I have always associated travel with seeing and observing things; never imagining it could be anything more than a visual experience…until I realized it was more, much more!
At 22, struck by a cerebral attack that damaged most of my sensory system, I was left totally blind and partially hearing impaired. Traveling was the last thought on my mind and never did I think I would step out of my house again.
But then, someone wise has said “never say never”, isn’t it? Moving from a time after my disability where I was afraid to sit on a bike, to taking many joyous road trips on one, my life has come full circle in more ways than one!
I have always loved the outdoors, the green of the trees and grass, long drives enjoying the wind whipping through my hair and the sense of freedom. As a blind person though, these took on a whole new meaning!
The green was associated with a smell of freshly walked upon grass, the leaves freshly washed with rain or dew and a song sung by the wind in my ears. The effect was no less mesmerizing.
Through the years I have enjoyed many a road trip around my city Hyderabad in South India. Many places I visited after going blind were until then only names I had heard despite living here. Soon I was travelling distances of 90 kms to 350 kms in the span of four years. All road trips, the journey varied from being in a car or on a bike.
I still remember the first such trip I took to visit a friend in Tandur, a town about 110 kms away and the nervousness about packing my own things. Since it was on a bike, I had to ensure I packed light but also had everything I needed. Always one to carry things without having to ask someone else, this was a daunting task. My partner kept peeking over my shoulder as I packed to ensure I didn’t take one thing extra. I rolled my eyes and assured him I was being good. But often, I’d sneak that one little thing I thought I just couldn’t do without. Something I’d now tell nobody to do since that bag sat on my shoulders and after a while I wished it weren’t as heavy!
Setting off on the trip with the weather warm indoors, I was surprised to experience how cold it got when we entered a belt of green trees. It almost felt like I had transported somewhere else, making me wish I had something warmer. The freshness of the early morning air was beautiful; still unsullied by smoke emissions from other vehicles and untouched by the sound of blaring horns. The tranquility was enhanced by the sound of thousands of birds chirruping as they left for their day’s work. We passed smaller villages, a forest belt and long open roads. Imagine the pleasure of stopping to allow a bunch of animals crossing the road or breaking to watch a deer skip across. The sight of bounding rabbits and the occasional wild boar, peacocks and flying fox… all in one journey!
Always a foodie and game to experiment anything off the roadside, we had our favourite pit stop at a tea-stall that served piping hot tea in little glasses with bread omelet for breakfast (a typical way of serving this at such roadside stalls), and various fried “bajjias and bondas” during evenings. During summer months, this route had one of the most fantastic market selling various local varieties of mangoes that grew around there. Imagine carrying bags full of those delights along with our own bags on a bike and not complaining at all? Well, the tantalizing smell of mangoes can do that to you, you know!
Walking in the forests of areas around us was a new experience for me. A city-girl born and bred, the thought of putting my foot somewhere I couldn’t see was not an assuring thought at first. Little did I realize, the right partner, one who was a confident guide with a firm and sure step was enough to forget all trepidation and enjoy the thrill of the unknown. The right kind of footwear with a good application of bug repellent smeared all over (in case of going into a wet and rainy area) is all one needs. I was amazed at how much my residual senses absorbed with my sight missing. I heard the sound of birds, (calls I learned to identify soon enough), the buzzing of crickets, the cacophony of birds and other animals in the wake of a predator prowling the forest and mating calls of various creatures left me breathless and excited! Where had the fear gone? I soon realized the harmony lay in blending in and not disturbing the peace of the natural environment and the creatures there.
From river beds to rocky terrain to being in close quarters with a lazy snake basking in the sun after shedding skin, I have made memories to last a lifetime.
Stepping into rivers was scary since the bed beneath seemed like it was shifting all the time. Again, a sure footed partner and a careful step behind him gave me the courage to do even that. I can still hear the sound of a gushing waterfall in more than one dam site. The spray of the water on the wind is inexplicable. Being a tactile person by nature, my curiosity had me picking many little mementoes from the forest floor and river beds. From smooth pebbles to bark of trees turned into driftwood to enjoying the crunch of Tuar dal beans left to dry in this manner to sharing FaceTime with a field full of sunflowers; each experience was a breath of fresh air; a new lease of life!
Learning about the local history and engaging with the tribes in various areas cannot be easily forgotten. From the low doors in a Lambada home to mud caked homes of the Koyas, an insight into their lives only whet my appetite to go back more than once. Eating the food cooked by them and listening to their stories gave me a whole new respect for their simple indigenous ways of life.
I saw a long standing dream come true when I embarked on a bike ride to Nagarjuna Sagar Dam, (about 130 Kms away) on the bike in driving rain! The exhilaration of feeling the rain on my face and getting soaked in it seemed like a benediction! Singing loudly, celebrating life’s every shade, I have never been happier! No, I wasn’t prepared for it to rain so was not protected against the elements, and chose to stay that way. A word of warning though… ensure the change of clothes are packed to remain dry, since the aftermath of getting out of and into a fresh set of wet clothes is not exciting at all! But, even that didn’t dampen my spirit.
For an avid traveller who is also Blind, I have always had supportive people around me who haven’t hesitated to hold my hand and walk along with me. A little orientation in how I needed to be held and helped, I had all the support I needed. Whether it was a halt on the roadside to attend to a call of nature or orientating to a new room and bathroom, I guided them how and they followed, making my trips easy and memorable and my travel accessible!
Disability, I believe, whether locomotor, visual, hearing, developmental or related to mental health, while being a hindrance, is certainly not a deterrent in the quest to travel. I have gone on and gathered my bag full of memories, coming a long way from those days of wondering if I could travel without seeing, to looking forward to every experience life has to offer, and loving every bit of it!
A hotelier by education and profession, Payal loves life in all its varying shades. Along with working with a group of hotels, she makes time for friends, experiments in the kitchen, and travels whenever possible. Writing gives expression to her deepest thoughts and reading copiously feeds her imagination with visions of happy endings!