The day before
The first time I met blind traveller Tony Giles and his girlfriend Tatiana was the night before his TEDxVienna Talk- he was nervous, excited and indecisive whether they should get the Ravioli or the Gulash for dinner.
The first thing that came to my mind was that Tony has an amazing sense of humor. The kind of humor that doesn’t step onto others’ weaknesses, but rather a courageous and honest one. A humor that dares to address awkwardness, breaks stereotypes and brings people closer together. “Travelling is like sex. The more you talk about it, the less you do it”, he will tell to his audience the next day on the stage of Volkstheater.
I believe no blind man with an 80% hearing impairment ever stood on this stage talking about sex.
I also believe that you learn a lot about people by observing how they treat others. The night before the conference, I witnessed the way Tony and Tatiana interacted with each other – despite the loud clinking of glasses, the noisy bustling about, the shrill voices in the back, they seemed to be all by and for themselves in the room. They were in the moment.
This is how I found them after his TEDxTalk right before our interview: standing next to each other and holding hands. Only that this time Tony was surrounded by seven attendees who came to express their admiration for him. I could see Tatianas silent, knowing smile as all these people congratulated him on his inspirational Talk and thanked him for “reminding them of what is really important in life”. Minutes ago, Tony had just told the audience his astonishing story: how he travelled solo to 132 countries over a 22 year period.
His girlfriend smiled as if she had heard it numerous times: the tone of surprise resonating all these voices. How often she must heave heard it, in how many countries across the world? It is the tone of surprise about how a blind man with a strong hearing impairment can travel the world by himself. As if Tony were a living contradiction, a bundle of “how is this possible”-s, a question mark rather than an exclamation point.
We left the admiring crowd and found ourselves a silent place for the interview. However, we never really had an interview. Because surprisingly, Tony was the first interviewee ever to ask me questions about my life before I started with my questions. He asked me where I come from, about my home and why I live in Vienna. In fact, he was also the first interviewee to give me the feeling that we are having a meaningful conversation rather than a one-sided sharing of information.
“In your TEDxTalk you mentioned that you always try to absorb the atmosphere of a new place. Can you explain to me how you do that?”
T: “Whenever I find myself in an unknown place the first thing I do is to stand still and allow by body to relax and I allow my skin, my smell, my hearing to do what your eyes do for you. I sense the space around me, the echoes of people talking and moving, whether the streets are wide and expansive or narrow. I can tell by the echo, to some extent. My skin is very sensitive, too. I might pick up a change in the air or a shadow. What I also notice is the change of gradients: whether the street goes up or down. If we would be walking in an old cathedral now, I could sense the roughness of the stones, if they have holes they might be old and damaged…I take all that in and that gives me a mental picture. I like places with audio guides, where I can get all the information. When Tatiana and I travel we love joining city- walking tours, because we can interact with the guides and of course, because usually they are for free. People ask me „How did you find the metro station? “and I tell them: “I walk along the street, if I don’t find it right away I simply ask or follow the people.” When it gets busier and noisier that is a good indication I am heading towards a metro or a train station.”
“You travelled to so many places and experienced an impressing diversity in cultures. Did you trace stereotypes when it came to people’s behavior?”
T: “I was used to people in the US and Canada, who tend to be outgoing and super friendly. In Eastern Europe on the other side, people where much shier and more hesitant about whether they could touch my arm, how to help me or how to communicate with me in general. Also, in Asia they really struggle with blind people, I sensed them starring and talking very quietly. But the big commonality was that in poor countries, once you leave the city and find yourself on the countryside, people are more helpful. Maybe because they have seen more disabled people, while in the big city you might oversee and thusly forget about them.”
“Allow me to turn the question around: Did you have any stereotypes before visiting a different culture, and to which extent did these change?”
T: “Oh definitely! When I started travelling by the age of 19, I initially thought that people might feel sorry for me because they pitied me. Then I learned that people hang out with me not because I am blind, but because they like me. So, I realized I hadn’t had stereotypes regarding the cultures I travelled to, but an overall stereotype about how people react to my disability. I believe I broke this one.”
“So what will happen after you have visited all the countries in the world?”
T: “It is gonna take me another twenty years to visit all of them. After that I maybe will open a hostel in New Zealand and let the travellers come to me. I also wanna keep writing more books and travel stories.”
Interviews are about getting information, but conversations are about reciprocal vulnerability and honesty. If I expected honest answers from Tony, I had to be honest myself. Therefore, my last question to Tony was what home means to him:
“Growing up in between cultures, I struggle with the concept and the definition of home. Home can be a place, a person, a feeling. For me, home could be anything and nothing, that is how confused I am with the term. It can be tackled from philosophical, sociological and psychological perspectives. But the perspective I am interested in at the moment is yours. What do you call home?”
I could sense that Tony did not expect this question. Tatiana, who sat next to him, also raised her eyebrows with curiosity. He took some seconds to gather his thoughts and shape an answer. Again, he dived into the moment.
T: “I think home is a place where you feel comfortable. Where you can close the door from the rest of the world for a few days. Where you can just take your shoes off and not worry what you wear, what you do, what you say. That is home for me. Currently I live in this small town in South West England, I have been there for ten years and I live next to the sea. Anywhere I live and will live, it needs to be by the sea. By the ocean. I need to hear it and smell it.”
I thanked Tony for his time and words and left him enjoy this moment of envisioning a mental image of home; of his place in South West England next to the waves of the ocean.
I have to admit, Tony is a true inspiration. Not due to his impairment, but rather because he dared to lead a life from one courageous, breathtaking exclamation point to the other. However, he still leaves me with a substantial question mark: with a question I think I already know the answer to. How can he see home while my eyes cannot?
Header image copyright: Natalia Sanderson
Tony Giles stories are also available as E-Books
About Tony Giles:
Author Tony Giles was born in Weston-super-Mare, southwest England in 1978. Diagnosed at a young age with Cone Dystrophy, a rare eye condition, and Photophobia, an extreme sensitivity to light. He maintained some vision until the age of approximately 12 when he lost all sight except for his ability to sense bright sunlight. At the age of four, he developed nerve sensory hearing loss that has progressively worsened over time. Despite these disabilities, Tony has travelled globally, seeing countries through his sense of smell, sound, touch, spatial awareness, taste and interaction with the local people.