The Blind Tourist

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What to Do in Paris?

Eiffel Tower, Paris, France

Having decided to travel to Paris and Normandy, we then settled down to research what we wanted to do in each destination. As you can imagine, we landed up with an impressive list of things to do and places to see.

Here’s a few of the items on our list for Paris:

• Visit the Chateau at Versailles,
• A boat ride on the River Seine
• Visit the Paris Catacombs
• Return to the Louvre
• Visit Les Invalides
• Explore the left bank of the Seine
• Visit the Conciergerie
• Get a night photo of the Eiffel Tower
• Visit Sainte- Chapelle
• Go on a street food tour of Belleville, a suburb of Paris
• Visit the Arc de Triumph
• Go on a Paris city walking tour

Over the next few weeks I’ll share a few of the highlights of our time in Paris and some of the places we got to visit. Then I’m going to move on to our time in Normandy.

Where will we be off to first?

You’ll have to wait till next week to find out!

Deciding on a Destination

Selection of flags hanging on a wall

Craig and I have a tradition. When we travel to a new country, we buy a small flag of whatever country we’ve been to. These flags are displayed in our indoor braai room –barbeque, for those who aren’t South African. So far, we’ve collected around 20 flags.

This begs the question of why our recent trip was to France, since we’ve already been there and have a flag.

The decision came out of a marathon that Craig wanted to do. It was a marathon through the winelands of Bordeaux, with an amazing array of food and wine at the various water tables. If I’m honest, it sounded almost good enough for me to consider taking up running as well. Almost, but not quite! Anyway, Craig didn’t manage to get an entry for that race, but by then we’d already started chatting about what else we could do when we were in France.

Another factor that played a role in the decision was that both Craig and I are fascinated by history. Granted, my interests focus more on ancient history while Craig tends to enjoy both ancient and modern history. As such, it seemed like Normandy would satisfy both of us – the ancient history being that of William the Conqueror, who became king of England in 1066, and the more recent history of the Allied landings in Normandy towards the end of WWII.

Okay, we also wanted a slightly smaller French flag than the one we had, since our collection – shown in the photographs – is becoming quite full. But that was only a secondary consideration.

And so it was that we spent time in France – a week in Paris and 10 days in Normandy. Over the next few weeks I’ll share a few highlights… and lowlights… of our wonderful trip with you.

Hopefully, we’ll be able to add another new flag to our collection next time we travel. But that remains to be seen – we haven’t started planning our next trip yet.

PS: How many of the flags can you identify? Sorry, no prizes for correct answers.

Shh! Don’t Tell Anyone…

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I’m going to let you into a secret – right now I’m sitting in a small town in the middle of Normandy in France. Yes, I’m actually taking a break from what has turned out to be a wonderfully busy and exciting year.

I’ve been in France for more than a week already and have lots of stories and experiences to share with you when I get back home to Cape Town. At least Fiji’s still keeping the home fires burning, or there wouldn’t have been a blog post last week!

Anyway, I hope you don’t mind if I keep this post short. I still have lots of things to do and places to see and don’t want to wait a moment longer to get out and see what else Bayeux has to offer.

You’ll Never Believe What I’m Doing This Weekend!

Grahamstown

Guess where I’ll be this coming weekend – the National Arts Festival in Makhana, formerly Grahamstown. And I’ll be playing a gig while I’m there!

I’m one of the artists performing at the Blind Date Variety Show that’s part of the Fringe Festival – details are in the advert. You can book on the National Arts Festival website: www.nationalartsfestival.co.za

And Fiji will be there with me so no doubt both she and I will blog about our experiences in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, if you happen to be attending the National Arts Festival, it would be great to see you at our show…

Kolkata: A few Thoughts on accessibility

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I’m always keen to discover how accessible a destination is, not only for me as The Blind Tourist, but for those with other disabilities.

As I’ve said before, each disability faces different challenges when traveling. As a simple example, a person in a wheelchair may have difficulty getting around a tourist site, if insufficient work has been done to create the correct accommodations like wider door access, ramps with the correct gradients, and accessible restroom facilities.

As a visually impaired tourist, I most often find the challenge is around access to information, which is why I do so much research about places I’m visiting before I even leave home. When it comes down to it, that research can only give me an overview. It doesn’t always help with the details and, as the famous saying goes, the devil is in the details.

