Who would have thought it? Fiji and I celebrate our fifth anniversary today! And what an amazing five years they’ve turned out to be – full of fun, adventure, learning, independence, sharing our story, and lots of wonderful companionship. Sure, there have been a few less than perfect moments, too. But so few and far between that they fade into insignificance.
Last year I shared a conversation between Fiji and myself in which we reflected on the four years we’d worked. And this past year has hardly been anything for either of us to brag about since we’ve not been able to add much to our adventures due to COVID-19. But, even with the little we are able to do right now, I am reminded of how much independence Fiji gives me and how much joy she provides.
Admittedly, there are a few things that have changed in the last year. For one thing, Fiji has turned into a vampire runner. By which I mean that she no longer joins Craig and Allie on their runs if they do so in the morning. Rather she waits for the sun to be well and truly down before being willing to head out and hit the road.
The guide dog trainer said she thinks Fiji is self-managing her running and that maybe she’s feeling the heat of a morning run more than she used to. So, rather than leaping up and demanding a run whenever she can, she is regulating both how often and how far she gets to run. I guess I have to acknowledge that Fiji is getting older – she is now 6.5 years old. But it’s still sad for me to see it in her behaviour… even if it’s only apparent in small ways like when she chooses to run.
Having said that, the vet told us last week that Fiji is in remarkable shape for a dog her age, and someone who encountered Fiji when she was walking with Craig the other day asked if they could buy one of her puppies. And she is still as playful and as loveable as ever – still leaps into the air to catch her crunchwater, chases her tennis ball, and plays rowdily with her doggy sisters.
More than that, Fiji’s discovered a new toy. A few months ago we found Eccles’s old squeaky toy. And when we squeaked it, Fiji came hurtling up from the other side of the house and leapt for it. And proceeded to squeak it and shake it with glorious abandon. Which is strange because she’s never shown any interest in it before
Every now and then we find her staring up at the dressing table where we keep the squeaky toy with a wistful look on her face. Until we pick it up and toss it to her. And then we have a leaping, shaking, tail-wagging gleeful Fiji once again.
Most importantly, Fiji comes running whenever I pick up her guide dog harness, twisting in circles and wagging as fast as she can. Her love of guiding is always a joy for me to experience. And I’m sure she and I will continue working together for many years yet.
A very happy and waggy anniversary to my precious guide dog companion – and many more adventures for us… And a successful book launch when we finish her book later this year. But we’ll update you on that soon, we promise…
First, a very happy new year to you all! May 2021 be a year with many wonderful adventures for you! Let’s hope the year will bring a little more stability than the last one.
My tradition over the past few years has been to start off with a post about my intentions for the year ahead. Frankly, with so much uncertainty, I don’t really feel like writing on that subject. So I’m doing something else instead.
In 2020 I set myself a goal of reading at least one non-fiction book per month. While I have always been a prolific reader, somehow I’ve just never found myself drawn to non-fiction books. Last year I decided to try and change that. At least a little.
And I think I succeeded – in total I read 17 non-fiction books during the year. So I met and exceeded my target. In a previous post I listed the books I read in the first half of the year. You can find the list in the post published on 14 July 2020.
Here’s the list of the non-fiction books I read in the second half of the year:
9 Make Money from Non-Fiction Kindle Books: How to Maximise Your Royalties, Get Paid to Capture Leads, and Rapidly Build A Successful Backend Business – by John Tighe.
10 Timeless on the Silk Road: An Odyssey from London to Hanoi – by Heather Ellis.
11 One More Croissant for the Road – by Felicity Cloake.
12 Walking without Skin: A Journey of Healing from Fear to Forgiveness to Freedom – by Lois Wagner.
13 Kong Boys: Seven Friends from Hong Kong Take on Eleven European Cities for Their Thirtieth Birthdays – by Gerald Yeung.
14 Fundamentals of Leadership: Your Treasure Map for Leading in a New Era Where Everything Has Changed and You Have Become Lost – by Rowan van Dyk.
15 Podcast 101: Simple Steps to Create Your Own Podcast, Build Relationships and Grow Your Business – by Paul Brodie.
16 Ditch the Fear and Just Write It: The No Excuses Power Plan to Start Your First Book – by Alexa Bigwarfe.
17 Adventure by Chicken Bus – by Janet LoSole.
This year I have started another reading challenge – to read books by authors with diverse voices, experiences and from different cultures and geography from myself. I’m starting with a book called Homegoing, by Ghanaian author Yaa Gyasi.
