The world is my oyster, says this wheelchair-bound solo traveller who has been to six continents and 59 countries
From kayaking in Udupi to snorkelling in Australia's Great Barrier Reef and paragliding in Taiwan, Parvinder Chawla, a 54-year-old travel enthusiast, has done it all and is ready for more!
Parvinder Chawla firmly gripped the zipline with both hands. Her body wrapped around it as she prepared to move forward. A helper waited at the other end to help her get down. As she glided from one end of the line to the other, a sense of triumph came over her–as if she had just conquered the entire world!
“I saw people moving from one end to the other. It looked fun and scary at the same time. But I had made up my mind that if I can do this activity today, I will be able to do anything in life,” she narrates her experience on a trip to Ecuador.
The belief that she can do anything in life is what keeps her going.
Chawla, lovingly called ‘Pammu’, just like many other avid travellers, has an undying passion to explore new places. However, what differentiates this Mumbaikar from the multitudes of globe trotters is that she does it on a wheelchair. So far, she has visited 59 countries, including Dubai and China, and six continents.
“Travel is my way of living; it makes me feel alive,” she says.
Overcoming pain to explore a new horizon
Chawla, who was born in Ludhiana, moved to Mumbai with her family when she was in class six.
A few years later, her mother detected that she was unable to open her jaw properly while eating. After a visit to the doctor, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Chawla was 15 years old then.
This diagnosis was followed by multiple consultations with various doctors and years of medication and incessant pain.
When she was 21 years old, while attending her sister’s wedding, Chawla realised that she could not dance as her joints were in extreme pain. From then on, her condition worsened. In the years that followed, she could hardly walk, and soon she found herself bound to the wheelchair.
She recalls that she could barely turn sides on her bed.
“I used to groan in pain. I used to be so scared of the pain that I feared that, if someone touched me, I would shriek in pain,” she recounts.
It was Chawla’s mother, who had utmost faith in God, who kept her spirits up.
After years of struggle, Chawla underwent an Ayurvedic treatment that lessened her pain. Soon she found a job at a call centre in Mumbai.
“I was happy to secure that job. My manual wheelchair was my ticket to venture beyond the confines of my home. Working the night shift was a truly enjoyable experience,” Chawla says, with a smile.
It was during this time, in 2010, that she went to Vaishno Devi with her friends. They took a helicopter to reach the shrine, and people made way for Chawla to have darshan.
“At that moment, I felt like the world had opened up for me. This trip gave me the push to step out despite my condition,” she explains.
Soon after this, Chawla accompanied her sister on a trip to Dubai. Her cousin, Bhumika Chawla, and her husband had gifted Chawla an automatic wheelchair which gave her the confidence to roam around freely and it completely changed her life.
“Dubai is a wheelchair-friendly place. I used to visit cafes and spend hours in malls alone. The automatic chair opened me to a world of possibilities. It made me feel independent enough to travel alone,” she says.
From here, there was no turning back. Soon Chawla packed her bags and went on a solo trip to Bali in her early forties.
“I stayed in the heart of Semiyak and Ubud, which were not very accessible places,” she says.
The hotel she stayed in had no room service, and this was a challenge for her.
Recalling the trip, she says, “Despite some small hurdles, that solo trip gave me a chance to see the world independently, and it will always be special to me.”
This was followed by many more solo trips and adventures around the world.
From kayaking in Udupi to snorkelling in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and paragliding in Taiwan, the travel enthusiast has done it all.
Challenges while travelling
Chawla’s solo travel expeditions have not been without challenges. While some countries are wheelchair friendly, many are not.
She talks about her trip to China in 2015 where she had a hard time navigating around.
Chawla had booked a hotel but when she arrived there, she realised that it had been demolished. As she did not know the local language, it was harder for her to find help. She also says buses in China had very high floors and no ramps were available.
In Cambodia, the monuments were not wheelchair friendly because of which Chawla could not explore them from inside. In the Bahamas too, the footpaths were high and had no ramps, she adds.
“In the Bahamas , the road had speeding vehicles, and I was not able to push myself onto the pavement because of its height. Fortunately, two men lifted my wheelchair and put me on the pavement.”
Chawla believes Asian countries still have a lot of work to do to become accessible for specially abled travellers. However, she appreciates the developments in places like Jaipur and Agra.
"In Jaipur, I could go all the way to the top of the Hawa Mahal due to the ramp; so that was a really nice experience. Agra’s monuments also have ramps which make them disabled-friendly to an extent,” she says.
Chawla points out that while metro stations in India have become accessible for the specially-abled, with the inclusion of lifts, as soon as one exits the station, they are left to fend for themselves.
“There are no disabled-friendly roads or ramps to cross the road and reach the nearest cab or auto rickshaw,” she says.
Apart from these challenges, managing finances while travelling is another issue.
While Chawla tries her best to plan her trips in an economical manner, in places that are not wheelchair friendly, she has to take cabs, which can prove to be expensive.
Chawla’s wheelchair is controlled by a joystick and can climb ramps, reverse, and move in any direction. While the chair makes her travel expeditions less challenging, not many people can afford it.
“If you don’t have an automatic chair, travelling solo would be even more challenging. Most tour operators expect you to bring a helper to take you around, which again can be very expensive,” she says.
Spreading awareness, inspiring others
The 54-year-old globe trotter says all places should be made more accessible for old people and people with injuries, alongside the specially abled.
Awareness is the key to change, she says. In her opinion, many people are not bothered about fighting for the cause of specially abled people.
“We don’t want people to sympathise with us; instead they should have empathy for us,” she says.
She believes that the younger generation should come forward and offer their support to the community.
“If everyone comes together, then there is no way things will not change,” she adds.
As an individual, Chawla posts pictures and information on her travels on social media to serve as an encouragement for others like her.
“Too scared and too unsure by what might happen? Take the first step and you won’t regret,” she says.
Chawla’s face gleams at the idea of having a colourful passport. She says she has a long way to go as there are so many more countries to see in the world.
“This world is my oyster and I am limitless,” she says, with a million-dollar smile.