So, what were my impressions of the accessibility of Kolkata,

For me, the hardest part of spending time in Kolkata was getting used to the sensory overload that is Kolkata – the vast numbers of vehicles on the roads, including their seemingly incessant hooting,; the amount of people on the sidewalks, especially at tourist sites and events like the IPL Cricket; and my lack of familiarity of the social norms in the country.

I’m sure I could have learned how to navigate around independently given time. But since I was trying to adjust to the dynamic, vibrant, and diverse new place in which I found myself, I didn’t really have the time to start developing techniques to get around on my own. Except within the hotel, which doesn’t really count.

Although I’m no expert when it comes to what may or may not constitute accessibility for someone in a wheelchair, or with other mobility challenges, my impression is that physical accessibility is great in some areas, less so in others. Certainly, I found myself wondering how someone in a wheelchair might navigate the amazing Alleys and Street Food Walking Tour we did while in the city. I’m doubtful the tour would have been accessible in its current form. But I’m sure our host would have been willing and able to adjust the tour to find more accessible options.

Which brings me to one of my favourite aspects of my trip to Kolkata – the people. No matter what barrier I encountered, I discovered that people were always willing to help find or implement a solution. And I’m sure a traveler with a mobility impairment would find the same.

Having said that, I believe there is value in communicating with others who have experienced the accessibility of the place you’re planning on traveling to – whether another traveler with a similar reality, or an accessible travel professional. They can give you invaluable advice on your options.

By chance, a few days after returning home I came across an article, written by such a professional, that deals, in part, with accessibility in India. I’ve included the link below as I feel the article is a great resource for anyone considering traveling to India, regardless of whether or not you have a disability.

Did you know that India is surprisingly accessible?

I hope you’ve enjoyed joining me on parts of my journey to Kolkata. India is a country I hope to visit again – either for a return trip to Kolkata or to discover a different city or region.

Hooting in Kolkata – Warning Signal or Unique Form of Communication?

Do you have any idea how nervous I felt crossing the multi-lane roads in Kolkata? And that was with sighted assistance. Doing so independently would have made me a nervous wreck!

It wasn’t that the roads were busy. Well, it was partially that, because I’ve never experienced such high volumes of traffic, even in the few times I’ve driven in rush-hour traffic in Johannesburg. Rather, what kept me in this heightened sense of anxiety was the constant hooting.

In South Africa hooting is generally used as a warning of imminent danger. So, if I’m walking with my guide dog and a nearby car hoots, I’m going to be on high alert.

in Kolkata, hooting seems to be more of a form of communication. It’s a way of letting the others on the road know you’re about to do something – like overtaking them, turning a corner, or parallel parking. And, with the vast numbers of vehicles on the road, it just seems to work.

To the uninitiated like me it seemed at first that the roads in Kolkata were crazy. The hooting only added to that perception, because I kept expecting danger to leap out from somewhere and devour us. So I was on a razor’s edge of anxiety anytime we were out and about in Kolkata those first few days.

But, it soon became my new normal, and it wasn’t long before I was happily walking across roads without even blinking when a driver hooted to let us know he was passing immediately behind us in the lane we’d just crossed.

In fact, I was unnerved by the almost total silence when we drove home from the airport on our return to Cape Town. I almost felt relieved when I heard a car hoot. It took another day or two for me to adapt back to our South African way of hooting… or not hooting, as the case may be. Which wasn’t a bad thing, since my initial anxiety kept me on high alert on my first walk with my guide dog after I got back. Although, I wonder if I’d just have waved if a driver had hooted. Or checked around me to ensure I wasn’t in danger.

The short video clip is of Craig and I on an auto-rickshaw navigating the streets of Kolkata.

Putting My Skills to Good Use

You might remember that I started lessons on using a white cane shortly before I left for my trip to India. I shared a few articles on what I was learning just before I left. Today I want to let you know how I put those lessons to good use during my trip.

I spent five days working in the hotel. During the day I was on my own, except when I encountered people from housekeeping who came to clean the room or bring bottled water for those oh-so-necessary cups of tea. I didn’t mind the solitude. It gave me a chance to catch up on a project that’s been awaiting my attention for far too long – turning my book into an audio version.

But here’s the thing you might not have realized – being on my own meant I’d have to navigate my way round the hotel independently if I wanted to leave the room for any reason. And, since my trusty guide dog was back in Cape Town, I’d need to use my white cane to do it.

