A Real Eye-Opener: Sightseeing with the Blind
by Patrick Abbey
Given the recent trebling of tuition fees a certain breed of Durhamite will be far less prevalent in this year’s cohort of freshers. I am, of course, referring to the Durham institution that is Gap Yah globetrotter with their fanciful tales of spiritual, cultural and political exchanges. After a year of stories involving educating Asian school children, building schools in Sub-Saharan Africa and chundering everywah in Perah, I felt that this summer was my time to jump aboard the social enterprise bandwagon and give something back to society.
Traveleyes, a for-profit travel company for blind and visually impaired (VI) travellers, seemed the obvious choice. On each Traveleyes holiday the group consists of an equal number of sighted and unsighted travellers which are arranged daily into pairs. The sighted guides describe the surroundings to their partner and obtain a significant discount in the price of the holiday in return.
I booked, very last-minute, on to a Baltic cruise without giving the practicalities much thought. Before I had time to ponder what I had signed up for I was at Harwich International Port, mid-way through a very interactive training session with my totally blind room partner for the holiday. After manoeuvring a seemingly endless obstacle course of stairs, ramps, x-ray machines and immigration officials we arrived on board our home for the next 12 days; the 2,500 capacity Jewel of the Seas.
The ship was enormous. Split into three sections, each of which at least 12 decks high, I would have spent half the holiday totally lost on board without the VI’s incredible mental maps.
Each day before docking into Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, Saint Petersburg, Tallinn and Gothenburg, the group would meet to switch to our allocated partners. Even with a number of the group still recovering from their indulgence at the on board disco and champagne bars the previous evening, you could be assured of meeting a genuine, interesting and friendly person to spend the day with.
The group spanned in age from 19 to well over 80 and originated from all corners of the world; familiar England, Wales and Northern Ireland to the USA, Australia, New Zealand and even South Africa! It was an opportunity to meet professionals from a large number of different industries and experience some very interesting (and sometimes conflicting) outlooks on life.
Particular highlights were visits to the Hermitage museum, where one’s voice would suffer quite a workout even attempting to describe the tiny proportion of the 3 million items on display, and The Last Romanovs tour of the palaces of the Tsar’s of Saint Petersburg.
With such magnificent surroundings and fantastic company, the dynamic was very much one of two friends exploring together and not of a guide and a VI. Though at times the experience was beyond surreal, I spent one afternoon climbing a rock wall in the middle of the Baltic Sea with an 80+ year old blind and almost deaf woman!
This trip emphasised above all else how lazy our purely observational existence is. We should all take longer to appreciate the taste of good food and drink, the feel of velvet or silk, the sound of waves breaking on the shore and the smell of a particularly pleasant perfume. Such things often are dominated by what we see and are not appreciated to their fullest.
After a fantastic 12 days, and enough anecdotes to last until at least the end of my time at Durham, I can say that this holiday was one of the most enjoyable, challenging and rewarding experiences of my life so far. The entire experience was, making no excuses for the pun, a real eye-opener.
Traveleyes is a world travel company, providing multi-sensory group holiday vacations for both blind and sighted travellers. https://www.traveleyes-international.com/