Travel to the Edge with Planet Abled

The travel story of an aircraft engineer who designs fighter planes for a living

This time I would like to tell you a story. A story about friendship, faith in oneself, travel and breaking barriers. A story of an aircraft engineer Sergio who designs fighter planes for a living. Who has a deep interest in spirituality and wanted to travel to India to explore what each of its religions offers. But was not sure if he would be able to do it and if it was possible for him to venture all alone across the country. The fear of the unknown on the very first trip outside his country and on the first holiday of his life struck him. Also, English not being his spoken language made things tougher. He kept thinking about it for a couple of years.

Then his guardian angel came disguised as his best friend. She knew him for years and realised she had to do something about it as he was getting restless and anxious about it.

Somewhere the stars aligned on the world wide web, she located us and reached out and we started talking. And then she sent me a long list of places her friend wanted to visit. After an exchange of I don’t know how many mails, it all got fixed. And then it happened. A trip that raised the bar of Planet Abled being the longest, biggest and most widespread trip we did. And I would not say that we were not apprehensive, it was a first time for us too. This August we celebrated the first anniversary of the historic tour that broke all barriers of accessible travel in India. A solo tour that spanned across India and Nepal, across 5 states and 13 cities in India. Something never done before. And it went so wonderful that now Sergio is looking forward to come to India again next year to cover the rest of the states. How cool is that?

Ohh and did I tell you that Sergio happens to be a wheelchair user.

Often a traveller with disability has a lot of apprehensions and doubts about travelling but I guess it works both ways. We were equally apprehensive about our biggest tour till then and had our own doubts and fears, if we would be able to pull it off seamlessly and do justice to the trust Sergio and his best friend has put in us. But somewhere that fear only gave us the strength to prepare the tour to the minutest of detail and make it successful and create history. He came, he saw, he conquered, we conquered.

Now you must be thinking why we never talked about it all through the past one year. Well because we were busy doing more and more of such trips and breaking more and more barriers in travel.

It makes me feel really proud that at Planet Abled we have been able to raise the bar of accessible travel in India. Celebrating the first anniversary of such a landmark moment is really special indeed and we wanted to share it with all the beautiful people who make us what we are today. Each such threshold places more and more responsibility on our shoulders and we are all geared up for the long road ahead. Stay with us 🙂

– Neha Arora

Neha Arora is the founder of Planet Abled who left her corporate career to build the ecosystem for accessible travel in India. Her inspiration came from the not so good travel experiences of travelling with her parents both of whom are persons with different disabilities.

 

 

The team of four poses on a balcony with hills and waterfalls behind their back

The Incredible India Tour to promote travelling with disabilities

A lot of work is being done by NGOs, individuals & activists on education, employment, rights and entitlements, empowerment, travel, transport and many such crucial issues regarding people with disabilities. There have been breakthroughs on some front and we are yet struggling on others. So why the struggle? What are the obstacles?

There are barriers like attitudes, infrastructure, law & policies which  impact our day to day life.

Travel & Tourism for people with disabilities is one such aspect which is only a dream for many in our country. While on one hand we agree that People with Disabilities (PwDs) have equal right to travel with dignity and access to all tourism infrastructures & yet it is an irony that senior citizens and disabled people have NOT been considered as potential customers for majority tourist destinations. Inaccessibility to transportation, accommodation and tourist sights discourages us to venture out.

On 5th March 2005, my co member Sunita Sancheti & me (both wheelchair users), visited Taj Mahal at Agra for a project. This was after Prof. Stephen Hawking’s visit to India. On the highway from Delhi to Agra we realized there was not a single disabled friendly toilet.

With quite a few of us on wheelchairs it was a huge challenge.  Much later to our relief when we were nearing Agra via NH2 we found a McDonalds outlet, which had an accessible toilet. But this was not the end of the ordeal. After travelling this far and facing so many difficulties it was disappointing that only 2-3 of us could go right up to the tomb which is the significant part of this monument.

Sunita being helped by three men to take the ramp to the monument

Steep ramps at monuments

There were countless steps & few steep ramps. After this disappointing experience we realized that there was a lot of work to be done in this area.

Later in 2011 we got the opportunity to work on tourism when two of our friends Arvind Prabhoo & Nishant Khade both trustees of Access for all foundation invited us to join them for All India Tour, by road. The project was taken under Vijay Merchant Rehabilitation Centre for Disabled titled Beyond Barriers- Incredible India Tour.

On 28th of Sep 2011, we began our adventurous journey with a purpose. A purpose which we believed would make our beautiful country, barrier free, a tourist destination for all. We set out to travel across the country by road, covering 19500 kms in 84 days. We visited 28 state capitals and 40 cities. Each one of us had our stories & reasons which is why we came together.

Says Sunita “Travel is very important aspect of each persons life. It can be for work, recreation, social visits or religious ceremonies. I am born and brought up in Mumbai and my extended family & cousins stay in different states of the country, it is challenging and expensive for me to travel when I want to visit them. A nature freak basically, I love travelling to beautiful places which has always been a dream. I have travelled  a lot before my spine injury at the age of 16 . Hence when the opportunity to explore the accessibility level in our country for people with disabilities, knocked on my door I grabbed it .My family was concerned as I had two major surgeries just in a span of one year before this travel, but at the same time they felt that it was a life time opportunity for me to fulfill my dream of working on accessible tourism”.

Nishant Khade one of our adventurous four comments “I have always been adventurous and loved to travel a lot. Unfortunately, after the accident it couldn’t be continued.  One day while chatting with my friend Arvind, who also uses a wheelchair, a thought came to our minds, Let’s do something adventurous!, and we decided to tour whole of India by road. Thus the old enthusiasm got refreshed. I was excited, fully charged. Seen from a wheelchair, India looks incredible! I loved the monuments, the roads, the authentic food, & the NortheastLuckily for me there were no discouragements. Thanks to my family & friends for supporting me

He continues “Post this memorable life changing tour we published a coffee table book for ‘life time remembrance’. It’s designed by me, it will captivate readers. People should know what ‘accessibility’ means. The central and the state governments could allot 3 per cent of the budget for making places disabled-friendly, it’s a one-time investment. “How can incredible India be for “we people” unless it’s barrier-free?”

