Sure, it's nice to get away from it all ... but maybe only a mile or two away. For some New Yorkers, the journey involves a plane ride to Peru, then a three-hour boat ride to the Amazon jungle lodge they built with "Wheel of Fortune" winnings. They're on the Travel Channel, starting Monday (March 9). Here's the story I sent to papers:
(This is a really
fun TV story about two sorta-regular Americans who built a lodge in
the Peruvian jungle. The series debuts Monday and runs six weeks, so
story works any time, print or Web.)
By Mike Hughes
One crucial day in
2012, a New York firefighter stared blankly at the “Wheel of
The letters read
“R-G-T/---N/T-/T-E/--RE.” It was a phrase that would whisk him to
the Amazon jungle... and to a reality show that debuts Monday. But at
first, it meant nothing to him.
“I didn't have a
clue,” Stephan Jablonski recalled. “I thought, 'I've gone this
far and now I was going to blow it.' Then I took a breath and thought
With four seconds
left, he blurted out “right down to the wire.” Suddenly, he had
$54,000 ($40,000 or so after taxes) that he could spend anywhere.
His fiance, Dr. Gina
Perez, suggested investment; “she's very level-headed,” Jablonski
said. His friend Rusty Johnson, who's not, suggested building a lodge
in Peru's Amazon jungle.
Somehow, the latter
idea won; now the six-part “Hotel Amazon” is a sign of enduring
The guys met when
they were 15, at a martial-arts class in Kingston, New York, the
Hudson Valley town where they still live. Jablonski, precise and
detail-oriented, became a firefighter and an emergency medical
technician – good fields for careful people; Johnson, struggling
with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, went in other
“I always had animals,” he said. “I trained a
falcon when I was 17.” He worked with Jim Fowler (“Wild
Kingdon”), wrote a book about Africa (“Twilight of the Wild”)
and did lots of school talks.
Most of all, he
said, he savored Peru and the Amazon. “The moment you stepped off
the plane, you felt the heat, felt the humidity. I loved it.”
In the city, he
liked the free-form streets and markets. (“It's almost like the
wild West.”) In the jungle, he brought people malaria nets and
medicine and found key moments.
On his 33rd
birthday, Johnson delivered a baby in the jungle; she's now 9 and
named the native word for Miracle. He also fell in love with a native
woman, Madeley; they're married and have a 5-year-old. “You feel
like he's a Peruvian man,” she says in the show,
Johnson also kept
returning home to Kingston. “Rusty's been telling me all about
this,” Jablonski said.
Then Perez suggested
that Jablonski, handy with word games, try out for “Wheel of
He got on the show
and somehow detected that B---/TO/--E/-----E (movie title) was “Back
to the Future.” Then an opponent had almost completed “synchronized
swimming,” before accidentally saying the wrong letter; Jablonski
cleaned up that one, finished big and agreed to finance the lodge.
And he finally
visited the place. First, he landed in Iquetos, a city of 420,000
that has much commotoion -- “It's sensory overload,” Jablonski
said – and no access via roads. Then came the 86-mile, three-hour
boat trip to the lodge's Yanayacu River site.
The locals were
startled by him. “They've never seen anyone so big,” one man says
on the show. “And with no hair.”
And Jablonski –
6-foot and 250, sometimes compared to actor Michael Chiklis -- was
startled by their casual pace. “I feel like one man standing
against an entire village,” he says in the show. “I feel alone.”
Expecting to stay
for two weeks, he got an extended leave for six months, scrambling to
make sure the lodge actually got built.
It did. The Wild
Yarapa Amazon Jungle Lodge – 17 rooms and a “VIP treehouse” --
has handled groups as large as 32, he said. It has Wi-fi and cell
service. And when Jablonski happens to be there, it has good access
to help with medical emergencies and/or missing-letter phrases.
-- “Hotel Amazon,”
six Mondays on Travel Channel, starting March 9
-- 10 p.m. ET,
rerunning at 1 a.m.; 7 p.m. PT, rerunning at 10
-- Information on
the lodge is at www.wildyarapa.com