Eyes Wide Open – Tour Guiding For The Blind

Why would you travel if you are blind?

Only last week on a tour of perfectly sighted, very well educated travel aficionados I was once again asked this question. It happens almost every time when I reveal I have recently become a tour guide for the blind and visually impaired.

You might equally ask; ‘why would you do anything if you are blind?’ I replied as I normally do when challenged in such a fashion. Then I told them, as I do you now, a short true story from my recent trip to Slovenia…

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Blind Travel Has Advanced… The Blind Leading the Blind 1568

 

…Concerned he might fall, I do my best to describe the position and shape of a twisted tree root to P. He is ’attached’ gently, using two fingers, to my right elbow, and seems far more concerned I describe the colour and density of the trees he cannot see than this potential tripper upper (which using his cane he noticed before I did anyway). We wind our way up a snaking, narrow path, avoiding stones and yet more roots, and he asks about the size of branches, whether light reaches through the canopy, asks if I can see the birds he can hear and whether the damp smell of forest earth means conditions allow mushrooms to be present (they do and there are).

Shortly we reach our destination; a roaring, tumbling, spraying waterfall which from high above our heads, plummets down past us into a clear forest pool far below. ‘It’s beautiful’ says one hundred percent sightless P. I softly guide his hand onto the wooden railing and he lets go of my arm, trading grips for this damp, smooth oak former branch. I step back. Now my words are not needed. He stands there, slowly getting gently soaked as the spray from the white curtain strikes him and runs down his cheeks. A full fifteen minutes pass – we don’t exchange a word. Then, ‘beautiful, just beautiful’, he says again and we turn and make our way down from whence we came…

They took my point. The story always has that effect.

‘To those who inquire what pleasures I can derive from the invigorating spirit of travelling under the privation I suffer, I may be permitted to reply in the words of the poet; Unknown those powers that raise the soul to flame; Catch every nerve, and vibrate through the Frame; Their level life is but a smouldering fire, Unquench’d by want, unmanned by strong desire’.

Such choses James Holman to open his book; A Voyage Round The World, Volume I – Including Travels in Africa, Asia, Australasia, America, Etc. Etc. Apart from his employing etc in possibly the best way I have ever come across, reading Holman’s travels was an eye opener – pardon the pun – to me. Travelling in the 18th and 19th centuries, he was then in such a minority and indeed such an oddity to those he encountered or who merely heard of his journeys, he became known simply as The Blind Traveller (singular).

 

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James Holman – What ho?!

He was constantly asked what is the use of travelling to one who cannot see? And brilliantly used to reply; ‘does every traveller see all that he describes?’ He argued all who travel are obliged to depend upon others for a great proportion of the information they collect. As I guide, hitherto only for sighted, I could not agree more with this last sentiment.

How often do we see tourists spending more time eyes firmly on the page of their Rick Steves, Lonely Planet or Blue Guide (the latter, when available, by far the best) being ‘told’ exactly what to look that, than actually looking for themselves? These same authorities select what is worthy of our attention – and by omission – what is not – as well as often in addition to directing our sight, telling us exactly what we should think of whatever that sight falls on; a damaged fresco, a beautiful stained glass window, a colourful impressionist work, a melancholic sculpture or ordered garden. It’s the same with guides – in fact, for many of us I am sure it is one of the secret joys of the job – getting an entire group to turn their heads in unison and notice something beautiful they had not spotted until that moment.

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Erm… Behind you!

Recently I swear, no one in a group of mine looked up in a Romanesque church and noticed the frescoed vaulted ceiling (ok, so it wasn’t gothic, but even so…) until we were all told to – this after a good two minutes inside.

‘The picturesque in nature, it is true is shut from me…. but perhaps this very circumstance affords a stronger zest to curiosity which is thus impelled to a more close and searching examination of details than would be considered necessary to a traveller who might satisfy himself by the superficial view, and rest content with the first impressions conveyed through the eye’. Holman.

Perhaps Holman is correct?

Sorry, you must hate having photographers on your tours’. This the ‘photographer tourist’ of every group (there is always at least one) tells me – the self aware, worried about holding up the group, ones anyway. Actually it is the very opposite. I love them. Photographers look differently, or rather they look. Sometimes we forget to look when travelling and certainly sometimes we forget to think. Ok, I’m not entirely berating sighted travellers – most are great, of course.