The third traveler Arvind shares “Travelling has always been my first love” he continues, “to travel all over the country by road has been my dream since I was in college. This tour was a tour of self belief & resolve. That I could plan, execute & come back safe & healthy was proof to my ability and therefore, the successful completion of the tour was a stamp on my abilities. Planning had to be meticulous. Along with proper accommodation, choosing tourist destinations was important. No matter what, the journey would be completed, and should any of us need to withdraw, the others would carry on.

The journey was arduous, the challenges enormous, but we completed the tour,” Arvind said. The coffee table book has pictures speaking of the adventures. Inspiring more people with limitations was the main objective. We completed the journey without a whiff of illness, which is a standing testimony to our planning and pre-tour preparation.”

The fourth among this fearless four team was me. This tour was a dream come true. I always wanted to explore our country, places which my family visited, but due to lack of infrastructure and facilities I never could. This tour came as a lifetime opportunity. My family thought it was a crazy idea. Initially I got a bit discouraged due to my family’s concern but when my friends and mentors encouraged us, we were motivated and went ahead. We got a warm welcome from everyone we met during our journey and it has been very overwhelming experience for me”.

Besides the tourist places, some of the main universities were also on our agenda, because we believe that students with disabilities should be able to pursue higher education easily. We visited a few like universities of Mizoram, Tezpur, Kashmir, Patna, Itanagar , Pondicherry and so on.

Its a collage of pictures. The four posing in front university building, Arvind going inside via ramp and the accessible auditorium

Accessible University Campus

It was impressive to find that Tejpur University campus in Assam was accessible upto 80% with disabled friendly rooms in hostel too.

Jadavpur University has a special cell which works on facilities for students with disabilities. Some of the buildingin campus are accessible with a disabled friendly toilet. They also provide audio cassettes and cds for the visual impaired students who enroll for higher studies.

Mizoram University- The hilly terrain of Aizwal has not stopped them from making the university accessible. They have gradual ramps all over the university. This is a true example of where there is a will there is a way.

Pondicherry University is worth special mention because in 2007 it received an award for being the most disabled friendly university.

In Ladakh, we trekked to a height of 18,000 feet and touched the snow. It was a dream come true. Leh, where there is less electricity, no infrastructure, mountainous topography, snowfall most of the times, less technology, extreme climatic conditions, even in such a scenario they are fantastic host when it comes to tourism.

Sunita at Khardungla Pass on her wheelchair with snow mountains behind her and a direction board to Leh

Sunita at Khardungla Pass

Sunita posing triumphantly at highest peak of Khardungla

Chennai- Vallurvar Kottam – One of the heritage structures in Chennai. The auditorium at Valluvar Kottam is said to be the largest in Asia and can accommodate about 4000 people. Post access audit by our team during our tour, Sukriti Foundation a local NGO, followed up persistently with the Valluvarkottam authorities and a permanent ramp was constructed. Hats off to Sukriti’s efforts.

Jagannath Puri/ Tirupati & Jyotiba Kolhapur- Visiting religious places in some states was not a pleasant experience. Like when we visited the famous Jagannath Puri and Tirupati temples we were not allowed to enter on our wheelchairs. Infact we were standing outside Jagannath Puri temple for more than 2 hours trying to convince the authorities to let us in. But it was a big letdown.

Neenu and Sunita stranded outside Jagannath Puri Temple office with a priest praying on the side and policeman standing, not allowed to go inside

Stranded outside Jagannath temple

On other hand we were welcomed and allowed to enter the temple with dignity at Jyotiba  & Mahalaxmi temples Kolhapur. Friends point to be noted here is that even these temples are not accessible but the authorities were very cooperative and helpful.

The roads in Lucknow impressed us with their perfectly leveled pavements, ramps and railings in place.

In Veli Village, Trivandrum, we took a boat ride. The boats were not disabled-friendly, but we had a staff of 17 to help us.

Sunita and Neenu inside the boat in water

Boating in Trivandrum

While we even dipped our feet in the sea at Pondicherry  thanks to the ramp leading right till the water, on the other hand we watched the sunrise in Kanyakumari.

But the most adventurous incident took place in Majuli, Assam. To cross the Brahmaputra, one must take a boat that also transports your car. We crossed the river with our Innova on board. Owing to the size of the boat, the Innova was parked perpendicular to the length of the boat. While alighting, our driver panicked, and our car could have fallen into the river. After much efforts & spine chilling hours of labour, we were pulled to safety.

The major challenge while travelling by road is absence of disabled friendly toilets on highways. As an exception we found Ghar Outlet, which  is a Bharat Petroleum Corp initiative towards making road travel more comfortable across sections of the society. Their outlets have clean restaurants, accommodations & restrooms which are accessible. We should have more such outlets on inter state and intra state highways. With facilities such as these road transport would become easier for all.

Transport (Metro Train)- its not only the tourist destinations or hotels but also important to have the accessible transport. None of the trains or railway platforms are disabled friendly, hence travelling by trains is a big challenge for disabled people. We were happy to travel by train in Bangalore by metro rail at MG Rd station. It was a different kind of independence that we felt and that too which was so economical.

Though traveling by air is most suitable but an expensive option, there is lack of communication between Aviation Ministry, Airlines & Airports Authority. Most of them are clueless about the guidelines & facilities provided to passengers with disabilities.

Besides the infrastructural facilities we also felt that all the information related to disabled friendly facilities should be put on the respective websites. Whether it is trains, universities, colleges, tourist destinations, hotels etc. Some of the accessible features that we found in these places had no such mention on their websites. We have emphasized about the same to all those concerned.

We travelled to show the world that just because we use wheelchair,it doesn’t mean one cannot travel and see beautiful places.

With a few positive changes on the roll we are happy to see seeds of our efforts sprouting slowly.

Together let us make our country, India, a tourist destination that is accessible and BARRIER FREE  for ALL.

 

Please Note: The accessibility status of the places mentioned in the blog are a few year old when the road trip happened. We hope the status of accessibility at these places have improved for the better.

Latifa in front of fresco entrance at Id ma-ud- daula

My homecoming to India

About a year ago I decided to take a leap of faith and journey ‘home’ to India. Being a wheelchair user, this thought had always terrified me. But being in my mid-20s, born and raised in Aotearoa and having my only image of the homeland from pictures and stories, I figured if not now, then when?

In my initial research about accessible travel in India, I came across a company called Planet Abled. They organise customised travel plans for tourists with disabilities with any access need, including accessible accommodation, a driver, tour guide, local sign language interpreter or travel buddy – just a few examples!

