I’m a woman traveller with a disability, and my #TravelGoals don’t exist to inspire you

A young woman looks at mountain vistas – there are many clouds in the sky and a tree stands some distance away from her.

Travelling with a disability hasn’t always been easy, but it’s also been lovely and heartwarming.

I’m Antara, and I wear a prosthesis on my right leg. Here’s a heads up: if you’re hoping to read this piece looking for inspiration porn, don’t. If you’re going to write long comments about my ‘bravery’ and ‘spirit’, close this tab now. If you’re looking for great travel tips, trust me, there are much better sources out there. What follows is a personal essay.

When any young woman sets out to travel alone or with a female companion, she’s subjected to a bunch of – usually unwarranted – comments. These range from safety related (‘I hope you’re not taking any late night buses!’) to social media related (‘So lucky yaar! I’m sure you’re going to get a killer profile picture there!’), from words of caution (‘Don’t talk to random men!’) to words that put you on a pedestal (‘That’s inspirational! I wish I had the guts to do it too!’). When one is a disabled young woman travelling on a budget, you can only imagine how much these comments are amplified.

I’ve learnt to block out a lot of the shit that people love harping on about. I’ve travelled on sleeper trains and overnight buses, alone and with friends, and yes, I’ve got some amazing photographs of myself taken along the way. Being a disabled traveller hasn’t always been easy.

In times of extreme humidity or exertion, my prosthesis fills up with sweat that has no outlet for evaporation, and thus it has to be physically taken off periodically to be drained. Overnight journeys involve clandestine attempts to take it off without bringing it to the notice of other passengers (i.e. waiting till everyone is asleep and the lights are dimmed).

My FOMO levels are so high that even if I’m in pain or discomfort, I push myself more than I should because I don’t want to have come all the way for nothing. (Because of course, missing out on those two hours of sightseeing would amount to my trip being a total and complete waste, who even goes to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower, what am I doing with my life, am I going to cry in my room or am I going to grow a vagina and walk four more kilometres like a normal person?)

But being a disabled traveller has also been lovely and heartwarming. Complete strangers have wordlessly helped without prying into the how-when-where-what. A woman who ran a tea stall in the middle of nowhere in Himachal Pradesh gave me her hut, with full privacy ensured, to take off my leg and drain out the sweat, no questions asked.

Friends and strangers-turned-travel-buddies have switched between the roles of caregivers, watchdogs (because unfortunately, there will always be some people who can’t help but pry too much), and complaining comrades with ease. Travelling on a budget is only slightly harder for me than it is for other women my age, and honestly, a lot of the ‘slightly harder’ part is entirely on me for biting off more than I can chew.

My most recent trip was to Himachal Pradesh, along with a college friend. I’ve always been someone who’s liked mountain landscapes and hiking, but in the past few years that I’ve been wearing a prosthetic, I’ve been wary about trying this out. (All the ‘inspiring’ articles I’m constantly being force-fed about a quadruple amputee scaling Kilimanjaro notwithstanding.) But this time, I decided to give it a shot. I was going to attempt the Jalori Pass trek, 10,200 feet above sea level, but described by locals and trekkers as an ‘easy, flat walk, hardly a trek’. It was 5.5 km one way and 5.5 km back, I was going with a friend, and we had no obligation to complete it if I was tired.

It was sunny but cool, and I felt like the shrunken Alice in Wonderland when I looked up at the immensely tall, beautiful trees around me. (Even though some of them did have ‘Jai Mata Di’ signs hammered onto them.) Hours later, huffing and puffing, I made it through! We reached Jalori Pass and the temple on a lakeside that lies there, and after resting a while, made it back through the – now raining and downright cold – trek back.

As easy as it might have been for others, the 11 km walk took a lot out of me. In several parts, it involved me getting on all fours to climb over rocks while amused trekkers around me expertly found nooks in the stone with their toes and hoisted themselves up. In others, the ground underfoot was rocky and uneven, and caused me to lose my balance several times (giving my friend an equal number of near heart attacks). On our return, I was sore, tired, cold, and severely out of breath, but I felt happier than I had in a long time. The city mouse with a missing leg had done it!

Triumphant with my success and convinced that I was invincible, my friend and I signed up for an overnight trek to Triund from McLeodganj that was to happen two days later. I pretty much ignored the niggling ache in my knee that had followed the Jalori Pass trek, mentally deciding to take the next two days easy in order to be in top shape for the Great Indian Overcoming-Of-All-Obstacles Trek.

The overnight bus to Dharamshala was packed with people, and I sat on a corner seat with my 6 kg backpack on my lap and fell into a deep sleep. When I woke up, my knee pain had most definitely increased, but that was because of the weight of my bag and the fact that I hadn’t taken my leg off overnight like I usually do… right?

After taking it easy that day, we set off for Triund the next day. The guide, Lekhraj, was most helpful as we trudged up the rocky mountain face. He told me which rocks I could step on and held out his hand when the floor was slippery. With a twinkle in his eye, he laughed, ‘Badi risk lee hai aapne iss trek pe aakar!’ (‘You’ve taken quite a risk by coming on this trek!’)

Antara, stands turned away from the camera and gazing at mountains. She's wearing glasses, a black top, and a backpack.

On my way up to Triund. Photo: Aamna Khan.

Two hours into the trek, I was forcing one leg in front of the other. It wasn’t that I was (too) tired, but my knee was giving up on me. For want of a less dramatic metaphor, the remaining four hours of the trek seemed to loom higher than the mountain face before me. My heart sinking, I turned to my friend and Lekhraj, and said that I doubted my ability to complete the trek, and that I was going to go back down. Lekhraj’s face fell, and his first words were ‘Sorry madam.’

My friend knew that I wouldn’t have said something like this lightly, so she suggested I go to the road (a short distance away from the trail at that point) and hire a car to drop me back. I agreed, and holding back tears, walked towards the road. A host of taxi drivers stood waiting there to take tired trekkers back to Dharamkot and McLeodganj. I walked past them and started walking downhill. I didn’t want to get into a car by myself in the middle of nowhere and burst into tears. So I thought I’d walk a little and clear my head, and maybe hitch a ride after a while.

I didn’t end up hitching a ride. I walked slowly down till the base. Passers-by asked me how the weather was at the top, and too embarrassed to tell them that I hadn’t actually made it there, I told them it was cold and that I hoped they’d carried sweaters. At one point, where there was nobody else, I sat on a rock and couldn’t stop crying.

Why was I crying, really? I’m not sure. It wasn’t that the pain was excruciating, or that my group had been unsupportive. My friend was continuing the trek, so I didn’t feel guilty about wrecking her trip either. It was probably because I had looked forward to the trek so much, that I was so sure that this would be a piece of cake for me after Jalori Pass, and that I had told so many people I was going to be doing this. I should have known better – I should have known that I’d need a little more preparation to be able to manage climbing a literal mountain. Ah, well.

Much hobbling around later, I am back home to my regular grind. I’ve seen a physiotherapist and I’m starting some exercises to strengthen the muscles in my right thigh and knee. Next year, when I’m on the way back down from that trek, hopefully my advice to strangers about needing sweaters at Triund won’t be completely imaginary.

Featured image credit: Upasana Agarwal