Tony Giles: ‘I’m a blind globetrotter’

The Financial Times
29 June 2007
By Rodrigo Orihuela

I’ve been blind since birth and I’m also 80 per cent deaf, yet I’ve travelled around the world alone, mostly as a backpacker. Travelling is hard enough when you can see and hear but when you’re disabled it can be twice as hard – and twice as easy.

Travelling when you’re blind is easy because you can’t see things like crowds, so you trust people more because you have to. But when it comes to things like changing buses you can’t see where your backpack goes and that’s terrifying. So is worrying about being short-changed: it wears you down, physically and mentally.

The first journey I did by myself was in the US, in January 2000. I was reading American studies and went to the States as an exchange student. That’s when I went on my first solo trip as a tourist – I went to New Orleans for a week.

The following year I set off on my first big backpacking trip and in five months visited Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam and Thailand. In 2004 I travelled around much of Latin America and Africa, and the following year I did a six-week trip around Europe. This year I plan to visit the 16 American states I haven’t been to yet.

My favourite places so far are Alaska, Tierra del Fuego, Cuba and New Zealand. Lots of people ask why I travel and what I get out of it. A lot of the questions are the same, but people need to ask because it’s the only way we’ll get rid of the ignorance.

People wonder how a blind person measures beauty. A place can be enjoyed in different ways – through its people is one. Music also means a lot, although less so. For somebody who can’t see, beauty has a lot to do with what you smell and feel. I’ve learned to use all the senses of my body: my nerves, my touch, my sense of smell.

What hearing I have is acute, even though I’ve lost 80 per cent of it. I’ve trained my hearing, and for me beauty is also the sound of the sea and the sound of the wind. And then of course there’s the feel of the wind and the energy that comes from it, as well as walking on rugged territory.

Isolation is important to me. That’s why the ruggedness and isolation of Alaska and Tierra del Fuego made them special.

Getting to places is a challenge but that adds to the beauty. I can also feel space, which is difficult to explain. The sea and mountains offer space, unlike forests, where the air squeezes.

I grew up in Weston-super-Mare, by the sea in the south-west of England.

I can smell the ocean, I can hear it, I can feel it, I can get into it and it’s beautiful – I don’t need to see it. That’s why I loved Cuba and New Zealand: there’s the sea, and the people were wonderful. Cuba was probably the place where I felt the safest.

On the other hand, Bangkok was really difficult to move around. There are too many people and the fact that there is no structure to the traffic makes it harder. You don’t know when traffic is going to stop or even if it’s going to stop, so crossing roads is almost impossible. Venice is also really difficult, because of the water and steps, and Prague because of all the cobbled streets.

However, I didn’t have either my worst or my best experience in any of these places. Funnily enough, both of them were in Canada. The worst was in Whitehorse, in the Yukon. I pitched my tent on a field behind a bus station, padlocked it and went out for the day. When I came back that night everything was stolen: tent, sleeping bag, two backpacks.

But then there’s one of my greatest experiences. That’s when I got to the Hudson Bay, which is the start of the Arctic Ocean – and that meant that, under my own steam, I had put my feet in every ocean of the world.

© The Financial Times Limited 2007