Born in Ludhiana, Punjab, and brought up in Mumbai, Parvinder Chawla was doing well till the age of 22, after which she got diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. But she never let her physical challenges come her way and became a solo traveller at the age of 38.
Travelling is a fascinating activity which brings us the joy of roaming around streets, going for adventurous activities, meeting local communities and what not! But can one imagine doing all these things while being wheelchair-bound? We suppose, the most answers to this question would be “no” or might find it tedious, however, not for Parvinder Chawla, who has solo-travelled to 59 countries till now, all sitting on her wheelchair.
The 52-year-old Parvinder, who lives in Mumbai, says she cannot imagine a life without challenges. And, maybe, this is the reason she has overcome all of them to go for many adventurous activities like paragliding in Taiwan, snorkeling in Australia, parasailing, kayaking in Udupi, ziplining in Ecuador, South America, and many more such adventures. “Challenges are life,” she says.
Overcoming anxieties of life
Even though Parvinder, who was born in Punjab, does not want to stick to her past and remember the bad experiences, she says that she used to be a healthy child and very active in sports all during her childhood. When she was in 10th standard, she discovered some problems opening her jaw while eating. The time passed by, and as soon as she completed her college final exams, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. It hit the worst when she was at her sister’s wedding and realized that she could not bend. “It had become difficult for me to even turn sides on the bed and the whole body would pain a lot,” Parvinder remembers.
The time was hard for her. Parvinder could not walk and became bedridden for a long time. Even when she started walking, she could not move for a long time, and she would often get scared about people touching her mistakenly as she knew it would pain her a lot. Meanwhile, she also met people who would feel pity for her, but she decided that all of it had to end soon. Parvinder opted for a manual wheelchair, and she gained confidence again. Soon after, she also started looking for a job and landed one at a BPO in Mumbai, where she worked for almost six years. During this time, she would also go with her cousin and actress Bhumika Chawla on shoots, and one day, the actress and her fiance presented an automatic wheelchair to Parvinder.
Travel made its way
Slowly, things started becoming better for her. She got was busy with her job and also started using the public transport of the city. Her life took a turn when her college friends were going to Vaishno Devi and asked her to come along. “I remember, there was a crowd but people made way for my chair and I went on screaming, ‘Jai Mata Di’,” Parvinder says. Not only this, she says, even the priest stopped others in the queue and asked her to come in the front to offer prayers to the goddess. It acted as another motivation for Parvinder.
Then, one day, she went to Dubai with Bhumika Chawla on a shoot only to find that it was one of the best wheelchair-friendly places that she had ever come across. The bungalow where they stayed had a bus stop on the other side of the road. Parvinder made up her mind to take the public bus and went to wander around the place with her wheelchair. She would go out every day and discover something new. After this, she went to Hong Kong and took a friend alongside her expenses. It was not easy. Her wheelchair weighed 64 kgs, and it was difficult to lift it to put it inside the cabs while travelling. She could not even choose to walk in her wheelchair because that would mean her friend would have to walk too. “I could not understand how to go about it. ‘Why would a person like to travel with me? After all, I see everything from my own eyes and not my companion’s eyes, so why could not I travel alone?’ I thought this and decided to travel solo,” Parvinder recounts.
The turning point
The decision brought new things in her life as she started searching for the cheapest hotels, tickets, wheelchair-accessible places and started taking hotels at the center of the city from where all places could be linked. She made her first solo trip to Bali, Indonesia, where she took the cheapest hotel. “It did not even have a room service facility,” Parvinder laughs as she talks about the experience. However, that got her life started as a ‘solo traveller’, and she never looked back.
Since then, she has been travelling and making random trip plans. “I search for places and if, meanwhile, I come across something amazing, I decide to go there,” says Parvinder with a spark in her eyes, that one can sense even without seeing her and talking to her over a phone call!
However, solo travelling never came very easy to her, like in China, where, once, she had to struggle a lot to find a platform for the metro. After a lot of hardships, she met a lady who was going in the opposite direction but came with Parvinder to get her the platform and the tickets.
The one incident she can not forget in her life was when she went ziplining. “I was seeing people going from one end to another. It was scary. Sometimes, even travel operators are scared to take disabled people for adventurous activities for safety purposes. But I had made my mind and I thought, If I could do this, I’ll be able to do anything in the world,” Parvinder says. She went for ziplining, and it went smooth too. The problem arose on returning when the operators had shut down the cables, and they had to return from a jungle. Parvinder could not walk long distances, and nor did she have the wheelchair with her. But as she says that the people are the biggest helping hands, two people carried her with her arms on their back!
She says that very often, the battery of her wheelchair does not work, adding to the problems but also says that such challenges are part of life and cannot meddle with her “travelling way”. Parvinder’s love for travelling could not escape even in the pandemic, and she drove from Mumbai to Delhi after the first wave slowed down. “I would drive for four hours and would stop at places for sightseeing and taking rest. It was amazing,” Parvinder says with a thrill. She also went to Agra during this period, to which she says,” That Agra Chaat Gali is a gem!”
This apart, she utilized all her time in the lockdown making videos of her travelling experiences. “My family members often tell me, ‘Parvinder, tu hi kar Sakti hai ye sab, hum nahi’ (Parvinder, only you can do this, not us),” she laughs again.
As the cases of the Coronavirus decreased in the country last year, she also made it to Kanyakumari, Madurai, and Chennai, along with other places in India. What troubles her a lot is the fact that the places become wheelchair-accessible for those who have wealth and hence, she asks, “What about those people who want to see the world but in a budget-friendly way?” She also requests folks to help disabled people fulfilling their dreams, even if with a bit of a contribution.
About when is she travelling next, Parvinder says, she is waiting for her new car to arrive and soon, she will be off to somewhere in India, as she has decided to see the remaining parts of the country. And, before ending the conversation, she exclaims as she says,” Oh, did I tell you that I’ll be going scuba diving soon? I mean, let’s explore what’s under the sea!”