Traveling isn’t easy. From the rain pouring down on your tent to your iPod being snatched out of your hand as a man runs away with it, right to the basics like loneliness, it’s a hard game, and those of us who play it long enough know this well. But what happens when you’re blind on the road?
Manny and I met while both looking for new friends in Gainesville, Florida, and the CouchSurfing site was just what we needed. We couldn’t stop chatting away the entire time we hung out – for several hours. He’s a fascinating individual, and, to boot, he travels the world blind, and often solo. Many times I’ve wondered how the hell he does it, so I thought it was time to pick his brain.
When did you realize you were head over heels in love with travel? Tell us a bit about that first trip. How was your vision at that stage?
I’ve always loved traveling and it’s probably genetic.
If I have to choose a single point where I discovered this (or more accurately, rediscovered it) it would be London in 2011. I was legally blind for several years by then, but compared to today my vision was still pretty good.
During that trip I met this guy from Shetland, Scotland who would seasonally come down to London to work. In London he could earn much more than at home but still not enough to be able to afford the expensive rents and cost of living. The solution he found was to use an underground system of realtors that made it possible for him to basically live as a squatter in vacant flats. With utilities and heat turned off, living like that seemed to me like something close to camping.
Anyway, I remember thinking of how before this trip I couldn’t have even imagined this kind of life, but now I knew someone personally who lived it. What I realized is that for me, it’s these types of experiences and connections that make travel cool/rewarding/fulfilling, and not Big Ben, palaces, and museums.
To give our readers a little bit of background, can you tell us briefly about your vision condition?
I have a fairly typical case of something called Retinitis Pigmentosa. It is a degenerative eye disease that affects about 1 in 4,000 people and a leading cause of blindness worldwide. The progression is very slow. I was diagnosed in 2000 (although I’d been having problems for years before that that I somehow ignored), and was legally blind by 2006. The original prognosis had me going completely blind by 2015, but I’ve been lucky that the prediction was inaccurate.
My current level of vision is tough to explain to people with normal vision, but a question I’m asked often.
Currently, I can see a very small part of the visual field. “Seeing” is slow and prone to error because I do not see enough to recognize what it is I’m looking at. It can be helpful in familiar environments (because I already have a mental map of the surroundings and the small amount of vision helps orientate within it), or much much harder, slower, and error prone in an unfamiliar environment. I am almost completely blind from dusk to dawn (night blindness) and bright sunlight is no picnic either. I am not able to see enough to recognize faces or to read signs or writing on paper (but I can use a computer with accessibility tools for many tasks).
Walking requires use of a white cane to feel my way around and not miss things like steps, curbs and obstacles. I can usually but not always see well enough to keep me going straight down a sidewalk and I can often visually tell that I’ve reached an intersection. I may or may not see cars moving towards me while crossing the street.
I know you weren’t born blind, but rather had your eyesight deteriorate. Did you ever think your travels would be finished when you began going blind, or did you remain optimistic?
I would say that when I found out that I was going blind, travel was by far NOT my first consideration. There’s nothing like the idea of ending up completely helpless to a man that is mid-gear of being the responsible bread winner and protector of a family of 5 with young children.
…but time marches on, and life has a way, and you find yourself on the other end where your children are now young adults and no longer completely dependent on you. Now travel has become a much bigger deal to me.
It’s hard to be optimistic about traveling in total darkness. But thankfully there’s something called inspiration…
Like Erik Weihenmayer, a blind man climbing Everest and the highest summit of every continent.
And the incredible story of James Holman, the original blind traveler, who traveled and explored much of the world during the 1800s.
I’ve also been inspired by meeting more regular but no less inspiring people… like Danie, the author of this blog. Because if a twenty something young woman suffering from anxiety is brave and capable enough to hitchhike her way across the globe, then why can’t I do what I do?
Were you scared the first time you traveled solo with limited vision? If yes, tell us about it. If not, what made you so confident?
Because of the slow onset there was no clear line between slight vision loss being a mild nuisance and a much greater level of vision loss being a major difficulty. I would say that like with anything else, skill and experience is what gives me confidence. There are of course moments of pure panic where situations I get myself into seem so out of control I don’t know how I’ll find my way (like being dropped off by bus in a foreign city, earlier than scheduled so it’s still dark/pre dawn… oh, and it turns out its not a bus station like I expected, it’s just a random street). But somehow and so far I’ve managed to make it back home alive and in one piece… so I think it’s like people say… what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
What’s your travel style? Backpacker staying in hostels, filled suitcase sticking to private rooms in hotels, etc.?
