he was still moving. In hours without a bleep, she feared the worst.

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A Daring Rescue

Meanwhile, Grosman and his group were loaded onto canoes and paddled back to the Huaorani camp, taking them some 200 miles off course. Grosman would not have been the first foreign trespasser killed by the Huaorani. In 1956, a group of five American missionaries who flew into Huaorani territory were savagely speared to death. Indeed, within their own culture, it is estimated that 60 percent of Huaorani deaths are murders.

“I was more nervous that Mickey would do something to make them angry, him being him,” says Noga, who laughs now about the kidnapping. Indeed, Grosman routinely cajoled his captors, pushing their limits to see how serious a threat they were—and also to draw their ire aware from his crew of porters. “Mickey does not make for a good prisoner.”

“What the kidnappers were learning was that kidnapping Mickey is like grabbing a tiger by the tail,” says family friend Ron Eaglin, an assistant dean and professor of engineering at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

The first night after he was kidnapped, Grosman realized that he and his team were not being closely guarded—they could make a break for it. He tried to convince the six Ecuadoreans to accompany him, to no avail.

“I was sure we could make it, but I could not leave them. I put them in this situation, I had to get them out,” he says.

The next day, local security personnel from an oil company met Grosman at the Huaorani village. The pair spoke to the tribesmen in their native language as they brokered terms of release, but the Huaorani would have none of it. As the security team left the village, one whispered in English to Grosman: “Tonight. Be ready.” He rattled off coordinates quickly as he departed.

After the Huaorani fell asleep Grosman led his team through the jungle. Before dawn, they reached the coordinates and found the security team in jeeps awaiting them. They beat a hasty retreat and never looked back.

Grosman bears no ill will toward his captors.

“I cannot blame them, they don’t know who I am. I could have been anyone. I have no resentment toward the Huaorani,” Grosman says. “They just want what’s best for their people, their village. I just want what is best for cancer [research].”

While Grosman shrugged off the episode he lost some of the more-timid members of his team. But, he says the cause is too important for him to be discouraged by one little mass kidnapping.

Soldier, Survivor, Survivalist

Grosman is an amiable, broad man with a brawler’s build who appears more comfortable outdoors than in. His heavy Israeli accent lends a singsong quality to his speech. He readily shares the details of his tour of duty during the Yom Kippur War and Six-Day War, where he says one of his jobs was to extract information from Arab coalition combatants—any way possible.

“If you know this man [an enemy combatant] can be the difference between saving lives and losing lives, and you need answers from him, what are we arguing?” he says.

Grosman kept his survival skills sharp after his military career by competing in numerous distance and iron man events. In 1989 he retired to Florida and brought his wife and two children along.

More than anything, Grosman says, his motivation comes from an internal imperative to push the limits of his own survival. This is what kept him moving in the Amazon, what kept him alive during bloody wars, and what drove him to fight the cancer after his doctor gave him a 10-to-15 percent chance of successful surgery without it spreading.

Three years ago he was diagnosed with melanoma on his nose and face. The cancer, now in remission, required operations and a lengthy recovery. Since checking into the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa for surgery and witnessing the adversity faced by fellow cancer-sufferers, he’s been on a mission to promote awareness. He had participated in survivalist events for years, but the idea to traverse a continent was unique and unprecedented. An online effort linked with his trip donated proceeds to the Ronald McDonald House and BASE Camp Children’s Cancer Foundation.

As the proprietor of Pro Demo in Orlando, Grosman funds his jaunts by tearing down buildings and houses. Recently, he demolished the dilapidated and long-closed Splendid China theme park in Orlando. This is but a means to an end. “I need to make money to keep doing what I want to do.” Namely, swashbuckle his way across the harshest terrains on the planet in search of a cure.

Curative Powers a Mystery

Some 70 percent of the plants identified as useful in cancer treatment can be found only in the Amazon, according to the National Cancer Institute. Scientists have identified more than 2,000 Amazon forest plants with anti-cancer properties. Among these are paclitaxel used to treat breast, ovarian and other cancers, and sold as Taxol. It is derived from the bark of the Pacific yew. Still, the area remains mostly unexploited and unexplored in the context of biomedical research.

YOU’VE GOT ALL THE ELEMENTS, BUGS, ANIMALS, CONDITIONS THAT ARE TERRIBLE. BUT THE ONLY THING I FEARED IN MY TIME IN THE JUNGLE, MORE THAN ANY OF THOSE THINGS, WAS MAN. Mickey Grosman

“If we had very clear rules, we could attract scientists from all over the world,” says Dr. Drauzio Varella, a Brazilian oncologist and popular author. “We could transform a big part of the Amazon into an enormous laboratory.” Local universities are underfunded and at the same time barred from working with moneyed international organizations, so promising research has languished and been limited for decades. Many believe cures might be extracted from the vast 2.1 million square mile wild.

