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Cuba: Visually-impaired travel

How do you see the world without sight? An initiative that pairs up visually impaired and sighted travellers as guides has presented a solution, and on a trip to Cuba it seems both parties are benefitting

Cuba: Visually-impaired travel
Pastel-coloured buildings in Havana. Image: Getty

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Why on earth would blind people want to go on holiday?

“I’ve often heard this said,” says Mary Simpson, a 65-year-old Liverpudlian who has been blind since birth. “Sometimes people say, ‘how can a blind person afford a holiday?’”

Such statements reflect a complete lack of understanding about the aspirations of the visually impaired (those who are blind or partially-sighted). Yet having experienced the world’s diversity and colour with my own eyes, I struggled to imagine travel without vision.

But then I’d never really got to know a blind person before.

To remedy this, I joined an 11-day trip to Cuba with a unique tour operator called Traveleyes. Their tours match groups of visually-impaired and sighted people to travel together, with the latter operating as guides. Pairings are rotated daily to foster group togetherness, and sighted travellers receive a 50% discount to reflect their commitment to acting as guides.

Some two million UK citizens live with sight loss, of which 360,000 are registered blind or partially sighted, according to the RNIB. Types of visual impairment include distorted vision through cataracts, peripheral loss from glaucoma, and patchy sight commonly associated with diabetes.

With so many potential customers, the founder of Traveleyes, Amar Latif, spotted an unserved niche in the market. His own story is inspirational.

After losing his sight aged 19 while at university, he moved to Canada to continue his studies. “I realised there was much more of the world out there to explore. Becoming blind only heightened my curiosity and determination to experience as much as possible in life,” he says.

Before he founded Traveleyes in 2004, nobody was providing holidays for the visually impaired, apart from charity-sponsored trips.

“Taking a mainstream holiday is challenging,” says Latif. “Mainstream holiday companies do not allow blind people to travel unassisted on their trips. You can feel very vulnerable asking strangers to help and there’s no guarantee the itinerary is suitable for a blind person.”

Traveleyes has seen an average growth of around 30% over the last five years, according to Latif. The company started out operating in Europe, but has now expanded into the Americas, Asia and Africa. “We do things that most might think impossible for blind people like skydiving, bungee-jumping, skiing and sailing,” he says.

But while the company is oversubscribed with visually-impaired travellers, the main challenge remains finding sighted guides.

I couldn’t help wondering what was in this for the sighted group members. Is it possible to enjoy a holiday when you have responsibilities to people you have never met before — people with special requirements? Or is this solely an altruistic endeavour?

Mary reading braille at the School for the Blind. Image: Mark Stratton

Mary reading braille at the School for the Blind. Image: Mark Stratton

First impressions

Upon arrival at Gatwick, my overwhelming emotion was an anxiety that I might mess up my responsibilities as guide. But Hannah Vince, our experienced tour manager, was quick to reassure us, urging us to enjoy the holiday ourselves and not feel like carers. “Interact with them like new friends and travelling companions,” she advised. “The one complaint visually impaired people have from these holidays is that they sometimes feel patronised. So be yourself.”

It actually took no time at all to relax into the experience. The group’s visually impaired members, Mary, Bob, Sue, Edward, Vanessa and Timothy, were all avid travellers. Their ages ranged from 32 to 75. And they were as excited as I was to be visiting Cuba; sharing a similar desire to see — yes, blind people use this word too — Cuba before the expected Americanisation begins to set in.

It turns out I’m not the only first-time guide. IT expert Wendy Gao had flown in from Australia, wanting to see Cuba with the security of a group, while for Liz Melhuish, this was a continuation of her professional interest, having worked in specialist education. Moira Wilson, meanwhile, was on her ninth Traveleyes trip. For her, the holidays offer companionship following the loss of her husband. Many of the travellers on these holidays are single.

Havana is sticky and humid upon arrival. I’m immediately struck how difficult it must be stepping on to unfamiliar soil without the use of sight; not least with actions we take for granted, such as manhandling luggage off airport carousels. But I soon get accustomed to the robustness and humour of a group of people who’ve been through many greater challenges in life.

On the transfer to our Spanish colonial-style Hotel Sevilla, where Graham Greene wrote Our Man in Havana, our local guide, Oscar, apologises for the darkness, caused by a lack of streetlights. “Well, that’s not going to worry us,” quips Bob. Cue laughter.

Born with cataracts, Bob Pease from Norfolk has never really seen much more than shapes and colours. Now 65 and retired from a career in light engineering, Bob had never flown before 2015, when he took his first Traveleyes holiday to southern USA. “It’s opened up a whole new world to me,” he beams.

Bob is to be my first partner for a city tour the next morning. First, we establish how he wants to be guided. Bob would walk half-a-step back at my side and lightly touch my elbow if required. I would call steps and curbs and other hazards. But my main function is to describe what I see.

I chose Cuba because, for me, it’s a visual feast: particularly Havana with its crumbling multi-coloured edifices, classic American cars and breezy Malecón promenade.

But I also try to savour the senses important to Bob: myriad smells, noises and tastes. Music emanates from everywhere, be it classical piano or jaunty salsa. We visit H Upmann cigar factory and inhale the rich aromas of Montecristo cigars. Bob smells the difference between the sweeter inner tobacco and the outer leaves, which he describes as bitter like dock leaves. We also visit Havana Club rum museum to share common ground as aficionados of fermented cane juice.

