Travel can be daunting if you have a visual impairment. But Traveleyes organises group holidays for blind and sighted people that are liberating, fun, and yes, eye-opening, too.
So we're standing in the street outside the brothel – or what used to be the brothel – in Pompeii. The one with the rude frescoes on the walls showing ancient Roman punters exactly what they could expect for their sesterces.
There are 20 of us, or thereabouts, and before we go in the man in the white cheesecloth shirt and the floppy sun hat would like a word.
"Ladies and gentlemen, our sighted guides," says Amar Latif. "I'd just like to remind you of my words at the beginning of this holiday. You are not carers; you are fellow travellers, companions. And one of the most valuable things you can do is to describe in loving detail whatever you might see before you that is of visual interest. Here's your chance."
And so it is that Maggie Heraty, a jolly humanitarian logistics expert more used to organising emergency relief operations in Liberia or Haiti, finds herself explaining to Jenny Tween, who works at the BBC and has optic atrophy, meaning she has been partially sighted since she was two, that here we have: "a gentleman, reclining. With a naked lady squatting on top."
While over here, Maggie continues, undaunted by Jenny's snorts, we can see (or not, of course) "the doggy position. And just along from that, the lady's on top of the gentleman, again. But facing his feet this time. Hmmm." She pauses. "Sorry, Jenny. Just trying to work out the mechanics of that one. I don't think I've ever tried it."
It's not, obviously, that these people spend their holiday discussing the sex lives of the Ancients. (Some delicate souls, for one thing, simply won't. "I'll never forget my sighted companion in India," says Judy Taylor, from Duffield in Derbyshire. "She refused point blank even to try and describe the erotic sculptures. Said I was a decent lady and wouldn't want to hear about that kind of thing, so why didn't we just go and have a cup of tea.")
But nor are they your regular holidaymakers. Half of them, for a start, are blind or visually impaired. The other half are fully sighted. The former have paid a bit more than they might do for a standard package holiday to come on this week-long break in Sorrento, southern Italy, including flights, transfers, half-board in a four-star hotel with pool, a cookery lesson and excursions to Pompeii, Capri and Positano.
The latter have paid quite a bit less. In exchange, every day they will take a different visually impaired traveller by the arm (not literally, there's nothing a blind or partially sighted person – or "VI", as they're more familiarly known – loathes more than being patronised) and act as their guide. Show them, as it were, the sights.
Sighted travellers help VIs with obvious obstacles: kerbs, low arches and doorways, busy roads, flights of stairs ("Step down. One more to go. That's the bottom.") They explain where the food is on a plate ("Chicken at three o'clock, peas at six"). And once in a while, they get to describe in loving detail the wall paintings in the Pompeii brothel.
It's not hard. In fact it's fun. You learn a lot. "You get to do things you wouldn't normally do," says Wendy Coley from Loughborough, a sighted veteran of many such expeditions. "Once, in China, they got to touch the terracotta warriors. Imagine. And the act of describing what you see . . . You take in far more, somehow; see things in a very different way. It may sound silly, but going on holiday with blind people opens your eyes."
It does. I tried it at Gatwick with Latif, the 36-year-old Glasgow-born entrepreneur who set up this strangely inspiring business seven years ago. Amar has been without 95% of his sight since his first year at university, thanks to an incurable eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa. He founded Traveleyes, as the company is called, because "no one was doing the kind of holiday I wanted to go on", and as far as he knows it's the only one of its kind in the world.
An airport, you very quickly realise, is not a great place to be VI. Inexpertly piloted baggage trolleys, beeping electric buggies, non-speaking departure boards, too many people in too much of a hurry; a nightmare. And if you ask for help, Latif says, they "put you in a wheelchair. Blind people go mental. It's a liability avoidance thing, but it's so humiliating. Most of us are highly independent, and extremely competent. We don't need wheelchairs."
Technology has made life easier in recent years, he concedes: "Piece of piss, to be honest, compared to what it was." His mobile phone responds to vocal commands (assuming it understands his accent, which isn't always), and speaks to him when he taps it. Screen reading software means blind and visually impaired people can use applications from Gmail to Excel, and even get the newspaper read to them online (Hi to anyone who is. Enjoy).
Plus, Latif continues: "There's a solution these days for even the most intractable problems. Like when you've got two tins left in the larder, and you don't know which is the beans and which the peaches. The number of times I've opened something, even started eating, and discovered it wasn't, well . . . what I thought it was. Anyway, now there's an app for that."
But navigating a crowded airport is another matter. Latif has his white cane, essential when he has to "go freestyle". But it's just more comfortable, sometimes, to be led. So what you do is, you stand beside and just slightly in front of the VI you're leading, and offer them your elbow. They grasp it lightly ("Clicking on," Latif calls it), and off you go. A tad slower than you otherwise might, but not much.
It's that leading arm that transmits the messages. You have to talk, too, obviously, but it's mainly just natural, friendly chat, interspersed with the odd alert ("Step up. Escalator coming. Here, my hand's on the back of the chair. Narrow gap: I'll go ahead.") Blind people feel in control when they're holding your elbow, and will let go if they get anxious (or so says How to be a Sighted Traveller, the leaflet Traveleyes sends to its sighted customers).
You notice, too, that blind people pick up an awful lot more than you do through their other senses. "I can hear the hand-dryers," says Latif. "Is that the gents, by any chance? Might just nip in." Or, to a slightly nonplussed security man, "I can smell fruit. Exotic? Strawberries?" A fresh stick of Juicy Fruit gum, the guard admits.
