Tony Giles won’t let anything stand in the way of his determination to grab life by the throat

Deaf-Blind Magazine, Open Hand, Spring 2008
Christine Moss (editor)

Tony takes on the world

A young globe trotter who is totally blind and 80 per cent deaf has travelled to every continent in the world – alone.

Tony Giles is 29 and now lives in Birmingham, but was born in Weston-super-Mare.

He says: ‘I have visited every populated continent independently. I have completed my goal of visiting all 50 states of the USA. My next challenge is to visit more of Asia and travel across Russia by train.’

Tony has bungee jumped in New Zealand, skydived in Australia and crawled to explore a cave in Iceland. He says that because his illness means he has kidney problems and could need dialysis treatment within a few years, he wants to make the most of his freedom while he can.

Over the past 13 years he has visited countries including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Mozambique, Thailand, South Africa, Vietnam. When Open Hand caught up with Tony he was in Portugal and on his way to Spain. He was due to travel back to America in March, is intending to bungee jump over a dam in Switzerland in April and is also planning to go to Alaska and Morocco this year.

Tony says: ‘My favourite part of travelling is moving, whether that is on a bus, train or ship and going from A to B. I get such a buzz each time I visit different places.

‘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 USA. 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 –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.

‘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 for example. Music also means a lot. 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 in the sound of the sea and the sound of the wind. And then there’s the feel of the wind and the energy that comes from it, as well as walking on rugged terrain.

‘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 and 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, my worst and best experiences were both in Canada. The worst was 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 had been stolen – tent, sleeping bag and two backpacks.

‘But then one of my greatest experiences was 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 almost every ocean of the world.’

Tony has also written two travel diaries called Seeing The World My Way and Seeing The Americas My Way and is hoping to interest a publisher in them.

© Deaf-Blind Magazine, 2008