Most of us tick off must-see sights when we travel, but what would be on your holiday checklist if you couldn’t see?
In the BBC World Service series Blind Man Roams the Globe, Peter White shows listeners the world as you might hear it rather than see it, beginning with Marrakesh (today, 11.30am).
He tells us about the challenges of travelling and making a radio programme, and what he loved about Morocco.
Have you always been a keen globetrotter?
No. I was nineteen before my first trip abroad: the far-flung shores of the Netherlands and I was airsick. Equally adventurous was my first family foreign holiday: a package to Malta for three days. But the fever gradually took hold as my career as a broadcaster developed. I guess that’s when the idea for Blind Man Roams the Globe began to take hold – when I realised that for me sounds and voices beat sightseeing and views to tell me about the places I visited.
You’re off to Marrakesh in the first episode of the new series – what were the highlights?
Marrakesh is a wonderful mixture of the old and the new. You can travel within minutes from the confusingly intersecting alleyways of the Medina, an area which has hardly changed since medieval times, to the wide modern streets of the commercial section of the town, largely the result of the French period of colonisation in the last century.
For someone like me who depends on sounds to experience a place, a great way to do this is to take one of the many horse-drawn carriages. I made the fascinating discovery that the clip-clop of horses’ hooves can tap out the changing acoustic of the city. It not only gives you the sense of the width or narrowness of the streets you are passing, but even a feel for the wealth and size of the houses too. The other sound that will dominate my impressions of Marrakesh are the literally thousands of motorcycles that carry its citizens around those winding alleys; the only reason there aren’t more accidents can only be there’s not enough room to build up real speed.
My memories as a blind traveller are typically of everyday things, rather than great architecture or wonderful views: buildings and views are disconcertingly noiseless for me. So for our previous series, in Washington DC, for instance, the image that stays in my mind is not the White House or the Lincoln memorial, but two down-and-outs in Grand Union station being accused by the authorities of hassling me, when really it was me hassling them for interviews! And in Nairobi I remember all the free-for-all fights that broke out over who had the rights of possession to a street market stall.
What were the challenges?
I’m used to travelling independently in the UK using a long white cane and I’ve always believed that paradoxically one of the secrets of true independence is knowing when to ask for help. But these programmes only work if I have genuine conversations with real people. I try to avoid officials, tour guides, people with long titles to their names; it’s the barbers, barmaids, shoppers and dropouts that I want to talk to.
I’m not a great linguist, so non-English speaking countries pose the biggest challenges. When you’re blind, just pointing to the thing you want to talk about is not easy – and that doesn’t make great radio either! Miming also taxes my imagination. But persistence usually pays off in the end. Constant eavesdropping is my greatest asset: like the two gay guys I overheard analysing the San Francisco scene on their balcony as I walked by. That was exactly what I needed for that programme. They happily allowed me to record their conversation. So far Istanbul and Rio have posed the biggest challenge for me when it comes to English speakers.
Do attitudes towards visual impairment differ from country to country?
In many countries there’s an odd mixture of overprotection and total neglect: overprotection by families, under-protection by public services and the law. But on the whole, I think that generalisations about the way we’re treated aren’t usually helpful: it comes down much more to the attitude of the individual and the confidence of the blind person in making sure they get the treatment they need. People often complain about access and discrimination in Britain, but if you talk to blind people from abroad, by far the most common message is: you don’t know how lucky you are.
When you’re planning a trip or holiday, what do you look for in a destination?
If it’s for this series, there are no holds barred. We want to reflect as much variety as possible; a difficulty is just seen as a challenge to be overcome. As for a private trip, there’s only one criteria: somewhere I haven’t been yet.
Where else is on your travel bucket list?
There are plenty of places still left for the sonic exploration treatment. In the immediate future, I’m hoping to go to Christchurch in New Zealand to see how its people are coping with the recent natural disasters that have befallen it. Also Moscow, as it’s one of the major world cities I’ve never been to and one that I’m hugely curious about, so hopefully these could be destinations for the next series.
A new series of Blind Man Roams the Globe begins on BBC World Service on Wednesday 21 June at 11.30 BST
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• Return UK flights
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