The roar of waves crashing on the rugged Cornish coast was hypnotic -- the salty, fishy smell of sea air intoxicating. Although Susan Howatch had spun an engaging tale of family intrigue in her 1971 novel, Penmarric, Cornwall was the only aspect that had any lasting effect. Her descriptions instilled in me a burning desire to someday stand on a rocky Cornish beach.
Growing up in Montreal with a severe vision impairment never inhibited my insatiable appetite for reading. Until late adolescence, I read large print with a strong magnifier, then switched to audiobooks. Family and friends also read to me. A good plot with interesting characters could hold my attention, but my imagination would invariably draw me toward a new destination I wanted to experience firsthand.
And I’ve gotten to do that. Here are some of the joys and challenges I’ve experienced traveling while blind.
Joy: Anticipating Future Travels
Books, films, and personal accounts fueled my desire to travel. They also gifted me with the ability to venture back in time. From James Michener’s The Source to Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, I longed to immerse myself in these and other rich historical venues.
Challenge: Growing Up A Wanderlust Child Among Stay-At-Home Adults
My parents were Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Israel after World War II, then to Canada with their toddler in tow. Money was tight, so trips to Brooklyn, New York, and Brookline, Massachusetts, to visit family were the only travel to which I was exposed.
Family drama was usually the main event. Introducing me to the extraordinary sights in NYC and Boston wasn’t a priority. But the desire to travel had long been alive in me. It was obvious that if it was going to happen, I had to be proactive.
Joy: The First Taste Of Travel
Salvation arrived in the form of a trip to Israel, a gift from an uncle upon my college graduation. Since my mother had family living in Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tel Aviv, she accompanied me. Also, I was legally blind and, in her mind, unable to travel on my own.
Remembering that trip, I can still feel the ancient stones of the Western Wall of the destroyed Second Temple of Jerusalem beneath my fingertips. I vividly recall bargaining in the Jerusalem Market as an aunt surreptitiously coached me on the finer points of squeezing out the best deals. The sounds of haggling in Arabic and Hebrew, along with the smells of cooking food, garbage, and sweat intermingled to create an atmosphere that was both disturbing and enticing.
All my senses were on full alert as I still had some residual vision. The brilliance of gold against a piercingly blue sky as I gazed in wonder at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem still burns bright in my memory.
Walking the Via Dolorosa with my mother and an uncle was as haunting as it was fascinating. Neither of my companions was particularly enthusiastic. I, on the other hand, was in my element. Traversing a small section of the market to reach the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it dawned on me that this was how I wanted to travel. Not simply to say, “I was there,” but to drink in and absorb the history, culture, and unique atmosphere to be found in each travel adventure.
Challenge: “You Can’t Do That”
“Are you crazy!” It wasn’t a question, but a statement of incredulity. I had just informed my parents of my plans to take a two-week solo Mediterranean cruise. I was 24, and by that time they should have known that there was nothing I hated more than being told what I couldn’t do because I was blind. With money saved from my first job out of college, I had the means and moxie to book that cruise.
At some point, it became clear that allowing others to set limits for me would be tantamount to curling up and dying. If I hadn’t taken that cruise, I never would have begun my lifelong love affair with Spain and Italy, nor would I have gained the confidence to fully embrace the joys of travel.
Joy: Traveling Outside My Comfort Zone
Ever the extrovert, I easily made friends on the cruise. The Delphi was a small ship by today’s standards, and with my orientation and mobility skills, I was able to learn my way around in a matter of hours.
On that trip, I stood in awe as Pope Paul blessed the crowd in Saint Peter’s Square. From the window of a tour bus, I gaped in both wonder and terror as the driver negotiated the hairpin turns on the Amalfi road. On the right was a sheer drop to the crystal blue waters of the Mediterranean. On the left, I could see colorful fruit-laden citrus trees. I even grew comfortable with the unsettling gate of a camel in Tangier. All these experiences opened new doors and beckoned me to travel more and further test my limits.
Challenge: I Can’t See
As my partial vision migrated rapidly toward total extinction, so did one of the key sensory pleasures of travel. My ability to appreciate new experiences had been significantly diminished -- but not forever.
Joy: Technology, Guide Dogs, And Disability Awareness
Until my late 20s, I tapped my way along with a white cane. I now walk briskly with my fifth guide dog. This has blessed me with over 40 years of confidence and safety I hadn’t known existed.
In recent years, with the advent of text-to-speech software, I can use my smartphone to determine exactly where I am. It enables me to identify street names, addresses, and businesses in my vicinity. And volunteer sighted assistance for any number of situations is only a phone call away. My computer allows me to research destinations, plan trips, and encourage others to embrace travel through my writing.
Disability awareness in the tourism industry has also improved immensely. Europe in particular has made great strides in providing tactile maps and models of attractions, providing braille and raised images, and encouraging people who are blind to touch otherwise forbidden artifacts. Experiences such as touching and exploring the surface of the Liberty Bell have raised my level of travel bliss to heights previously unknown.
Challenge: Making Time For Travel
During our working years, jobs, kids, and other responsibilities required my husband and me to limit our travels to mostly one-week vacations. But we were determined to introduce our two sons to the limitless benefits of both local and international travel.
Before our boys flew the nest, we took them to explore historical sites in the UK and several European countries, deep-sea fishing in Puerto Rico, and scuba diving in the Bahamas. We also enjoyed discovering many destinations in the U.S. together.
Joy: The Next Phase
As retired empty nesters, my husband and I were ready to embrace new opportunities. Entering the realm of travel writing and photography enabled us to add new dimension and variety to the travel tapestry we have been weaving together for 44 years.
In 2013, I took a travel writing course, began writing freelance travel articles, and started my blog. My husband bought a good camera, took photography courses, and became a freelancer and my photographer. Until 2020, we traveled an average of four to six months out of every year.
Our travels have taken us to over 30 countries, including, Jordan, China, all the UK countries, and many in Europe. The places I’ve traveled, the experiences I’ve absorbed, and the people I’ve met have enriched my life beyond measure.
No, I still haven’t stood on that illusive Cornwall beach. But, in the words of Yogi Berra: “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Perhaps our next trip to England will finally bring me there.