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FLYING BLIND : There's More Than One Way To See the World and All Its Colors

March 06, 1994|Jim McLain | McLain is a staff writer and columnist for the Ventura Star Free Press.

WE WERE SOARING OVER THE PACIFIC IN A JETLINER on our first trip to Hawaii, and lunch was being served. I was so excited by the whole idea of the trip that I expected even the airplane fare to be exotic. My first bite proved me right. It was something quite unlike anything I'd ever tasted before--produce of some kind, fresh and light, with an elusive, slightly spicy flavor. What was it? I wondered. Some rare tropical fruit? Some uncommon island vegetable?

"Honey," said my wife, Linda, as I was trying to decide. "Don't eat that. It's an orchid."

That happened more than 17 years ago, on one of the first trips I took after losing my sight. It was an eye-opening experience. Until that moment, I don't think I'd quite realized how different it was going to be to travel blind.

Born with glaucoma, an eye disease that usually afflicts the elderly, I had lost all vision in my left eye by the age of 10. I got used to sitting in the front row at movies and, even when I was old enough to drive, in the back seat of the car. In the mid-1970s, a detached retina left me with nothing but light perception in my remaining eye; a few years later, an infection took that, too.

The difference between poor eyesight and no eyesight is immense. Getting used to the change was not easy. Still, I saw no reason to let my loss affect the way I lived any more than absolutely necessary. I've always loved to travel, for instance, and I wasn't about to stop.

Without the benefit of vision, I have seen (and I think that's the right word for it) some of the most beautiful and exciting places on earth--not just Hawaii, but Tahiti and Bermuda; New York, Washington, Las Vegas and New Orleans; England and Mexico; Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Big Sur.

I read once that blindness was the most feared of all major disabilities. People who have not had to confront it find the notion of living in eternal darkness unthinkable. Well, OK, it's not exactly a piece of cake. But it's not the end of the world--or the end of seeing the world. It's just that, as I found out on the plane to Hawaii, you have to come at it from a new direction.

Travel brochures abound with phrases like "dazzling sunsets" and "azure skies." I'll have to take their word for it. But I can still hear the music, feel the heat (or the chill), smell the blossoms (or the wood smoke), sense the excitement, relive the history, find the incredible bargain, taste the food and wine.

Do the blind experience some aspects of travel more intimately and immediately than sighted travelers? I don't know. This blind traveler simply does what he can to get the most out of each trip. I cannot literally see a majestic procession of waves crashing onto a curving beach, for instance, but I can listen to them carefully and figure out whether the beach is rocky or sandy, rough or smooth; sometimes I can even hear the undertow. More than that, I can dive right into the scene, swimming through the waves' power, their height, their salty, cold wetness. Of course, a sighted traveler can listen and dive in, too--but why would he? He can just glance at the sight for a moment or two, then move on to something else. Because I can't give my surroundings a quick visual once-over, I'm forced to become a part of them. And isn't achieving some sort of unity with a new environment one of the traveler's traditional goals?

That isn't to say that I "see" more than those who have vision. There is a popular idea that the blind have enhanced senses of hearing and touch that somehow compensate for the lack of sight. That's hogwash. I don't hear any better than anyone else--but I probably pay closer attention to what I hear. It's a matter of focus.

My wife is good at describing things to me. I also touch things a lot and ask a lot of questions. Tour guides are important to most travelers, but they are crucial to the blind. Someone who provides anecdote-filled details of a place's history, heritage and culture can make up for much of what the blind traveler cannot see.

At least once on every trip I really resent my blindness. That may sound like an odd statement because it implies that I enjoy being sightless the rest of the time. I don't. I accept it because I have no choice. But once or twice on every trip I get briefly depressed about not being able to see something. During these little exercises in self-pity, I don't want to talk or listen to descriptions of what I am not seeing.

It happened in New York once, on the Empire State Building's observation floor. From there, the sighted can see into several states if the smog isn't too thick. It also happened at the Tower of London and at the White House--both places I had read about many times, but visited too late.

Some blind travelers are truly daring. They go to places like a Colorado ski resort I read about, where certain runs are reserved for those who cannot see. They might sign up with one of the many white-water rafting outfits that encourage the disabled to get wet and enjoy a little excitement. For all I know, they might sky-dive or bungee-jump.

Not me. I never did that kind of stuff when I could see, and I'm not going to start now. Flying blind is adventure enough.

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