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Everyone Loves a Photographer

In fact the ones I work with are constantly educating me as well and pass, time and again, the most interesting of observations – last year a couple were so observant in fact they spotted something unusual in the corner of a painting in the Louvre and wrote to the curators telling of their sighting. And the great majority of people I travel with and have the privilege of sharing my favourite spots in Europe with are happy to have their eyes opened or indeed open mine.

However it is never the less true that on rare occasions I am tired of the spoilt, take everything for granted and complain at the slightest issue tiny minority of people who – to me – inexplicably when this is in their nature, decide to put themselves directly in the firing line of discomfort by travelling. As such it was that earlier this year I thought to look around for people who perhaps travel in a different, less assuming way; people prepared to overcome genuine obstacles to reach their destinations and make that bucket list, not those for whom ‘poor air-conditioning, no ice, too soft a bed, a difficult accent of a local guide and an undercooked duck’ and nothing else still give rise to much gnashing of teeth.

Now A when you hit the water, swim right, says the guide. You’ll hear a splash and that will be P – who will be swimming left, ok? The next splash will be me and I’ll come for each of you, then we turn around and swim to the ladder. Deal? Don’t swim too fast or I can’t get both of you. Now ready? One, two, three… jump!

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Leap of Faith…

Minutes later, after much splashing around and even more laughter. A and P have both safely fulfilled a lifelong dream – that of jumping into the Mediterranean. In a display of trust and courage I am still in awe of (P cannot even swim) they do so leaping off a ten foot wooden pier, the two blind travellers taking the word of the guide for drop, distance and direction and on three – no hesitation – launching themselves into the sea below. The fact this is from a not wonderful pier attached to a not truly great – and to others no doubt, complaint worthy beach – and surface with the biggest smiles on their faces, sums up why I am here… now this is travelling…

Traveleyes – tours for the blind and visually impaired. An agency that specialises in travel for the blind. Great idea. One of many such agencies surely? Nope. The only one in the UK and, they tell me, there are exactly none in the US. There are an estimated 1.5 million registered blind and visually impaired potential travellers in the UK and US combined (the origin countries of most of my sighted clients). I found Traveleyes through a web search and after watching an amazing documentary set in my beloved Florence (inserted below) and directed by the blind founder, Amar Latif was as nervous and anxious to get the ‘gig’ after sending my CV as I can remember ever being.

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Traveleyes Group in Malta

Would I be good enough to do this? How does one lead the blind? How to describe a church to one who cannot see? Goodness, I was not even sure I had ever spoken with a blind person, other than the obligatory pedestrian crossing offering. I assisted on my first tour in August to Slovenia – from which come the above stories. I passed that test and following more training am now ready to lead my first full solo effort to Argentina and Brazil in January and February.

I believe that, notwithstanding my want of vision, I do not fail to visit as many interesting points in the course of my travels as the majority of my contemporaries; and by having things described to me on the sport I think it is possible for me to form as correct a judgement as my own sight would enable me to do – Holman.

Holman, looked at maps and saw them not as documents, but as invitations. Isn’t that great? In much the same way  Traveleyes has empowered modern day travellers to do exactly this and many return time and again. It is a fact that 43% of visually impaired people in the UK claim they would like to leave their house more often. In addition, two thirds are unemployed – note unemployed, not unemployable! To those who ask – as most in fairness do to begin with – why the blind travel, I now also say; think what confidence it inspires in someone when you take them to a Favela in Brazil or a Tango lesson in Argentina. If they can do that, they can surely negotiate Leeds High Street. That is massive.

But crucially Traveleyes and the opportunities for visually impaired to travel depends on us sighted travellers. You can read about the details of the company from the link above, but groups are made up of roughly equal numbers of sighted and visually impaired people. Every day as a sighted person, you are paired with someone with little or no sight and act as their eyes for the day. The result, in short – both people learn so much and ‘see’ the world so differently. Having thankfully experienced it from only the sighted point of view, it is incredibly rewarding.

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Now THIS is Travelling

I would urge anyone to consider taking at least one holiday with Traveleyes (just have a look a the discounts available to sighted travellers for a start if you still need convincing).

