Travel need not just be about the ‘sights’ of a country. For blind travellers, there are certainly obstacles to overcome, but with a little planning, a wonderful sensory holiday experience is not only possibility, it is a reality for many blind travellers and adventurers!
By Jordan Hambleton
Whenever we think of travel, we think about the places we’ve always wanted to go see. Having the capability to travel easily and see the world is something that most of us take for granted. You’ve probably never thought when staring up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, watching kangaroos bouncing around in Australia, or taking in the insane busyness that are the streets of Mumbai what would this be like if I couldn’t see it?
Though some may wonder what the purpose is in traveling, or if it’s even possible, if you can’t visually take in the places you are visiting, that idea couldn’t be further from the truth. The world is just as open for blind travelers in a way that is both the same and yet very different from the site-gifted population. While we may focus on what we see when visiting a new place, blind travelers are forced to focus on what they can touch, taste, smell, and hear. In some ways, blind travelers get a better look into this new world without having to see anything at all.
Important Tips for Blind Travelers
Before getting into the “must-do” activities and “must-go” places for blind travelers, there are a few things to consider first. After all, while nothing is impossible just because you don’t have your sight, it can be a touch more complicated, and ensuring your safety and well-being are the most important part of any trip. The following are just a few tips for the visually impaired traveler and all, if any, companions they may have with them:
- Make your disability known, and as much as you can, do so ahead of time. This is especially beneficial for transportation purposes. For flights, airport and airline staff will be made available to assist you in whatever capacity you need. You will often be escorted to your gate, given priority and early boarding, a tour of the plane and personal safety review, as well as someone to meet you on the other side to assist you in getting your luggage and off on your way to your hotel. Many trains, buses, and other forms of public transportation have services for travelers with disabilities to make transport easier and stress-free. Mark your luggage with mixed bump dots for easy identification.
If you have a guide dog, check with your travel agent or with the customs of the country you are visiting. Some parts of the world have very strict rules and regulations about bringing animals into the country, and checking these rules before hand prevents you from showing up only to find out your guide dog isn’t allowed.
- Ask about discounts. Many tours, events, and activities provide discounts for the visually impaired. While a cane or guide dog is an internationally recognized symbol for blindness, a discount may not be offered to you out-right, so don’t be afraid to ask. If you can, contact the tour or event organizer ahead of time to ask about potential discounts, as well as to inform them early so they know you are coming and will have time to prepare for extra assistance should you require it.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. As any traveler will know, the world isn’t as big and cold as it’s made out to be, and most people are very willing to lend a helping hand, directions, or any other form of assistance. This is just as true, if not more so, for the blind traveler. Even if it’s as simple as asking someone to help you cross a busy street, or describe something for you, most travelers would love for the opportunity to talk to you, help you out, and “see the world from your eyes”.
- Go with your gut. While yes, the majority of people you come across while traveling are good, kind people, there are others out there trying to scam travelers. These people will be especially likely to take advantage of your disadvantage, so be careful and follow your instincts. If something feels sketchy or too good to be true, it very well could be.
- Give yourself extra time and go slow. Even fully-sighted travelers will find themselves in situations where all of their plans are unravelling and last minute changes need to be made. Give yourself the amount of time you think you’ll need to get somewhere or go through an activity, and then give yourself extra time on top of that. This way, you won’t be stressed, rushed, and you can actually enjoy your trip going at your own pace. The more you travel, the more little tricks and methods you will pick up that work for your unique situation, and the more confident and proficient of a traveler you will become.
As mentioned before, most of the travel articles and advertisements you will see or hear about are the “must-see” sites of a particular country (“Oh, you just have to see the tulip fields in Holland at full bloom!”), however for the visually impaired, that doesn’t mean much. Thankfully, with the help of the other four senses, blind travelers can still get just as much out of their trip as those who can see.
The Top 10 Must-Do/Hear/Smell/Touch/Taste Things for Blind Travelers
Okay, so narrowing down all of the places you should visit is impossible, but this is moreso just a list of items to get you thinking about what you like and how losing your sight doesn’t mean also losing your ability to take in the world around you.
- Moroccan Spice Markets
The Moroccan markets are famous for their lively atmosphere, hawkers pedalling their products, and deals to be found at every stall. These markets, while they can be somewhat overwhelming for the visually impaired, are a sensory overload in the best way possible. Provided the owner is okay with it, you can touch and admire the craftsmanship of many of the homemade goods, smell and even taste the fruits and other goods they are selling. The best part about Moroccan markets however have to be the powerful aroma of all of those Moroccan spices! Any foodie travelers will revell in the beautiful scents of cumin, saffron, and other ingredients that make Moroccan food some of the best. There are markets similar to this in many countries all over the world, so be sure to do your research and seek them out!
