Deaf backpacking: Travelling without a soundtrack

Madhu, Arun, Bharath and Siva.

They woke me up arriving in the dorm late at night, four shadows sorting out their beds, banging and scuffling around in the dim light. At least they weren’t talking.

Then I realised they weren’t being considerate. They were just deaf.

The next evening Siva and his three friends Bharath, Arun and Madhu were hanging out in The Overstay’s dorm, sat by the window, signing to each other and chuckling.

I was lying on my bunk bed pretending to be working on my laptop watching them out of the corner of my eye. I was curious to know what travelling was like for a deaf person. Did hearing make any real difference?

I was hesitant to approach them at first. It’s hard enough talking to people out of the blue normally, let alone if you don’t speak the same language or even use the same medium of communication. What if they got pissed that I just wanted to talk to them because they’re deaf?

But after a couple of minutes my curiosity overcame my fear of social awkwardness.

I wandered over, waved hello, sat down with my Macbook and as they watched I typed out:

“This may be a bit weird … but I’m a travel blogger … and I’d like to do an interview with you guys about…”

Siva didn’t even let me finish. Just gave me a big grin and a thumbs up. Awesome.

I was just going to get his email address and shoot him some questions but it seemed weird and rude to not have a chat since we had already been introduced.

I would type out a question then he would grab the laptop and respond, balancing it on his knee, while the other three looked on.

Siva gets in an enclosure with a bengal tiger.

We started with the usual backpacker introductions. Where you from? Where you been? Where you going?

Siva, 33, said he was a graphic designer from Chennai while the other three “deafs” were from Bangalore. In the week they had been in Thailand they had hit Koh Samui, Phuket, Pattaya, Kanchanaburi and Koh Phi Phi doing all the usual backpacker stuff: beaching, kayaking, shopping.

“my fav experices is close encounters with royal bengal tigers :) for them (the other three) they share the same and the addition fav is the night life which are worth spending life :)”

Siva had been travelling abroad a couple of times before, to Malaysia and Singapore, but it was the first time the others had left India.

“1st time experiences for them to understand the spirits of adventure in alien lands…my aim is bring the deaf cultures to research the different cultures of different countries.”

Arun and Bharath riding an elephant.

He asked me if I liked cricket, and I said no. We talked a bit about the bus gang rape controversy in India then he gave me some shit about Australia still being part of the English monarchy.

I asked if they could read lips. Siva said they normally could a bit but they found it difficult with me because of my beard.

The interview was going OK when I asked simple questions on concrete subjects but when things got a bit abstract we tended to lose each other. I’m not sure whether it was because they were deaf or Indian or because I was asking stupid or weird questions but getting an answer I understood required a fair bit of back and forth.

Finding out exactly what it was like being a deaf traveller was tricky:

Me: Do you think being deaf has made a difference to your experience of travelling? In what way?

Siva: that is what i encourage them to see our world as SMALL :) languages and cultures have no boundaries.. :)

Me: i don’t really understand. by “them” do you mean the other three?

Siva: not them….all my deaf friends back @ india… as u know most deafs of different countries never meet others in other part of world

Me: so are you saying that you wanted to show your deaf friends back in India that they should travel to other countries and that it is easy and fun?

Siva: yeah also tell them not to worry about the cash to fly.

We chatted a bit more until my laptop’s battery was about to run out and friended each other on Facebook. Siva thanked me for taking an interest and I thanked him for being happy to chat.

I said I was planning to go to India. He told me to let him know when I arrived. Then he waved goodbye and went off with the others to go drink downstairs.

Siva really enjoys kayaking.

I’m not sure if I got any real insight into what it’s like to be a deaf traveller. I guess that’s like asking someone what it’s like being an Australian traveller or an Indian traveller. You’ve got nothing to compare it to.

At least I know one thing for certain now: Travelling is still a lot of fun whether you can hear or not.


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  • http://twitter.com/yeityoutpost Yeity

    Good on them for getitn together and making it happen – you need to interview these guys next http://www.smackjuice.com/2012/10/3-men-with-tourettes-go-on-a-roadtrip

    • thebeardedwanderer

      Ha. I swear so much sometimes I think I must have tourettes.

  • Siva

    thanks for the post…will surely pass the link to my friends and colleagues :) cheers

    • http://travel.willjackson.com.au Will Jackson

      No worries mate. Glad you liked the article.

    • thebeardedwanderer

      Cheers Siva. Glad you liked it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ePearlMaddy Muthu Madhavan Elumalai

    Excellent idea n Superb..

