The dark side: What it is like to travel as a blind person

It's the simplest tasks we take for granted. The knot in my stomach gets tighter. My mouth is dry and I feel beads of sweat form on my eyebrow as I clutch my partner's arm.

We patiently wait for the steady stream of motorbikes to end, but that moment never comes.

My cane is useless here. It keeps getting stuck and it's terrifyingly difficult to determine the width and stability of the rocks.

"When I say go, just go," my partner warns. And then we're off; rushing across the uneven street, weaving through motorbikes. The scent of fish wafts through the air, tuk-tuks whiz by, drivers toot their horns. About 10 motorbikes head directly for us.

I want to freeze, run, or yell for them to stop. But just as we think we are going to be hit, they swerve around us. It's effortless. My feet finally hit the pavement on the other side and the wave of relief is palpable. We've crossed the main street in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh. We've survived.

Cambodia represents an incredible paradox; a disturbing past, yet a positive attitude for the future. Many tourists, like me, visit Phnom Penh to see the Killing Fields and museums recounting the atrocities of the Pol Pot regime.

We spot several disabled people on our travels throughout the city. Many tell us how they lost limbs in land mine accidents. Others recall losing their vision while playing with explosive devices that looked like toys.

Having lost my vision at the age of six months, I sympathise with the challenges of life in the dark. What I can't comprehend is the difficulties of being involved in such a horrific accident where your entire sense of being changes in a single moment.

I meet a group of individuals who have experienced unimaginable pain, yet come out as strong, hard-working people. I'm at the Seeing Hands Massage Clinic, where nine therapists provide deep tissue treatments. They're all blind.

My interest for travel was sparked on a family holiday to Europe. Before that, I'd never really considered overseas adventures because everything I'd heard about travelling centred around the visual experience. But, on a journey through Italy and France, I soon discovered that the beauty of trekking around the world extends far beyond the eye.

Advertisement

To this day, I can taste that Caprese salad I had in Sorrento more than six years ago. That creamy buffalo mozzarella melted beautifully into the sweet, juicy vine-ripened tomatoes (the way tomatoes are meant to taste).

People talk of the romance and beauty of Paris, but my other senses tell me a different story. The sound of drivers furiously revving and swerving their cars didn't seem  dreamy to me.

Nor did the sound of high heels racing along footpaths and workers rolling their briefcases along the streets. The city felt clogged, like it was ready for the boardroom, not the bedroom.

Venice, on the other hand, with the smell of hot pastries, cathedral bells softly ringing and relaxed footsteps meandering along timber planks ... it instantly captured my heart.

Travel for someone with a disability involves intense planning and careful consideration. In 2011, I travelled alone to Indonesia to stay with a host family in frantic Jakarta. I remember feeling so excited.

However, once the plane left Sydney airport and there was no turning back, the nerves started to set in. I thought to myself: "You have no idea where you are going! You don't know anything about this family you are about to stay with!"

I relied on a driver to get to various attractions, where I'd meet guides I'd booked from home. Before embarking on any independent travel, I spend time producing run sheets with flight details, important dates and phone numbers in a format that is easily accessible when I'm abroad on my own.

When you have no vision, travelling often centres around the people you meet along the way.

Back in Phnom Penh, my masseuse points to where I need to sit. I try my best to explain that he needs to tap the spot so I can hear where to go. I point out I also can't see. There's silence in the room.

"You are like me?" he cheerfully asks. He then shuffles away for a while, leaving me confused. When my fabulous one-hour massage is complete, I use my cane to edge my way to the reception desk. It becomes clear he'd gone outside to tell his colleagues that I was also vision-impaired. All nine therapists are waiting to meet me.

Language barriers prevent us from speaking to each other but they make it very clear they are thrilled I have visited. They all reach out to touch me. Some hug me, others squeal. What surprises me most is the way they orientate themselves around the office. They use their hands to trail along the walls and rely on their memories to access parts of the building.

This is a far cry from the assistance I receive in Sydney, where I have a cane instructor to show me how to get from A to B independently. I usually travel abroad with my partner, but even the most skilful cane-user would have found navigating the temples of Angkor near Siem Reap a challenge. Here, my cane was both a blessing and a bother.

I'd wanted to visit Cambodia for a long time. Friends had described the people as the nicest they'd ever met. I was interested in learning more about the history and Khmer cuisine.

Discovering more about the religious traditions is also another important reason for our visit. We tackle the temples in the wet season. While many tourists opt to cycle or tuk-tuk through the area, we are advised to hire a car and driver for the day.

This means we can avoid getting wet when travelling between temples. It also gives us a chance to rest and escape the stifling heat. 

Bayon​ is the first and most challenging temple to climb. It's rugged, with steep steps and uneven chunks of rock jutting out of the ground and walls. My cane is useless here. It keeps getting stuck and it's terrifyingly difficult to determine the width and stability of the rocks before stepping forward. Instead, I use it more as a pole to lean on and pull myself up over boulders.

I find it easier to rely on my partner's explanations of where to place my feet. My sense of touch comes in handy to feel all the magnificent hand-carved pictures in the 12th-century stone.

My favourite is an intricate depiction of a lady in traditional dress dancing. I can feel her legs and arms gracefully extending, a cape delicately draped around her and long strands of flowing hair perfectly placed. Every crease feels as if it was etched yesterday.

The next two temples are far easier to navigate. Ta Prohm​ is an enormous structure in an idyllic jungle setting. Much of the temple seems to have remained untouched from the time it was discovered. There are trees growing on the walls and many timber planks creaking as you walk.

It's a smooth journey through this religious structure, with steps at an even height and a relatively flat surface. There's a sense of peace here more than in other temples.

The scent of incense couples nicely with that of ancient wood and the surrounding rainforest. It reminds me of that oak smell you find when you walk into old churches, like a well-aged chardonnay.

Angkor Wat is the final and most anticipated temple we visit. It's just before lunchtime on a week day and the intense humidity hasn't stopped the hundreds of people from making the journey to this sacred place.

Before climbing the temple, I stop to take a picture with a group of local kids dressed in religious costume. Their chatter and laughter comes to a sudden halt as we approach. Instinct tells me their curious eyes are glued to me. That feeling is unsettling at first, but I can also feel their smiles as they pull me in to their little group with convivial pats on the arm and warm hugs. 

We wave goodbye to the children and head towards the temple with a steady stream of other tourists.

We climb small, narrow steps to reach the top. I feel my arms tense as I hold on to the railings. My legs shake from the fear of falling.

"Please take it slowly," my partner gently warns. There's an element of concern in his voice. I get the drift he's not being completely honest about just how high up we are. I tell myself not to fall, then immediately push that thought aside because I don't want anything to distract me.

We finally reach the top and tiptoe inside, my heart beating and hands shaking after such a scary ascent. Standing in the heritage-listed monument and feeling the ancient carvings on the walls is magic. Every traveller has a bucket list. Dealing with South-East Asian traffic and visiting the famous temples of Angkor were on mine. With the help of a supportive partner I was able to overcome accessibility challenges to achieve both.

Nastasia Campanella is a broadcast journalist.

Comments