An Ode to India – travelling with disability

For me the decision to travel to somewhere new is usually immediate and always filled with excited anticipation – sometimes perhaps with a hint of nervous anticipation. For me the world is large with so many places to visit and so many experiences to have but the world is also small. Nowhere is any more than a few days travel time away. If the world is so small, why not see as much of it as I possibly can in the 80+ years I will spend on this planet?

Everyone is different etc etc, but seriously I don’t get those people who are happy to stay put and never do anything that is out of their immediate knowledge and comfort zone. Seriously, that would be ridiculously boring. I’m guessing, especially if you are a regular reader of my blog, that you feel somewhat similarly.

Now I get that circumstance, personal or financial, can sometimes make having great adventures more difficult or impossible. Having been in the personal circumstance where any form of travel was physically impossible – I get it. I also get just how frustrated I was. I may not have had the ability to do much more than sit on the couch but I still watched travel documentaries – do it via somebody else if that is all I could do.

For me it was obvious that when I moved to India, many (although by no means all) of my friends would excitedly think, ‘Whoooo, whoooo, just the excuse I need! I’m off to India!’,  expecting my friends just to inform me they were coming rather than even waiting for an invitation or permission! Now Colin visited me in October although only for one night – he was here for work. While amazing to see him, I don’t think that is what I had in mind.

The first friend to visit me however was unexpected – well kind of! She has got a just go for it attitude so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when she informed me she was coming on a visit. Her visit however could never have been a spur of the moment decision for her and for purely personal reasons. There was no way she could have just booked her ticket and then thought about the trip later. I can do that, my friend Sarah who I mentioned in a previous blog can do it – but not Gillian! Her decision required bravery and determination.

Goa edited-1-20

Why? Gillian has Cerebral Palsy and this brings its own challenges – walking, balance and fatigue to name just a few. This blog however is not an ode to Gillian – although her bravery and determination indeed justifies an ode to her! This blog is an ode to India.

India can be so unutterly frustrating! It can bring the very worst out in you. You get so frustrated at short-term thinking, false promises and under-achieving, never mind the ‘it’s not my fault’ lack of responsibility taking. Seriously, why I haven’t been jailed for killing somebody in the year we have been here sometimes astounds me!

India however has done itself extremely proud! It can hold its head up as being one of the best countries in the world. Gillian is from the UK, has a German mum and has travelled around Europe and Australia. Without doubt, she says, India treated her better overall than anywhere else she has ever been. Now she’s not referring to the great access everywhere and the smooth pavements – well now she couldn’t really could she, given they don’t exist. She is talking about the people.

DSC_0004
Datta, our driver, is ready and waiting when Gillian arrived

From arrival to leaving she was met by extreme care from friends and strangers. Nobody but nobody on the streets or in shops / restaurants made her feel uncomfortable or made her life more difficult. On arrival in Mumbai, my driver anxiously helped the very, very tired and stiff Gillian into the car in Mumbai. He then spent too weeks worrying that he had touched her because knowing she prefers to do things herself, I had silently indicated to him to give her space. While Gillian will just remember this (if indeed she can) as somebody seeing somebody struggle and doing what they can to help.

march 2nd-1-7
Maggie making Gillian a yummy traditional South Indian breakfast!

My maid, Maggie, the first morning after she arrived went out of her way to tell Gillian that anything she needed at all to let her know and then made her a gorgeous breakfast.

We went to lunch in Ram Krishna restaurant in Camp, the waiter without saying anything or making any form of fuss pulled the booth table out as far as it would go so that Gillian could walk to the seat and not have to slide around. Now Gillian is more than capable of sliding around but that instinctive / spontaneous act was heart-warming.

She wanted to try a pair of trousers on. When she got into the changing room there was no stool but within micro-seconds one arrived – not a word was said, it was just left in the room. Again no fuss. Just a recognition that there was something they could do to make her life easier so why not!

Khasba Peth Gillian Edited-1-9
Rashid sitting as he explains about a temple so Gillian could also sit

When we did a walking tour of old Pune (Chalo Heritage Walks – my lost blog was about this tour), Rashid Ali, the tour leader, couldn’t have been kinder. He constantly found places for her to sit and rest, when she had to take her shoes off to go into a temple, he got down on his hands and knees to put them back on.

There was a really high step into the temple and initially Gillian struggled to get up it. Seeing her struggle, a lady ran across the temple and offered to help her.

Khasba Peth Gillian Edited-1-25
This was the lady who stopped Deborah so Gillian could get by

Later in this same temple, my friend – Deborah (the photographer from my last blog) said that as she was leaving the temple an old lady stopped her so that Gillian could get by. Again, not really necessary but very sweet.

