The constant beep of car, bus, truck, motorbike and of course tuk-tuk, horns assault the air. The vehicles behind the noise sometimes crawl but often whiz by with only millimetres to spare. The road you are forced to share with the vehicles abruptly falls off into a sewage drain, a pile of rubbish or a seemingly bottomless valley. People push past in every direction. Street dogs dart and lay with the occasional bark, monkeys flitter in the trees and rooftops above and an endless stream of cows, many sporting nightmarish horns, roam the streets. Its not too bad when they are moving; it is when they are lying down or have left a warm, gooey reminder of their presence, that you really need to worry.
Yep, getting around India has many obstacles and challenges for any traveller. For a blind or visually impaired traveller they can seem quite extreme but despite the hecticness they are challenges that can be met. The fact that I’m alive is proof!
While the challenges may at first seem daunting there are innumerable experiences in India for the blind or visually impaired traveller to make overcoming the obstacles worthwhile. I will talk about individual locations in detail in separate posts but for now we will discuss the challenges and experiences that await the blind backpacker in India and hopefully provide a few tips and tricks to make your journey that little bit easier and more enjoyable.
As mentioned, the traffic in India can be extreme. There is a never ending flow of motorised vehicles of all types. There are usually no footpaths either so pedestrians are forced to mingle with the motors, often having to walk in the centre of the road with vehicles whizzing by on both sides. Road rules, as we know them, are basically non-existent in India. Vehicles move in any space they find whether it be on the wrong side of the road or footpaths in the rare instances they exist. The only rule we could discern was that the bigger vehicles have right of way. Buses and trucks are on the top of the food chain and are usually the ones doing most of the overtaking when traffic is rolling. Vans and smaller trucks come next, then cars, motorbikes and finally pedestrians at the bottom of the ladder. This isn’t a strict, written law, it is just the notion that bigger vehicles use their size to dominate. It is up to you to safely navigate the traffic. When walking with the traffic or crossing the road you need to fight for every inch and be careful to take up as few inches as possible as ultimately if the fight gets physical you will never win against a bus that is trying to keep to its schedule.
When walking with the traffic I always use the little sight I have to concentrate on my brother’s legs before me. There is no time to look around or try to judge the traffic myself, I just watch his legs to see exactly which route is best whilst also trying to recognise if he is stepping over something, up something or down something. There are a lot of ‘somethings’ in India! When crossing roads I would try and stay just to my brother’s side, half a step behind, and pay attention to his shoulder to see when we could move and when we had to stop. It can be quite unnerving walking like this through traffic, the natural reaction of course is to look around and try to see what the traffic is doing but it was best to leave this up to my brother to make the decisions while I followed as best as I could. It worked; we are still alive!
I usually used my white cane whilst in traffic, or at least had it in my hand, but ultimately it doesn’t provide much help. Nobody recognises the symbology of it, it is just another stick in a country where many people carry sticks, so no one will see it and allow you right of way. It also doesn’t help much in deciphering the changes and hazards in the path as there are too many different surfaces and by the time the cane tells you what is going on you have either been pushed into by people or have many horns blaring at you. Vehicles, especially motorbikes, are more likely to just drive straight through it; I was constantly worried about the cane getting lodged in a motorbike’s wheel and causing a nasty accident for us both.
Bullock carts, horse carts and donkey convoys must also be contended with. The donkey trains can be particularly daunting when they rush towards you on a thin mountain track. It is up to you to quickly find a spot on higher ground to let them pass, they have right of way and wont stop for anyone. You must make sure to let them pass as they can kick. Thankfully for the blind traveller the donkeys have bells so the faint jingle at least provides an audible sign to move. Oh, and as always – beware of goats!
Even when out of the traffic ease of movement is often restricted due to the many hazards encountered. Roads are often dirt and rock providing a myriad of unevenness to navigate. Rubbish is everywhere, motorbikes are parked randomly, dogs sleeping wherever they see fit, shops pop up out of nowhere, low lying electric lines snake through the air and on the ground, roads and paths can drop off any second into rivers, valleys and random water filled holes. Again, I am extremely fortunate to have my brother to follow and warn me in these situations but it still means I need to be on guard and ready at all times. Slow, small steps are often required to safely make our way but not too slow, things are always moving.
I previously mentioned the only road rule we could discern; that is that bigger vehicles have the right of way. There is one major exception to this rule though. Cows rule. They dominate the traffic regardless of what is happening. If they choose to sleep on the road, which they often do, it is up to vehicles and pedestrians to go around them regardless of how treacherous your new path is. For pedestrians they are usually no problem but at times one or two might get curious. My brother and I both had instances when a cow nudged us out of the way. Thankfully we just got a little nudge from their horns but it was enough to show that they are boss. It is India, cows are everywhere and they rule the roost so be on guard; you do not want to hit one with your white cane!
India is famed for its huge population; there are people everywhere. As a result it is a constant game of tetris when trying to get around. People will push and dart to get where they are going without much thought for others. It really is a matter of survival of the fittest or fastest and a white cane wont help; a blind pedestrian is just another pedestrian. All you can do is try and go with the flow and push back when needed. Be sensible though, it never hurts to stand back and let others through or past. It is basic manners and whilst the favour isn’t often repaid it may give you some good karma or at least make you happy that you didn’t push and shove someone who doesn’t deserve it.