By this point I had already decided to leave my electric freedom behind and take my manual wheelchair with me instead. Everyone told me there are steps everywhere and I should try to keep my movements as flexible as possible. I realise this is a privilege I have, but for me, being able to sit in any car with my collapsible chair and having my chair lifted into shops was the safest and most logical decision.

When we arrived in Mumbai, our driver was waiting at the airport to take us to our hotel, which we had no issues with. Over the next four days, we went on our various adventures to historical monuments and shopping spots. The first thing I noticed was that even though the built environment was almost entirely inaccessible, the people made it accessible for me. In a city where a huge part of population lives below the poverty line, I found the people to be very accepting about everyone’s differences and therefore willing to help when they noticed the need.

Latifa with her Dad at Gateway of India with Taj Palace Hotel in background

Latifa with her Dad in Mumbai

Few people looked twice at my wheelchair, but when I needed help, at least five people would come to help before disappearing back into the chaos without me having a chance to express my gratitude. Considering all the social and economic issues India is currently dealing with, I was beautiful to see how the people make things work under such circumstances, both for themselves and for others.

Following Mumbai, we spent 10 days in our village in Gujarat before flying up to New Delhi. Here we spent a lot of time in famous tourist sites, such as the 700-year-old Qutub Minar and Raj Ghat (Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial site). Ramps had been built in and were therefore easy to navigate.

It was the same situation in Agra, the city of the beautiful Taj Mahal. The Planet Abled team knew exactly where to go, where the best spots were, and took great photos. All hotels were perfect – very accessible and the service was great.

Latifa with her parents at Taj

Latifa sharing a candid moment with her parents at Taj Mahal

The drivers were super friendly and helpful, as were the storytellers.

I really fell in love with India. It was such a beautiful experience and place. Every place we went to had its own unique personality which I loved.

My time in India showed me what can happen when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and let our common humanity take over. It’s a team effort, but the outcome filled me with hope. I’m looking forward to coming back soon to explore other parts of India.

Latifa lives with her family in New Zealand and works in the disability advocacy space. She has her roots in India.

Deaf people can do anything, except hear

Deaf people can do anything, hearing people can, except hear.

My name is Zorin Singha. I am the Secretary of National Association of the Deaf (NAD), India – a national advocacy disabled people’s organisation (DPO) for the deaf, by the deaf and of the deaf. I was born deaf and raised in a hearing home. I have lived in many parts of the country majorly because my father was with the Indian Air Force. Having grown up in a hearing home doesn’t leave much choice for communication development. Mind you, my parents did the best they could because back then, in the early 70s, there was limited awareness and understanding of the needs of the deaf community, let alone the opportunities of learning or using sign language. My parents then, sent me to St. Louis’ School for the Deaf in Chennai. That’s where I learnt to study English with basic sign language. Never had a chance to learn Hindi or any other spoken languages.
Zorin at work with his colleague at United Nations

Zorin at work with his colleague at United Nations

Anyway, moving on, having being associated with NAD and the deaf movement for over three decades, I have traveled to many countries for work and extensively in India. My biggest challenge has always been communication. We are a nation of diverse cultures speaking so many local languages. Because I could not learn to read or write Hindi, my communication with the hearing world, who do not sign and speak, read and write only Hindi, becomes almost impossible! I then resort to basic gestures in the hope that the person in front of me is able to understand. So when I travel, I ensure that I have my phone on me so that I could communicate through images if words fail me. Otherwise pen and paper, texting, I use it all.
I have an innate instinct to be aware of my surroundings. For example, imagine a deaf person is in the washroom and suddenly the alarm bell rings and the whole area at the airport must evacuate, but because the alarm was audio based, the person is still in the bathroom! Our barrier here is physical as there is a lack of understand of the emergency needs of deaf people at travel places.
Zorin driving his car in a roadtrip

Zorin driving his car in a roadtrip

I have been driving for more than three decades now. I have been up to the hills, down to the South – I love to drive and am passionate for cars. However, for a deaf person to drive in India requires jumping through many hoops. Until 2011, deaf people were refused driving licenses especially those who have profound deafness. The reason behind this was the individual’s inability to hear the horn. After long and hard advocacy, Supreme Court ruled in our favour in 2011 stating that the deaf person should be granted a license provided they pass the driving test. This was a huge victory for us. However, ensuring its implementation was not easy and is still going. Its implementation vary from RTO to RTO. Our biggest barrier here was not communication but rather attitudinal that deaf people just cannot drive if they cannot hear! Ironically, I was allowed to drive in Europe and deaf people from other countries who have international driving licenses are allowed to drive in India. This is a really bizarre contrast.
We have our own culture, our own community. We are also a linguistic minority. A lot of people don’t seem to realise that. It is assumed that we are very unfortunate, very disabled but no! These barriers have not and will not deter passion for setting out on new adventures. It may be difficult due to limited awareness but overcoming barriers would only change the perception of society.
Written By –
Zorin Singha
Secretary, National Association of the Deaf(NAD),
New Delhi.

Road Trip with Windmills and Arks

This post is the second in the series of travel with disability blog by Peter Gibson. He prefers to take his wife and son for road trips.

Starts and Unexpected Stops

We set off on the road from Vadodara at 4:30 and within a very short time we were in a traffic jam on NE 1 Vadodara-Ahmedabad Expressway. A bus was parked in the fast lane with a burst tyre!

Just as we were passing Ahmedabad we saw the sun setting like a huge orange ball. Slightly unreal looking like a typical tourist destination poster for sun-starved North Europeans.

We stopped early at 7pm to top-up the windscreen wiper water. The windscreen was splattered with insects and as the last of the water sputtered to nothing our windscreen became smeared. I couldn’t see clearly through the glare of un-dipped headlight beams of oncoming vehicles.

I found a water fountain of filtered and chilled water in the fuel station! Very smart. When the windscreen bottle was full I got some old newspaper and cleaned the smeared glass until it was crystal clear again. We then had a least another two hours of driving to do before we reached the area where we needed to find a hotel (near the way into the Little Rann of Kutch – a “small” desert)

 

First Food Stop – One Small Step

As we were pulling out of the fuel station, where we got the water, we saw Jyot Hotel which looked like a clean and simple road-side restaurant. It had only one small step up and a large door so getting in was easy. The tables were a good height and reasonably clean by roadside standards. Luckily there was no among crossbar across the leg of the table so Jagu could get her wheelchair under the table top without banging her footrests.

