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I’m blind – but I’ve seen the World!

Take It Easy! magazine, The People
October 2007
By Sarah Veness

Being born blind and partially deaf hasn’t stopped Tony Giles, 28, experiencing all that life has to offer – and he’s still going strong…

Feeling the warm sun on my skin, I soaked up the unfamiliar smells and sounds around me. I’d come to America on a university exchange programme and had flown to New Orleans for a week’s holiday. It was the first time I’d travelled alone and I was loving every minute of it.

Clutching my white stick, I couldn’t help but smile. I may not have been able to see New Orleans like everyone else, but every one of my senses was on overdrive, creating the perfect picture in my mind.

You see, I was born blind and have 80 per cent deafness in both ears. But I’ve never let that stop me.

I had one of the best weeks of my life – and the travel bug had bitten me hard. Back home in Birmingham, I couldn’t wait to plan my next trip. And it was an ambitious one. A back-packing jaunt around Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam and Thailand, lasting five months.

I sat my parents down. ‘You’ve always encouraged me to be independent,’ I told them. ‘l really want to do this.’

Of course they were worried, but they supported my decision.

Together, we planned my route with the help of a Braille map. We booked every hostel before we left.

Soon the day had come. ‘Be careful’, my mum said, kissing me goodbye.

The trip was fantastic, everything I’d dreamed of and more. And my blindness didn’t stop me doing anything. I white-water rafted, went on jetboats and even bungee-jumped off bridges.

One of my biggest challenges was doing a sky-dive. I stood at the door of the plane without being able to see a thing.

As I fell, my body felt like it was exploding – it was better than sex! I couldn’t see my instructor pulling the parachute and as I was jerked upwards I couldn’t breathe.

When I got my breath back it was exhilarating. I then went up twice more – although in different places!

Back home, I was full of of all the beautiful places I’d experienced.

‘How can you tell they were beautiful?’ someone asked me. ‘For somebody who can’t see, beauty has a lot to do with what you smell and feel,’ I explained.

I’ve learned to use all the senses of my body – my nerves, my touch, my sense of smell. Even though I’ve lost most of my hearing, what I have left is acute.

I’ve trained it to be like that I realised I could tell a lot about a place from the sound of the sea or the feel of the wind. If I go up a mountain I can feel the air squeeze. If I’m in a town, the energy and the space changes.

Since that first trip, I’ve been all over the place – Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Mozambique and South Africa, to name a few.

I’ve visited 32 countries and every one of America’s 50 states. I’ve had some amazing experiences, from climbing mountains, hang-gliding and visiting ancient ruins to sailing, hiking and visiting African tribes.

Because I grew up near the sea in Weston-super-Mare, I loved countries like New Zealand and Cuba, where I could stand and feel the water in front of me.

But it’s not always easy. Crossing the roads in countries like Thailand and Vietnam is particularly dangerous when you’re blind because the traffic never stops.

I also worry about changing buses and if my backpack has been transferred with me. I found the water of Venice and the cobbled streets of Prague difficult.

Once, while camping in Canada, I couldn’t find my tent. I wandered around the campsite prodding the ground with my white stick, but I couldn’t find it. Then it dawned on me – the tent and all my belongings had been stolen. I hitched a lift to the local Salvation Army and they looked after me.

Funnily enough, I also had one of my best travel moments in Canada. I made it to the Hudson Bay, the start of the Arctic Ocean. That meant that, under my own steam, I’d put my feet in every ocean of the world!

Looking back, my funniest moment was stumbling into a row of surfboards on a beach in Hawaii. They fell over like a set of dominoes!

One of the best things about travelling are the friends I’ve made and the people I’ve met. They’ve restored my faith in human nature.

Now, I’ve written a book about my travels, called Seeing The World My Way, and I’m looking for a publisher.

I’m also planning trips to Iceland and Australia. The world’s a fantastic place and I’m determined to experience as much of it as I can.”

© The People 2007