I’ve stayed in hostels, couchsurfed, and rented through Airbnb. Have not stayed in a private hotel room for many years and it’s not really something I care to do in the future. My last big trip was a backpacker type… 2 1/2 months, 14 cities, Europe/Asia/Australia. But I’ve also traveled much slower, taking time to get to know a place better and will certainly do so again.
Has your travel style changed as your vision has deteriorated?
Sure, but I think that has more to do with my own evolving tastes and interest and less to do with vision loss.
The places I choose to travel to, the locations and neighborhoods of the places I stay and what I choose to do or avoid while there have certainly changed based on my level of vision. Adaptation is always the name of the game.
With neither sight nor language (in many countries), how do you manage the day to day stuff? I know for me finding my way around an Asian city was hard enough without knowing the language!
You try to limit those type of situations where possible. Things like having good directions before setting out, and addresses or route points on paper in the local language. Sometimes it’s about creating and then expanding your area of comfort within a foreign environment. There are many strategies that I’ve learned along the way.
Still, plans don’t always go as planned… but those situations certainly make for good stories.
Do people help you out quite often when they realize you’re blind? How do you feel about people helping you out – would you rather do it all alone, or have some caring souls helping you with little things?
I can be a stubborn, “give me a chance to do it on my own” kind of person. But throughout my travels what I’ve found is that accepting or asking for help leads to so many amazing interactions, and it’s been a way to meet incredible people and even current friends… I think at some point I started believing that the world is full of angels that only make themselves known when needed or given the chance.
What about transportation – do you tend to walk, take buses, or take taxis when you’re getting around a city, and is there some difficulty in doing these things? Again, how do you overcome these things while on the road?
Having more time than money, I tend to go with whatever is cheaper. Definitely public transportation and walking over taxis where possible. It takes planning and plenty of time to figure my way around. Every city and situation is different but it’s about breaking large journeys into smaller manageable steps. It’s hard work but totally worth it.
What are the biggest challenges you face as a solo blind traveler?
Finding food! Seriously, its tough when you can’t tell what store sells what, read menus or boards, or see what’s being displayed.
They say losing one sensation leads to others being heightened; do you find this to be true, and if so, do you think there are some things you experience better while travelling than someone with full eyesight? Tell us about those things.
Not sure that that’s exactly the way it works. I think you definitely pay more attention to other senses, but that’s not the same as saying that going blind leads to supersonic hearing.
Best way I can explain it is that the sense in your mind of the world around you does not go away when you’re blind. It’s just filled in differently. I guess you could say that vision loss enhances imagination.
If there is such a thing as an advantage to being blind, I think it’s due to the fact that vision can sometimes be superficial. The obvious example is the way we humans tend to judge each other based on what we see.
What’s sightseeing like with limited vision? Do other things stand out for you, such as the smells, and can you tell us more about a particular experience that sticks in your mind?
My current level of vision makes sightseeing unrealistic. My sense of travel has to do with a connection to place, time, and people. Not having to pursue the “sights” leaves me more time for that.
We hung out a bit in Pai, Thailand, and I noticed how no one would move aside for you despite your white cane. This was new and startling to me, because in the Western world people seem much more accommodating. Tell us a little bit more about the perceptions you’ve received both in Thailand and in other non-Western countries.
Yeah, it varies. Thailand was obviously a bit backwards about that. But a few weeks later I found myself in Seoul where major streets and the metro/subway system are made accessible to the blind through something called tactile paving. They have a system of ground tiles that when used with the white cane provide a way to feel the path, turns, etc. I have come across this before in Europe, but not to this extent (probably because it’s a Japanese invention). Based on my limited experience I would not agree that accessibility is a western vs non western thing, but it does seem to be about developed vs less developed countries and cities.
As far as people’s “perception” of me in different places… being blind means that I tend to miss a lot of that. When negative attitudes do come up I can usually attribute it to people’s fears of blindness itself.
What keeps you traveling on, when half the world would say what you do is impossible? What is your main driver, and how have you managed to overcome the difficulties in order to enjoy the life of travel?
Well, it’s obviously not impossible since I am doing it, and as long as I can continue to derive pleasure from it, I’ll keep doing it.
The fact that it’s challenging actually makes it even more rewarding. Traveling is sort of an “extreme sport” for me, and that’s probably a big part of the appeal.
What advice would you give to any other travelers with blindness or other conditions that can make travel more difficult?
Each situation is different and has its own challenges. But if you think that you enjoy travel there’s likely some way that you can do it.
For example, I’ve heard of someone whose physical condition keeps him totally home bound. But he’s found a way to bring the world to him by hosting travelers from all over the world.
It could simply be a mater of dropping the “can I?” and adopting instead the “HOW can I?” question.
A giant thank you to my very good friend Manny for sharing so much!
If you’d like to be my next interviewee, contact me for more details!
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