I’m looking forward to two big trips at the moment, and they couldn’t be more different. The first, in a few weeks’ time, is a ten day holiday to Texas. I’ll be travelling with a specialist operator for the visually impaired, Traveleyes:
It’s outside my comfort zone. Not the place of course – I’ve been to more States than many Americans – but the style of travel. I rarely book a package tour, avoid group travel and try not to allow anyone complete control over my itinerary. Yes, I’m a control freak and yes, I’m happy about that.
The other, in June, is an independent trip to the Caucasus. I’ll begin my adventure in Georgia, spending ten days exploring some of what promises to be the region’s most stunning landscapes, before venturing into Armenia and the breakaway republic of Nagorno-Karabakh for a further week. This is firmly within my comfort zone. This is how I like to travel: tailor made by me for me, with me firmly in the driving seat.
The former is a departure from my usual travelling style. Pretty much everything has been planned for me save for updating my ESTA and getting to the airport. There’s some free time, of course, but the way the group rotates to ensure all travellers get a change of company means I won’t know who I’ll be paired with on those days and in any case, free time is to be “negotiated” so both parties are happy. I don’t have a problem with the theory – it should make for a much better trip once we get going – but in practice I feel very disconnected from this trip. The main reason has to be that I haven’t been able to do my usual research. I have some ideas – someone, surely, will want to join me for what’s described as a “gospel-ish brunch” in Austin – but until I get there and meet my fellow travellers, that’s all they are: ideas. Technically I don’t even know what flight I’m getting though I’ve figured that out by a process of elimination and United Airlines, if you bump me there’ll be trouble.
In contrast, the Caucasus planning is really engaging. I’m wearing in new hiking boots and the Lonely Planet guide to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan has become my nightly read. I’ve been swapping emails with tour providers to see whether organised day excursions would be a better option than going it alone by marshrutka. I’ve compared monasteries and researched foodie experiences, checked weather forecasts and studied hotel rooms. I’m figuring out whether a side trip to Abkhazia is possible even though I’m still half convinced that was the country the Tom Hanks character was supposed to have come from in The Terminal. I really must look that up. A rough plan is finalised for Armenia and once the Tbilisi-Mestia flights are released in a couple of weeks, the Georgia part will fall into place too. I’m happy. Browsing maps, photos and blogs online is giving me a sense of place and the more I find out, the more excited I’m getting.
It’s just that the more I’m getting excited about Georgia and Armenia, the more I’m realising I’m missing the experience of getting excited about Texas. Once I’m there, I’m sure it won’t be a problem, but without this build up, without the anticipation, I can’t seem to be able to savour the place. It feels like I’ll be tucking into dinner without sniffing the aroma wafting from the kitchen. And that’s a shame.
In May I’m off to Texas, and I’m already excited. But this isn’t my usual kind of trip. This time I’m travelling with a company called Traveleyes, who pair sighted travellers with the visually impaired for a trip which promises to enrich the experience for both types of tourist.
The brainchild of Amar Latif, an entrepreneur who went blind in his late teens, the company specialises in offering trips which make independent travel a reality for the blind and partially sighted. Sighted travellers are offered a hefty discount on the price of the tours. In return, they accompany a different traveller each day, guiding the person to their own individual requirements.
Included sightseeing programmes promise to make this a trip to remember. I’m looking forward to visiting Austin, San Antonio and the Alamo, where we’ll be taking guided walking tours to unlock the history of these places. I’m especially keen to visit Galveston, devastated by the USA’s deadliest hurricane in 1900 which killed over 6000 people. It’s long since been rebuilt, of course, but it will be interesting to compare notes with the experience of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
There are also some activities on the programme which you might not expect. A ranch stay forms part of the programme and we’ll be riding out on horseback to enjoy the local scenery. As a novice rider, I’m a little daunted about how I’m going to be able to guide another horse if I’m not fully in control of my own, but I’m trusting that both Traveleyes and the ranch have already thought of that.
Traveleyes have sent through their document on the do’s and don’ts of how to act as a sighted guide and I’m going to be studying it carefully. One thing I do know, however, is that I’m going to learn as much as the people I’m paired with. I can’t wait to see Texas from a different perspective to my own. Check back at the start of the summer and find out how I got on.
If you’d like to find out more about Traveleyes, please visit their website: