Travel out of focus: why a deafblind woman decided to travel the world

Hello there. My name is Cristina and I just came back from 4 months circumnavigating the world. I’m also Deafblind.

Now, I know around-the-world trips are all the rage these days. There are all sorts of reasons why people do it. Scruffy backpackers do it because it sounds cool while delaying adulthood. Others do it to discover themselves … somewhere far, far away. (This one has always confused me. Why can’t you find yourself at home?) A few do it to escape the tedium of everyday life and reconsider their future. Some simply love exploring other cultures and locales.

None of the above applies to me (except the last one). When my boyfriend suggested that we take a break from our work and travel around the world. My first reaction was “You crazy.” I had always viewed these globe trotters with a degree of confusion and even suspicion. It seemed almost self-indulgent to take so much time off to traipse around the world for a few months (or years).

I’m also hardly your typical traveler. I’m not particularly young or particularly moneyed. Perhaps more importantly, I’m Deaf-blind. I was born profoundly deaf and retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition that causes progressive blindness. This condition is called Usher syndrome, a relatively rare genetic disorder. I got my first cochlear implant in 1991 when I was 6 and my second in 2004 at 20, but i am far from “cured.” It was about 5 years ago when my vision suddenly deteriorated into legal blindness and I began my new life as a deaf-blind person.

After some hesitation, I agreed to go on this “Around the World in 120 days” trip. (Sorry, Jules Verne. We had to add some padding to the whole 80-day thing.)

After I found out that I would someday go blind, I told myself that I would simply adapt and carry on. My 11-year-old self imagined that I would “just figure it out” much like I had being deaf. I was quite good at being deaf, so I saw no reason why I couldn’t be good at being blind as well. “It won’t be too bad!” I told myself.

It turns out that 11-year-olds are terrible at predicting the future. Even after 5 years of acclimating myself to blindness — learning and practicing my navigation skills, how to read Braille and so on — I didn’t feel particularly competent. I was still slow and hesitant moving around in a world I could no longer see well. Reading Braille remained a slow and laborious task, a far cry from my once-speedy reading. I still felt painfully shy around new people, a contrast from my old, self-assured demeanor. I was nowhere near the adept and confident person I had envisioned all these years before.

I wondered if my mediocrity had to do with the fact that I hadn’t travelled much in those years. I confined myself mostly to my neighborhood and with the occasional trip to my hometown. Of course I had no confidence in my ability to navigate new places — I hadn’t been going to new places, so I had no concept of what I could do (and not do)!

So, I went to new places to see what would happen. 15 new countries, to be exact. I ended up learning a lot of things along the way. I learned that I can get along anywhere, more or less, from the crowded, labyrinthine subway stations of Tokyo to the polluted, chaotic streets of Kathmandu. I also discovered that sightseeing isn’t an oxymoron for a blind person. Perhaps I should never have doubted those who travelled far and wide to find themselves. Because that’s sort of what happened to me — except it was finding myself again.

I’m writing a short series of “Travel Out of Focus” posts to commemorate this trip. If you’re curious about my trip, keep an eye out.

Note: I hope to add pictures to my posts soon … if I ever get them, that is!