“The region holds enormous potential in the fight against cancer, but there are obstacles—political and otherwise,” said biologist Marcio Sztutman, conservation manager of The Nature Conservancy’s Amazon project.

The Most Dangerous Predator

It was the “otherwise” that continually dogged Grosman and his crew along their journey. “You’ve got all the elements, bugs, animals, conditions that are terrible, sure,” Grosman said. “But the only thing I feared in my time in the jungle, more than any of those things, was man.”

Grosman left on his trip mid-May of 2012. Along the way, he was joined by others—friends, some who heard about the project and wanted to join up, acquaintances and like-minded adventurers—for part of the trip. No one except Grosman made the entire trip.

The greed of corrupt local militias along the Amazon River, Grosman says, forced him to stray from his planned course, veering north to Guyana. Dishonest police further delayed progress when they arrested Grosman and held him in a cramped cell for days after he refused to pay a bribe.

Occasionally, human vice acted as a predictable ally. Grosman tells of being detained by soldiers while trying to pass through a military camp on the Brazilian border. After two days dithering back and forth with commanders, Grosman bought out the entire liquor stock of a riverboat selling sundries and presented the alcohol to the soldiers as a gift. A few hours later, he quietly sneaked past the drunken troops.

Grosman at Home

Recounting the Amazon tales from his suburban home in Orlando, Grosman bounds from the dining room table to the kitchen and back during a recent visit from a reporter, where he urged his visitors to “eat, eat, eat,” stacks of Japanese flapjacks. “We don’t leave the table until they are all gone.”

Yet it’s clear Grosman is the one who could use the carbo-loading.

The 11-month crucible took its toll, leaving him 45 pounds lighter than when he started. In the Amazon, he and his team subsisted on what they could hunt or grub. When there was no edible meat or vegetation, protein-rich insects did the job. When those couldn’t be found, they ate nothing—often for days at a time.
It isn’t the hunger that haunts him. Once he felt compelled to kill a monkey in order to survive. “It looked at me like it was a child,” Grosman says. “Of all the things I’ve done in my life, I would not do that again.”

Nearly Undone

In the months after the kidnapping, the lack of sustenance, treacherous terrain and human dangers were nearly the group’s undoing. Particularly for one member.

Alexander Hernandez is a 37-year old investment advisor from Orlando. In contrast with Grosman’s rugged features, Hernandez is shaved and clean cut, with softer dark features you’d expect to find in a boardroom or Brooks Brothers ad, not rainforest badlands. He joined Grosman’s team in Ecuador to test his limits.

“Do you know what completely confuses me? My neck hurts now from sleeping in my wife’s soft Tempurpedic,” he says. “And it’s an expensive Tempurpedic.”

Hernandez surprised members of Grosman’s party by outlasting even the saltiest among the expedition. Everyone who joined Grosman for a stretch in the jungle disclosed their medical records and filled out waivers and questionnaires, which were reviewed by Noga. “We had former military, survivalists, well-trained people, and Alex did better than them all,” she says of Hernandez, who joined the team for two separate stints of 21 and 15 days.

His trip was almost aborted hours after it began. In preparation, Grosman gave Hernandez a checklist of gear needed to traverse the harsh conditions.

“I’m looking down the list and seeing tent, hammock, net; a thousand dollars. Backpack and gear; another thousand dollars, and then I get to the boots. I found what looked like the exact same pair of boots, one was $300, the other was $29 online,” Hernandez says. “I made a big mistake.”

Shortly after joining the group, Hernandez’s off-brand boots began to wear on his heel. He felt the discomfort grow worse, but stayed quiet, not wanting to be that guy who shows up and whines about his feet after two hours.

“There was a point where I just knew something was wrong and I had to stop,” Hernandez says. When the group halted, Hernandez peeled off a bloody boot to reveal a busted blister encompassing the entire bottom of his heel that had detached skin from his foot.

Backtracking to a drop area was unfeasible, and there was no way to carry Hernandez forward. The only way for him to proceed would be under his own power. Grosman was forced to perform bush surgery. Hernandez lay on his stomach with his heel in the air. Grosman peeled off the blistered flesh and cauterized the nerves on the bottom of the foot by pouring hot candle wax over the exposed flesh.

“The pain was something…I can’t even really describe,” Hernandez recalls.

The hardened wax made for a prosthetic heel that allowed him to limp along. Grosman loaned Hernandez a spare set of boots, and the slow slog continued on to the expedition’s most harrowing leg, the cloud forest, where Hernandez says he came closest to perishing.

In the Clouds

There’s a reason people don’t live in most of the rainforest. Every inch of the Amazon is like a full court press from nature. Hacking away at vegetation, your arms grow heavier, the machete duller, the vines thicker.

Your feet sink with each step into the soft ground, which is almost easy going compared to the fields of mangroves that can only be traversed by energy-sapping climbs. There are swamps, soupy enough that balsa rafts cannot be used to cross them. There’s no telling how far they will stretch, or how long it will take to navigate them. Sometimes hours, sometimes days.