“I use sounds and textures more than you,” says Bob — a fact emphasised later in the day when an engine revs beneath the hood of a beautiful cherry-red ’57 Chevrolet. From a distance, it sounds authentically throaty to me. “I don’t think that’s the original engine,” corrects Bob. “It sounds too small.” Sure enough, we later learn many of the classic cars’ engines have worn out and been replaced by smaller engines.

Bob touches the Santa Clara Che Guevara Mausoleum. Image: Mark Stratton

Bob touches the Santa Clara Che Guevara Mausoleum. Image: Mark Stratton

A sense of place

“Sighted people learn a lot from these trips,” Hannah explains. “It’s a two-way thing. You might just walk past a building normally, but guiding forces you to look harder and describe it in more detail, creating more vivid memories and better appreciation.”

Our trip also gives us a special insight into Cuba’s much-vaunted healthcare system. Just outside Havana we visit the Abel Santamaria Cuadrado School for the Blind.

While the iniquitous US embargo on Cuba has denied them the latest equipment, the school’s 82 blind children are tutored by 46 staff — an extremely low ratio. I’m guiding Mary, who describes how the talking computer package (JAWS) operates and talks me through the rudiments of Braille, which she learned at school.

In one class, a group of seven-year-olds tell us that they plan careers as lawyers, singers or policemen. “I didn’t have their confidence at that age,” recalls Mary.

She suffered damaged optical nerves after being born prematurely. “I had light perception at first but that’s long gone,” she says. She went to specialist schools for the visually impaired. “Never making eye contact made me very shy,” she says. “Later, at a convent girls’ school, we were scarcely allowed out — how does that prepare you for life?”

She took her first Traveleyes holiday to Cape Town in 2011. “I always wanted to travel but the only holidays available were hotels for the blind or Butlin’s. After Cape Town I got the bug and visited Canada and southern USA. I’m going
to Vietnam next April.”

I wondered how Cuba was registering with her. “It feels very vibrant. But there’s things I don’t sense as well,” she says. “I smell fried food and cigars, and hear more motorbikes, but I’m not sensing stilettos on pavements, or many shops or older people.”

Next we drive to the Caribbean coast to historic Trinidad. On a trip like this, many stimulating and tactile experiences are built into the itinerary, providing fun for both sighted and unsighted. We take a salsa class where my functioning eyesight is scant compensation for two left feet. At Boca de Guamá wildlife centre, we hold baby crocodiles. “Its hide felt a bit like pineapple skin,” says our youngest blind traveller, Timothy, who’s 32. He furthers his research by switching to taste and ordering croc for lunch. “Quite delicate like chicken but with the chewiness of steak,” he observes.

The colonial centre of Trinidad similarly assails the senses — from clip-clopping horse hooves on cobbles and songbirds in cages to the sweetly melodic hymns wafting through the church’s iron-grilled windows and the ubiquitous local anthem, Guantanamera, being played by busking street bands.

“Our other senses don’t exactly take over,” says Sue Carden-Price from Canterbury, addressing my misconception that blind people possess superhuman non-visual abilities. “It’s just we have to concentrate more on listening.”

Sue has experienced both worlds. She was a maths teacher with functioning eyesight when she suddenly lost her vision to diabetes. “In 1990 I was driving home from work when I noticed I couldn’t see the lights in front of me,” she explains. Her kidneys failed at the same time. To have her sight taken away after years of normality seemed like a nightmare scenario. “I wasn’t coping at first. I couldn’t see or feel,” says Sue.

But her resilience shines through. This was the real revelation of this trip: the triumph of human spirit over adversity. Sue loved driving, so a while back, she took a dual-control BMW sports car around Brands Hatch. She remains a regular sailor, and when we reached our final stop — the all-inclusive beach resort at Varadero on the northern coast — she was soon out on a catamaran.

While the resort could have provided a chance for the group to relax and do as little as possible, instead, they prefer to swim with dolphins, sail and explore bat caves. Meanwhile cocktails sink faster than the horizon’s setting sun.

“This is such an adventurous group,” says Hannah. “I always find visually-impaired people want to ‘see’ as much as possible. Sometimes, I almost forget they can’t see.”

As for me, I didn’t come away from the trip feeling worthy or self-righteous. I simply had a great time with new friends, laughed a lot and drank way too much rum. In fact, there were times when I forgot who was guiding whom.

Essentials

How to do it
Traveleyes’ next trip to Cuba is planned for late 2016 (details yet to be released). A forthcoming 12-day itinerary to Costa Rica (29 June-10 July) will include watching sea turtles lay eggs, rainforest canopy walks, and relaxing in volcanic hot springs. It costs £3,398 per person for blind travellers, and £1,699 per person for their sighted guides. This price includes return flights from the UK, all B&B accommodation, some meals, transfers and guided excursions.

Further reading
Lonely Planet: Cuba. RRP: £14.99
A Sense of the World, by Jason Roberts.
The extraordinary adventures of James Holman, a 19th-century blind traveller. RRP: £12.99 (Simon & Schuster UK)


Published in the June 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)