I was born what the doctors like to call ‘severely visually impaired’, which is a mouthful to say, so I normally go with the term, ‘pretty blind’. At the age of 18, I finished school and decided I needed a break from education before I started university, so I decided to take a year out to travel. When I was 16, I had gone on a month-long fundraising expedition to Uganda with my school, and I absolutely loved it. I had been on family holidays, but I had never been abroad by myself before and I think it’s fair to say my Mum was terrified. Admittedly, she did her best not to show me how worrying she found the thought of her daughter, who still ricochets off door frames around the house, roaming Southeast Asia, a new destination for me, on her own. So, we had an unspoken pact: she’d try and not show me how worried she was, and I’d pretend she was doing a good job!
I spent my first month in Udaipur, India where I’d applied and been accepted to volunteer in a daycare centre run by an organisation called STEP (Social Tourism Empowers People: http://www.stepvolunteer.com/). STEP is a volunteer organisation based in Udaipur. They run a range of projects, from teaching English and running a daycare centre, to construction and conservation. The flight out was not bad. Once I’d held up a long line of people on the plane as I tried desperately to find where the tiny seat numbers were displayed, until a kind woman helped me and I sat down. She was an art teacher headed for Nepal and we chatted together for the rest of the flight.
This was lesson one: asking for help is sociable. It means you interact with people you may never otherwise have spoken to.
It probably doesn’t help to fill people with confidence when they see me travelling alone, that I really don’t look my age. My family joke I never got past 14, even though now, I’m 21. But this woman seemed almost as determined as my mum to not show she was worried about this apparent child jetting off alone to somewhere I hadn’t pre-learned routes to key places. Probably for most people, but especially for me, practising getting from A to B is normally the main way to feel confident travelling, even at home. But sometimes this just isn’t an option and you have to embrace it! The woman who helped me on the plane gave me her number, Facebook, and email, and said if I got into any trouble, she knew friends dotted around India who she could get to help me. I did think to myself that India is huge, so the chances of her knowing someone near me was slim, but it was a genuine offer of kindness that I remembered, and it seemed like a good omen for a first solo flight.
A had an alarmingly long 13 hour stop-over in Delhi airport before my connecting flight. I had agreed to this when I booked my flights, simply because it made them cheaper. However, I don’t think I’d really thought about just how long thirteen hours really was! I ended up spending a relatively uncomfortable night sleeping on top of my bag on a luggage trolly, hugging all the valuables I had in a money belt. But I slept nonetheless!
When I finally arrived in Udaipur I had my next blind-problem-hurdle to overcome. In my ‘Meet and Greet’ pack I’d been sent, I had been confidently informed, ‘The project leader will be at the airport to meet you, holding a sign with your name on it – you won’t miss us!’ I had informed STEP that I was ‘pretty blind’, and part of my application had included a picture of myself. Basically, I hoped they’d spot me first. And they did – just fifteen minutes after I’d been roaming the entrance to the airport and nearly everyone else had already left!
Lesson two: not asking for help wastes time!
Having settled in and slept off some of the jet lag, I met Ravi and Gaurav who run STEP. It was time to start learning Hindi and planning activities to do with the daycare children. I sat on the floor at one end of a long narrow room at a low table, whilst Ravi stood at the other end of what might has well have been a tunnel for how well I could read the whiteboard. I sat with a booklet that gave me a headache to read and with my mouth shut, because I didn’t want to be a pain, or more of a hindrance than a help.
It was then that lesson three became clear: sitting silently while not being able to access any of the learning materials was making me more of a pain in the butt.
I wasn’t learning anything! I soon worked out that it wasn’t doing anyone any harm if I used my phone camera as a magnifier for the workbook, and asked Ravi to read or spell out things he was writing on the whiteboard.
These incidences don’t seem huge; I know, they’re not. But seeing as all these little things happened within the first two or three days of my travels, you can see that these things build up. It made me think from this early point, that if I wasn’t going to start to speak up, to ask for help, or even just be open with the people I would be spending time with, I was going to make this travelling experience more stressful and tiring than it needed to be and definitely much less fun.
Travelling is nerve-wracking for any 19 year-old, but if you are visually impaired and want to travel – do it! That first month was an incredible experience. I ran a daycare session in the morning with one other volunteer, and in the afternoon we joined the other volunteers at either an all boys orphanage or a school for children with disabilities. We also spent time each week with children who, instead of going to school, earned money by sifting through rubbish for materials that someone might pay for. We taught these children basic English but also did arts, crafts, played games, sang songs and had a laugh. It was a completely rewarding experience to be a part of. During the weekends I was able to explore Udaipur and other nearby cities with the other volunteers. Although I hadn’t planned it for this reason, it ended up being a perfect way to break into the travelling world. For the first month, I was surrounded by lovely people who helped to give me the confidence I needed – confidence I hadn’t even known I needed when I left home!
So, lesson four: the more open I was about my disability, the less restricting it was.
I realised the way I was reacting to my own visual impairment was becoming more of an issue than my actual eyesight! This doesn’t mean I now go around telling anyone and everyone I’m visually impaired, but I don’t actively try to hide it anymore – which is a good thing, I think!
From India, I headed onto Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Hong Kong, China, and the Philippines! I wasn’t by myself for all of it, but joined tours, was met by friends, and my Mum used my final two weeks in the Philippines as an excuse for a holiday!
So… Did I get lost a lot? Yes!
Did I leave my passport on a bus in Thailand? Maybe…
Did it all work out in the end? Of course!
Would I do it all again? Definitely! (Except for forgetting my passport on a bus!)
Although I hate to sound like a gap-year cliché, I genuinely learned a lot about myself! But I also met a lot of amazing people, saw amazing countries, ate incredible foods, and experienced fantastic cultures. I firmly believe that everyone should travel, and having a visual impairment, or any disability, shouldn’t worry anyone out of giving it a go – I’m sure you won’t regret it!