By Vamshi G
Enjoy this firsthand account of ‘inclusive travel’ by Dr Vamshi G who lives in Andhra Pradesh. He works as a Deputy Manager in State Bank of India. Vamshi lost his vision gradually due to Retinitis Pigmentosa but he loves to visit new places and make new friends.
With the desire to lead an independent life as a person with blindness, I decided to undertake a journey to Sikkim and Indo-China boarder all by myself with the help of Bat Travels. While going to the Bangalore Airport, I had lots of apprehensions in my mind as this was my first trip without my family and friends. Thousands of questions popped up in my head:
How should I find the cab at Bagdogra airport? What if other sighted tourists are not ready to help me? Will I be left out on a few spots on the tour? What if the other sighted tourists are not interested in talking to me? Will it be risky to depend purely on my white cane in hilly places? Will I enjoy the picturesque beauty of Sikkim as a visually impaired tourist?
And many more like this. But finally, I thought it was worth giving a try. After all, life is all about trying new things. Isn’t it? We were a group of 8 members and we finally reached Bagdogra airport. Two of us were blind and the remaining 6 were sighted. What was pleasant to see was that the Bat Travels team came a day in advance to receive all of us. A couple of hours of introductions, and we found ourselves cracking jokes at each other and pulling each other’s legs. After all the fun, we started our journey to Gangtok in comfortable SUV’s, playing old Bollywood music. I was humming some of the songs also with a purpose to show everybody that I knew them. River Teesta was along our side, and let me tell you that
“A river is the best friend for blind in nature as it makes sound to make us feel it.”
Bat Travels team continually described the nature to us. For example- the size and shape of trees, height of the mountains, how far and low was the river, the depth of the valley, the color of monkeys, a fox that we sighted and so on. It was as good as experiencing everything from your own eyes. By the night, we checked into the hotel at Gangtok to rest. Each blind person was accompanied by a sighted one in the room to orient us.
Next day, we thoroughly enjoyed the waterfall and sprinkled water on each other as well. We went to Enchey monastery, where Divya and Ritu were describing sculptures and paintings in detail. They even let us have a tactile feel of the Buddhist sculpture, rare leaves and flowers. After that it was time for the most exciting part of the tour, a rope slide between two mountain cliffs with a water fall beside us and water flowing below us. A part of me was hesitant but the other stubborn side of me won and I was carefully guided to the cliff and was explained how it would function. Even the staff there ensured all safety measures. Still, to be harnessed to a rope, and sliding from one cliff to another by holding the rope was one heck of an experience. They even stopped in the middle where we had to leave the rope and wave in the air. At that moment, it was a sense of achievement that I felt. What if I can’t do certain things like the sighted, here I was undertaking an adventure which even many sighted people would have been scared to. We headed back to our hotel to rest.
Now, it was time for us to touch China via Nathu La pass at 14,000ft. With every passing mile up, the temperature kept dropping and the air was freezing. I deliberately refrained from wearing a jacket till we reached there to see how it would be like, but only to lose the battle with the weather as by that time my hands started aching. It was a hike to the top, with either of the Bat Travel buddies or sighted friends holding one of my hands and my white cane.
There were steps, treacherous passes, snow passes and we met other tourists as well. It was a great experience to use my white cane at such a place and reach the peak. We could see the Chinese buildings and flags at the other end. My wicked side got the better of me as I poked my cane beyond the Indian border and was duly cautioned by the army personnel against it. We took a few pictures and shouted Jai ho to India at the border. On our way down, we stopped at the beautiful Tsomgo lake to get a yak ride. Ritu went way too far to take a video of my ride. With this, our day ended.
On day four, we headed to the tea gardens on our way to west of Sikkim. It was planned that we would stop for lunch in the middle of the tea bushes. But nature had different plans as it started to rain. However, it was no less an experience as we had lunch atop of a building 50 feet high with the entire tea gardens below us, mountains around us and clouds alongside! We visited the factory and were explained the entire process of producing tea. We even got our hands on one or two machines just to get a better sense of the process. Then we proceeded to Okhrey where we visited the golden colored 130 feet statue of Lord Buddha.
Putting up on the second floor of a wooden building was a rare experience. A few humming birds woke us up in the morning, the next day. We argued amongst ourselves for guessing the name of the bird that was humming, obviously with no one knowing it correctly. It was a lovely family which served us homely food in the village.
We then went through a forest trail, and there I met a special person. Ashish, a twelve-year boy. Who kept all other people away from me and guided me all the way through the trail across patchy ways, streams, rocks, trees etc. He went so far to step on the ground ahead to check the firmness and then place my cane. After some time, he took the cane away from me saying that the path is smooth and my hand would pain if I held it for too long. I took the risk of giving up my cane and started preparing myself to encounter an injury to compensate for all the love and concern he was showering me with. But his confidence took me through. I thought Corporates and governments could only be sensitized about disability with prolonged campaigns and agitations, but a small boy from a North-eastern village just had the right attitude towards a blind person whom he met for the first time. A grand salute to him!
The day ended with a Sikkimese music and dance performance, again with Divya and Ritu describing the steps to us. I even tried my hands on the instrument and a little bit of Sikkimese dance, which was followed by Antakshari around bonfire.
The trip had finally come to an end and I travelled all the way to Bagdogra airport to board a flight for Chennai. I took a bus from Chennai to Tirupati and reached my home safely. See? I am confident enough to travel independently. Now, I am in euphoria for not just completing my first tour alone, but finding a way of happy living with a new bunch of friends.
On follow up, I received all my pictures and videos taken during the trip with detailed description as to who all were in them, our poses and the background. Isn’t it inclusive tourism at its best? It requires great passionate hearts like those of Ritu and Divya to give up their jobs and start something like Bat Travels. It takes great professional minds to run it. Their uniqueness lies in the fact that they get sighted tourists onboard with blind people after duly sensitizing them about blind etiquette. It was my first innings with the “Bat”. And given my experience, I will surely have more, and longer innings with them. I would surely recommend to all my friends, blind or sighted, to go on a life changing experience with Bat Travels!
About Bat Travels
Bat Travels is among the first Indian companies to bring the sighted and blind together for a richly sensorial travel experience. It was founded by Divya Saxena and Ritu Sinha. They design tours for people who use senses other than sight. They believe seeing is not everything, experiencing is. So together in a group of both visually impaired and sighted people, Bat does stuff that you can experience, enjoy and fondly remember.