A few days later with Rashid, we went out to Bhigwan Dam which is a nature sanctuary – amazing, if you live in Pune you need to do this. This required the use of a fishing boat. The boatman without saying anything moved his boat so there was an easier spot for Gillian to climb in. When we were required to get off the boat and walk to where we could spot some flamingoes, the boatman first scouted the flamingoes – just to be sure that Gillian wouldn’t walk all the way and not see anything.

Bhigwan Dam Edited-1-92
Our very kind boatman

On return, he moved the boat a little further so that she would have to walk less. Rashid jumped into the mud and got himself filthy so that Gillian could climb off the boat a little easier. When her stick made a small section of the boat dirty where she would have to put her hands, Rashid used his own hands to clean the area – again with little thought just spontaneous action.

Bhigwan Dam Edited-1-64
Rashid cleaning mud off the boat so Gillian wouldn’t get dirty

We saw the flamingoes but they were just too far away for my camera to take a good shot and Gillian was struggling to see through binoculars – this requires balance and good use of both hands! Rashid initially tried to help her hold them but on spotting a man with a huge lens on his camera, I asked him if he would take a photo to show Gillian – he did it with enthusiasm and a great smile!

Bhigwan Dam Edited-1-53
Big lens! This enabled Gillian to see the flamingoes a little closer up

In Goa, we walked to a restaurant along the road but we wanted to go back along the beach. To get to the beach however we had to go down some steep steps without a handrail. Gillian got a little scared but the waiter ran over and gently took her arm and led her down the steps. Again no big deal, it was just what you do!

I could list and list and list all day and all night the amazing individual things Indians did to help make Gillian’s trip a success but perhaps it is best summarised by Gillian’s own insight. She compared her experience her to her experience in Australia. In both situations she felt she got the same treatment but the difference was the motivation. In India, she genuinely felt it was instinctive when people stepped up to help her. In Australia, she felt it was because people were motivated by the understanding that you should help people – there was little instinct behind it. In India, she felt Indians didn’t feel like she was any trouble while in Australia she felt people thought she was making trouble for them.

The thing that had worried me most about Gillian’s visit and therefore was the greatest surprise was staring. I had warned her and warned her that she would be stared at and photographed – perhaps even more than I am on a regular basis. It is far from unusual for me to suddenly have blank strangers around me and somebody else taking a photo, sometimes with permission but often without. Gillian is used to being stared at in the UK but I was worried that here it would be too much even for her.

I was particularly worried about visiting the Gateway of India in Mumbai. I had been there only a few weeks early with my friend and it was the most intimidated I have ever felt in India. We were simply sat down and then suddenly there were 20 plus men taking pictures of us and they simply wouldn’t go away. We had to get up and walk away ourselves. Wherever we were around the Gateway people stared and stared at us. This was on a Tuesday, we were going on a Sunday when it was busier – I was worried!

Mumbai edited-1-38
Gillian in front of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Picture taken at the Gateway of India – nobody is staring! Seriously, nobody!

So before going to the Gateway, I warned her again. I really wanted her to be prepared for it – she even suggested that we didn’t go. I wanted her to see it however so we went. I couldn’t believe it, not a single obvious stare and not a single photograph!!! Indeed, that can be said for the whole trip. Her whole trip in India there was no staring or photographs! Honestly, I was stared at less over the two weeks that she was here than I have ever been. Clearly, I need to get my stick back out – it appears to make you invisible!

I lie, there was one occasion where she was stared at and stared at so badly that she felt so bad that she left. I live in a very expensive apartment block (society). The people who live her are 50% expats, 25% NRIs (so people whose parents were born in India but they weren’t) and 25% very well off Indians. People in this society as a whole are well off, highly educated and highly travelled. Yet, it was these very people who stared so hard that Gillian didn’t want to hang around in our garden anymore! I was thoroughly disgusted.

In my ignorance, I expected the poorer, less educated elements of Indian society to be the starers – well they surely haven’t received the same education about disability or perhaps even the same exposure, have they? The people who stared shouldn’t feel proud and these people shouldn’t hold their heads high – in contrast, they should hang their heads in shame. For they were the only people in two weeks who didn’t do everything they could to make India proud of them.

Gillian’s experience of travelling with a disability in India was just an isolated experience, perhaps she was lucky or perhaps that is just the way Indians are. Somebody did tell me that Indians would look at Gillian with lots of respect because despite her disability she was still here! I have no idea if you are disable or your child is and you travel to India will you have such a hugely positive experience but if you are thinking about it, I would say from my experience with Gillian – go for it! India is not an easy place to travel never mind if you are travelling with a disability but I genuinely feel that you don’t need to fear how people will react to you being here.

India is definitely somewhere to book with excited anticipation (but just a little bit of nervous anticipation!).

Finally, India thank you. Thank you for being a major part of my friend’s holiday of a lifetime. Thank you for consistently showing her what an amazing country and an amazing people you are. Thank you.

How do you feel about this topic? Do any of its ideas resonate with you? I'd love to know your thoughts! K

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s