One of the most remarkable travel companies I have worked for in recent years is Traveleyes. They match blind or visually-impaired travellers with 'sighted guides'. I first joined a group on a trip to Cuba. It would be lazy journalism for me to say it was 'the most moving holidays I have ever experienced'. Yet the participants' spirit and uncomplaining independence was humbling in an environment that can easily overwhelm the senses.
This is written as a tribute to one blind participant on the trip, Mary Simpson from Liverpool, who passed away a while back. A lovely lady.
For 5 minutes along Havana’s iconic Malecon seafront, I close my eyes and try to imagine travel without sight.
I sense the warm Atlantic sea-air prickling my skin.
A husky-souding American classic car passes by: probably the pink 50s Chevy I’d seen moments before.
Distant strands of rumba set my feet tapping. Although I’m no aficionado of Latin music… it could’ve been salsa.
I can only imagine the disorientation a blind traveller might face in an unfamiliar country away from a carefully constructed routine.
“People often say to me ‘why on Earth would a blind person want to travel,’” says 66years-old Liverpudlian, Mary Simpson.
Mary has been blind since birth. Born with optical nerve damage.
“I’d always wanted to travel but when I was younger blind people had no opportunities to come to places like Cuba,” Mary says.
“Travel was bland. Just hotels in the UK adapted for blind people or family places such as Butlins”.
We stroll through the fast-gentrifying quarter of Historico Centro in downtown Havana. Mary’s white cane taps at the cobblestone streets.
Around us several centuries of Spanish colonial architecture financed through sugar and slavery is receiving a facelift resetting it back to an original baroque and neoclassical grandeur.
I am Mary’s eyes for the day.
I describe to her elegant pastel-shaded facades that are as exotic as the fused European and African ancestory I can see in the faces of the local Habanaros.
Mary and I are part of a group tour to Cuba with Traveleyes. With 360,000 people registered blind in the UK, Traveleyes’ tap into a significantly unrepresented minority.
“Taking a mainstream holiday for blind people is challenging,” explains Amar Latif, Traveleyes’ founder. He lost his sight aged 19 when at university but pursued his own wanderlust by travelling to Canada to finish his studies.
“Mainstream tour companies don’t allow blind people to travel unassisted,” says Latif.
His tours bring together blind and sighted travellers; the latter acting as guides to describe the surroundings.
“You can feel very vulnerable asking strangers for help as a blind traveller. You don’t know who you can trust,” says Latif.
Havana for a blind person is most certainly a challenging environment.
The well-worn streets near the Malecon have uneven sidewalks and mantrap potholes. Broad avenues present the distinct possibility of being mown down by a 40s Buick or 1950s Oldsmobile when crossing them.
I’m able to soak in Cuba’s sumptuous exoticism through sight yet I wonder how Mary is interpreting this experience?
Her impressions are in fact quite prosaic.
Drawn from comparisons with the non-visual world she inhabits back in Britain.
“Havana certainly feels vibrant,” she says, “the smell of cigars, more fried food than I’m used to, and there’s music everywhere”.
“But I’m not hearing many clicks of stilettos, or sensing many shops or older people,” Mary says.
In fact, I begin to feel my own sensory appreciation of travel to be increasingly one-dimensional.
By one of several monuments to The Beatles in Havana - Fidel is seemingly a fan of the Fab Four –a shiny 1951 Chevy coughs into life.
‘That’s not the original engine,” claims Bob Pease, one of our blind travellers, after I’d described to him the Chevy’s curves and chrome. “The engine sounds too small”.
He was right. The owners of the many old American automobiles in Cuba have long replaced the original gas-guzzling pistons and cylinders for smaller engines. Something I might never have discovered with hearing less attuned to such nuances.
Although Bob corrects me when I remark on his heightened sense of hearing.
“People think we’ve superhuman senses but we haven’t,” he says.
“We just have to concentrate more in using our different senses”.
A particularly moving experience came when visiting Abel Santamaria Cuadrado School for the Blind, just outside Havana, at Ciudad Liberdad.
The school’s principal, Senora Hortentia, shows us around. It hosts 82 visually impaired children.
Despite Cuba’s economic malaise the school impresses our group with its commendably high staff ratio of one teacher per two pupils.
“Our teachers work miracles here for virtually no pay,” the principal tells us.
I guide Mary between classrooms. She explains to me by touch how Braille is read.
In one classroom, students’ reveal their aspirations for life. They want to be policemen, lawyers, coastguards, and even singers.
Mary is emotional. Now our senses are on the same wavelength.
“It’s the sort of confidence I never had at their age,” she says.
Now, having never been overseas before 2011, Mary was off to Vietnam after Cuba.
“I’ve got the travel bug now,” she says.
“Travel has expanded my world”.