“Everything in the jungle is sharp. Everything hurts. Just walking there is painful,” Hernandez says.

But the jungle seemed easy when compared to the cloud forest that encompasses parts of Ecuador and Peru that the group encountered in the first 800 miles of the trip. “In the cloud forest, we almost lost Alex,” Grosman says.

The expedition scaled the steep eastern Andean entrance of the cloud forest, a four-kilometer wall of mountains, the same hazardous path taken by Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana five centuries ago. At the top was a wet desert; an eerily quiet alien world where vapor hung in the air and intense moisture saturated everything.

“It was all mush,” Grosman says. “You try to touch a tree or hold a branch, and it just falls apart like paper, rotten.”

The cloud forest bore no clean water nor edibles—virtually zero sustenance. The team’s spirits flagged, days passed and nothing passed their lips. They crossed high altitude swaths of land where it was possible that no man’s foot had ever set, no man’s eye had ever seen. At one point, a dehydrated Hernandez, starved, felt he could not go on.

“This is the closest I came to not making it home,” he says.

A videographer called it quits, set down his equipment and told the rest of the team to leave him behind. Grosman and his compatriots exhorted him to continue, but it took some time.
“He told me to push him off a cliff. He wanted to die.” They trudged on, at one point going two weeks without food.

Fever & Arrest

There are thousands of places in South America where one can contract Dengue fever, all of them better than Tabatinga. The notoriously rough-and-tumble Brazilian town straddles the Peruvian and Colombian border and is a crucial nexus for drug smugglers and gangsters.

“We created [risk] profiles of all the safest and most dangerous places along the route before the trip,” says Noga. “Tabatinga was the worst of them.” It was in this wild border town where Grosman’s body finally gave up.

He began to feel profoundly fatigued, for the first time as if he could not go on, prompting him to consult a local doctor who delivered the Dengue diagnosis.

“I told him, just leave that place. I don’t care. Go anywhere else,” says Noga. “But he was too sick to move. We had to live with the consequences of him being sick in Tabatinga.”

Grosman sent his contingent to camp outside of the dangerous area while he recovered in a fleabag motel in nearby Leticia. “I told them what to do—camp out, find a safe place. They did not.”

Instead, his group found locals who allowed them to board in their home. They also disregarded Grosman’s direction not to bring two shotguns across the border until authorities properly cleared the firearms. As he hiked to rejoin his team, still feeling the effects of the fever, he witnessed Brazilian federal police raiding the house where his team was staying. In the ensuing chaos, one of the group’s guns was found. Grosman attempted to intervene.

“They said ‘Drago! Drago!’ This means ‘Down! Down! I told them I would not go down,” he says.

Grosman was arrested and brought to the police station, where he was accused of drug trafficking and gun running.

Grosman, who speaks English, Spanish and Hebrew, nonetheless found it difficult to communicate in Portuguese with the police. “He said, ‘You pay me one mil peso, you go to casa.’ I said, ‘I pay you one mil f—- you!’ All of a sudden his English was much better,” Grosman says. He waited for days in a tiny cell.

“There was a mattress, a toilet, this was perfect. All I needed.”

Grosman again escaped—this time from authorities—but in this instance he is more tight-lipped about the details. He says it could be dangerous for him to share the circumstances because of friends he made while behind bars.

Although his group soldiered on, the Brazilian authorities continually harassed them. The last straw came when a cop fired at him unprovoked—and nearly hit him. At that point, he changed trajectory, bearing north for the less populated route through Guyana.

He witnessed cruelty and brutality. He recalls seeing a child’s leg being broken, men being beaten, all stemming from a labor dispute at a gold mine. Grosman had seen many things in his life, but this kind of savage corruption was new to him.

For all these challenges, Grosman’s gaunt face lights up when the subject turns to the final days of the expedition. Cruising through Guyana, some adventurers rejoined for the stretch run.

The trip, now stretched to 11 months and originally set to land in Forte Dos Reis Magos in Natal, Brazil, ended instead on the beaches of Georgetown, Guyana. In the last few miles, Grosman led a final sprint to the ocean. There, road-weary, threadbare men in matching hunter green and khaki Amazon 5000 apparel splashed along the shore, grins ear to ear, their survivor survivalist leader hoisted aloft their shoulders.
In retrospect, Grosman rates the trip, with no casualties and about $30,000 raised to date, a success. More important to him, though, is the goal of the expedition.

“I do not have a cure,” he says. “But if I am able to help just one person, or get just one step closer to ending this disease, or inspire one person to keep fighting the fight, it is worth it.”

The Amazon was only the latest adventure for Grosman. Next up: He says he will traverse the northern expanse of China, from Tibet to Shanghai. Don’t bet against him doing the impossible, again.