Tony Giles has done a remarkable thing. 80% deaf and completely blind, he has travelled solo across the US, New Zealand, Australia and Southeast Asia. His account of the trip, Seeing the World My Way, veers from tragedy to comedy, disaster to epiphany, near-death experience to life-affirming moment. By the end of the book, I felt more exhausted than if I’d actually travelled the route myself – but also uplifted.
My first question is, ‘How on Earth (no pun intended) did you do it?’ While there’s plenty in the book about concentration, fortitude and trusting the senses he does possess, I still can’t get my head around his achievement. ‘My cane was essential,’ Tony tells me. ‘Without that I would have been run over many times. Spare parts for my hearing aid were useful too, as was learning how to count money by touch.’ He makes it sound easy.
Having lived and travelled in Southeast Asia myself, I know that the infrastructure isn’t really geared towards disabled people. How did he manage in Vietnam and Thailand? ‘It was definitely harder, and the language barrier was a real problem. But when I got into trouble, I knew that people would look out for me.’
Indeed, the kindness of strangers is crucial, with everyone from Irish backpackers to Saigon pimps helping him out. Random people tell him train times and describe famous sights. More seriously, he puts his life in the hands of guides when trekking in the Outback and hiking up treacherous mountains. It’s enough to restore one’s faith in humanity!
Robert Byron wrote that the traveller ‘can know the world only when he sees, hears and smells it.’ With that in mind, I ask Tony how exactly he experienced the places he visited. ‘When you’re deprived of one sense you improve another,’ he says. ‘My sense of taste and smell were highly developed – not always a good thing!’ Food is certainly a good thing in the book, and it’s rendered in lavish detail. When he tucks into a bowl of Vietnamese pho (noodle soup), the reader tucks in too. Tony learns to make character judgements according to tone of voice, scent, even by feeling the features of someone’s face. He navigates busy cities by counting the roads he crosses and feeling his way along blocks.
This self-reliance plus the altruism of others sees him safely across 280,000 miles.
Even so, there are near misses on almost every page, compounded by Tony’s hard drinking and dangerlust. In the States alone he knocks himself unconscious, unwittingly gets into a fight, almost crushes his leg and nearly gets shot. The crisis point comes in Melbourne when a doctor tells him he has acute kidney damage. ‘I guess I was in a Jimi Hendrix/Jim Morrison sort of mindset. I didn’t care if I lived or died then.’ But he adds, ‘If I’d known a bit more about kidneys I may have come home!’
Instead he goes to Cairns and takes a 14,000 foot skydive. This, however, is not as thrilling as his favourite moment of the whole journey: bungee jumping off a bridge in Taihape, New Zealand. He writes, ‘the danger, the fear, the madness – I loved it all and wanted more’.
Tony’s self-destructive streak began in his teens as a reaction to ‘the stigma of blindness’ and the loss of his father. Travel offered ‘a way of escape’ that made sense of his life and the world. It’s still his main passion, and he’s given up drinking to stay healthy for future adventures. Next spring sees the release of a sequel, Seeing the Americas My Way, and soon he’s off to Africa. Mind how you go, Tony!
First published in the Bristol Review of Books Summer 2011.