‘I see the world through smell and sen­sa­tion’

Tony Giles is blind and par­tially deaf – but is also a huge glo­be­trot­ter. He shares his re­mark­able story with Annabel Fen­wick-El­liott

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - FRONT PAGE -

Close your eyes, cover your ears – now go and tour Rome on your own. It’s a prospect that seems un­fea­si­ble, and yet voy­ag­ing the world solo while blind and mostly deaf is ex­actly what Tony Giles does, and he’s al­most cer­tainly bet­ter trav­elled than you are.

The Devon-based au­thor, who was di­ag­nosed with a rare ge­netic visual and au­di­tory im­pair­ment dur­ing his early child­hood, has vis­ited 127 coun­tries, in­clud­ing all seven con­ti­nents. “I plan to con­tinue trav­el­ling un­til I’ve vis­ited ev­ery sin­gle coun­try in the world, then keep trav­el­ling un­til I die,” he says.

Giles will turn 40 this year. He was nine months old when the prob­lem with his vi­sion was dis­cov­ered – cone dys­tro­phy and pho­to­pho­bia. At six, he was de­clared par­tially deaf in both ears. He could see in black and white un­til the age of 10.

Now he’s en­tirely blind and about 80 per cent deaf. A pow­er­ful hearing aid helps him to hear in cer­tain sce­nar­ios. “It’s like hav­ing a phone con­ver­sa­tion on a bro­ken tele­phone line,” he ex­plains. “I hear some sounds and words clearly but miss oth­ers.”

Giles was ed­u­cated at schools for the vis­ually im­paired, where he gained all the skills needed to achieve in­de­pen­dence, such as Braille, mo­bil­ity train­ing and the use of spe­cial com­puter soft­ware.

So with­out sight, and very lim­ited hearing, what is it ac­tu­ally like to nav­i­gate the world alone?

“I ex­pe­ri­ence mon­u­ments by climb­ing them: as I have the Eif­fel Tower and the Statue of Lib­erty,” he ex­plains. “I ex­pe­ri­ence cities by walk­ing them. I no­tice shift­ing gra­di­ents and de­tect the changes in sur­faces un­der my feet. I sense the change in space when hik­ing the nar­row trails of a for­est, as they lead out to an open field when the fresh wind hits my face. I visit fa­mous churches, mosques and tem­ples, touch their crum­bling walls and feel the tex­tures that have been lay­ered over the cen­turies.

“I en­joy the aro­mas of a mar­ket­place – the grilling of meat, the fry­ing of onions and gar­lic, the zesty spices, gin­ger and herbs. It’s the hus­tle and bus­tle of some­where like Jerusalem’s Old City, or Zanz­ibar’s Stone Town – alive with peo­ple, an­i­mals and sell­ers hag­gling – that gives me the im­pres­sion of a place.”

Best of all, though, are high-adrenalin ex­pe­ri­ences, he says. “I’ve bungee jumped 16 times thus far, sky­dived three times, and white water rafted in Aus­tralia, New Zealand, Costa Rica and Zam­bia, to name a few. I love it be­cause I can feel ev­ery­thing.”

The thrill of move­ment, he says, and the chal­lenges of get­ting from A to B, are what con­tinue to mo­ti­vate him – he favours the richer sen­sa­tions of trains and boats over other modes of trans­port.

To plan his trips, Giles uses a type of soft­ware called JAWS that al­lows him to read his com­puter screen us­ing text-to-speech out­put. With this he can re­search des­ti­na­tions, book hos­tels and or­gan­ise his itin­er­ary. He then trav­els with a dig­i­tal de­vice that stores his doc­u­ments and re­search, phone num­bers, di­rec­tions to and from air­ports and around pub­lic trans­port, as well as ebooks. Hearing aids, spare bat­ter­ies, and a spare cane to guide him are also on his pack­ing list.

As for smart­phones, un­like most other vis­ually im­paired peo­ple, it’s a firm no.

“I don’t like swipe tech­nol­ogy, it drives me mad,” Giles ex­plains. “It may help me lo­cate a spe­cific place more quickly and in­de­pen­dently, but I like en­gag­ing with the pub­lic to help me find places – and any­way, in places like Africa, the in­ter­net is hardly re­li­able.”

Asked what he does when he gets lost, Giles says: “I al­ways make sure I have an ad­dress card with the place I’m stay­ing writ­ten on it in the lo­cal lan­guage, so if I’m really stuck, I can shout, ‘Taxi!’, show them the card and re­turn to my ac­com­mo­da­tion.”

Learn­ing new lan­guages on the go is a chal­lenge, but Giles says he al­ways at­tempts to mem­o­rise the ba­sics (“hello”, “thank you”, “water”) for wher­ever he’s off to.

Giles funds his trav­els partly us­ing the pri­vate pen­sion his fa­ther left him when he died, and partly with earn­ings from the two books he’s writ­ten, the first of which – See­ing the World My Way – was re­pub­lished as an ebook last year.

He keeps to a tight bud­get, uses pub­lic trans­port wher­ever pos­si­ble, joins free walk­ing tours, and makes use of sofa-surf­ing when he can.

“It’s great for meet­ing and stay­ing with lo­cal peo­ple, an ex­change of cul­tures,” Giles re­marks.

The one place he wouldn’t re­visit? “Ar­me­nia,” he says. “I found get­ting about and vis­it­ing places dif­fi­cult, and felt most peo­ple I en­coun­tered just wanted to make money out of me. There were only a few back­pack­ers, so it was hard to net­work and get help with di­rec­tions.”

And the best places he’s been to? New Zealand and Antarc­tica. “I turned up in Ushuaia [Ar­gentina] and found a cruise ship will­ing to take me at the last minute,” he re­calls.

“It was nine days of magic. I touched whale bones washed up on the shore, sat on huge chunks of ice, stroked glaciers, and lis­tened to the cack­les of pen­guins all around.”

Some­times he trav­els with his girl­friend of nine years. She is also blind and lives in Athens. They met af­ter she came across his web­site, af­ter which a friend­ship evolved into a re­la­tion­ship, but Giles says that when they’re apart, he never feels lonely.

As he pre­pares him­self for Oman, we ask what sim­ple things oth­ers could do, should they cross his path, to make his pas­sage eas­ier.

“Speak to me be­fore of­fer­ing to help, rather than just grab­bing me,” he ad­vises. “A gen­tle tap on the arm or shoul­der fol­lowed by ‘Do you need any help?’ will suf­fice. And please – don’t point when giv­ing di­rec­tions.”

ATHENS TO THE USA Tony in the Greek cap­i­tal, left, and Alaska, right

ADRENALIN RUSHES With a croc­o­dile in South Africa, right; on New Zealand’s Sho­tover Jet, above left; ex­plor­ing Dubrovnik, above

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