Her smile is so infectious that I can't help but laugh, as the hundreds of miles that separate us melt away at the sound of her laughter on the screen. Parvinder Chawla, a self-proclaimed travel addict, stays in Mumbai and we talk about the destinations she has covered. There is one difference though, that separates her from the multitudes of travellers who cross oceans for experiences - Parvinder does it on a wheelchair, with the biggest smile.
Pammu, as she is lovingly called, was an active child, playing sports and loving spending time outdoors before she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 15, which worsened over time; she endured a few years being bedridden, struggling with medications while most people her age would be out and about, exploring the country. “There were instances when I realised that not everything was okay; I couldn’t close my mouth while eating, couldn’t get up once I sat down. I kept hoping that I would eventually be healed but that did not happen. So I just learnt to be okay with my condition; it helped lighten the emotional and mental burden,” she says.
Her Tryst With Travel
With her love for exploration unabated, she first travelled to Vaishno Devi with a few friends. Many wondered how she would make it to the shrine, and so did she. But with the help of four people, she made her way to the main temple. “I did not go with a lot of expectations, but when the priest saw me, he made way for me to get darshan, and that moment felt like the world had opened up,” she fondly remembers.
It was a trip to Dubai, though, that really opened her to the world of travelling possibilities, even on a wheelchair. In her experience, Dubai is an extremely wheelchair-friendly place, unlike China, where she found language as big a barrier as lack of access to transport facilities. Inordinate trifles that people often ignore become stumbling blocks for people with special needs. “You have to rely on the kindness of strangers to get by in a different land. While I am extremely independent, there are moments, like a flight of stairs, where I do need help. Even a patchy road, or pebbles are hard to navigate in a wheelchair. There are a host of things that countries need to look at, in order to truly call themselves an inclusive destination,” she remarks.
Diving in the Deep End
Soon after Dubai, which she travelled to with a cousin, Parvinder Chawla took a plunge and went on a solo trip to Bali. ”I stayed in the heart of Semiyak and Ubud, where everything was easily accessible. From staying in a room with no room service, I experienced everything from the ground up! That solo trip gave me the grit to see the world on my own, and not by depending on anyone else,” Chawla says.
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But even her determination can’t always beat the odds. In China, Chawla had pre-booked a hotel that had been pulled down by the time she reached there; she then had to get help from a local to look for another hotel. She’s had money stolen from her in Rome and also had a hard time finding wheelchair friendly bathrooms when on the road in India. These experiences, Parvinder says, have made her more resilient and bold. Even the pandemic did little to clog her wheels. She braved the roads in her automatic car and set off to discover her country, which took her on a journey across states to cities like Jaipur and Agra. “I love making videos and capturing my experiences. I loved gorging on street food in Agra’s Chaat Gali. These experiences make me feel alive,” she smiles.
Is India accessible to differently-abled individuals? Parvinder believes we have quite a way to go. “There are certain basics in place at different destinations in India. In Jaipur, I could go all the way to the top of the Hawa Mahal, so that was a delightful experience. Agra too has become disabled-friendly to an extent. In terms of the built environment, there are shortcomings but what we lack in terms of infrastructure, people make up for with their generosity and helpful nature,” Parvinder says.
But the task, the 52-year-old says, begins with understanding what accessibility really means. “Accessibility is not only for people in wheelchairs, like me, but also old people, people dealing with injuries. We don’t need ramps just for disabled individuals but also for older travellers, for whom many destinations are out of bounds simply for lack of accessible transport,” she says. While India has campaigns in place for making tourist destinations accessible, Parvinder feels more differently abled individuals need to be included in the policy-making.
Money is another problem. While Parvinder pinches her pocket and travels economically, often taking longer flights and cheaper hostels when in a new country, she opines how financial support is another avenue that needs to be looked at when one talks about wheelchair friendly travels. “I have an automatic wheelchair, so I am independent, but not everyone can pay a lakh for a wheelchair. And most tour operators expect you to bring along someone to help you on the journey. These things add to the finances and make travelling often out of the purview of ordinary individuals,” she opines.
Dream of a colourful passport
Parvinder has a singular aim - to get as many stamps on her passport as possible. And the list of countries she has travelled to has reached 59, in the last few years. From paragliding in Taiwan to kayaking in Udupi; snorkelling in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and backpacking across Europe - Parvinder can regale you with tales of a lifetime. Through her blog and social media, the globetrotter hopes to reach out to more people within the differently-abled community.
There is a twinkle in her eye as she talks about the next destination on her bucket list. “Today, there is a greater awareness about our dreams, our desire to travel just as much as the next person. I wish more people are given the resources, and the opportunity, to travel. The world is so big and I have barely scratched the surface. 59 countries is nothing,” she says.