The food was well presented but had suicidal level of salt and oil. I made a mental note to request less oil/salt as we head further west.

Jaggu at the restaurant

A basic but comfortable food stop

After this we moved ahead to a secluded area for a quick road side toilet stop. We carry a folding toilet chair and sadly have to use the open-toilet (i.e. wherever you can find space as there is no disabled accessible toilets within 100km).

We have only ever seen one accessible toilet which was on National Expressway 1. At all other places we have to use a folding chair. We find a secluded spot and open both doors offside passenger doors and place it between them. It gives a little privacy but it is difficult and undignified for all involved.

Portable Accessible toilet

Portable Accessible toilet

 

Seeing Scary Steps but Saved by Semi-Lift

Then we moved on looking for a hotel. It was getting unlikely that we would find a place as we had our turn off to the Little Rann of Kutch coming up but fortuitously the Highway took an unexpected turn towards Rajkot and although we were now on the wrong road we soon came across a half decent looking hotel. Aptly named Cross Roads.

I viewed the horrendous 30 odd steps of the metal staircase upto the hotel entrance which was on the 1st floor from the car. It gave me a horrible shiver of expectation because the place didn’t look like it had a lift. Carrying Jagu up 30 steps even with help is a dangerous and undignified process for her and us carers. Lack of accessibility at the hotel was evident.

However, when I went to scout the place it was surprisingly clean. Basic but clean and yes it had a lift of sorts! Get this. There were no doors on the Lift and there were no doors on each floor (the manager muttered something about “Karab ho gaya” – it went bad). No Kidding!!

The Lift was too small for a wheelchair, so we put Jagu in a lotus position in her chair and dosed the foot rests. We named it – The Yoga Lift.

Crazy small and doorless lift

Crazy small and doorless lift

 

Basic Bedroom with Bathroom Barriers

The room was spacious enough but the usual small bathroom door with a step up. It was not at all suitable for wheelchairs or people with disabilities.

The room was clean and simple and at ₹1000 for a three-bed room it was ₹8000 cheaper than the rough and ready Jogad Eco Camp which we saw is nearby (Rs 2200 per person per night with full board and a desert tour).

 

Day 2 Desert – Little Rann of Kutch

We drove about 40 Km to the beginning of the desert to look for the famous the Wild Ass of Kutch. The Wild Ass is something between a donkey and a horse and is indigenous to the Little Rann of Kutch desert.

Here we found several herds of Wild Ass grazing on what looked like the most bare sand with a very few tufts of grass. It is surprising that they can survive and even thrive on such barren landscape.

We drove careful avoiding the damp patches. Parts of the desert are flooded for part of the year and this is why there is salt industry in this area. This is the perfect way for a person who cannot walk to enjoy nature without having to get into a wheelchair. We have done many safaris in our Four-Wheel Drive Mahindra Scorpio. Freedom from the hugely expensive safari tours is a great boon. I have a lot of experience driving in the desert of Qatar so I know the dangers of getting stuck and how to avoid this.

Wild Ass of the Little Rann of Kutch

Wild Ass of the Little Rann of Kutch

As we were off road and there was no danger of hitting anything I let my son drive. The car is automatic so it’s easy to drive. We enjoyed few hours looking at the scenery and the birds and then set off out of the desert looking for a place to have lunch before heading West to Mandvi.

Zack Driving

Zack got his first experience of driving without his Dad’s help!

 

Cracks, Crannies and Condiments – Textures of the desert.

Jagu is an artist and she uses a lot of abstract textures she finds in nature. The desert with its salt-pan flats covered in cracks and crevices is a perfect place to collect texture samples. Jagu tells me what she want photos of and the angles and so on. She then imports this into her artworks which she creates using her iPad.

Salt Crystals

Salt Crystals

Texture of Desert

Texture of Desert

 

Long and Winding Road Passes Windmills

Soon into our second day on the road we past the famous port of Navlaki. As the sun was setting we were presented with the silhouettes of towering turning wind-turbines. We went offroad again to take a closer look. It was surreal standing next to these massive machines which make no sound other than a gentle swishing sound.

Giant Windmills

Giant Windmills

 

The Destination is the Journey… scary incidents or

                       – The Importance of Using of Seat-belts

Our trips are not well planned. We don’t generally book hotels in advance as we find the important information about accessibility is usually lacking. However we use google maps and Tripadvisor and LastMinuteDotCom extensively. So with these tools we headed towards Mandvi. We hadn’t planned to stop there but it looked good in TA. Zack was checking out places as I drove the last 50Km in the dark.

Just before we entered Mandvi district we had heavy traffic on a normal single-track road. All of a sudden, a bull was running across the road narrowly being missed by the heavy traffic. I had to swerve violently to avoid it and it’s horn came into contact with my mirror. I always keep an eye on motorbikes in my mirrors and so I managed to avoid hitting one on our passenger side.

Jagu cannot support her upper body and can easily fall over so the seat-belt is a great support and in incidents like this it can save a disabled person from striking their heads against the door or window. Everyone has to wear seatbelt in my car whether we are in city doing 20 kph or on the highway doing 120 kph.

Shaken we drive on into Mandvi and look at a few hotels. Some are charging exorbitant amounts for very second-rate facilities but we found a budget hotel with ground floor rooms.

 

Day 3 – Maiden Voyage to Mandvi

It’s our first time in this famous ancient shipbuilding port. It was much better than we expected. In the morning we drove into town and stopped to look at the wooden skeletons of amazing ships being built.

Mandvi Shipbuilding. 600 years of making wooden ships.

Mandvi Shipbuilding. 600 years of making wooden ships.

Having the car is a great boon. I could position it on the roadside so she could get a good look while Zack and I explored the shipbuilding site. It is on the riverbank running though the centre of town.

 

Rough and Rubbish Strewn Sea-Front but Delightful Town Centre

On our first night in Mandvi we explored a bit by driving around. We found the popular touristy sea-front in the centre of town which was noisy, dirty and generally unattractive. We carried on exploring the very narrow street and came to the town centre where, in a small Chowk (square), there were several roadside laris (shiny and well-lit food carts). All of these were selling freshly prepared local specialities like Kutchi Dabeli. This is a sweet and savoury mix of peanuts and crushed vegetables stuffed in a bread roll which is heated up on a metal plate with butter. The stall opposite the Dabeli Lari sold fantastic Limbu Pani (fresh squeezed lemon juice).