I also plan to read a few classics that I either missed when I was younger, or that I disliked as a teenager and that I’d like to try again to see if my impressions have changed. The first of these is The Great Gatsby, by F Scott Fitzgerald, which I couldn’t stand when I originally read it. I’ve decided to give it a second chance as so many people hold it in such high regard. It’s always possible that I just read it at the wrong time. Only time will tell…
I think I’m in for an exciting reading year!
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.
Here’s a link to a great travel podcast with tips on travel blogging. Actually, I’d say the tips can be used by any blogger to help them get started.
The podcast is the brainchild of travel writer and podcaster Alexa Meisler, from the Break into travel Writing blog and podcast. I was fortunate enough to be a guest blogger on her Aspiring Travel Bloggers feature a few months ago. In this podcast episode she gathers together a tip from the first 25 bloggers in the series, including one from me.
You’ll probably find a few themes running through the various tips. And I’m sure they will either teach you something to help you grow your blog or reinforce some of the things you’re already doing. Either way, they’re well worth a listen.
And, if you’re a travel blogger who hasn’t heard Alexa’s podcast before, this is one you’ll probably want to subscribe to – she shares some fantastic interviews and content.
In France, as in many other European countries I’ve visited, the sound of church bells is a regular part of any community. Whether they’re marking the passing of time or ringing out to summon the faithful to a church service, the sound of church bells is certainly part of the audio memory I have for many European trips.
So it wasn’t especially unusual to hear church bells when we stopped at Villedieu-les-Poêles In Normandy. Except these church bells were playing part of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. And a few minutes later they played part of Auld Lang Syne. Which we took to be a good sign – it meant we had discovered the bell foundry, which we’d decided to hunt down after hearing a mention of it on an audio guide of the WWII D-Day landings.
We were thrilled to discover we could take a guided tour of the foundry in English – tours are also offered in German, and French of course. And that the tours are able to accommodate those with sight impairments as well as those with mobility impairments.
The foundry was opened in 1865 and is still in operation. On the tour we learned that the way bells are cast now varies little from how they were cast when the foundry first opened, although they use a more modern process to melt the bronze and copper from which the bells are made. They make bells of all sizes, from tiny hand-held bells right the way through to those for churches and cathedrals. In fact, this was the foundry that made the new bells for Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris in 2013, before it was damaged in the tragic fire.
I was surprised that the process of making bells isn’t more mechanized and was able to explore the components of each stage of the process with my hands. Though no firing was happening while we were there so there was no danger of me burning myself.
Something else that I found fascinating as a musician was that they can only approximate the pitch of the bell when it is being cast – the fine tuning has to be done by hand, shaving the inside of the bell to alter the pitch until it is tuned correctly.
But my favourite part of the visit to the foundry was the fact that they have an entire courtyard of bells that you’re not only allowed, but encouraged to ring. Which of course we did, with gleeful abandon. The photo shows me striking one of the smaller bells and, if we’d had the foresight to video it, you’d have heard me tapping out the tune of Mary had a Little Lamb.
Out of interest, every 10 minutes the bells we’d heard on our arrival played aa refrain from a famous song. When we asked our guide whether the townsfolk became annoyed by the constant bells ringing, she told us that the community loves the sound and that they are proud of their foundry. It’s certainly a unique memory that will remain with me as a reminder of our visit.
Although the bell foundry wasn’t on our original itinerary, it was a wonderful discovery and I’m glad we went out of our way to track it down and spend some time there. It was not only interesting; it was lots of fun!
It was the sense of tranquility and beauty that struck me most on our visits to Juno and Omaha beaches in Normandy. Which feels slightly unbelievable considering that these were both beaches that thousands of Allied and German soldiers met their deaths during the D Day landings on 6 June 1944, during WWII.
If you’ve studied accounts of the brutal and bloody fight that took place on the Normandy beaches , or have watched movies like Saving Private Ryan, or The Longest Day, or the series, Band of Brothers, you’ll probably have a sense of why I was so startled by the peace of the beaches now.
If you’ve never looked into the event, it was when more than 200 000 Allied forces attacked the heavily defended beaches of Normandy to start the liberation of France from Nazi domination.