You have to be a bit careful what you say, but you soon learn that an inadvertent "Did you see that?" or "Look, over there!" is not going to upset anyone. And it's revelatory to realise how very different the world is for those who can't properly see it: hugging Latif on a cafe terrace on day three, Judy exclaims, "Oh, but you're much bigger than I thought. And no hair!" What's it like, discovering someone you've been talking to for the past three days is nothing like the picture you had in your mind's eye?
Latif's beaming presence helps hold the whole thing together. He's a quite remarkable man; much in demand as a motivational speaker, and you can see why. A maths and finance graduate, he worked as a management accountant for eight years before striking out on his own, overcoming untold obstacles to launch a highly successful company, win a fistful of business and disability awards, and gladhand presidents and prime ministers.
"This holiday," he announces to all on the bus from Naples airport to Sorrento, "is all about enjoying things on an equal basis. So if you're blind, don't worry, so am I. And if you're sighted, don't be so bloody clever."
There are some 157,000 people registered blind in Britain, and 155,000 registered visually impaired. Only 8% were born with their condition, and around 80% have some degree of visual memory: say what you see, and they'll know what you're talking about.
When it comes to holidays, though, beyond imposing again on long-suffering friends and relatives, they have shockingly few options. A charity called Vitalise runs holidays for people with a range of disabilities, but that's about it. (Not just in Britain, either: 30% of Traveleyes's VIs come from abroad, mainly North America, Australia and New Zealand. There are three Canadians, from Toronto and Vancouver, on this trip.)
Manifestly, Traveleyes meets a need. "I want to do what I want to do, go where I want to go," says Judy, over dinner in the hotel one night. "I want to choose. I don't want to be reliant on my friends. Why should I be? It's not fair on me, and it's not fair on them." For Jenny, on her sixth trip with the company, "You just wouldn't do the same things if you went with friends. And you feel completely safe. That's really important."
Strolling one morning through a Sorrento lemon grove, stopping to touch and feel the fruit, exclaiming at the scent of lemon from a leaf plucked and rubbed between their fingers, Emma Shaw from Doncaster, on her fourth Traveleyes holiday, explains why they're important to her. "I have macular degeneration," she says. "I can make outlines out, but the details have gone. I know this is a tree, but I can't see the leaves.
"So the thing is, now that a lot of my friends are married, and my parents are both retired, it's just very difficult to get away. And you do start to feel isolated; with modern technology, it's so easy just to stay at home. This, well, brings you back, somehow. You feel . . . included again."
Included is one way of putting it. On the way back through town, stopping to wonder at the heft of a tomato and inhale an olive oil in the market, we're drawn into a shop selling limoncello, the lemon-based liqueur of the Gulf of Naples. Sensing a celebratory mood, the proprietor turns up the music. "Here we say: we have a lemon, we have a girl, we have a party!" he proclaims. And to Dean Martin belting out Volare, then That's Amore, everyone – unembarrassed – dances.
For sighted travellers, the motivation for this kind of holiday is maybe more complex. There are two sighted couples on this trip, but many are single. Several have tried singles holidays, without enjoying them: too full of "people out for themselves"; you end up "feeling lonelier when you leave than when you arrived".
Irene Sylvester, from Wakefield in West Yorkshire, is newly retired. "I was looking for something I could do on my own," she says, "but that wouldn't make me feel I was on my own." Jayn Bond, an HR and employment law specialist from Cambridge, wanted "a holiday that wouldn't make me feel lonely, and where I could contribute."
Others have less exalted reasons: Glyn Evans, a signalman from Rotherham, has been on a dozen Traveleyes holidays. He loves "the laughs. They're great people." That's why Francesca Gomez comes too: "At work, everyone has a different agenda. Here they're just open, and honest with themselves. No pretensions, no acting, no front to keep up – just nice people, with issues to overcome. It's harder than slobbing on the beach, but you feel good being a part of it."
He's on to something here, Latif, that's about more than offering holidays for blind people. He knew the idea would work as soon as he tried it out for himself, with a student who used to read his textbooks for him at university: both of them had a ball. The first organised holiday, to a farmhouse in Andalucia in 2004, was a roaring success; since then, Traveleyes has grown by 50% each year. And more than 60% of its business is repeat, from people who've been before.
Are there never problems? "You might think," he says, "that the cheap holiday thing could attract the wrong people. We do a criminal records check and an employer's check; it's slightly tricky – you're not employing people, but you do have to be aware that they're dealing with vulnerable adults. But honestly, there's never been a problem."
Destinations are chosen carefully; there has to be plenty of opportunity for non-visual exploration. But blind people also love sightseeing, Latif insists. "The fact I can't see the sights only heightens my curiosity," he says. "I ask the sighted guide to describe it really well. Then the scents, the sounds, the tastes . . . Your imagination runs riot. I can walk away from a view with a better picture of it than a sighted person who has just stopped for a glance."
It's not uncommon, Latif says, for guests staying in the same hotel to ask whether they can join a Traveleyes group, "because they've seen the time we're having, the atmosphere". So what actually is happening here? A married couple, Dick and Lizzie Bulkely, turned away at the last minute by another firm because of Lizzie's advancing glaucoma, put their finger on it.
"I'm really interested in how these groups work and get on," says Dick, a retired clinical psychologist. "The constant negotiating, the compromise, the concern. There are real, important people skills going on here, all the time. I really like it. And you don't come across it very often."
That's what it is, I think; why this group of people feels so unusual. It's not because some are blind and some can see. It's because they're a bunch of people determined to have a great time together, and looking out for each other all the while. Really caring. Dick is absolutely right: it's not something you come across very often.
Friday, July 1, 2011
The Guardian in the UK:
Posted by BA Haller at 8:00 PM