Great lemon juice.

Great lemon juice.

We had a several snacks and then lemon juice. Again travelling by car on road is a way a disabled person can enjoy these things without too much hassle of using wheelchair chairs in potholed and narrow roads. In our car Jagu is nearly at the height of us as we stand next to the door. This way we enjoy together on the same level.

Wonderful nutty and sweat Kutchi Dabeli

Wonderful nutty and sweat Kutchi Dabeli

During the day we checked out the town some more, looking at the old buildings and exploring the nearby beaches. We found a beach that we liked and decide to go swimming the next morning. We decide to splurge a bit and changed our accommodation. We found a resort on the East edge of the town that had a swimming pool, individual huts and very nice restaurant and an amazing private beach front.

It had slopes to a couple of the “Tented” rooms but they were too steep and the 40mm high door threshold was a problem for the wheelchair. The rooms were not accessible. Not even the room “allocated” for disabled but they were reasonably spacious.

 

Dangerous Slopes

There were slopes to the restaurant and the poolside. Both were too steep and both had no hand-rails. There were no accessible toilets anywhere on the site. Despite this we enjoyed our night there and went to the beach in the evening.

Nice resort but limited accessibility

Nice resort but limited accessibility. Slope too steep and no handrails.

 

Beach Sunset

We carried Jagu over the small gate to the beach as it was too narrow for the wheelchair and then took her in a plastic chair down to the beach. Zack and I swam for an hour enjoying the clean and warm water.

Nice beach but very limited accessibility

Nice beach but very limited accessibility

 

Day 4 – Safe Swimming – Tetraplegian Style and Heading Back East

The following morning, we took Jagu for a swim in the pool. It was very clean and not too cold.

We have devised a good technique for getting Jagu into the pool. First of all, before we go out we put on her swimming clothes while she is lying on the bed in the room. Then when we get to the pool we need three people. Zack is in the pool to guide her once she is on the pool-edge. I lift her from the back and our assistant lifts her beneath her knees and we transfer her from the chair to a wheelchair cushion we have put not the pools edge. Then I lower put on the floatation ring and lower her into the pool while Zack makes sure she doesn’t roll over. It’s a bit complicated but once she is in it is very nice for her to feel “weightless”.

Jagu enjoying a swim.

Jagu enjoying a swim.

We really enjoyed Mandvi but we wanted to see more of the desert so we decided to start our journey home and come via the north side of the Rann of Kutch. On the way we stopped to look at an ancient fort. We could drive all the way up inside the perimeter wall. There I found some interesting sandstone walls that had stones that were worn in a strange way that looked like 3D writing. Jagu loves this type of textures so I took some pics for her.

It was nice for Jagu to see this all fairly closely as most forts are totally inaccessible to wheelchairs.

Fortress outside Bhuj.Ancient stonework with texture like writing.

Fortress outside Bhuj. Ancient stonework with texture like writing.

That day we arrived late at night in a hotel north of the Rann of Kutch. It was a typical low level roadside hotel. So no lift and a lot of stairs. The management and staff were very helpful and kind. The room was clean and large so despite the difficulties we managed a good night’s rest.

 

Day 5 – Arriving at Rann Riders Ranch

The next day we set off late morning and arrived at a Safari lodge where they offer riding and jeep safaris. It is a beautiful place with interesting and comfortable rooms in a garden full of small ponds with lotus and fish. They even had a very small swimming pool which was nice for cooling off.

Jagu in the garden

Jagu in the garden

Jagu enjoys the swing seat

Jagu enjoys the swing seat

Jagu really enjoyed all the plants which she had me taking lots of pictures. We had really nice food and enjoyed meeting the many domestic animals including geese, cats, dogs and best of all …horses

The open sided restaurant of Rann RidersBeautiful Ancient gateway to a town on the East side of the Rann of Kutch.

The open sided restaurant of Rann Riders. Beautiful Ancient gateway to a town on the East side of the Rann of Kutch.

 

Day 6 – Safari and Homeward Bound

Early in the morning safari and saw more Wild Ass and birds in the desert. Also, we saw an amazing gateway from an old trading town. In the afternoon some local tribals came to sell their beadwork.

It was difficult to bath Jagu because the bathroom was so inaccessible but we managed to give her a sponge wash.

On our way home we stopped on the National Expressway 1 where there are “Accessible” Toilets. They aren’t correctly arranged or equipped but they have a good slope and adequate space. It is an attended toilet, so it is clean.

Accessible Toilet on National Expressway

Accessible Toilet on National Expressway

It was a really enjoyable trip for the nice surprises. The best way to travel is to let it just happen as you go along. Too much planning leads to disappointments. Flexibility is the best but for the disabled this has extra challenges. Having our own car and own equipment helps us adapt. Also, we always travel with a helper.

Things that help for paraplegic travellers: a helper to lift the person in and out of the car, for bathing, toilet help etc. A folding toilet seat. Wet wipes. An ample supply of “Sense of Humour” and a lot of patience.

We plan to go to Kutch again… we feel there is much more to enjoy there.

Peter Gibson is an avid traveller and also the founder of Enable Me Access promoting Barrier Free Access for People with disabilities in India. This post is the second one in his series of travelogues which he would be writing regularly to inspire more and more people with disabilities to travel and explore the planet.

 

Asif waving for a photograph after delivering a lecture with students in the background.

Do what you never thought you could because your thinking is the only limitation

My name is Mohammed Asif Iqbal and I am totally blind for over 24 years now.  I was very fortunate to grow up in the Western United States where I received my primary, secondary and partial college education.  I discovered the power of thrilling experience while engaging in adventure activities.  I came to India and became the first blind commerce graduate from St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta and first MBA (HR) from Symbiosis (SCMHRD), Pune and was instrumental in creating reservation quota for persons with disability in IITs, IIMS and all government aided educational institutions in 2000.  I am currently working for PWC since 12 years and have led assignment in HR consulting, IT and Egov domain.