Pushing in when in line for a shop or ticket counter etc is also very common and it can test your patience very quickly. Situations like this are perhaps when my white cane was most useful. It can be a great tool for creating a little space for yourself or to block others from pushing past. It doesn’t need to be used violently but if it is held across a partitioned line or used to gently tap the shins its message can be quickly conveyed.
It is frustrating not being able to see and take in all the sights, be they historical buildings or daily street life, but it is even more frustrating not being able to do simple tasks like going to the shops for water or food; it is frustrating not being able to pull my weight and help with these little tasks while receiving help to do bigger tasks. These frustrations are diminished by a great experience with a local person or a laugh with my brother.
It is not all stress and frustration though; there can be much to take in and enjoy in India even with low vision.
India is a very colourful country. I am lucky that while I miss many details I can still discern colour so there was always something to catch my eye. Women’s saris and shawls come in many bright colours, sometimes all at once, which are always a delight to see. Even in the dirtiest streets the outfits are beautiful and something to behold. Men aren’t lazy in this regard either, Sikhs especially add a splash of colour with their bright turbans.
The markets or bazaars are also washed in a psychedelic hue. Open sacks of spices sing out and many piles of paints and dyes add to the rainbow, especially around Holi time, the festival of colour. Table cloths, rugs and all sorts of fabrics can be seen everywhere for sale and whilst the price is often too inflated to purchase they all add to the colour. Fruit and vegetable stalls are amongst my favourite things to paint the streets with colour. Their freshness and brightness radiate, creating a feast for the eyes as well as a literal feast.
Due to the amount of people in India going about their day there is always something to see. Whilst again I miss a lot of the action and detail there is still much to take in. People plying their trades, whether it be manufacturing basic goods on the side of the street or indeed building or fixing the streets as you walk them, always provide something of interest. Building houses, shops and streets is usually done manually and often leaves the unaccustomed viewer in awe of how much hard work and sweat go into such endeavours. There are people scraping, digging, sorting and carrying rocks etc and much of this work is done by women so it is not uncommon to see a lady in a bright and beautiful sari swinging a pick or carrying a dish of stones on their head. There is never nothing going on in India, it is just a pity that it is often hard to find a space where you can stop, look and properly take in everything that is going on.
With so many people there is also a lot of noise. Horn blasts from traffic never stop and the sound of people talking and yelling permeate the environment but more positive sounds also abound. Indian music, both traditional and modern, blasts from car windows, the doors of houses and everywhere else. The beat of drums can often be heard, sometimes accompanying dancers, sometimes heralding a procession of devotes on their way to pray or creating attention for political activities on the street. I was hoping to listen to more traditional Indian music in the villages but wasn’t really able to achieve this but I can’t complain when the streets are so full of music of all types anyway.
One of the best things about travelling is meeting and talking to local people, finding out about their lives and sharing yours. This can be difficult at times in India as all too often the people that approach you and start talking aren’t genuine in their motives. Many will act friendly and tell you what you want to hear but unfortunately it is often only done so to try and part you with your money. Lies will be told and repeated and products or services offered at inflated prices. Thankfully though there are many good people in India to talk with. Some of my best memories of India involve standing in dodgy and dingy bars talking with the other patrons.
As Aussies, if there was a lull in conversation, we could always bring up cricket which is sure to make most Indians come to life. There are also always many foreigners from all parts of the globe travelling India so it is a great place to discuss the whole world with the whole world.
With such a deep and varied history, India has many significant sites awaiting the traveller. Well known places like the Taj Mahal and other Mogul era architecture, archeological ruins such as those at Hampi, decadent palaces, ancient and still flourishing cities like Varanasi on the Ganges River, the Bodhi Tree and many, many forts only scratch the surface of what can be seen and visited. As a blind traveller many of these sites lose their detail and significance but some can still be enjoyed. Sites such as palaces and the Golden Temple of Amritsar are best viewed at night so the sight of the colourful light displays can be absorbed somewhat if you are lucky enough to have some light and colour perception. Places like the Bodhi Tree are still worthwhile just to know you are in a place of immense historical significance. Many places like Elora and Ajanta Caves and the ruins of Hampi can be touched and felt even if their overall splendour is blurry.
India is also blessed with some beautiful natural scenery ranging from the palm clad beaches of the south, the rolling sand dunes of the great Thar Desert and the Himalayas in the north. Again; details may be diminished by having low vision but thankfully I can still appreciate the contrast between the green palms, white/orange sand and the green of the ocean. Sight isn’t needed to enjoy the warm sea water of the Indian Ocean. The Himalayas are a part of the world I have always wanted to visit and what I saw of them didn’t dissappoint. Travelling through the deep valleys and over the high altitude mountains was an experience I won’t forget. The snow capped peaks are always beautiful to see due to the contrast of the snow against the sky and otherwise desolate mountain tops. My brother and I had previously never experienced snow so it was a thrill to finally feel some in my hands – even if my brother did have to grab us a handful through the window of a moving bus!
India; you will love it and hate it – sometimes in the space of a few seconds but if you can survive it as a blind backpacker you can survive anywhere!