In Nepal, how leading the blind changed my attitude to travel forever
From the peaks of Pokhara and the chaos of Kathmandu to the jungles of Chitwan
The jeep comes to a sudden stop. About 50 yards away, a rhinoceros bathes in grassy swamp water. It could easily be mistaken for a huge rock but for its emblematic horn.
When you see a wild animal you grew up watching on nature documentaries, it leaves you breathless. It’s like stepping into the TV.
I audibly gasp. Not missing a beat, my travel partner Luca asks: ‘What? What is it?’
What transpires is a race against the clock — before the jeep screeches back into life and the sun goes down on Nepal’s Chitwan National Park.
Luca is severely visually impaired. What he can see is dramatically impacted by the light around him. He wants to see the rhino, but potentially can’t. At least, not without my help.
Thus begins a process of verbal guiding. I urgently describe the scene in front of me. ‘Can you see the tree right ahead?’ ‘The water’s edge?’ ‘To the left of those blades of grass?’ We repeat this dance throughout our jungle safari. When we succeed, we’re thrilled. By the day’s end, I feel bonded to him. Only a few days earlier, he was a complete stranger.
Highlands and lowlands
Snowy peaks? I’ll get to those later. It may have the second highest average elevation above sea level (10,715ft), and the world’s highest peak, Everest (8,848m). But my most prominent memories of Nepal are of the muggy central lowlands.
It’s of powering through the dense, subtropical National Park looking for elephants, crocodiles and tigers. Of wiping the sweat from my brow while exploring the region’s charming, dusty Tharu villages, looking for shiny prayer bowls and the softest of linen.
It’s of the mixed feelings I had exploring the edges of such villages. Here, few homes have running water, but every family apparently has an iPhone. Often, handfuls of kids hang out front, crowded around a single device, watching cartoons in silent elation.
Guiding the way
My memories of Nepal generally are a kaleidoscope of sights, sounds, smells and feelings. The people I traveled with are intertwined in them. There were 24 of us in all, from Italy, Monaco, the US and the UK to name but a few. About two thirds were sighted, the rest either visually impaired or completely blind.
I was vacationing with Traveleyes, a trailblazing tour operator specializing in group tours for sighted as well as blind and visually impaired travelers. After basic training at Heathrow Airport, sighted travelers guide roughly every other day.
The group organizes trips to all four corners of the globe, of varying lengths and activity levels. I wanted a relatively LGBTI-friendly Asian country (homosexuality was legalized here in 2007) and was thirsty for natural beauty. Naturally, I picked Nepal.
Fast forward a couple of months, however, and I wasn’t prepared for the view I was taking in. In the Tanahun District, we were riding high in a noisy, uncomfortable minibus up a mountain. We were to lunch at what would eventually turn out to be a gorgeous hilltop village: the 2,195-meter high Nagarkot [below].
But first, we had to get there. Sat next to me was Jen: a friendly, fascinating career woman and leader in her field who lost her sight completely as a child. To my right was a near-immediate sheer drop.
As our bus driver navigated (to his credit, carefully) another perilous hairpin bend, Jen eagerly asked me what I could see. I took a stab at an answer, feeling dread akin to turbulence. Dread, and frustration.
Frustration because, although Nepal’s humbling scenery was all around me, it was often misty. Outlines of mountain peaks interweaved with the edges of clouds, like faint, jagged lines of pencil on white paper, or the shadows cast by Braille.
Now, I quite like that previous sentence. But suffice to say, I didn’t come up with anything as sophisticated in the moment. Therein lies my biggest obstacle to guiding: description. I lost count of the number of times, in moments of dry-mouth, of brain-drain, I described Nepalese buildings as ‘ramshackle’, or ‘boxy’.
Or, regrettably, skirted around upsetting scenes of disrepair and squalor. This, of course, is a continuing hangover of Nepal’s devastating 7.9 magnitude earthquake in 2015, which affected 8 million people. The infrastructure of the capital, Kathmandu (population: 1.5 million), has been particularly badly hit.
In fact, walking its streets while thousands of frankly manic moped drivers roared around us, mounting the pavement when it suited them, belching out fumes and soot, was the most challenging moment of the trip.
That and navigating hundreds of damp, broken steps to see an underground shrine at Gupteswar Cave in Nepal’s second city, Pokhara — arm-in-arm with someone whose curiosity, quite brilliantly, seemed to know no bounds.
Or the utter shame I felt when a group member fell a few feet off a veranda under my watch during lunch one day. (He was fine). I’m not going to lie: guiding for the first time was extremely stressful. But also rewarding.
‘My fellow sighted travelers spoke with such eloquence, I was moved to hear them’
Of course, my fellow sighted travelers — many of them experienced at guiding and traveling solo, looking to make new friends — made it look easy. They also saw the beauty in everything, so their descriptions were uniformly lovely. They spoke with such eloquence, I was often moved by their words.
Indeed, across a two-week itinerary, we saw, and recounted, many beautiful sights. Boudhanath, Asia’s biggest stupa [above], in Kathmandu for example.
This cake-like Buddhist monument attracts throngs of tourists, but a quiet sense of calm descends on all who visit.
There’s also a lovely energy at the absurdly ornate Tibetan Kopan Monastery, where I guided my partner’s hands across rich tapestries and ornaments.
Similarly, Swayambhunath, the mystical, sprawling Monkey Temple [above] — where one had to be more careful where hands were placed. Both are located on the outskirts of Kathmandu.
Another highlight was the serene Phewa Lake, in Pokhara [pictured top]. A gateway city to the Himalayas, it offers ample opportunity for mountaintop sunrises, hiking and some of the world’s best paragliding.
Most beautiful of all, perhaps, were the transfers. We drove from Kathmandu to Chitwan (97km), from Chitwan to Pokhara (66km) and Pokhara to Kathmandu (206km), all arranged seamlessly (along with flights, hotels and meals) by Traveleyes.
This inevitably meant hours upon hours in the bus on poor quality roads. But the scenery in Nepal was too astounding for me to care. I’m not even sure where I took the below picture, but it’s one of my favorites.
These drives also provided ample opportunity for getting to know fellow travelers. Every blind and visually impaired person had a story to share — some saddening, many inspiring.
At the beginning, I considered it rude to ask how and when a person began losing their sight. But after days in each other’s company, it came up naturally. And the blind and visually impaired people themselves certainly weren’t shy about asking each other!
‘It was humbling to learn of people’s determination to live life on their own terms’
Some were born blind, some lost their sight gradually, others overnight after an allergic reaction. But none gave in to their misfortune. It was humbling to learn of their determination to live life on their own terms.
From living independently to finding love, from pursuing staggering successful careers to meticulously planning their own travels so they don’t have to compromise anything: their stories were extraordinary. Or, in the view of their orators, utterly ordinary. An experience like this does make you see the world differently. Especially for someone like me, who previously took their vision for granted.
Jungle picture by Wiki, mountains pic by Pixabay. All other pictures by Jamie Tabberer