 

M. Asif Iqbal shaking Hands with PM Narendra Modi

Asif met Prime Minister Narendra Modi at GCCS 2017                                     Picture Courtesy – Asif’s Facebook Profile

 

I did visit Singapore last year on work and decided to join my cousin on his vacation.  I was amazed by  public infrastructure there for people with disability and felt extremely safe when I ventured out to McDonald for lunch by myself.  Before that, the only place where I could venture out by myself was my home town in Oregon, United States. I am sure that European cities along with many other cities of developed countries empower person with disability to commute independently with ease.

 

Santosa was also on my itinerary and discovered that one of their rides is called luge which is sort of riding go-cart without engines.  It was a downhill slope comprising of more than 600 meter and luge was on a track starting from top of the hill and terminating at the bottom of the hill.  This luge was capable of going 60 KM per hour and it sounded very fascinating.  I really wanted to go on it and experience this ride but was apprehensive whether authority would allow me to ride by myself as I am blind.  My cousin encouraged me to ask the lady at the ticketing counter and she bluntly told me that she need to consult her supervisor after knowing about my blindness.  She asked me to wait for some time and sea of negativity swept across me during those anxious moments.  She came out and announced the news that supervisor would assign a trainer who would go along with me in a different luge.  I literally was overjoyed and can’t believe that they actually are allowing me for this experience of a lifetime.  Lady trainer gave me tips on how to drive the luge and after 5-10 minutes I master the skills of navigating luge with ease.  As I began my journey of downhill; I was enjoying my drive and probably was going at least 30 km and my trainer shouted me to slow down.  I slammed the break by lifting up the rod and got thrown out of the track; I was scared for few moments and thought to myself that my trainer will yell at me.  She said that it happens and asked me to continue the ride.  She lifted my luge literally with help of other trainer and I was back on track.  This time; I was being guided by two separate trainers sandwiching me and decided to follow their instructions diligently.  I accelerated speed and enjoyed downhill ride of speed at 45 kmph.  I was enjoying each moment and wished that the ride would not end but after navigating 600 meters zigzagging through the sloppy terrain with the help of two trainers became one of my fascinating moments of my life.  I wonder if India has this ride in some theme park; would they permit me? 

Asif on an elephant with his family and two Rhinoceros in the background

Asif on a family holiday to Kaziranga National park                                           Picture Courtesy – Asif’s Facebook Profile

Mohammed Asif Iqbal is currently Management Consultant at PwC. He has more than ten years of experience in Human Capital consulting and Egov consulting. He designed and implemented social inclusion strategy enabling Aadhaar enrollment in India for UIDAI.

I enjoy my travels using my senses of touch, smell and feeling and become my own brand ambassador

Watching the scenic beauty, admiring the flora and fauna spread around has been enticing, energizing and lovely for me.

 
As child, I remember travelling to Himalayas, watching the view from the heights of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath, Badrinath was so exciting. The view held farms and fields of different colours like green, light brown, dark brown, red and so on. The houses, buildings, roads and vehicles appeared as dots or a dash symbol on a canvas of splendid landscape. Also, the illusion that height brought out of driving or touching the light blue sky just fascinated me.

 
Whether it was admiring vivid flower variety at Nainital, botanical garden of Ooty, sunflower or rose farming in southern India, it always caught my breath.

 

I just love the Bridavan garden in Mysore, where for the first time I saw colourful water fountains which danced on the music creating a fabulous sight. Later, had similar experience at the dancing fountains at Sentosa Island in Singapore.

Portrait of Sushmita
Travelling still has the same effect on me, with or without vision surely changed the way I enjoy the beauty, now by hearing the descriptions. Feeling the different vibrations in the air. Smelling the scent around and wherever possible touching the beauty. I even make a point to let my fellow passengers know how they need to describe me and seek their help as and when it requires.

 
I still remember my sister-in- law describing one of the Japanese lady statue at the Salar Jung museum at Hyderabad. She made me visualise the intricate net clothing carved with multiple layers and designs.

 
The sound of a helicopter, strength of the wind spun by its fans, experience of boarding and flying in it was just amazing in the short ride at Vaishno Devi Mandir. My sister and other passengers described the view outside the helicopter which made me realize the difference in flying in a aeroplane and helicopter. Here we could open our windows, feel the gust of wind, the sound at helipad and then in the air at the height was so different and fascinating for me.

 
I want to travel more, visit my dream lands and countries. I strongly believe travelling to different places, enjoying the variety of food, culture, language, meeting different people whether within the country or outside, just feels “alive again”.

 
Admiring the natural beauty without vision is surely a challenge for us. If person accompanying us aren’t expressive than the challenge adds up.

 
Hence its my humble request to all accessible travel tour organisers to try and train escorts especially for visually impaired travellers, as how they should describe every minute detail too, including colour, shape, size etc. Also, wherever possible make us touch and admire things. Be it a simple thing as a tree, its leaves or flowers etc.

 
My fellow travellers often tell me that while we were describing the view for you, we realised that we started visualising in detail and noticed many more things that we might just have missed out hence had a different and un-forgetful experience.

 
Yes, social prejudice and stigma often tries to shatter our confidence. As while boarding the helicopter at Vaishno devi, the security people tried to hold me so hard as if I will run helter-skelter due to the noise of the helicopter. But when I and my friends made them understand that I just don’t have eyesight but do have brains in place, they eased out a bit.

 

I feel, as a person with disability, we should treat ourselves as brand ambassadors of our disability, travel and enjoy as and when it’s possible along with sensitise people around with the way we wish to be treated, supported or guided. If we don’t tell or ask what we want than no one else will come ahead to support or guide. Yes, us ask should be genuine, humble and polite. It will automatically create the magic around. Happy Travelling!

US Cover Banner

Sweet and sour memories of my travel to United States of America

A family travel to the US, hell yeah! Right? Who doesn’t want to attend their sister’s graduation if it allows for you to have a one-month trip to US including places such as NYC (Shopping in Manhattan et al, thanks to Bollywood).

Ready, I boarded my flight. Her graduation was a lot of fun and then we made our way to Washington to kick start our travel.  We always get to the airport 3 hours earlier –traversing the long airport corridors and security check always takes me longer. You see I walk with crutches and have a barrage of other limitations – Cerebral palsy does that to you. For one, they always stop me at security check and thoroughly check my fancy shoe apparatus, then the crutches always get a life of their own in the security check machines and take forever to get cleared.  But for every time I spend more time in security check (which I hate), I do love the special lines for me at all the counters. (One of the many things my sister has come to appreciate me for.)

