Parvinder Chawla is on a mission: to make India disable friendly. A globetrotter, who has covered 59 countries, Parvinder, is on a quest not only to travel around India, but also to evaluate places on how accessible they are to the differently-abled people like her. Parvinder, who has rheumatoid arthritis, cannot travel without a wheelchair. However, that hasn’t stopped the gutsy Mumbaikar from paragliding in Taiwan and zip-lining in Ecuador. She even went on a month-long solo backpacking trip across Europe, with no fixed itinerary or pre-booked accommodations. Her dream is to have her passport filled with visa stamps of all the countries in the world. Her last trip abroad was to Egypt in March 2020.
As moving around the world is not possible due to the pandemic, she has been satiating her "travel itch" by driving around India in her car. For the wanderlust, India, still tops her list of best travel destination. “The natural beauty of our country makes it a winner. There are places in India that are on par with Switzerland, Scotland, and other exotic places. For instance, while in the UK, they charged me a bomb and took me to see a lake. I have seen several such lakes on the way to Kedarnath and Badrinath on my road trip and they are ten times more beautiful. When you travel abroad, they charge you hundreds of dollars to see very uninspiring things. We have everything in India. If we could get our transportation and logistics right, we could earn millions of dollars via tourism and boost our economy.”
Parvinder, who prefers to be called Pammu, says she wants India — be it sites, transportation, restaurants or hotels — to be accessible to everyone. “I decided to go on this mission to spread awareness after I visited the Mahakaleshwar Jyotirlinga in Ujjain. It was surprisingly wheelchair-accessible. Less able people would like to step out and enjoy such places and experiences too,” she says. The Mumbaikar clears the air and adds that when she talks about accessibility, she doesn’t mean just those who are in wheelchairs. “Even decent pathways for older people to walk on, without the fear of tripping, are needed,” she clarifies.
The 51-year-old who started her mission from Mumbai to create awareness on making India disabled-friendly is currently in Madurai. “I am discovering the beauty that is India,” says Pammu, who shares her experiences on her YouTube channel, Wheelchair and Eye and her Instagram page with the same name. If in one video she is seen zooming around the Agra Fort in her automated wheelchair, she is caught parasailing in Malpe beach in another.
According to Pammu, she receives requests from several physically challenged and disabled people. “While in Delhi, many asked me to check if certain monuments are wheelchair friendly and so I extended my stay there,” says Pammu, who hopes to inspire more “less able and not just disabled people” to travel “and perhaps join in the mission in spreading the word for the need for accessibility”.
Pammu began displaying symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 15. “I was into sports and dance at the time and so ignored the symptoms.” It was in her twenties, during her sister’s wedding that she realised just how severe the disease had gotten. “I was dancing at the wedding when I discovered that I couldn’t do the squats in the dance routine.” Bedridden for close to five years, although disheartened at first, the never-say-die woman, who has a strong faith in God, with the encouragement from family and friends, soon realised the importance of staying positive. She decided not to struggle in trying to walk but instead got on a wheelchair and directed her energy towards smiling.
Travelling to Dubai with her cousin — actress Bhumika Chawla — on several occasions triggered her urge to travel, says Pammu.
“Dubai is 90% wheelchair-friendly. When Bhumika and her husband gifted me an automated wheelchair, I was elated, as I was able to move around on my own. I began discovering Dubai without any support and it gave me the confidence to venture elsewhere,” says Pammu, who began travelling extensively only in the last three to four years.
Hong Kong was her “elsewhere” first destination. “I went with a friend. However, I soon learnt that travelling with another person was not so kind to my wallet as I was sponsoring her trip as well,” says Pammu, who discovered a love for solo travel during a trip to Bali. “Although it wasn’t a very wheelchair friendly location I had fun going around the place on my own.”
She adds that the science fiction disaster film 2012 made her fearful of such a future. “It was the impetus for my decision to travel around the globe as fast as I could. Besides, now I have the fire and drive in me to do so. I want to live in the moment and not in the future.”
According to Pammu, apart from experiencing Nature, she also enjoys meeting God’s angels on earth. “These angels are people who stop to assist me. It could be the one who helped mount my wheelchair onto the bus or the girl who helped tie my hair back when the strong breeze kept teasing it, stopping me from enjoying my meal. India, for instance, may not be fully accessible, but people have gone out of their way to help me and I have had some beautiful experiences,” says the bubbly Pammu, who adds that she has made hundreds of friends during her travels.
Parvinder believes that travelling has made her a more confident person. “It’s your chance to learn about different cultures, make new friends, and experience the wonderful world. Wheelchair or no wheelchair, it does not matter. As long as you have faith and confidence, you can do anything. The joy of travel lifts my heart, spirit and soul. As long as you have faith and confidence, you can do anything,” says Pammu, who believes in budget travel. “I don’t think you need to be wealthy to have rich experiences in life,” says Pammu, who opts to stay in hostels and travelling by local transportation during her travels.
Pammu, who runs an Airbnb at her home in Mumbai, also does a bit of catering to fund her trips. “It’s not a lot, which is why all my trips are budget trips.” So, what’s next on her list? “Well as soon as international flights resume, I plan to go to Brazil.”