There will never be another James Holman‘, concludes Jason Roberts in his book about this pioneer of travelling. ‘But there will always be people who must summon the courage to plunge wholeheartedly, into a world complex beyond our illusions of comprehension‘. There will never be another, true and the great thing is that thanks to Traveleyes and the many sighted travellers who have discovered this unique, wonderful way to travel, there doesn’t need to be. No VI has to travel alone anymore as Holman did two hundred years ago, provided people like yourself, reading this considers this as an option for future travel.

Finally, let me share with you the video (part 1) that inspired me to try to lead tours for the blind – just incredibly powerful, moving and educational stuff. Happy viewing and – I hope; see you somewhere out there helping me in the future as a guide…

 

~ by 2ndcupoftea on November 30, 2015.

20 Responses to “Eyes Wide Open – Tour Guiding For The Blind”

  1. You’re freaking awesome.

  2. Hey Thomas – great post; really gives a sense of the reasons why a blind person would want to travel. The video at the end as well! Hope trip to Rio is going (or went) well.

    • Hey Jeff – thanks so much for reading and also your kind comment. I am loving it here in Rio, but missing Andalusia and home – as you now know why 😉 Many hugs to from here and see you both out there on the road again soon I hope…

  3. Thomas, best of luck on your new venture! You will be brilliant–I know.

    • Thanks you! It is great to do new things and be a ‘rookie’ again ever so often. Enjoy the party if you are going… ciao ciao and baci from Rio 😉

  4. Compassionate ,accurate , loaded with sincere empathy and perceptiveness.No, we do not need our eyes to “see,”as many “seeing ” eyes register so little .of worth.Great blog and ,undoubtedly great tours under your gentle yet enthusiastic direction.

    • I tell you what, you Miss Italian Princess – YOU would be flipping amazing – amazing I say, on one of these trips! Your incredible command of language, your kindness and care second to none and your infectious laughter – in fact why haven’t I thought of this before? If EVER you feel like a different escape – COME ALONG! Tanti tanti baci x x x

      • SOOOOOOOoooooo tempted! I have done this for a local group of blind people and really enjoyed it .xxx

  5. Wow! I think being a sighted person on one of these tours would definitely be on my bucket list! I loved the video and how they both grew in their perspectives. Thank you for educating us Thomas!

    • Hey Marsena…It would be so amazing if you’d join us one day! The best word to describe the tours is ‘laughter’. Have a look at the website and one day when you’re ready – tick it off your bucket list and come along! Thanks for reading and commenting. Safe travels.

  6. Thomas, you were my (inspiring) guide on a Lake Como holiday. Thanks to your blog I have offered my help to Traveleyes, as my husband became registered blind in 1998 (but died in 2010) and he was determined to keep travelling, which he did, with my help. So I may be of some use to the company……

    • Ann that is simply fantastic! Goodness, I am so glad to have written this now. I am sure Traveleyes will be delighted and I hope to travel with you again with them. Your experience will be fantastic on any trips and you’d be able to show how everyone is capable of being a guide for the visually impaired with just a few basic hints and instructions. THANK YOU 😉

  7. What a wonderful endeavor you have began!! We loved you as a guide and I can only imagine how amazing you will be for those visually impaired. You are inspirational, Thomas!!

    • Thank you Sarah, so much for reading and commenting and indeed such kind words. I tell you the real inspiration lies in what the Visually Impaired achieve on these trips – my part is easy 😉

  8. Wow! What a beautiful thing to be able to do!

    • Thanks Michelle – as you can tell, it is simply great and we all have such a laugh. Thanks for reading – Much love to you all down under 😉

  9. Thomas, Traveleyes is so lucky to have you on board. It was you who showed me, a sighted person, new and wonderful things in Paris – a place I have visited many times. The Church of St. Gervais-St. Protais for one. Your kindness and love of sharing will be such a gift to all who spend time with you.

    • Dear Amelia – I remember you and your love of Paris very well. I am so glad you remember that church in particular – what a special spot of that great city. Thank you so much for reading and your very very nice comment. Made my day.

  10. Thomas – May you continue to inspire us to see with different eyes. I remain astounded by your kindness – sets a high standard for us all!
    Woodturner Dave (France)

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