So we land in DC – DC means museums and meeting the Donald! We started with the air and space Museum where I saw the 1st plane made by the wright brothers. We also visited the national history and art museum which were very cool – so much history!  Next, we walked down to the white house and the Lincoln memorial. Also saw the Washington monument (or the pencil as I liked to call it) from afar. After walking this much I was nearly dead. Walking takes six times the energy for me as compared to anybody else, and leads to frequent backaches and excessive stiffness. I also take longer than most people, so my family has to always rationalize and choose what we can do or not. This means every trip requires excessive planning.

I was ready to go home, but my dad always wants to do more – so we sat by the Jefferson memorial to appreciate the beautiful sunset.  What a beauty it was – the sunset and the lake. A little more walking the family always says. (generally, it’s a lie – like the time I almost cried in The Vatican because my body was hurting but my mom wanted to see a little more). Most times, by the third day of a trip I just didn’t give a damn. As much as I loved DC, the museums and the memorials, I was so exhausted that I took Day 3 off. I spent the day lying in bed. My sister and I missed Annapolis which my parents say was breathe taking. On days like this, I wish I was ‘normal’. On most others, I am glad I am well-travelled!

The next day we took a bus to travel to New York. The moment we step foot in the city, we went to the magnificent Times Square. The skyline and the number of people were mesmerizing. We sat there for a while and clicked some selfies (please do not diagnose me with a disorder, it is not that often, promise).

Shivangi sitting in the Times Square

Shivangi sitting in the Times Square

The next day we went to the museum of Modern Art. The exhibit on Asia was very well done, I think I learnt more about Indian history that day than I have ever read in my books. I was glad to see an exhibit on Africa also.

Shivangi is standing in Museum of Modern Art

Shivangi at Museum of Modern Art

We also walked, sat and talked and again walked around the central park.  The lake there was beautiful. I was glad to see the infrastructure and facilities for individuals with disabilities even in a park. The lake was accessible through a ramp. The next day we went for the cats Broadway show. I was pleased to see the facilities available there also. Something that I will never forget was the fact that one of the ‘cats’ came down to take a picture with me during the interval while everyone crowded the stage. It was amazing. We also went shopping! People generally like shopping, retail therapy it is called. For me however, it becomes more of a problem. Additionally, a lot of clothes do not fit me because of the braces that I wear.  But don’t worry. I found a solution to that, well kind of, my sister tries clothes for me and we buy them accordingly. Trust me it saves a lot of energy and time.

Sivangi at a mall with her sister

Shivangi enjoying Shopping at the Mall with her sister

By the fourth day I was so tired and had pain in my back to such an extent that we had to rent a wheelchair, this was a first timer!  Or the throne as I like to call it. After all, how many people get to travel in New York without walking. We went for a sea cruise as well. The view of the statue of liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge was amazing.

Here is a glimpse 😊

Photo of Statue of Liberty clicked by Shivangi

Photo of Statue of Liberty clicked by Shivangi

The view from the 88th floor of the Empire State Building cannot be missed. We also went to the Niagara Falls. The maid of the mist ride was awesome! One moment you were dry and the other there was water all over you.  We also saw the Statue of Liberty.

The cheesecake at the Trump Tower was mouth -watering. And let’s just stop the discussion about the Donald at that. Interestingly, the moment I started to get comfortable with the idea of using a wheel chair on my travel something funny happened, I was feeling extremely cold, possibly freezing. But as I walked into a restaurant for dinner, I wasn’t feeling that cold any longer. This small incident made me realise that I couldn’t use a wheelchair in the long run. We never give up on walking, do we? I guess I never really learnt to take the easy way out.  Amazing views and a bag full of memories. What a trip it was.

Shivangi is a Psychology graduate, currently pursuing post graduation and former Coordinator at REACH, LSR. She loves travelling with her family.

Road trip sign on the road

In the Beginning – Early Adaptions to Disability

Jagu and I were married in ’92 after a very short and socially controversial courtship.  We were classmates; typical college love affair except she was a Brahmin and I, British, white and obviously non-Hindu.

Our first dates alone together were on my Enfield Bullet.  We would go to the Mahi River where I taught her how to swim.  At that time, there were regular riots in Baroda and so after the Fine Art Film Club viewings I took her home on the bike… stopping at what we thought was a safe distance from her parent’s house.  This was very naive as inevitably people saw us together and it got back to her parents and soon we realized we needed to get married or not see each other again.  What followed were a few weeks of social/cultural dilemmas for her family which eventually lead to our getting a Hindu marriage.  Our first trip together as a married couple was on the bike to The Dangs in south Gujarat.  It was great fun.  In the years after this, we found the best way to travel was by our own transport and this became more critical as Jagu’s paralysis progressed.

11 Years later we had a son, Zack.  Soon after he was born, Jagu was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.  This is a progressive disease damaging the nerves and leading to paralysis.  Soon our adventurous trips became difficult as we learnt to deal with her being less able to walk.  At first, she was using a walking stick and if she needed help I would support her.  Horse-riding became out of the question but we could still manage swimming and boating with some extra care.  When she started using a walking frame it was more of challenge and getting to the water meant picking her up on my back and carrying her down to the water’s edge or to the edge of the pool.  With her wearing a lifejacket she was still able to enjoy our river and lake swims.

An old picture of Gibson and family when the travelling just started

An old picture of Gibson and family when the travelling just started

Our first road trip in India, after returning from our 5 year residence in Qatar, was in 2005.  We had just bought an old Scorpio.  Not having to rely on public transport meant we had more room for luggage and it was less difficult for me lugging all the bags.    Also, as we needed more assistive equipment a dedicated vehicle became critical.

We went to Ranakpur via Udaipur and stayed in a newly restored Haveli.  It was a very touristy trip with all the hotels pre-booked. We had to rush from place to place as the travel agent had a crazy itinerary of rushing from one place to another.  It was exhausting for me and uncomfortable for Jagu but we made the most of it.  It was way too hectic.  We subsequently learnt that slow and steady is much more satisfying.