With my husband’s interest in WWII, it was no surprise that we visited the sites of the landings. As we drove around the region where the fighting took place, we listened to a detailed audio guide of what happened on that fateful day. It was with the soundtrack of these accounts in our minds that we stepped out of the car and made our way to the beach known as Juno.
And how beautiful and tranquil it was – a slight breeze rustling the nearby trees and the sound of the rhythmic waves as they ebbed and flowed gently onto the sand. Although we knew we hadn’t taken a wrong turning and landed up at a different beach – the large gun housings, examples of the 2 million metal caltrops that had been scattered across the beaches to deter landing craft, and a replica of a landing craft that we were able to explore were all vivid reminders of the past.
Visiting Omaha Beach was much the same – the peacefulness of the area nowadays seeming almost incongruous considering the massacre that took place there on 5 June 1944. And yet, maybe that’s how it should be. Because it left me with a profound sense that peace, tranquility and beauty can eventually replace the horror and brutality of war.
I’ve never enjoyed going to museums. Actually, I should rather say that I’ve never been a fan of old-style museums. You know, the type that hides the exhibits away behind glass. And I think you‘ll understand when you consider what that might be like for a visually impaired person for whom sight isn’t an option.
Far more fun for me are museums that try to draw visitors in with interactive and multi-sensory experiences. Amongst my favourites are museums I visited in Poland – the Schindler Museum in Krakow and the Warsaw Uprising Museum in Warsaw.
What does this have to do with my recent trip to Normandy in France?
I knew we would be visiting some WWII museums while we were in Normandy. I just wasn’t sure what type of museums they’d be. Sadly, I found that most of them weren’t of much interactive interest to me. Until we visited the Normandy Airborne Museum.
Admittedly, I wasn’t able to access many of the exhibits in the Airborne Museum. But those that I was able to engage with using my other senses more than made up for the rest.
The first was a replica of the gliders that carried Allied forces into Normandy to capture control of strategic roads and bridges to help gain a foothold in Normandy. I was able to walk around the outside of the full-scale glider and explore it using the sense of touch. I was also able to climb aboard the glider and feel what it must have been like for the soldiers as the gliders were towed across from England and then set free to glide down into Normandy.
But the real treat awaited me on the upper floor of the museum – a simulation of a troop plane that carried the paratroopers who formed the first wave of the attack. As we stepped into the shell of the large plane we could feel the thrum of the engines beneath our feet, hear the thunderous roar of the engines and the crackle of radio messages from the cockpit. It was eerily authentic to walked through the plane, as the paratroopers would have done so many years ago.
Leaving the plane, you stepped out into a visual representation of what the paratroopers might have seen – the vague shapes of a string of parachutes opening below you, the dim view of the ground far below, with farmhouses, towns, church steeples, fields and woods. Although I wasn’t able to experience this part of the exhibit, my sighted husband said it had a powerful impact on him.
The next part of the simulation was based on what the paratroopers may have experienced on the ground – the chaos, destruction and, above all, the constant stutter of machine guns and explosions. It was an over-stimulation of the senses that left me feeling anxious, unsettled and drained.
Of all the experiences I had in Normandy, this was the one that gave me the clearest idea of the reality of what happened on D Day – 6 June 1944. And the experience was sobering, to say the least. After the simulations, I cannot even begin to comprehend what the reality must have been like.
One of the things I love about travelling in Europe is the abundance of local food and produce markets. I was looking forward to discovering some while in Bayeux. And I was by no means disappointed.
There was a large market every Saturday with a vast range of locally grown produce, meats and cheeses. And another on Wednesday morning.
Craig and I arrived in Bayeux on Friday afternoon, and were ready and waiting to go and stock up by the time Saturday morning arrived. Luckily, we were staying in an Airbnb, so we weren’t limited to cold meats, cheeses and a few pieces of fruit – we also bought plenty of salad ingredients, and some of the largest artichokes I’ve ever seen, along with a few vegetables to cook. And some of the famous Normandy cider.
And then we spied a stall selling nougat – slabs and slabs of different flavoured nougat! I know I’m diabetic and that I really ought not to indulge in too many sweet things, but I have a particular weakness for nougat, so we went to go and have a look. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone cutting nougat like she was slicing a large cake. On the very rare occasion I allow myself to indulge in my secret weakness at home, I usually find pre-packaged nougat in matchbox sized cubes, not 30 by 30 centimetre slabs like those shown in the photograph.
