Do you ever lay in bed after a huge day, with all your lights off, staring up at the ceiling that you can’t actually see because its too dark and go over the last 24 hours of your life?
You know, just processing?
That was me last Saturday.
Being a part of the Bikat Adventures Exploration Team, I’ve found myself doing this a fair share of times in a moonlit tent on some of the most remote terrain in the Himalayas- but this was different.
I wasn’t on some 110km traverse over a glaciated 18,000ft mountain pass this time, or attempting to scale a 20,000ft + peak in Ladakh. I was in a cozy apartment in Bangalore, South India, with the fan cooling the bedroom quietly from overhead, and yet my mind was reeling from the day’s adventure just as much as if I had spent it leaping over crevasses with my ice axe in hand.
And here’s why:
One of the major pillars that Bikat Adventures draws its identity from, amongst growth, learning and environmentalism, is inclusion. This, in an industry like adventure tourism, is seriously lacking.
If you are a part of the differently-abled community; sight-impaired, hearing-impaired, physical disability- you name it, people have the tendency to write you off. To assume you can’t.
“You can’t see.”
“You can’t work.”
“You can’t climb a mountain.”
Growing up with a brother who had a cocktail of disabilities, I saw the stares we got from people, the pity-eyes and I heard the doubt in their voices- but we knew better. We knew we didn’t have to feel sorry for my brother or question his abilities, because he was just as entitled to his goals, hobbies, dreams and ambitions as we are to our own- he just had to get a little creative with how he got there.
So fast forward to September of 2018, where Bikat Adventures met a wonderful organization called EnAble India, a Bangalore-based non-profit that has dedicated the past 20 years to removing cultural stigma around disabilities and advocating for inclusive hiring practices.
Together, we made a plan to climb a mountain in Bangalore. The team? A mixture of visually impaired adventurers, some with physical disabilities, one hearing impaired trekker, our wonderful EnAble India liaison, Kaavya, our trek leader Shreyas (who leads some of our other treks in Bangalore) and 20 some-odd volunteers.
We couldn’t wait for the day to come. For two months, we planned, researched, Facetimed and emailed until the day came for me to board a flight headed to Karnataka and meet the rest of the crew.
Shreyas, Kaavya and I hit the ground running, setting final meal, transportation and volunteer plans in place for this long-awaited Saturday.
As Friday night passed into the early hours of Saturday morning, I closed my laptop, which read 2:00am, and set my alarm to wake me back up at 4:00am.
The sound of Shreyas’ motorcycle on the street three floors down let me know it was go-time. I grabbed my daypack, and we were off, zipping through the still-chilled air of this sleeping city toward our meeting point with the bus we had rented for the day.
Except it wasn’t there.
Hey, no one said big plans come easy.
Shreyas looks at me with visible worry on his face as his phone call to the bus driver goes unanswered for the fifth time in a row. Halfway across the city, 40 people wait excitedly for us to pick them up just a few minutes from now.
We call and call and call- at the back of my head, I try to stifle the festering thought that I will eventually have to call everyone and let them know the trek is off if we can’t find this guy fairly soon.
Either that, or we can find another bus.
Half-seriously, I start considering how much I’d have to bribe one of these local city buses driving by to convince them to drive us to a mountain for the day.
Shreyas snaps me out of my scheming with his excited report that the driver, who had intelligently decided to take a nap in his bus about 3km away, was finally answering the phone and was on his way.
Panic attack over. Thank God.
One by one, we make our stops across the city of Bangalore and pick up our volunteers and participants, who turn out to be some of the most entertaining people I have ever had the privilege of riding a bus with.
Seriously, the whole ride to Nandi Hills, the day’s goal, we just had an intense dance party. I’m sure we were quite a sight to drive by as we flailed wildly around inside this bus to Kannada rap. It hadn’t even been a full hour, and I already felt the goodness of the people on this bus and of this day.
After a quick breakfast of idli, we all introduced one another, went through a sensitization session for the volunteers so they knew how to best be buddies for their visually impaired partners, and off and up we went.
The peak of Nandi Hills sits at 4,850ft above sea level and is roughly 2km of 1,175 steps that take you straight up. In pairs, we made our way through the swaying grasses and ruined temples as we climbed through the trees.
One thing people often ask is why someone who can’t see would choose to climb a mountain even though they can’t see the view.
When I asked one of the trekkers how he responds to that question, he said that it’s not about what they see, but about what they hear and feel.
As we climbed, we audio-described the surroundings in a kind of story.
“There is an old brick temple to your left with patches of moss growing on it and rust-colored geckos running off to hide.”
Sometimes, when something had a lot of tactile appeal, volunteers would guide a candidate’s hand to the bark of a tree or hand them a flower, explaining what they were touching and how it looked.
The other hikers on the trail that day had taken notice, and occasionally I could hear them mutter under their breath as they passed by:
For fun, Afsal, one of the partially-sighted candidates, decided it was time the sighted volunteers’ be guided instead of the other way around. So we closed our eyes, and he taught us how to use the cane to anticipate steps. My ears and feet became my best friends, as I heeded his instructions on where to take my next step.
Reaching the top in waves, we went back for one final candidate who had single-handedly brought himself almost entirely to the top despite having both a visual impairment and physical disability in his legs.
Arms around shoulders, we all took turns being what he called “his chariot” and together made it the rest of the way to the top. The round of applause and cheering that erupted as everyone reached the summit meant a lot of things.
It was personal affirmation that being differently-abled does not dictate your passions in life.
It was a message to the world that stigma will not be tolerated.
It was celebration over new friends and old, and the thrilling day spent together.
Our one hearing impaired candidate wanted to teach us some Indian Sign Language. Paired up with their buddies, each candidate would reach out and touch the hands of our sighted volunteers in order to learn and replicate the sign. Now we all know the alphabet.
Some gathered around for a mountaineering Q&A session with Shreyas and me, asking questions about camping, trekking and destination suggestions for their next adventure.
Before we knew it, the sun set with a firey briliance, and we began our journey back to Bangalore after a feast of dosas.
Funny how we had all sat at these same tables in the morning as strangers, and now, a few hours later, I was dreading having to say goodbye so soon.
Of course, not before a somehow even more enthusiastic dance party on the way back, except this time it was dark so we got to use the disco light.
Which was freaking awesome.
Hug after hug after goodbye hug and promises to return to Bangalore, Shreyas and I suddenly found ourselves back on this big, empty bus. Full circle.
Except I didn’t feel like we had ended where we started. We were somewhere new now. We had learned more than we had ever bargained for that day, gained a busload of new friends and sent a message that it takes a lot more than some doubtful words to stop a determined person from climbing their mountain.
And THAT is why- body and mind exhausted but blissful, blood still racing from the adrenaline of blindly holding out my hand to let someone else guide me up a mountain, head recounting the new letter signs I had learned with my fingers, feet sore from jumping into the sunset on the peak for an epic picture, throat burning from singing Punjabi lyrics I don’t really understand at the top of my lungs on the bus ride…
That is why I lay in bed after a huge day, with all my lights off, staring up at the ceiling that I couldn’t actually see because it was too dark, and went over the last 24 hours of my life.