I’m sure I’m not the only one who grabs for her phone whenever I hear a notification. Or who hunts around to find it when the phone alerts me that I have an incoming call. Or dash into the kitchen to check on supper when I hear the oven buzzer. In all of these cases we are making use of our hearing to gain useful information.
I rely on sound to help me navigate the world because I can’t use my eyes to tell me what is happening around me. It’s the only way I know what’s beyond the range of my hands or white cane. When I’m travelling around with my guide dog I use sound to help me orientate myself. I know the houses where dogs usually bark at us. I listen to the direction of traffic, to the sound of trains passing – anything that can help me pinpoint my location.
Have you ever consciously paid attention to the information you’re gathering with your hearing?
How often are you aware of the sound of the traffic that surrounds you? Have you ever realized it sounds different when you drive into a tunnel? Have you ever wondered whether your reactions are informed by sounds like these, even if you’re not consciously aware of them?
I’ve been thinking about the ways I use sound as a blind person. And how much being more aware of sound could add to a sighted person’s perceptions if they could tap into it more often. And that’s what I spoke to Brian Bushway, of Acoustic Athletics about in my latest podcast.
Brian, who is himself blind, travels the world training people, both with and without sight, about ways that using input from the sounds around them can add to their lives. It’s a skill called echo location.
Brian and I discussed what echo location is, how it can be used, and the neuroscience of how the brain interprets both sight and sound. I found it a fascinating conversation.
We even chatted about how Brian uses echo location to ride a mountain bike independently, rather than with a sighted pilot on a tandem as most blind and partially sighted mountain-bikers do.
If you’d like to learn a little more about ways you could be using sound to add a different dimension to your world, give my conversation with Brian a listen at http://iono.fm/e/1160293
Or search for A Different Way of Seeing on your usual podcast player to listen to the conversation. Oh, and while you’re there, why not follow the podcast. That way you’ll have our episodes drop into your feed automatically.
You wouldn’t believe how often people ask me if my blindness has given me extra sensory abilities – whether I can hear, scent, and taste better than a sighted person, and have a more sensitive sense of touch.
My honest answer? I don’t think so.
I don’t believe my other senses have improved since losing my sight. But I do believe that I pay them more attention than I did when I was able to rely on my sight. Which means they may appear to be better than they were.
When I was sighted I relied most on my sense of sight to give me input. I believe most sighted people do the same thing. Since losing my sight, I have used the input I gain from my other senses to fill in the gap caused by my visual impairment. My ability to interpret the world around me is dependent on what I can feel, hear, and smell. So I pay far more attention to the input I gain from my other senses than I used to.
When I’m walking to our local train station I use my other senses to help me identify where on my route I am – whether it be the scent of a particular plant, or the sound of a specific dog who always barks at Fiji and myself as we pass. Whether it’s a patch of gravel that helps me realize I am approaching the station itself, or a dip in the road that identifies the spot where we need to turn and cross the road we’ve been travelling for the past 10 minutes. My other senses compensate for my lack of sight and help me navigate the world.
My lack of sight means I experience travel very differently. Of course I miss out on the sightseeing that a sighted tourist would be able to do. But I regularly pick up things that a sighted person, who relies primarily on their sense of sight, might miss. For me, travel is a multi-sensory experience that incorporates every sense I have at my disposal. Which gives me a vastly different, but no less rich, experience of a destination.
When was the last time you focused on the input you could gain from your other senses? Why not take a moment to notice what you hear? Smell? Touch? And see what an extra dimension your world gains. Now, imagine doing the same when you are next in a new city or country.
There is so much that I wasn’t aware of because I was able to use my eyes to interpret the world around me. I’m not saying that my other senses completely fill in what I used to be able to see, but they certainly give me an alternate way to explore the world.
“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.
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.
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.
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!
Cape Town is a beautiful place. Anyone who’s been here will tell you that. And it’s not just visitors who feel that way – as residents we know it, too! But sometimes it’s easy for us to take that beauty for granted since we’re constantly surrounded by it.
Unlike Durban (the city I grew up in), which has a fairly uniform climate, Cape Town has very distinct seasons which impacts on life in Cape Town– in both what we wear and what we do. Naturally, the change of the seasons affects Fiji and I as much as it does everyone else.
Now that the autumn coolness has started settling into Cape Town my morning walks with Fiji have taken on a slightly different character. Gone are the unpleasantly warm summertime walks that see both Fiji and myself heading for a long cool drink of water on our return home. Gone are the days we dash from one teensy piece of shade to another, desperately trying to stay out of the blazing sun as much as possible. Gone too are the days of gusting wind that make it hard for us to walk since we can’t hear the sounds of approaching cars.
Thankfully those problems generally pass with the summer. Instead we’re able to walk down the road with comfort and ease. In fact, the walks are so pleasant that I often find my mind wondering as we progress, with the gorgeous scents of the lush vegetation enveloping us as we pass. Of course, every now and then my mind is snatched back from whatever pleasant reverie it’s stolen off to because Fiji has seen, scented or heard The Dreaded Enemy – yes, autumn is a busy time for squirrels in our neighbourhood – but even Fiji doesn’t seem to be as manic about trying to chase them as she does earlier in the season.
Today as I was breathing in the scent of a lavender bush I took a moment to reflect on the beauty of the moment – standing there with a keen and happily wagging young guide dog, the scents and sounds of nature all around us… despite the occasional car or train that flashed past us – and I was once again reminded that Cape Town truly is an extraordinary place to live! Now, if only the winter rains would come and break the drought…