In a world obsessed with Facebook, Snapchat and Intagram where visual evidence of every experience, big and small, is crucial and is judged by the number of shares and likes it garners, what is the significance of a complete sensory encounter? Well... to a person who can’t see, it can, to an extent, offer a sense of “feeling complete”.
But Mumbai-based Ritu Sinha and Divya Saxena weren’t exactly looking for something that abstract when they started BAT Travels, the first Indian company that brings the sighted and the visually impaired together for a rich sensory travel experience, in December 2017. Advertising professionals for long, they were just seeking a li’l more exciting avenue than the routine of storyboards and copies for expression of their own creativity.
“Bored of work, we had taken off on a trip to Europe in July 2017 when in Rome, we saw two blind men enter a restaurant to have lunch. They were on a vacation and we realised how this was a first for us. Never ever before that had we seen visually challenged people travel alone and do all touristy things. We were just mesmerised by their passion to be ‘normal’ despite their handicap and started wondering if something like this could be done in India,” says Divya.
“Our subsequent research showed that India has a substantial population of physically-challenged people, who are also earning well and wouldn’t mind travelling if they are assured of safety. So there existed a target audience, but the challenge was to device strategies to tap it and then allow it to experience travel in an engaging manner,” she adds.
Within months of their return home, the friends gave up their stable jobs and with a meagre loan from the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, started BAT Travels, a travel company that pairs the visually impaired and the sighted on sensory journeys, in which the latter act as guides.
Ritu and Divya say since the tour groups included those with a handicap, they wanted them to explore places in ways beyond just sightseeing. Naturally then, the tours had to be sensorial enough to draw the other four senses. Music and food along side the touch and feel sessions of the places they were visiting thus became integral. But adventure was included as an important activity of group involvement. “It wasn’t deliberate but adventure activities, while ensuring the safety precautions were in place, became a part of the package in places which offered them because they allowed the unsighted travellers to get involved and participate in things organically. That it gave them a feeling of accomplishment is a bonus,” explains Ritu.
Dr Vamshi G, a deputy manager with State Bank of India, who travelled with BAT Travels to Sikkim recently, calls it “inclusive tourism at its best”. Vamshi lost his vision to Retinitis Pigmentosa, but his greatest high was on the trip somewhere near the Indo-China border, where he did a rope course and zipline between two mountain cliffs and a water fall even leaving the rope and waving in the air briefly. “What if I can’t do certain things like the sighted, here I was undertaking an adventure which even many sighted people would have been scared to,” wrote Vamshi in a blog with an air of pride.
In Rishikesh, likewise 62-year-old visually challenged Parimala Vishnubhatt made many a heads turn with her daring when she jumped into the shimmering waters of the Ganga. “We were rafting on the rapids and when everyone started getting into the water for a swim, I could not hold myself from feeling what it is to be inside the river,” says Parimala, who runs her own NGO. Of course, she was egged on by an experienced guide, who ensured she held on to the ropes attached to the raft, but who came back totally in awe of the zeal of “Aunty” more than double his age.
Along side these ‘confidence-building measures’, simple things are imaginatively curated. So a boatride on the Ganga in Varanasi was tuned to the strings of santoor, and lilting Sufi notes and fragrant eucaplytus in bonfire filled the air while camping on Ulhas river in Karjat. “Shapes of architecture, artworks and nature are explained in great detail by the team. At the Enchey monastery in Sikkim for instance, they gave us a tactile feel of the Buddhist sculptures, rare leaves, flowers and random things which normally people wouldn’t bother talk about,” says Vamshi.
Shubham Arora, a Delhi-based visually-challenged businessman has done three trips with BAT Travels in the past six months. “One, because there are probably among the first few in India. Two, a mixed group of sighted and unsighted people gives me a sense of normalcy. Being in a group of blind people totally at the mercy of a sighted tour operator is unnerving. Three, they try curate interesting tours at affordable prices. And four, now we're friends and what better than travelling with a group of friends,” he reasons.
But the blind aren’t the only ones gaining from this ‘brand new’ experience. Anubhuti Krishna joined the group while on a trip to Jim Corbett National Park in Nainital and came back hooked. “My first thought of travelling with people of the VI community was that of slight unease. I wasn’t sure how much they’d need my help or if inadvertantly I would end up hurting them. But my doubts were laid to rest when I met people like Satya, Narayan, Shubham, and Yogesh. Not only were they as independent as us, but also much more fun. They needed minimal support and were super perceptive. Much fun ensued. What’s also important to point out is how much care Bat travels takes in ensuring every small thing is looked into. So the rooms were all on one floor, there were minimal steps, and everyone involved was informed in advance about the needs of the VI people travelling with us. So all of us went to nature trails, safaris, elephant rides and even drinking under the stars. By the end of the three days everyone wanted to go on the next trip together,” she wrote in her review of the experience.
(For those who want to join, battravelsonline.com next visits Spiti Valley between July 21 and 28)