Shot from one of the recent travel sojourns

Shot from one of the recent travel sojourns

From our first couple of road trips we learnt some basics.  Most of the places were not accessible and no advertising information to the contrary should be trusted.  We learnt that it was better to use our own vehicle and factor in time for finding suitable places to have food stops and search for suitable accommodation.  This became my method.  Find a restaurant, park bench or comfortable corner to “park” Jagu and Zack and then run around the hotels looking for a suitable room.  I became very good at quickly sizing up the pros and cons and making and resigning myself to the compromises.

We started to adapt our style.  We had to carry more equipment like special cushions, walkers, and sticks.  Wherever we could, we tried to keep doing the same things but adapt for Jagu so she was never left out.  We always like horse-riding and we used to go on proper three hour treks through the countryside.  This time at our regular stop at the Krishna Ranch, Udaipur we managed to adapt for Jagu.

They had a horse drawn buggy!  A bumpy ride but fun and it didn’t require much balance.  We jammed her in with cushions with someone sitting next to her to prevent her falling out.  She enjoyed being with us, looking somewhat regal, having an escort of handsome out-riders leading the way.  She got to enjoy every lane, view and bird call.  In those back lanes and dirt tracks around the fields we saw Mongoose, Kingfishers, Black Ibis, and the brilliant blue Indian Roller.  Bliss!

It was a bumpy start but we learnt that there was always a way…. and I had Zack as my trainee wingman from the start.  Helping with bags at 4 years old (ok mum’s handbag…).

….in my next blog there will be more photos… A Journey to the Sikkim and the Chinese border and how we escaped the rapids in our raft.

Peter Gibson is an avid traveller and also the founder of Enable Me Access promoting Barrier Free Access for People with disabilities in India. This post is the first one in his series of travelogues which he would be writing regularly to inspire more and more people with disabilities to travel and explore the planet.

Rafting in the Ganga in Rishikesh

Start of my accessible travel journey, many more to come

This piece takes you through the ripples that were created when Bhupendra started his accessible travel journey with Planet Abled. 

I  was a  successful IT Analyst in TCS for quite some time after my Engineering in IT and Executive MBA when life was shaken almost without much warning. I  became completely blind in both eyes four years back while fighting last-stage cancer and severe paralysis. I am proud to have emerged victorious ultimately after 13 months of sheer will-power and mental stamina. But it took me few months to come to terms with my new blindness.

Leveraging on the world of technology, I felt a  renewed power to go out in the world. Using screen reader software in my laptop and mobile phone, I  plunged into preparations for competitive exams. In my first attempt itself, I could crack SBI Clerk, Bank of Baroda Probationary Officer, RBI Assistant, IBPS Clerk, RBI Manager and UPSC Prelims. As I chose to join RBI, I felt it was my new birth!

I always loved travelling but in my new life, was often admonished by friends to avoid travelling without family members around. Sermons used to be given to drop my desires of venturing out to any popular place even locally if it was crowded.

As a part of my 3.5 months grueling induction training as a direct recruit RBI Manager in Chennai, we were taken to many Outbound Trips (OBTs). In the long hours of bus journeys, I  realized that for me what matters the most is not the outer beauty of surroundings but rather the inner beauty of my journey mates.

When I came across the email from Planet Abled regarding an accessible adventure trip to Rishikesh in November 2016, my heart leaped with joy. I took it as an opportunity to travel long distance with complete strangers, without the comfort zone of parents and siblings. All my concerns put on one side of the balance could not outweigh the lurking passion for adventure within me! And that is how I went out to play this game where Ganga Maiya was calling me again after a gap of 7  years.

Talking to Neha allayed my nerves to a large extent. She came across to me as very bindaas girl yet very sensitive/caring. She agreed to my request for assigning a  male “travel buddy” who helped me in unpacking/packing my luggage in the hotel as well as assisting me in myriad chores.

Rafting in the roaring Ganga was a  phenomenal experience for me. I had done rafting with my parents in Teesta river, Sikkim (earlier when I was sighted). But this was even better! The guide  asked if any of us want to jump into the placid portions and pat my hands were raised. Splash and I was in the mighty Ganga Maiya, floating on the surface completely surrendered to the moment! Even before I did that I did one mini stunt, bending backwards, I allowed my helmet to dip into the mystic waters. And as the waves creeped in and drenched my long hair, I was feeling heavenly in that inverted position!!

Bhupendra floating in the Ganga

Bhupendra floating in the Ganga

Ziplining is something which was so amazing! While others could see the demonstration by experts, my training was made accessible by detailed verbal descriptions and Q&A. As my turn came, I was the least scared in my group since I was blissfully oblivious of the height of the cliff ! My heart raced a little faster when the coach told that your next step is the last on the cliff and after that there is all air! Well trained, I went out and came back with an aplomb!

The Ganga Aarti is an experience that is so spiritual. Time stands still when the chanting of the veda boys on the sacred banks of Ganga maiya soaks the spirit and uplifts the prana. The yoga session in the morning was fascinating too, as I did the “Sheersh Aasan” or the head-stand, first time in my life with assistance of the instructor! Late evening bonfires in the resort were time to unwind, relax and chill out making new friends in the group!

In our resort, I made a clandestine deal with a local guy for early morning treks. Our resort was nestled in the middle of a hill. So, along with the local expert and my travel-buddy, the threesome went out twice on early dawn treks – once upslope, crossing thick creepers and bushes  all the way to the peak and the other day, downslope right upto the rocky banks of Ganga Maiya!! I was privileged to get the pre-sunrise Kartik snan in Ganga Maiya as I was carrying a  lota. Since the currents were strong, the duo made me perch on a rock and did the abhishekam on me!

My road trip back to Delhi became memorable as my travel buddy, Satyendra, who by now had become my sweet younger brother, came till the airport to drop me!

All-in-all, I  thank the entire team for giving me a Mega Experience in my new life !

With this confidence rekindled, I just completed Ladakh trip attending a four-day “Art of Living” meditation camp followed by 2 days of excursion to Pengong Lake, Khardungla Pass etc.

Kudos to Planet Abled, I  could  inspire my group to indulge in Zanskar river rafting. It was unfortunate that to do rafting it took me a couple of hours to convince the service provider, making me realize the effort Planet Abled might have put in to make rafting accessible for all, even for travellers on wheelchairs. I now aspire to set my footprints on the abode of Shiva, Mount Kailash and take parikrama of Lake Mansarovar!!

Bhupendra Tripathi is a manager in RBI and believes in living life to the fullest. We really admire his amicable spirit and friendly nature. He is based out of Ahmadabad.