I don’t like to do things the easy way. I refuse to let my sight (or lack of it) be an obstacle to getting out there and doing things. And I try to see it (ha!) as an adventure rather than a hindrance. One of the reasons I started this blog was to share some of my travel experiences as a partially sighted person, and to show that you don’t have to sit at home listening to talking books and talking to the cat just because you can’t still drive a car (at least not legally – I have once driven a car since I lost my sight, but that’s another story) or recognise your friends. I still laugh every time I think of the blind chap I know who occasionally uses his colour detector to check whether he’s got the right one of his two (differently coloured) guide dogs. In case you’re wondering, he has two dogs because one of them is his old guide dog and one is a new one he’s training. But actually, this is exactly the kind of lateral thinking that blind people learn to use in their daily lives to adapt to tricky situations. Lateral thinking is what’s helped me to return to playing softball again, to go mountain biking and to travel alone. You learn to do things differently.
This might sound odd, but in some ways, group travel is actually more difficult for me than travelling on my own, especially when it’s with a group of strangers, or people who don’t know me that well. I’ve learnt to do things my way when I’m alone, and it’s far less embarrassing if I walk down a dead end, trip over an obstacle because I haven’t seen it or I’ve misjudged its distance, smack my face on a glass panel because I thought it was an open window (as I did last week, much to the dismay of my roommate), fall down a step, or miss the building or street I was looking for because I couldn’t read its name, and walk past it three times before finding it. I frequently do all these things, and they don’t matter when you’re alone, but when you’re with, or meeting, others, it’s desperately embarrassing, however much you’re able to put a brave face on it on the surface. One of the worst ones for me is steps going down, or going from a light to a dark place (and vice versa), such as entering a dark room from outdoors. On my own, I can take my time, as that’s something I really can’t see well. With other people there, I suddenly have to slow down and feel my way, and it feels awkward, especially if they race on ahead of me, oblivious.
I’ve posted previously about the difficulties of visually challenged trekking – of things like finding your way around a dark campsite at night, of knowing which guide is which, and even of knowing which person is part of your group or another, on busy routes. I love it when my guide or companions wear a distinctive item of clothing such as a bright hat, or a red pair of trousers like my guide last week.
In some ways, blindness is easier to manage on a less remote trip, when you’re staying in hotels in towns, but these still bring their own challenges. Making sure the group you sit down with at breakfast is the right set of people. Trying to find your way back to the hotel when you’ve been out for a wander around the town on your own. Finding the right minibus to get back onto, when the group has parked somewhere for a pitstop. You might think that finding the right bus and bus stop on your own is a much harder challenge, but it’s actually much easier. No one looks at you oddly if you check with a random stranger that you’re on the right bus, or you ask where the bus stop is (even if it’s right in front of you, there might have been more than one bus stop, so it’s not entirely stupid). Asking a random stranger where your friends are (even though they may be only a few feet away) is more tricky.
On the other hand, there are definite advantages to group travel, such as having someone to help you find your way around. I hate asking for help, so I usually try to make friends with a couple of people, let them know my needs, and rely on them specifically for help. On work trips, or when out with close friends, a couple of my colleagues are very good with this, and automatically wait for me outside the toilets, make sure they’re in line next to me at a buffet so they can tell me what the food is (I usually can’t identify it), go into a room in front of me so that I have someone to follow, warn me about potholes in the road on a dark night, take my arm in tricky places, and so on. People on a group holiday don’t tend to know these things, though occasionally there are some quick learners, or people who have experience. There’s a professor I occasionally meet at conferences and on work trips, who has about the same level of sight as me. It’s highly entertaining, and very reassuring, when we ask each other for help!
Don’t get me wrong, I go on a lot of group holidays (as long as they’re active), and I love them, but it can be incredibly frustrating, especially as I try not to make a big thing about my sight. You learn to suffer a lot in silence, and although you never get used to the inevitable frustrations and embarrassments, you come to recognise that it’s part of the experience, and you try not to let it upset you. Instead you seek solace in your own company when you get the chance, and you vent your frustrations by writing about it later.
If you ever find yourself travelling with someone who’s partially sighted, or blind, don’t worry about sounding patronising. Ask them what they’d like help with. They won’t mind. I discussed this once with a friend of mine who’s been blind from birth, when I wanted to know how much help he needed when guiding him (yes, the blind leading the blind, but needs must sometimes!). His reply? “It’s much easier to tell someone that you don’t need help with something they’re offering to do, than to ask someone for help with something they haven’t offered.” No one will ever get offended by being asked if they need help or not. If you frogmarch them across the road without first asking, they may, however, be a little grumpy. Especially if they didn’t want to cross the road in the first place.