  • Renu

    This is an interesting column. I am deaf and live in Canada. I have been travelling around the world since I was little – a couple of times with my deaf friends. You do not need to be able to hear in order to travel. I believe that it is the visual aspect that is more important. I remember going to a museum in Rome and was able to learn about all the displays because the information was available in print. Also, the whole world is becoming “globalized” so deaf travellers are able to communicate with locals through gestures. I have been to Europe, Cuba… and had no problem communicating with locals in these countries. I remember ordering my meal at McDonalds in Paris. A couple of hearing tourists were in front of me and they struggled with telling the staff what they wanted. I did not struggle because gesturing is second nature and so was for the staff because she could not speak English.
    As for “the cash”, I disagree. There are even hearing people that I know that are not able to fly due to being short on cash.
    We are already socially connected online so do we need to phsycially travel in order to bridge cultures? Even within the deaf culture? Not really.

  • Sonya

    I am deaf and from Vancouver, Canada but currently in Australia at the moment. I have experience of traveling around the world Asia, Europe, Mexico, Cuba and South Pacific alone and with some deaf friends.

    Will-Is there a way I can contact you to share my point of view about being a deaf traveler and I would love to share my experience with other people. Thanks

  • Vinu Abraham

    It was awesome to see you guys traveled to Thailand and some places together from India. Shiva and Bharat are my good friend. I hope you had fun trip.

    I would like to share my opinion with you: It is not first time that Bharat traveled abroad for the first time this year. He went to Malaysia with Shiva together for the first time last year. He is deaf known traveler in India a lots.

    Shiva said ” not them….all my deaf friends back @ india… as u know most deafs of different countries never meet others in other part of world ” I disagree with that because I know when it is deaf international day event and deaf olympics happening every year in Europe, South Africa and somewhere in the world so that deaf people from different countries can meet with each other at the events.

    I am just curious with Shiva’s other last comment saying”yeah also tell them not to worry about the cash to fly” Why not you come to USA and Canada where there are expensive food, drink and food. Is it difficult for you to come here because of cash problem? If so, it is same to people who worry about money budget. :)

    • siva

      vinu….we love to come to canada if u provide us ur home accomdation and some foods if u glad to help us or not ;)….. regarding the olympic for the deaf..it is whole sponsored by the INDIAN GOVT and other deafs from europe used to visit india and other countries with their scholarships and monthly pensions provided. :)

      • Vinu Abraham

        Why not you come here. I will provide you accommodation and “FREE” food here.

        If you wonder how deaf foreign people can afford to travel around the world. Let me explain clearly that they use credit card ( Loan ) to travel around the world, if they are unemployed or on welfare money from Government. It means they have to repay the loan as soon as when they back home from travelling in the world. Government and tax payers never support those who seek funds for wanting to travel abroad for ” FUN “. When I came to Canada, I realized my dream owned by India came false about Government’s welfare or pension for life. I studied North American people’s welfare experiences. Those who are employed, travel abroad most compared to those who are on welfare money.

        Do you think it is necessary for Indian government to provide welfare money like pension to deaf Indian people in India? I must say “No” because I have seen that some deaf unemployed people from North America on welfare are not satisfied with the welfare money that is no enough to meet their living expenses. I have seen their bad experience. They still want to find a good employment. The welfare money made them so lazy home and lost their motivation to look for an employment which lead to their depression and tension. It means I am proud of Indian people who actively look for a job and have employment in India.

        Thumb Up!

        • Renu

          “vinu….we love to come to canada if u provide us ur home accomdation and some foods if u glad to help us or not ;)”
          Are you worried about “the cash”, aren’t you?

          • Vinu Abraham

            Yes. Shiva may “worry” about the cash so that is why he seeks my help to let him stay over my house and get “free” food. :P

          • siva

            sure vinu…we will come to stay @ ur place ;) be prepare to guide us there. hope u dont have nail biting or worry abt that :)

          • siva

            if he is worry abt the cash….why not we indian guys stay @ ur (renu’s) place which suits us :) ;)

  • http://twitter.com/TheGuy37796972 The Guy ✈

    What an interesting and great interview. You thought quickly to use the computer to ask questions and were able to keep a record at the same idea.

    Good work.

  • http://www.facebook.com/wheagney Will Heagney

    Awesome story! That’s very intresting! I do love go backpacking! :D

  • http://sparrowinspace.com/ Angela

    I think it’s super cool you just went up to them and asked them a bunch of questions. I like this.

    • http://travel.willjackson.com.au Will Jackson

      Cheers Angela. You never get answers if you don’t ask questions. They were pretty approachable dudes though.

    • thebeardedwanderer

      Cheers.