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The Journey

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I journal a lot, I always have. It helps to work things out, to make sense of the struggles and challenges you are facing. But, I have never been much for making these public or blogging. But, I guess there is a first for everything, so here goes. Some thoughts so far…

The Journey

How do you begin to describe something that is so indescribable? The journey alone to India would be enough for some people. Don’t F With the System was our motto in Beijing, but this holds true in many other places in the world. How do you prepare yourself for having to check your dignity and independence at the door? I knew getting on the airplane by myself was a feat in and of itself. You can never have too much patience when traveling to a foreign country, being a woman in a very male dominant culture, and having a visible disability. The examples of this were numerous, some would have been enough for many to cancel the trip, to run back home to a lawyer, or to just break down. Facing oppression and discrimination square on is something I will never see the end of, ever. Nothing can ever fully prepare you for these things. But, knowing that you will need every ounce of patience you have and then some, and knowing in your heart of hearts that this is the right thing for you to be doing, sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes you just have to keep your perspective in check and make the most of the situation.

I don’t know where this courage comes from, I asked myself every day before leading up to this trip why I was going and whether I had it in me to do it or not. I doubted myself every single day, and yet, there was this gut wrenching thing keeping me up at night for the past 7 months that I had to do it, even though I have no clue why. This is something that is so hard to explain about with others, very few people can relate, and that’s okay. It’s not a Bahamas vacation, it’s a real trip—a transformational experience, one that gets at your core whether you want it to or not. One that forces questions of identity, of existence, of purpose in life, one that just has to happen. Just before coming, I had a conversation with an old friend, one who I have known for my entire life, literally. I was born a day after her in Calcutta, we started our lives together as babies in the orphanage and came to the states and grew up having joint birthday parties and the like. We lost touch after she and her family moved away from Boston, but in recent years have reconnected. She recognizes the courage it takes to make a trip like this, and having her admire that was pretty powerful. I cannot wait for our overdue rendezvous in the fall.

I travel a lot, there are certain procedures having a disability that we are all used to. You convince the ticket agent that you should take your own wheelchair to the gate, not an airport wheelchair that you cannot even push yourself. You arrive at the gate and get a gate delivery ticket for your wheelchair, say a little prayer that the country you are traveling to is not going to have a labor strike, that your independence and life as you know it actually makes it to your connection, and ultimately to your destination in one piece. If all goes as planned, I can travel independently around the world. But, when does anything ever go as planned?

The little things, forgetting the fact that an aisle chair works better if the plane is not full of people. Asking to use the aisle chair to use the bathroom, but told that there is a line. Having to explain that unless I get up and into the aislechair and in the same line as everybody else, there will always be a line and I may never get to pee. Educating the world. That’s what I’m talking about. Getting on board the plane in the US for India: check. Better than last year’s trip where that didn’t even happen. I was happy to fly a different airline and things went very smoothly.

Arriving in Mumbai: check. 100% foreign airport to me. Actually landing in Mumbai, it was the scene in Slumdog Millionare where you see the tent city up close, pan out, see more of it, pan out again, more. For as long as you can see, the slums, with the planes traveling right overhead. I was there, living that moment.

The disembarkment of the plane goes relatively smoothly until I am in the aislechair on the jetbridge and my wheelchair is not there. I inquire. I am told, it is raining. That is the reason for not having my own wheelchair, is because it is raining a bit. It is times like this when you make the decision to rely on all those ounces of patience, and to just go with the flow. I inquire as to when I will see my wheelchair, will it be at baggage claim? Will I get it before customs? When will I have my independence back? I get an answer in Hindi that I don’t fully understand, but I think it means that maybe it will be at luggage, to not worry and that this chair is fine…this chair that I cannot push myself. So I get lined up with the other elders and pregnant women who are also using wheelchairs and am just left to wait for an appropriate person to come to push me through this foreign airport.