I know it sounds insane, but I’ve never navigated a hotel on my own. Not once despite having visited 21 different countries since losing my sight. I’ve always had a sighted guide to assist me.

The first time I walked to the bank of elevators on my own I was a little nervous. Even though there was no way I could get lost. Then I had to get to the restaurant level and find my way there from the elevator. Luckily, the restaurant played music so I listened closely as I stepped out of the elevator and used the sound as a beacon to guide me. Before I knew it, I was in the restaurant ordering lunch.

Buoyed by my success I decided to find my way down to the lobby to meet Craig when he returned from his day of meetings. And, to my joy, that also worked.

You may be wondering what made this trip different – why I felt comfortable navigating the hotel independently where I’d never done so before.

Part of the answer is that I felt more comfortable navigating independently. Even though I’d only had a few lessons, simply using my cane gave me the confidence to push my boundaries. And another part is that I had a really good incentive– to be able to get to the restaurant. Sure, I could have ordered room service, but I couldn’t bring myself to pay the room service prices when I could just walk down to the restaurant instead. If I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and used my white stick.

Now that I’m back in Cape Town I’ve restarted my mobility training. By the time you read this article I’ll have been taught how to navigate one of our local shopping malls on my own. Who knows what I’ll be willing to try next?

The video shows me navigating my way down the hotel corridor towards the elevators using my white cane.

Kolkata: My Impressions of Poverty

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When we chatted to friends before our trip to India, we were cautioned that the extreme levels of abject poverty would hit us every time we ventured out of the hotel. I know how much I’m affected by seeing people experiencing hardships. So I was concerned that my visit to Kolkata would be overshadowed by my response to the poverty.

Yet, walking round Kolkata I didn’t get a sense of abject poverty. Please don’t think I’m trying to say that it wasn’t there – it was. But it was nowhere near as bad as the images I’d conjured after the warnings.

What I did experience was the reality that people in Kolkata would find innovative ways to earn even a small wage to contribute to their family’s survival. We passed countless informal shops selling everything under the sun. We passed people shelling pistachio nuts and selling them. And we saw people selling street food off banana leaf plates. It felt like almost everyone was engaged in some form of work, no matter how seemingly menial – to stay alive.

Yes, every now an then we encountered beggars, but we only came into contact with two. And I’d been led to believe there would be beggars surrounding us at every turn. A child caught hold of my arm as we were queueing to visit the Victoria Memorial. And a woman tried to separate Craig and I as we navigated our way through the crowds entering Eden Park for the IPL cricket match. Those were the only beggars I encountered.

Yes, I’m aware that my blindness may have protected me from seeing more of the poverty, especially since Craig knows how sensitive I am to the suffering of others. So it’s entirely possible my perception of the situation’s flawed.

When I checked online to see what the stats would tell me about my impression of the poverty in India, I learned that unemployment in India in 2018 was a mere 3.53%, compared to 27.2% in South Africa (2018) and around 6% in both USA and UK, although these last figures are now 6 years old.
I know employment doesn’t automatically equate to wealth, but I do feel that the statistic is interesting when placed against the comments we heard before our trip. I wonder how many of those comments were made based on movies like Shantaram and Slumdog Millionaire? I guess I’ll never know for sure.

What did almost break my heart was the number of unhealthy malnourished stray dogs that seemed to be everywhere we went. We even passed one curled up asleep on the stadium steps during the IPL cricket match. I’m sure he managed to find himself a good meal from scraps left behind by the 90 000 cricket fans after the match. I’m just amazed he was able to sleep through the noise of the game, but it didn’t seem to worry him one bit. Which made me smile despite feeling heartsore at his condition.

Kolkata: The Road less Traveled

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

– the Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost.

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That may be a strange way to start an article about an experience I had in the city of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) on my recent trip to India. Yet, it sums up my experience of the Calcutta Capsule Alleys and Street Food Walking Tour so perfectly that it felt right to use the quote.

There’s a couple of things you ought to know before I dive into the story. First, that visitors to Kolkata are warned not to drink tap water or eat street food. Second, that if you’re looking for a guided tour of the most famous tourist sites in Kolkata in an air-conditioned vehicle, then this isn’t for you. But, if you’re willing to take the road less travelled, you’ll love this experience, just as I did.

By now you’re probably wondering what on earth I’m talking about.

