As a blind person, simply getting around a city isn’t always easy or fun, or encouraged. My white cane has found dogs leashed to poles. I have tripped over panhandlers, making the saddest image in the world. Silent electric cars give me no warning. Intersections without audible walk signals are my mortal gamble. It’s a wonder I go anywhere, frankly.
Yet, somehow, my white cane has wandered me into a career as a travel writer.
It began with the paradox of my big small neighbourhood. I’ve lived on Commercial Drive on Vancouver’s east side for nearly 25 years now. The few square blocks I pinball around have, over the years, deeply embedded themselves into my muscle memory. I know the pattern of buttons to press at the ATM to navigate through its screens. I know my front door is 32 steps from the alley. At the Cannibal Café, where I’m writing this, the napkins are wadded behind the cutlery container on my left. I just know.
But despite being such a small world, my neighbourhood looms large in my imagination. It is rich and sprawling with details that I’ve come to know from years of practice and habit. I’ve always maintained that a walkable neighbourhood is the most powerful adaptive technology available to the blind.
So why would I leave?
Sighted people venture from home to experience a bigger world. Broaden your horizons, they say. But when you’re blind, travel actually has the opposite effect. Landing in a new city, around me is only street-ness. Building-ness. My rich mental map of home is replaced by an abstract pencil sketch, a world absent of detail and space and colour. I don’t know how many steps I should take into the void. Is this a wall beside me or a door? To what? And where the hell do they keep the napkins?
The question of what blind travel could be puzzled me for a long time. Without sightseeing, why venture into the great unknown, especially if the surprise of a hotel staircase could kill me before I could answer for myself why I should bother?
The short answer is that the best experiences don’t invite you. They are never easy. I have come to travel because it is hard, and in being hard, travel gives me stories. Stories, not mileage, are the measure of a life lived.
Even more important, I travel because I want to learn about my blinded body. When I leave home, I try to explore my remaining senses while I explore a new city or village or landscape. Just because I’m blind, it doesn’t mean I’m not as entertained by the smell of the ocean as you are by the sights of tropical scuba diving. It takes work to make our other senses as rewarding as our eyes. Don’t believe me? Consider how many verbs we have for different kinds of seeing. Glimpsing, glancing, staring, spying. The list goes on and on. How many verbs can you name that describe different ways of smelling?
To enrich my relationship to my other senses, then, I decided to travel the world with a handful of questions to guide me. If I could go anywhere to just touch something, what would it be? What is the Grand Canyon of sounds? What is the Eiffel Tower of smells? I chase sensations that are unique to their places. Nothing to see here.
To date, my white cane and I’ve have been lost in more than 30 countries, from Bhutan to Zimbabwe. I tried to catch flounder with my bare feet in Scotland and sat naked in a Helsinki sauna – or what I thought was a sauna but was actually the spa’s reception lounge – then jumped into an icy mountain lake. In West Texas, I participated in the world’s largest rattlesnake round-up so I could hear what hundreds of rattlesnakes sound like at once. I even drove a car in a speedway race in rural Quebec along with other blind drivers. Each of us had a sighted passenger who could shout directions to turn left or right but they couldn’t touch the wheel. The challenge was to see which one of us could finish 10 laps first. Basically, a blind demolition derby. But it is so rare as a blind person to go that fast under your own control. What a sensation.
To find the possibilities out there is another journey in itself. You can’t just Google “cool smells” and print an itinerary. Strange results unrelated to travel lurk in search engine algorithms. So I mostly rely on rumors and word-of-mouth to determine my next adventure. As the blind know too well, the best guide is usually another person.
If you have ideas, you know where to find me. I’m the guy with the white cane wandering my neighbourhood and staring off into the blank horizon.
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