After some time goes by, I notice I am the only one left in the terminal building, sitting in a chair that I cannot propel myself. This is about the time when you start to wonder, have I been forgotten about? What now? All the other passengers are off the plane and on their way, it is now about midnight in Mumbai international airport and I’m sitting in a wheelchair I cannot propel myself with my carry on luggage decoratively placed like a Christmas tree. Great! Wow, what an opportunity! I just sit patiently, what else is there to do?
After some time goes by, a man comes over speaking in Hindi I presume, and wants to know why nobody has come for me. I wish I knew the answer. He gets a bit irritated, then keeps rapid fire asking me questions I don’t understand. I show him my boarding pass and tell him samaan? Meaning, luggage/baggage claim? Figuring if I got that far I could figure it out. We start on a long journey through the halls of the deserted airport, go through customs. One of my favorite signs, “unaccompanied women, pregnant women, handicapped”.

Go through customs, even though I’m not even the one to hand my passport over, to interact with the customs agent at all, I am parked in a corner while this man handles this. We then go to collect luggage. I see my two checked luggage bags circling on the carosel, no sign of a wheelchair yet. I keep asking, will it be here or somewhere different? Nobody really knows, but I keep trusting it will appear eventually. Sure enough, the last thing to the belt, wheelchair just thrown on the conveyor belt, rear wheels spinning, at least I can relax a little now.

We then go through the process of checking in our bags again. I am stopped because the domestic terminal is not connected to the international terminal. The security guard tells me, no wheelchairs allowed. Too many stairs on bus. I volunteer that I can crawl up the stairs, hand bags to someone and bring chair with me. Nahine Nahine. Meaning, “no no”. Of course not, that would be too easy. My options are to go to the street at 1am in Mumbai and find a taxi to the international terminal or to have man help. Ian’s friend, Ben sporadically decided to come to India too, I saw him when I arrived in my monster wheelchair at customs, but I was wisked away to a different line, after some negotiating, I explained have man help would be a good option and that my friend Ben would help, that going to the street was probably not a good option. Ben had some travel woes, so it took another hour before we connected up, but all was good. Boarded the bus and drove to the other terminal.

They forgot to give my wheelchair security clearance at Mumabai with a special tag with a stamp on it. This will become important later. We went through security, and I asked if my chair needed a tag since every carry on item was getting a purple tag with a stamp. I was told no. We waited overnight in the Mumbai airport sleeping in airport chairs. The hustle and bustle of the airport was beginning to pick up around 5am.

Side story: I spotted a man dressed head to toe in Beijing 2008 official Olympic gear. Those of you who know what I’m talking about, the gray pants with the emblem, the white/blue/grey official shirt, the fanny pack, the hat. He was in a line looking like he was boarding a plane, so I was bummed I wouldn’t get a chance to approach him, but then he turned and left that line. I went up to him to ask if he was in Beijing for the games. I told him I was a Paralympian in wheelchair track. He was so excited. He was in fact there for the games with Weightlifting and Powerlifting. In his home country he does things with body builders. He loved the Birds Nest too.

Fastfoward to the getting on the bus to go find our plane. Ben was told to go through a different line, I needed to wait for man to help. We go to leave and my wheelchair doesn’t have the security tag, big problem. The lady runs back to security to get clearance for my wheelchair, she is mad they didn’t give it to me before. We board this bus, with assistance of course, packed in like sardines and commence on the ride to the plane. We get to the plane, there is an aisle chair, and of course men to carry it on board. In America, we balk at the overprotection of people with disabilities when getting on and off airplanes. Having you be strapped in at least 5 ways, across your lap, criss cross over your shoulders, around your legs and feet. It is an ordeal every time, and 9/10 you don’t win that battle, you just suck it up and get strapped in, or crawl on board the plane monkey style. In India, there are no straps on these aisle chairs, and someimtes the people lifting you are not the same height, meaning it’s a little off balance. Another experience.

Getting on board the final aircraft to Udaipur: check. Getting off the plane was far easier, although I was told that the aisle chair was waiting for me outside, I had to explain that I could not walk when they came and tried to assist me down the aisle and down the stairs. Minor issues.

Came through security and picked up my bags (which both arrived just fine, YAY). And I saw Ian for the first time since May, standing there with his friend, waiting anxiously for our arrival. The journey is ready to begin, as if getting there wasn’t a journey enough!

Deaf and hearing-impaired boys at a boarding school for the deaf in Udaipur, Rajasthan, India surround Anjali and sign their excitement.

At the School for the Deaf

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