Articles By Gord
As I see it... London, England

July 2007 issue of Vibrant Magazine, view the actual article (including images).

As I see it... London, England

Close your eyes because today I would like you to travel with me as a blind person. I realize that will make reading this column slightly awkward, but do your best.

Imagine yourself at a busy airport. As you await your flight to be called, listen to the commotion surrounding you. Snippets of conversations. Maybe the zip of a purse or carry-on bag.

And the constant announcements of flights delayed, flights boarding, and every ten minutes you'll hear: “Any unattended baggage will be immediately taken away and destroyed.”

A word of warning, this would be a poor moment to shoot a glance at your spouse. “No. No, no. Honest, Honey, I don't think of you as baggage. Honest. It was just a coincidence. Honest.”

It is a full, full flight. Which means you're probably not going to Winnipeg or Sudbury.

And as your flight is called, you rise and stroll past the snaking queue of fellow passengers to the very front of the line. You're not the pilot or a member of the crew and you're likely not traveling first class, but if you are blind, you do get to pre-board. What a wonderful luxury. You have time to organize your junk in the overhead compartment and settle comfortably into your seat before the rest of the mob arrives.

On our last trip to London, England, Catherine and I decided it was high time we revisited the Tower of London. The first and only time Catherine had been there she was 16 and on the first ever high school summer excursion to Europe. It was something like sixteen hundred countries in four days. Great price. Anyhow, that was way, way back in . . .

Well, perhaps for my own safety we best leave that out. But for what it's worth, rumour has it that Catherine was the last to shake hands with Anne Boleyn. I was fourteen when my Mum dragged my brother Michael, my sister Joanne and myself off to the Tower. I had behaved so terribly on that British vacation, having wanted to stay home and golf all summer at Northridge. My Mum forced me to go. And so I decided to make things miserable for her and everyone.

So as we approached the tourist's point of entry, I figured Mum had just had enough and was actually asking about available accommodations for myself within the Tower.

So on a brilliantly sunny Monday in January, temperature a balmy seven or eight degrees Celsius, Catherine and I approached the entranceway to these historic grounds.

It is awe-inspiring. The buildings heavy and ominous. You can't help but imagine the terror faced by those imprisoned. The beheadings, the torture, the fear and the absolute shock and horror that greets you when you reach the box office.

“How MUCH? For two people? I mean I'm not paying for this tour group over here, ya know. It's just me and the missus. I'm not lookin' to buy the place.” “Do you have any kind of discount for the blind?” asks Catherine. “Oh, you do and I acting as his guide would get in free.”

We joined a tour group; just a mishmash of folks, but the Beefeater conducting our group was terrific. He was funny, and had a great ability to play the crowd. He skillfully moved us along, but at each stop, his graphic and dramatic portrayals of life and death, mostly death, were riveting. At one point he realized that I was blind and with great ease and sensitivity he allowed me to feel his Beefeater's tunic and hat. I decided it was nothing that I would wear.

Once inside the Tower where the crown jewels were displayed, my white cane acted like some sort of beacon, drawing in guides from all over the place.

One in particular, Peter, was thrilled to be my personal escort. He took tremendous pleasure in explaining the succession of the monarchy. Peter encouraged me to feel the coats of arms, shields and emblems that covered the walls and as I did so, he related the stories behind each monarch's reign. Over an hour we spent, from Edward and James, Victoria and Henrys, it was the history lesson I must have skipped back in grade 10.

Catherine was bored to tears, but has experienced enough of these moments of incredible human kindness that she stifles her screams of impatience.

To the vault containing the Crown jewels we proceeded, where a little conveyor belt slides the gawking tourists past the encased glittering pieces.

Catherine's description of the crowns, the rubies and emeralds and diamonds goes something like “I want that one and that one and that one and that one. Oh, and that one too.”

Not that I could ever weary of “that one and that one.” But luckily, just like a knight in shining armour, Peter charges in with an enormous book that they've created for the benefit of blind visitors.

The book has raised images of all the jewel-encrusted crowns, goblets and plates on display. I needed but to ask and Peter flipped to the corresponding page, where my fingertips discovered the rubies and diamonds for myself. The ‘Star of India', that's one nasty paper cut.

Once on a trip to Bermuda, Catherine and I had the opportunity to experience an underwater walk. They took us out to an area of reef where the water was perhaps 12 to 15 feet deep. The guide rigged us up with these old-fashioned bell helmets. These helmets rested on your shoulders and air is pumped down to you through an attached hose. It was a bizarre feeling to have this water just below your chin and to freely reach in under the helmet to scratch your nose or pick your teeth. Or vice versa.

Our guide was more than willing to make a few adjustments that would allow me to experience this walk to its fullest. He sets up a smaller hose that extends from under his helmet to under mine, and through this hose we talk back and forth. He was able to guide me around the coral and described the variety of colourful fish that were visible. We had to be very careful walking. Slow steps so as not to stir up the bottom too greatly for the next tour group. We must have moved and looked like some sort of horror flick from the fifties. I half expected at any moment the giant squid would attack or to hear my companion say: “The creature from the black lagoon has been known to summer here.” At one point, our guide took my right wrist and moved my hand gently forward until my fingertips touched something.

“That's an angel fish. Go ahead, you can pet her.”

It was unbelievable; my fingers repeatedly stroked the smooth, firm body of that Angel.

Later, through our hose connection he says, “I want you to see if you can feel these. There's a cluster of little tiny fish right here amongst this fan of coral.” But before my fingers reach them, a 14-inch Damselfish sweeps by and takes a nip at my hand. It draws blood. We don't hang around waiting for the Great White to arrive.

That guide's efforts took little on his part, but what a tremendous experience he gave me.

Stonehenge: What was it meant to be? How did they ever manage to build it?

No longer can you wander freely among its stones. A shame. But it was a must if this site was to be preserved for future generations. An effort by authorities to thwart the petty vandals that had been chipping bits of the stone off for their personal keepsakes, or others who signed their names as if Stonehenge was nothing more than some ancient wall of graffiti.

So the tourists, hooked up to their audio guides walk the perimeter, take their photographs and later say to friends back home: “Now, that's Stonehenge. And see in this picture, there's this blind guy out here in the middle of it... Wow.”

With a personal guide I have slipped into the cordoned off area. I wanted to slow everything down. I wanted time to absorb it all. I dragged my opened palm across a stone; its surface was coarse and hard. And immense. I had the guide lead me to the centre of the stones and there I paused, blind to the onlookers, not speaking, I breathed in the history of six thousand years.

This column has revealed four little moments from my blind travels. The wealth of these experiences is immeasurable. They come about because of the genuine caring and kindness of others.

I don't suggest that after reading this you all go out and become blind, but I am forever grateful for the host of people that blindness has introduced me to and forever thankful for the opportunities that blindness has provided.

P.S. You can open your eyes now.

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