"I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult." E. B. White

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Bon Voyage to 1/3 of Our Travel Trio!

Tonight we had our last dinner with our travel companion, Aly, as she is leaving tomorrow and flying home. This month has gone by so fast! As we bid farewell to Aly, I want to share something that I haven’t mentioned before.

Aly is blind.

She is legally blind with exceptionally limited vision - to the point where she recently finished a several-month blind school to help her with skills specific to the seeing-impaired, such as navigating streets and buses alone. Bright lights are the most difficult for her, and nights are only a tiny bit easier.

The reason I didn’t mention this sooner is because I wanted you, my family and friends, to read all of my stories for what they are without wondering, “Well, how did that work with a blind woman?” Because the truth is, we all just made it work - from riding elephants to hiking through jungles to walking the streets of Kathmandu.

But I do want to share this now because I think Aly deserves credit for taking on this great challenge, and because her being blind has played a role in my experience here.

Here’s how it all played out:

Aly, me, and Anna in Bhaktapur
Aly’s cousin is a long-time friend of Anna’s, and the three of them have traveled together and become close over the past several years. When Anna told Aly about our trip to Nepal, she decided to join us and hopped on a flight from Illinois to California so that we could all travel together.

I’m sure Aly would be the first to say that the first week in Nepal was challenging for her. It was an adjustment for Anna and I getting used to cars and motorcycles nearly clipping us dozens of times a day, severely uneven paths and roads, and figuring out where to go in a city completely lacking in street signs and where alleyways are a common route. All of these things for Aly were a thousand times more difficult because she couldn’t rely on her vision the way we could to get around.

For the first several days, Aly attempted to use a cane to help her, but she eventually decided that it was causing more harm than good here because the roads and paths are so uneven. The cane would hit a rock, but her feet would land in a ditch. She has since left the cane behind and gets around by stepping carefully and using the guidance of Anna, me, the staff, or other volunteers.

Aly and me on the way to Nagorkot
Her volunteer placements were in separate locations to ours, and for the last three weeks, she has ridden on the back of a motorbike to an orphanage every weekday morning. Late morning, she has walked with Devon, another volunteer/housemate, to a monastery to teach English. She has befriended the staff and spent her afternoons lunching, shopping, or chatting with one of the many people who work in the volunteer house. She made an effort to make the most of her time.

I don’t think for a minute that this experience has been easy for her, but I do think she both enjoyed it and learned a lot about herself. This was Aly’s first time traveling to a place like Nepal, and I think she has a right to be proud of the fact that she survived (and even had fun!) in a country that is less than blind-friendly.

For my part, it was also a great learning experience. Aly is my only blind friend, and it took some time remembering when to offer help and when she didn’t need it. Anna was much better at it than I, but even for Anna, much of this was new because navigating the streets of Kathmandu is very different to navigating the streets of a major US city.  Knowing when to offer an arm for guidance, point out a large step or curb, and warn about a giant mud puddle took a bit of practice.

In addition to her company, here’s the unexpected of silver lining of this experience. Anna and I would often point out interesting people or beautiful landscapes. As Aly couldn’t see them, we would then describe what we were looking at out loud. Suddenly, “Did you see that woman?” became “There is an old woman climbing a mountain over there. She looks to be about 90 years old and is hanging on to the exposed roots of trees because the mountain path is so thin and steep. I can’t believe how high up she is!”

Aly, me, and Anna visiting the monastery
By describing what I was seeing to Aly, it really forced me to look more closely at things. I wasn’t just scanning the scenery and forgetting it, I was committing it to memory because I was studying it, describing the colors and textures, and using details so that she could see what I was seeing.

It was a great and valuable lesson to me in the difference between looking at something and really seeing it. I found myself really paying attention to little details and making an effort to absorb everything I was looking at, even when Aly was not around. I hope I keep this up when I leave here.

This entire trip has been amazing, and I’m so glad that our little travel trio had so many great adventures.

Bon voyage, Aly!

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