The stallholder was delighted to have two tourists showing so much interest in her wares and happily allowed us to sample a number of the different flavours on offer. Ee eventually decided on one and bought a piece – but one that was half the size the stall holder thought we needed.
Believe it or not, we had to stock up on local produce again by the time the smaller market took place on Wednesday. Only, the weather wasn’t great. I don’t think I’ll ever forget running from stall to stall trying to avoid the gentle but persistent rain. Admittedly, we didn’t buy so much on that occasion, which was good because it meant we were able to hide out in a coffee shop and warm ourselves up with a hot drink and a crepe – yes, more sugar for the diabetic!
I wish the local produce market vibe was more common in South Africa. Sure, you can find the odd market for local organic produce here and there, but I guess I’ll have to wait till our next European trip to dive back into the wonderful local market culture that’s so prevalent there.
As someone who’s been travelling for a number of years with a visual impairment, I’m familiar with the assistance and support that I need to put in place to assist me to travel. Whether I’m travelling with a sighted companion or travelling on my own, I know the help I require and how to ensure I arrange for it ahead of time. For me, this includes assistance at the airport, transport to and from the airport, and ensuring that my needs – and those of my guide dog, if Fiji is with me – can be accommodated at the place I’m staying.
But what about a person with a disability who hasn’t travelled before? How do they become aware of the assistance that they can tap into?
I had the opportunity to interview a gentleman named Saul Molobi on my accessible travel podcast, A Different Way of Travelling. Saul shared the story of his first overseas trip since becoming mobility impaired three years ago. I listened as he described accommodations at the airport and the hotel that should have been there, and weren’t. And the impact the lack of those services had on his journey. And I found myself thinking, “That’s not how it’s meant to happen!”
I guess, for those of us who have travelled regularly with a disability, it’s almost automatic that we spend time researching what facilities and services are available to assist us when we travel Yes, it takes time. Yes, it’s sometimes frustrating when we don’t find it easy to identify whether or not a service provider can accommodate our needs. And yes, sometimes we put everything in place and yet it’s not there when we arrive. But at least we know what we need to look for and request. Because we’ve learned by experience – most often from what’s gone wrong before.
I’d like to think my podcast can be a resource to help people to overcome some of the challenges of travelling with a disability, so they don’t need to face so many barriers to a positive travel experience. I’ve never thought of it before, but the information shared by the people I interview can be of immense value to other travellers who may not have travelled as much as some of us have. At least, I hope so.
Going back to the interview with Saul. You may be thinking that it landed up being a sad, depressing interview. On the contrary, I think it’s one of the most inspiring stories I’ve shared so far – Saul kept reinforcing how liberating it was for him to know he could overcome the barriers he faced, and how satisfying it was for him to be able to successfully travel on his own for the first time. Sure, he struggled with certain aspects of the trip, but he said he knows what he needs to do differently when he travels next time.
Even if you have no interest in accessible travel, I think you should listen to Saul’s story – it’s a story of courage, tenacity and triumph over adversity. And it was an honour for me to be able to share the story on the podcast.
You can find Saul’s story here: http://iono.fm/e/797930
So, now that we’ve arrived in Normandy, I guess the next important question is what we’re going to do while we’re there?
For my husband Craig, the obvious answer was to visit the sites of the WWII Normandy landings – not just the beaches themselves, although Omaha and Utah were easily within driving distance from where we were based. But the story of the allied landings encompasses far more than just the beach landings – the forces still had to move from the beaches and penetrate into the countryside to open the way to Paris. Normandy is an area that is rich in WWII history, as we discovered while were there, and we spent many fascinating hours tracing the history through several villages, museums, memorials and sites, accompanied by an informative audio tour of the area.
While I was also interested to visit the WWII sites, I’ll admit my main area of interest was in the earlier history of Normandy. I wanted to learn about the Normandy of William the Conqueror, who successfully invaded England in 1066. And the magnificent Bayeux tapestry that tells the story of that invasion.
And, of course, we both wanted to sample some of the local specialties that Normandy is known for – salted caramel, camembert cheese, and the delicious apple brandy known as Calvados.
In the coming articles I’ll be sharing some of those experiences with you. But first, I want to tell you about an inspiring gentleman I had the privilege to interview on my travel podcast, A Different Way of Travelling.