While many of us fear stepping out of our comfort zones even under normal circumstances, Tony Giles, a UK based traveller and writer has been globetrotting on his own despite being both visually as well as hearing impaired. We caught up with the solo traveller who has been to over 130 countries and counting, to find out all about his unique experiences. By Amitha Ameen
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Everyone has a reason to travel, and for author and world traveller Tony Giles, it is to learn and embrace new cultures along the way. To him, being visually disabled and partially deaf is irrelevant. Instead, he believes travel can help break barriers of race, religion, culture, and disability. This #WorldTourismDay, remind yourself that travel has no boundaries, provided you have the zeal and passion for it. After all, to travel is to evolve. #TnlIndia #LetItPass #StepAhead #India #WorldTourismDay #WTD #WTD2020 #TonyGiles
When did the travel bug bite you?
I got the travel bug in my mid-teens as a result of my dad’s travel stories from when he was in the merchant navy, combined with a trip to Boston, USA, at the age of 16, with my friends from boarding school for visually impaired children. Everything was different — the pavements were wider, people spoke differently, more loudly and asked me direct questions, unlike in the UK. It was an eye-opener and I wanted to experience more.
Your first solo trip was to New Orleans. What was it like?
Going to New Orleans by myself was life-changing for me. From the airport, I took a taxi to the hostel I’d booked and, once there, settled in, before asking how to visit Bourbon Street, the centre of the city’s nightlife. I walked outside, descended the hostel’s steps, and then froze. I panicked. I thought to myself — I can’t do this. I’m totally blind, partially deaf, in an unknown, dangerous city, alone, I can’t do this. I took a few deep breaths and said to myself — Tony, this is what you want, if you don’t want it, go home! So I took a few more breaths, turned left, walked down the street, asked someone to show me to a tram stop. I caught a tram, went downtown, and had a blast. I didn’t look back and the rest, as they say, is history. I’ve been travelling ever since.
The one must-try experience I’d recommend is to try zorbing, it’s fantastic! It’s full of adrenaline rush and I love it!
When you arrive at a place, what is the first thing that catches your attention?
The first thing I notice after arriving at a new place is the atmosphere and the various smells. I sense the different sounds of people talking in a foreign language, or glasses clinking and cutlery, the buzz of conversation upon entering a restaurant or a bar. The almost completely hushed sounds in a large church, cathedral, mosque, or art gallery. I hear the honking and loud traffic on the streets and feel the humidity and the energy in a large foreign city. I enjoy the aroma of frying onions and meat as I stroll through a thriving market in Jerusalem, Israel, or Manila, Philippines.
You went backpacking in Russia. Although you mentioned that you had managed to simplify your trip, what were some of the challenges that you faced?
The biggest challenge when travelling in Russia was the language barrier. I don’t speak Russian, although I did attempt to learn a few words like Spasiba, which is basically (thank you), Dobro (Good), and Da (yes). Nevertheless, attempting any conversation or asking for even the simplest of things, like food or directions, was impossible. To get around this problem, I booked all my transportation in advance, including flight tickets to and from Russia and also the various train tickets needed for each long journey within the country.
I somehow managed to connect with few people on the internet, who could speak some English and were able to meet me at the train station or send me their house address via email, which I could print off and show to a taxi driver. I also took the phone number of the person I was staying with as a back-up. The key is to be organised and have alternative plans.
Your fondest trip of 2019?
Travelling around Eritrea and Ethiopia in March-April 2019 was wonderful. I met kind, helpful, and friendly people in both countries and discovered many interesting facts about each nation. I had amazing cultural experiences by staying with local people and trying their cuisine.
Do you prefer beaches or mountains?
Probably mountains, as I usually prefer a cooler climate, but I also love the sound and smell of the ocean. Relaxing on the beach is okay, but I get restless easily!
How do you manage your solo travels?
I have a laptop with a screen reading software called JAWS. Every time I press a key, it speaks to me. So I can read emails, write books and documents, and surf the web. I research each city/country I wish to visit and look up all the necessary information including what attractions are available and how accessible are they to a blind person. I gather this information in a word document and transfer it onto a digital recorder so that I can listen to it as I travel.
I get a family member or friend to book flights for me as many airline websites are difficult to navigate and access, request the company in question for special assistance throughout my flight journey. I book accommodation online, such as hostels or guesthouses, but also use Couchsurfing — a website where travellers can find like-minded people to stay with for free. I usually mention that I’m blind, but independent, and often get accepted.
My biggest problem when travelling alone is getting money and using an ATM. I usually travel with enough of the local currency to last the first week or so but, ultimately, I have to use the ATM at some point during my journey. So, I find someone I feel I can trust, like a fellow traveller or a staff member of accommodation. Of course, I can always use a debit card, but heavy charges can occur when using a debit/credit card outside of the UK.
Likewise, knowing what food to eat can be difficult when travelling in countries you don’t know much about. I can’t read a menu or point at pictures that may describe a dish. Therefore, it’s useful to know a couple of national dishes or cuisines of the country I’m visiting.
What are the things you never travel without?
I never travel without my long white cane. It would almost be impossible to get around without it. Spare hearing aid batteries and parts are essential as I can’t hear without my hearing aids. A comfortable, lightweight backpack is necessary. An audio device containing audiobooks, various types of rock music, and information regarding the country I’m visiting plus accommodation and travel info is also essential, especially on long trips. I’m a practical person and many of my adventures involve hiking or other physical activities. Therefore, it’s good to have firm, comfortable footwear, like sandals/flip-flops in the hot climate. I usually travel with a laptop in order to have frequent access to the internet, to connect with my partner when travelling.
You mentioned that you love to bungee jump. Tell us about your best bungee-jumping experience?
I’ve bungee jumped 17 times thus far and I love it! Probably my best and most favourite bungee jumping experience was doing the Pipeline Bungy backwards, off the Skippers Canyon Bridge, near Queenstown, South Island, New Zealand, in January 2002. A bungee jump of 73 metres!
What is that one advice you would like to give to our readers?
Live life to the full! Go out there and try something new, something different. Travel is for everyone, specially-abled or not. You don’t have to venture alone; go with a friend, a partner, or a family member. Go to a place you’ve always dreamed of visiting. Start with a weekend away in your own country. Once you find out that you like it and gain confidence, try a journey further away and eventually build up to going abroad. It can be done.
What’s your dream destination?
My favourite destination is New Zealand. The kind and friendly people, the wonderful isolating nature, the ability to undertake any crazy sporting activities available, the Maori culture, and much more… I could live in NZ! I don’t know if I have a dream destination as I want to visit every country in the world.
What have you been up to during the lockdown?
During the lockdown, I’ve been self-isolation away from friends and family because I have an underlying health condition. I’ve been playing lots of rock music, listening to many different audiobooks — from authors like John Connolly, Dan Brown, and PJ Tracy, to several biographical books including, Michael Mansfield, British lawyer QC and Sir Winston Churchill, among others. I’ve also been involved in a couple of travel podcasts, which are available on my website and Facebook page. So, I’ve been keeping busy.
The first destination you will be heading to post Corona?
The first destination I’ll be heading to post Corona will most likely be Greece to visit and spend time with my girlfriend. She’s also visually impaired. We met on the internet, 12 years ago. My first new destination will hopefully be Bangladesh, India, or Bhutan, a trip I should have undertaken in March-April this year.