- Cooking Classes
There’s no questioning it: Food is a perfect window into another country’s culture and customs. Learning how to cook some of the indigenous dishes to that area is not only fun and delicious, but it allows you to learn about their culture in an highly integrative way. Typically, your instructor will explain to you the significance of the dish, when it is eaten and why, and then you get to dive full-on into the preparation, even sometimes from the gathering/harvesting of the ingredients stage. You get to use your hands chopping, working dough or punching down meat, you get to hear the sizzle of food hitting hot oil, smell the food as it comes to life on the pan, and of course taste your creation at the end! The best part, is that you now have recipes that you can bring home with you and impress your friends and family. Be sure to call or email ahead of time to let them know you may need extra assistance finding things in the kitchen and potentially get copies of the recipes in brail.
- Rainforest hike.
Some of you may think this is odd, but provided you have proper assistance when required the rainforest is a mecca for incredible sounds unlike any you’ll ever hear at home. Rainforest hikes are the perfect activity for the nature-loving, active living traveler with a sense of adventure.
- Walking tours.
The best way to “see” a city or new place is on foot, and taking a walking tour with a knowledgeable tour guide is the best way to do it. They’ll be able to take you to all the most popular spots, as well as the lesser-known parts that they love, all the while providing interesting facts and information about the place along the way. As a bonus, many cities even have free tours so it’s a cheap way to travel. Make sure your guide is made aware of your disability so that they can provide extra in-depth descriptions of buildings and places, as well as be mindful of your needs while roaming the streets.
- Temple ceremonies.
For the travelers who love to learn about other religions, cultures and ways of life, visiting their temples and participating in their ceremonies is a fantastic way to learn and be a part of their culture. Many ceremonies involve chants or songs, burning of oils or incenses, eating, and more. I had the pleasure of participating in a healing water ceremony while visiting the water temple near Ubud in Bali, and it was a wonderfully enlightening experience. There are guides there to explain the purpose behind the ceremony and walk you through it, and to top it off you get a refreshing break from Bali’s often stifling heat and humidity.
- Musical Pub Crawl.
Musical pub crawls are so much more fun than just a regular old pub crawl, and for the traveler who likes to get involved with the local music scene and indulge in some of the best local beers, wines, and spirits the area has to offer, it’s a must-have experience. Not only will you have the opportunity to hear prominent local and up and coming talent, but chances are you’ll make a ton of new friends along the way.
- Farm visit.
Visiting a farm, whether it’s a sheep farm in New Zealand, a coffee plantation in Indonesia, or small organic livestock and vegetable farm in Ireland, you’ll get to learn about the farming practices in that country and get your hands dirty learning how to harvest, feed, and everything in between. Often a taste of the products the farm has to offer is also in order for this type of excursion!
- Take in a show.
An Opera at the Sydney Opera House, a Broadway Show in NYC, Chris Rock live in Las Vegas… whatever you’re into, it’s there for you to discover! Your ears will get their fill of whatever music you love or wish to discover, and you’ll be splitting your sides laughing the whole time. A perfect, relaxing way to spend any evening and be a part of what makes that place famous.
- Wine tour.
Or beer, or spirits, or chocolate… really, if you can taste it, you can tour it! Tours such as this are wonderful because food and drink is best tasted without sight, so you can focus on the smell of it on your nose, the taste on your tongue, the feel of it in your mouth, and the sounds that go along with it. Some of the most well-known places for wine tours and other spirits include Niagara, Ontario, Canada; the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada; the Swan Valley, Perth, Western Australia; the Margaret River, Western Australia; and of course all over Italy, France, and Spain. When talking about tours and alcohol, I must also not forget to mention factory tours, such as the world-famous Guinness Factory tour in Dublin.
- Take a class.
Yoga in Bali? Salsa dancing in Spain? The jig in Ireland? Just because you can’t see doesn’t mean you can’t dance! Dance and movement is another perfect expression of a culture, and learning how to perform it allows you to literally put your whole self into someone else’s world. Not only is the challenge of learning something new exciting, but the movement will make you feel good, and to top it off it you will move to music indigenous to that culture.
The Bottom Line
In reality, nothing is truly off-limits for the blind traveler. White water rafting? Go for it. Museum tour? Why not! Whatever you want to do, go for it. When you take the right steps to ensure you will have the assistance you need to fully enjoy every experience, there is no reason why you should get to experience a country the way that you want to. While traveling with a partner often makes traveling with a visual impairment easier, traveling alone is no less-feasible. If traveling alone scares you and you have no one to go with you, consider checking out companies such as Travel Eyes, who pair blind travelers up with travelers who can see. This way you make a new friend, get to visit another country and share your experience with someone else, and have someone there at all times to help you navigate busy streets, airports, and wherever else your adventure may take you.