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Dangerlust: An Interview with Tony Giles

3 Mar

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.

Tagalongs and Gazelles: Green Family Transport

3 Mar

How does a modern Bristol family get around without a car? How does it make the school run, do the shopping, take day-trips? Walking can be time-consuming and tough on small kids. Public transport isn’t the answer either – it’s still pollutive and where I live on Hotwell Road buses don’t stop due to heavy traffic and bad parking. However, six months ago my family found the solution: a tagalong. These contraptions may look like something out of a Victorian circus, but they are sturdy, safe, free (after an initial payment of course) and highly efficient. And they’re just the tip of the iceberg – there are now many options for families wanting to ‘travel green’.

So what are the options and where can you find them? The not-for-profit Bristol Bike Project (http://www.thebristolbikeproject.org ) recycles, repairs and re-sells bicycles of all kinds. They also hire out a tagalong (£6 per day) which, as employee James Lucas explains, is ‘easily interchangeable between bikes’. Tandems (£15 per day/£35 for 3 days/£80 per week) are an alternative, ideal for family members of roughly the same height. The BBP keep their prices low to encourage cycling and plough all their takings back into the project. This sustainable approach recently won them an Observer Ethical Award.

Really Useful Bikes (http://www.reallyusefulbikes.co.uk/) in Rodford sells several ‘cargo bikes’, the Rolls Royces of green transport. Proprietor Rob Bushill tells me that ‘choosing the right one is subjective – it depends entirely on where you live and how old/young your family is.’ For the hills of Bristol he recommends the Workcycles FR8 which can carry three kids on a rear seat, an extra saddle with footrests and a Bobike mini seat behind the handlebars. James’ colleague at the BBP, Adam Faraday, lives on the flatter side of Bristol and his only problem is ‘the crazy designs of barrier they put in’. He also wastes time explaining his Danish-made cargo bike ‘to people who’ve never seen one before’. If the hills are too steep, you can always invest in a Sparticle motor (£650) – not hugely eco-friendly but still more so than driving.

There’s also space for luggage on the FR8. The Gazelle Cabby (£1400) has a vinyl passenger compartment with clips for a baby’s Maxi-Cosi. The quintessentially Dutch Backfiets NL (£1700) boasts a hardy wooden box (plus seatbelts) where you can put children, groceries, and plenty else. When the weather turns bad you can attach a waterproof canopy. 8-speed gears, roller brakes and a dynamo all make for a smoother journey.

Next to cargo bikes, the tagalong suddenly sounds rather low-tech! After an initial resistance to tagalongs, Rob is now a fan: ‘The more expensive ones are pretty solid, they can take a lot of bashing!’

With so many good reasons to stop driving – financial, ethical and environmental – the stage is set for a revolution in green transport. With its fine network of cycle paths, inventive community projects and well-stocked bike shops, Bristol should be at the forefront of that.

First published in The Spark Magazine Summer 2011.

Escape from Manila

3 Mar

The streets were empty yesterday. Everyone was watching Manny “the Pac-Man” Pacquiao, the Filipino boxer and politician, in his latest televised fight. I should have travelled then.

But this is today and I have been stuck in a traffic jam for over an hour. The Virgin Mary smiles from the door of the jeepney in front, fumes slowly shrouding her.

The fumes smell horribly sweet and sour. The air-conditioning is broken and the sweat has glued me to my seat. The taxi driver hands me a polythene bag of Sarsi (a sarsaparilla-based soft drink) and ice. A kind gesture.

There’s Red Horse Malt Liquor on his breath, but he seems sober enough. He restarts the conversation, making two wrong assumptions about me: (a) I’m American and (b) I’m looking for a wife. “Already married,” I say.

“How many kids?” “One.”

He places his hand on his white-uniformed chest. “Only one?” he says, with a gasp. This is a Catholic country, after all.

At last a gap in the next lane opens. The driver stamps on the accelerator. We skim past a child in a Jay-Z T-shirt, trade horns with a tinted SUV. Then we hit full speed along Katipunan Avenue. Roadside barbecues. Basketball courts. Hip- hop blaring from KFC and McDonald’s. This could be a depressed part of the US, I think, but for other, smaller signs: “Cheerful cup cake Dental Surgery”; “S.D. Lucero – maker of artificial legs”.

“Can I open a window?” I ask, gulping my Sarsi. “Not good idea.”

He’s probably right. On the flyover near Balintawak station, I peer down at a chessboard of tin roofs. Shadow Manila. Where squatters live in homes made from stolen hoardings, bike tyres abd oil drums. Barefoot men napping under sackcloth canopies. A cockerel tied to the stilt of a water butt. Babies in cradles hanging from beams. A length of tape – “Police line, do not cross” – is looped over a mound of rubbish.

The flyover broadens into the NLEx Expressway . It’s lonely compared with downtown. There is an occasional tricycle (read Second World War-style motorbike and sidecar), the odd open-top truck packed with squealing goats, legs tied together. A bedstead on wheels.

Then the concrete blocks give way to palm trees and paddy fields flooded into swampland.

“Can I open a window now?” I ask. He winds both down. The cool air blasts in good, natural smells: pine trees, manure, orchids and burning charcoal.

Low-hanging clouds fleck the horizon like sea-spume, turning black as the afternoon wears on. The rain and the night fall together. On the roadside, peasant fires hint at things, while carabao (water buffalo) hides drip in the fields.

We arrive at Santa Maria, a village based around a pink Spanish church. “You sure you want here?” asks the driver. “Lonely here. Not much happen. Not much fun like in Manila.”

“Here is just perfect,” I reply.

First published in The Daily Telegraph 22/07/2011