Blind Travelers: Charles and Joanne
For a month at the beginning of this year, I was privileged enough to spend time with some very interesting people - my partners grandparents. They flew from the UK (my boyfriend is English, and has lived in New Zealand for approximately 4-5 years now) to spend a month with us. Here's the interesting part - they are almost completely blind. Joanne (Nana) has been partially blind her entire life. It was noticed at 6 months of age that she never reached for objects or necklaces, and she can see only shapes and light or dark. What Joanne can see is dependent on the light at any given time (it cannot be too bright or too dim or she struggles). Charles, (Grumps) was born with sight, but it gradually diminished as the years passed. When he was young, he enjoyed photography and cycling, but eventually had to give up both hobbies. Like Nana, he can make out light and dark, but now relies on a stick and his guide dog Stanley.
However, these unfortunate circumstances have not stopped them from living life to its' fullest. They have both been on countless cruises, visited more countries than most sighted people, and take part in many different activities. They live in their own home in Stoke-On-Trent, Grumps goes to the gym every day, does the shopping, and has partook in marathons with the aid of other runners. I quizzed them both about what lures them to travel, and how they deal with the difficulties of navigating the world without sight.
When did you fist start traveling?
Charles: My first big trip was in 1992 and I went to America. We were married with children, but could only afford one ticket. I went to New York, and ran the New York Marathon. I was sponsored by Lloyds Bank, and had a guide runner. Before this, I went to France for running once, and we did small family trips in the UK with our three children.
Joanne: As a child and teenager, I went to Spain and Italy and a few places within the UK with family. My first trip with Charles was to Malta was in 1993. We stayed at the Qawra Palace, and visited the Blue Grotto. Malta has changed a lot since 1993!
What have been your favorite places to visit?
Charles: New York. I had more sight then, and could see buildings and roads so traveling was easier. I love hands-on experiences, and history. Some favorite memories for me were camping overnight in the Sahara, visiting the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, and riding camels and hot air ballooning over Egypt. We have a blind friend with a sighted wife who we stayed with for two weeks in San Anton, Texas. They were wonderful and took us all over the place - on most of our holidays we are reliant on other people to show us around. So if they are enthusiastic and keen to go places, we usually have a great time.
Joanne: Texas was brilliant, but I especially loved St Lucia in the Caribbean. The rain-forest is just magical, and I loved the cable car rides. You go below and above the rain-forest, we did it in Costa Rica too. Rarotonga was a close choice too!
What sort of things do you need to know before booking trips?
Charles and Joanne: We usually just do cruises now, as it is the most enjoyable form of travel for us. We try to book with companies who will offer us an assistant, and where there are destinations that we can get off the ship and enjoy. We have to assess activities on how hands-on they will be - if we can't touch it, then we struggle. New Zealand was fantastic in this respect, they have a great amount of unusual museums and attractions, and the stuff is hardly ever in glass boxes! If we are going somewhere by ourselves, we need to know directions, where and what kind of curbs and crossings there are, what kind of help we can get. We have to put a lot of trust in people, and most of the time we don't know how capable they are.
What are your favorite aspects of travel?
Charles: We love cruising. I love that there is no traffic. I am quite wary now, because I can't see cars. I don't take Stanley on the cruises with me because it is too hard to have fully grown Labrador on a ship - can you imagine being in a small cabin with him? There's also no worry of getting really lost on a ship, and there is always so many lovely crew members to help us. Being in new places is wonderful - I just wish I could get there in a flash and not have to bother with transport. I love meeting new people, and the food is always a bonus! I love the history of places - learning about the people and their stories, the different cultures we experience everywhere we go. It makes me feel a part of something bigger, when I touch something that has been a part of human history (or otherwise) for thousands of years.
Joanne: I love meeting and chatting with people, and the memories created by being in different places. It makes me laugh to think I wore the ships Vicars' socks around the Temple of Krishna in Mumbai, because I hadn't bought any with me! (You couldn't wear shoes in the temples and I certainly wont go barefoot, so he lent me his socks).
Where to next?
Charles: I haven't been to South Africa, so I think that has to be on the list. And more cruises probably! I have just bought a new tent as well so I can do some more camping trips in England.
Joanne: I want to go to Canada! I wanted to emigrate to Canada when we were a lot younger, but Grumps didn't want to.
Nana and Grumps are currently still cruising, they left from New Zealand on the ship Aurora for a further six weeks at sea before returning home to Stoke.
Do you have any advice for other travelers, young or old, with or without disabilities?
Charles: Be careful in foreign countries - use your common sense! You need to be prepared, but also keep your fingers crossed. You never know how things will turn out. Take the chance while you can. Otherwise, you may as well stay at home and not move. If we hadn't taken the chance, we would never have been as far as we have. And in the end.... If you die trying, it doesn't really matter because you won't care then!