How I travel... as a blind person
Scottish traveller, TV personality and High Life Live panellist Amar Latif talks about travel, his way
Imagine it’s the mid-1990s. You’re a young adult, studying Maths, Stats and Finance at Strathclyde University in your hometown of Glasgow. You’re walking down a long corridor – it seems to go on forever, but eventually the clang of metal beneath your feet becomes the soft pad of carpet, and you realise that you’ve made it into the cabin of the airplane.
The plane is going to take you to Canada, where you’ll spend a year as an exchange student in Kingston, Ontario. As the flight attendant leads you to your seat, you realise that this will be the first time you’ve left the country without your family. As your buckle your seatbelt, you also realise that it will be the longest time you’ve been away from home altogether.
Your stomach lurches a little at this thought but, before you can change your mind and dash like a madman back to the safety of the airport, you hear the engines whir into life, feel the rumble of the tarmac beneath the wheels, and you are quite literally strapped in to the decision you’ve made.
Also – and I probably should have mentioned this earlier – you’re blind.
This was the first time I left home by myself after losing my sight. Thinking back, it was a decision that I made mostly out of a refusal to be penned in by the limits of my blindness, but it sparked a passion for exploration that’s kept me warm ever since. I’ve climbed mountains, skied black runs, and even founded my own travel company for blind and partially sighted travellers, Traveleyes. Would I have done any of this if I was sighted? I genuinely couldn’t tell you.
Instead, what I can say is that not being able to see the world only makes me more curious about it. I know that it’s out there, bristling with opportunities for adventure but, for folk like me, there are very few substitutes for first-hand experience.
For me, travel is about reaching out and touching the world – about living in the moment or not at all
I mean that literally, too – if I want to experience St Peter’s Basilica, or Machu Picchu, or even just the corner shop at the end of the road, I can’t just open Google Images and scroll through a few pictures until I’ve scratched the itch. Thanks to the scarcity of good audio description, too, it’s quite rare that I can even enjoy a good travel documentary. No, instead, I have to go there.
For me, travel is about reaching out and touching the world – about living in the moment or not at all. Because what is the quaintness of the rolling Tuscan landscape if I can’t taste the basil, smell the sun-ripened tomatoes? What is the soaring majesty of the Atlas Mountains if I can’t feel the rock beneath my fingers, the wind in my ears, or the altitude on my skin? What is our vast, beautiful world if I can’t go and get stuck right into it?
Of course, people can tell me stories of it. They’ll describe the sights and experiences they’ve had or heard of, and in that way I can build a bit of a mental picture of their subject. In many ways, I think this picture can be better than the direct experience of vision, because things always seem grander, more fantastic in your imagination. As I like to say, it’s the difference between reading the book and watching the movie: the book is always better!
But just like a book, words and imagination can only take you so far. To truly understand a place you have to immerse yourself in it – the sensations, the sounds, the air – and, at the end of the day, a description is just a retelling of someone else’s understanding.
As a blind person, I’m acutely aware of my independence, which is something that sighted folks often take for granted. I know that if I want my own agency, I have to push for it, and if I want to know what the world is like I have to actually find my own way out into it.
So, you can leave the guide books and the postcard-perfect Instagram shots to one side – I’m not interested in trying to recreate a sighted person’s idea of the perfect travel experience.
Salsa dancing on a Cuban beach, chatting with the al fresco diners at an Italian coffee shop, jumping feet first into the Baltic – that’s my way of doing things.
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