Traveling Blind

by Sally Hobart Alexander

I coiled and uncoiled, stood, and straightened my legs from their arthritic twist. Phew! Maybe I could be ambulatory again.

“Can’t sleep?” my husband asked.

“The bus seat won’t go back.”

Bob yawned. “What time is it?”

I checked my Braille watch. “2:15 Brussels, but maybe earlier, if we’re in Germany.”

Bob muscled the lever. The seat flew back, and I sank into its depths, comfortable for the first time in four hours.

What had I been thinking, persuading Bob to buy the Euro bus pass that spent two nights on the road? I wasn’t a young seventies hippie anymore.

Far from it. It had been thirty-four years since I’d developed this preference for bus travel, over rental cars, over high-speed trains. We had been on our honeymoon in Ireland, and Bob had assumed we’d rent a car.

“If we’re squeezed into an isolated little box,” I argued, “we won’t get to talk to the Irish.”

So we bought combination rail and bus passes and discovered that the trains were more cramped, more closed-in, more impervious to conversation than the buses. Soon, we chose only bus travel, and Mick, the driver from Tralee to Limerick rewarded the decision. Mick made us sit behind him while he narrated the trip in the poetic manner that only an Irishman could do.

He described the people on the bus. “This ship’s name is Murphy. Eighty last week, and been riding my bus for fifty years.”

He pointed out the “undulatin’ hills” and converted us. Ever since, buses have served us well, making us “travelers,” some might say, in touch with the people, not “tourists,” in touch with the sights. By that definition, being a “tourist” is impossible for me. I have been blind since the age of twenty-six from mysterious retinal hemorrhages which began when I was twenty-four.

Even with Bob’s English-professor narration, I would love to see the Brandenburg gate, the canals, the paintings in Amsterdam’s museums. But I’ve been blind so long that I feel few yearnings for my visual life of twenty-six years. And I’d rather travel blind than never travel again. Fortunately, my remaining senses provide sufficient information and enjoyment.

At tourist attractions on this trip, I used my hands, molesting everything they could reach. Through my size ten feet I perceived the lumpy, narrow, quaint streets of Brussels, building lines so close, they brushed my arm. Neither Brussels nor the other cities were festooned with litter, something I experienced to my ankles in the States. Because I felt more breeze, more openness on Berlin streets, I concluded that they were wide. Pedestrians bustled by, jostling me, giving the impression of purpose, prosperity. As I stepped on or off subways or escalators, friendly hands, touched my elbow, giving unobtrusive support.

The hotels were cozy, creaky places with small rooms and baths, sporting showers that required a tall person like me to stand on her head to bathe the upper half. The elevators barely accommodated two backpack-wearing travelers, so we inhaled, plunged in, knowing an exhalation would trap us forever.

In every city, I discerned through my posh hearing aids echoes from my footsteps and visualized widths of streets and heights of buildings. Audio tapes describing the exhibits in art and other museums increased my attention span exponentially. Berliners, especially, were easy to engage in conversation. They saw Bob studying a map and approached, seizing the opportunity to practice their English. Still, they seemed pleased to let him use his German. The multiple languages reverberating around mostly mono-lingual me were music. The only sad notes were appeals from beggars in Brussels, mostly in Arabic, and the requests by the German homeless to buy magazines, the legal form of begging.

Toots of boats helped me picture canals. The change in the sound of my footsteps combined with clangs of larger boats told me I was at the harbor.

My nose careened through Brussels, absorbing the rich, deep aroma of chocolate, through Berlin with wurst and mustard smells wafting from outdoor venders. Open air markets in briskly cold sunny weather offered fragrant breads and baked goods, falafels and Middle Eastern fare. As I walked along Hamburg’s and Amsterdam’s canals, I sniffed the scent of damp earth, wood, and water. The only smell that turned my nose back to the United States was the stench of cigarette smoke indoors and out.

Belgian and German pastries, rich Belgian chocolates, Dutch and Belgian cheese called to me. Entrees with leeks, endless wursts with every assortment of mustards, and wiener schnitzel filled me to bursting. And all of it washed down by delicious wines and beer, then German beer with raspberry.

Finally, my sensory world has one advantage. Traveling without sight seems to trigger the same positive response of touring with a child or a dog. It gives people an excuse to make contact.

So although I don’t evangelize about riding buses, I do encourage even sighted people to up the social interaction in foreign countries. And for those of us traveling blind, conversation is our passport.