‘I am just another tourist and I just happen to be blind’

Express & Echo, Exeter
4th December 2010

As backpackers go, Tony Giles, who lives in Teignmouth, has visited a lot of countries – over 50 and counting – and he has just published a book about his experiences on the road, entitled Seeing The World My Way. What makes Tony different from the average backpacker, however, is that his way of seeing the world is through his other senses, because Tony is blind.

His book makes for extraordinary reading – with tales of bungee-jumping in New Zealand, skydiving in Australia and all-night experiences in New Orleans – especially when you consider that as well as his blindness, Tony is 80 per cent deaf without his hearing aids and had a kidney transplant two years ago. With South America and Antarctica next on the list for January, what inspires him to keep travelling?

“If you’ve travelled, you will know the answer to that,” he says.

“It is the challenge of meeting people and a sense of freedom I think. And escapism, of course. When I started travelling it was all about escapism – it was about escaping from responsibility and parents and myself.

Mostly about escaping from myself, to be honest.

“Things have changed over the years, though – I have got older and matured. Now it is just about learning and meeting people from different walks of life and different cultures and seeing how people feel in different situations, day in day out – things that we don’t think about.”

Does Tony find that the people he meets on his travels share his curiosity about life – and about he himself?

“Yes, people ask me why I’ve come to their countries and what I know about them, which is a bit odd. To me, I am just another tourist, another backpacker – I just happen to be blind,” he says.

“But I like places that are a bit unusual and to do things that are slightly different. I don’t know if I would had wanted to travel as much had I been sighted, I guess.

“I suppose my challenges in life would have been different. Things would have taken a different turn – I always thought that I would have joined the Royal Navy.”

Tony loves the sea – he was born in Weston-super-Mare and his late father was in the Merchant Navy. “The sea is in my blood,” he says. “And I like cold, rugged places.”

He was diagnosed with cone dystrophy and photo phobia at around nine months of age and partial deafness at the age of six – both senses gradually deteriorated. Now 32 and having also successfully fought a battle with alcoholism, he credits his family with giving him the independence to live life to the full.

“Oh yes, I’ve had my ups and downs,” he says wryly, “but that’s life. But things are fantastic now. It will be two years on December 9 since I had my kidney transplant and it’s working really well. My stepdad gave me a kidney, which was amazing, but that’s the kind of person he is – he wouldn’t think too much about it. That’s the sort of family I have – I’m very, very lucky.”

His mother sent him to a boarding school for the blind in Coventry at the age of ten and so by the time it came to go to university, at which level of education no blind college exists, Tony was independent enough to go to University College Northampton, where he gained a degree in American Studies. “Without my mum being open-minded enough to get me educated, and the support of my brother and sister and stepdad, I would not have been able to do all this,” he says.

“They pushed me to go out and be independent. My mum sending me away to school was the best thing she ever did for me, even though she missed me terribly. I got all the skills and mobility training and I was able to expand and use my brain which has allowed me to be independent and travel.”

And through travelling, Tony has also found love. “I met my girlfriend, Tatiana, who is Greek and she is also blind and we have been together just over a year now,” he says with a smile.

“I brought her to Exeter in July, which was a wonderful experience.

“Going to places I wouldn’t normally go and sharing experiences was amazing. I live five minutes from Dawlish, but I wouldn’t usually just go there to have a look around because is right on my doorstep. It is a very different experience, sharing it with someone you like and the whole pleasure of giving something back to someone was wonderful. I suppose I was helping someone else see the world for a change, which was quite different for me.”

Travelling is what Tony enjoys and hopes people will read and enjoy the stories and ideas he is sharing in his book. “The real reason I’m writing the book is that I hope it will inspire someone not necessarily to go round the world, but just to do something that is one of their challenges, to stretch themselves, to overcome something,” he says.

Tony Giles will be signing copies of his book ‘Seeing The World My Way’ at Waterstones Exeter (Roman Gate) from 3pm on Saturday, December 11. For more information on Tony’s travels, see www.tonythetraveller.com