‘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
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