The Alley and Street Food Walking Tour is one of several walking tours offered by Soham, of the Calcutta Capsule. His aim is to show tourists the authentic Kolkata that he loves so much. And, since he grew up in the area, he knows all the secret gems of destinations and shows you a side of Kolkata that tourists generally don’t get to experience.

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The Alleys and Street Food Tour takes you on a 3-hour journey through historic narrow alleys in the heart of Kolkata where Soham shares stories of life in Kolkata, as well as tales of history, myth and fables. Along the way, you get to sample some truly delicious Bengali food from street food vendors and tiny eateries, experience Kolkata from the rooftops, and walk through some amazing local markets selling a rich diversity of produce.

The walking tour took me on a rich journey of the senses. From listening intently to the changes in sound as we weaved our way through a series of twisting narrow alleys with buildings soaring high above our heads; smelling the intoxicating scent of incense from the local religious shrines and spices from street food vendors. Listening to the chaotic yet friendly hubbub of a city of 10 million people – cars hooting, people haggling prices in the many informal stalls on the streets and markets that we passed. Feeling my way cautiously up three flights of uneven spiral stairs to emerge onto a rooftop that felt like we were on top of the world peering down on the busy streets below. Walking past local businesses ranging from a multi-generational family goldsmith to a sweet shop that had been in operation for more than 250 years. From start to finish, the tour was a wonderful riot of sensations that appealed to my every sense.

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And then there was the food – starting with a small cup of chai tea loaded with sugar, through various types of curries and traditional local dishes, to a variety of Bengali sweets, for which the area is famous. I should clarify that Bengali sweets aren’t like candy – they’re more like small cakes, donuts, or biscuits made from loads and loads of sugar of one kind or another. Even the ones that don’t taste sweet are deceptively so, so be warned! And, despite eating only small portions, you won’t leave hungry. Even if you’re a fussy vegetarian like me.

You’re probably wondering why I’m speaking so rapturously about street food considering the warning at the start of the article. Weren’t we worried about eating street food? Not at all. You see, we’d done our research– the tour received such high ratings and glowing reviews on both Trip Advisor and Airbnb that we figured the food must be okay. And we didn’t see a single review mentioning … shall we say negative consequences from eating it.

From what I’ve said, obviously I’d recommend the walking tour for anyone who happens to be visiting Kolkata. But, seeing as I doubt too many of you will be doing so in the near future, I hope giving you a tiny taste of my incredible experience will encourage you to look beyond the popular tourist experiences and take the road less traveled next time you’re on holiday. You never know what you’ll experience!

Kolkata: Cricket Match or Rock Concert?

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As the 90 000 crowd surged to their feet with a mighty roar, I found myself wondering if I’d somehow slipped from one dimension to another. While it might have felt like it, we weren’t at a rock concert. We were at a cricket match – but a cricket match unlike any I’d seen before.

Neither my husband nor I are avid sport watchers, but friends and family told us that we shouldn’t miss the opportunity of going to an IPL cricket match while we were in India. They told us it’d be unlike anything we’d experienced before. And they were right!

So that’s why we found ourselves sitting high up in the stadium amongst 89998 cheering cricket fans supporting the home team, Kolkata Knight Riders in a match against the team from New Delhi. Okay, maybe not 89998 KKR supporters exactly. I’m sure I heard a few people yelling for the visiting team as well – but only a scattered few.

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The match got off to an electric start, with the opening batter from the KKR team going out on the very first ball. And that was when the crowd went absolutely wild with excitement.

Somehow it seemed that cricket had changed totally from when I last watched a game. Gone were the prim and proper fan responses, when people would clap politely and say something inane like Öh, jolly good shot!” when a batsman struck a 4. Instead, we had the entire crowd leaping to their feet with cries of jubilation, waving KKR flags wildly and with sexy cheerleaders executing complicated dance routines to thumping music. And that was just when a batsman hit a 4. Can you imagine the response when they hit a 6!

I’ll admit I was a little lost during the game. I don’t know why I’d expected there to be a commentary of what was happening on the pitch, but no such luck. So I had to make do with the odd sound of a cricket ball hitting a cricket bat, and then trying to figure out what had just happened by listening to the crowd’s response. Craig would fill in details for me when he could, but it was at best a less than ideal way to experience a cricket match.

Still, listening to the crowd’s response was entertainment in itself. So I left the stadium in high spirits.

And I swear I’ll never think of cricket in quite the same way. Like we were told by friends and family before our trip – it was most certainly an unforgettable experience.

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