Blind tourists: Sightseeing by sound

Holidays always present challenges, but blind tourists face particular problems, as the BBC's Peter White can testify. A sense of terror can be part of the pleasure, he tells Simon Calder

Baggage reclaim is a tough-enough assignment for travellers in possession of all their senses, but if you happen to be unsighted it provides extra challenges.

"So far San Francisco has completely lived up to the cliché. Our plane was an hour late because of the fog," says Peter White at the start of Blind Man Roams the Globe, a new programme for the BBC World Service.

White has one of the most familiar voices on BBC Radio, as presenter of You and Yours and In Touch. He is also an inveterate traveller. "Now I have to remember what colour my baggage is so someone can help me reclaim it."

He cleared that hurdle, and many others, to tackle the question of "How does a blind person sightsee?"

Do blind people have a privileged opportunity to experience the world in a way sighted people don't?

I think that's true. Which is the chicken and which is the egg I'm not sure, but what interests me about places is not so much things as people. Things do make a noise, but not such a distinctive noise as people make. I am listening from the moment I land, or come to a port or cross a border.

The first thing that sounds different are the voices. And so instantly you've got that idea of getting your picture of the place from what people are saying, what they're talking about, the intonation, whether their voices go up or down, the way the street-sounds work, the way people sell things, the way they call each other to prayer, all sorts of things which are very distinctive and which make a soundscape. What I've tried to do with this programme is to give people the experience of what it would be like to me coming to a place for the first time.

From a blind traveller's point of view, where is the most exciting place to be – and where is the most terrifying place to be?

I quite like being terrified in a way. I tend to take myself to places other people might avoid. To do the terrified first: I've taken myself to sports venues quite a lot because I'm a sports fan.

In San Francisco I went to the baseball, which was surprisingly decorous. It was actually in Oakland, which is the town next door, because the San Francisco team were playing away. It was rather a family affair, and they were all there with their hampers and their popcorn – it seemed more like going to the cinema than baseball.

What was much more frightening for me, in an enjoyable sense, was I went to Istanbul and went to watch Galatasaray play football. It was like going back in time in England by about 25 years: walking over discarded burger boxes and plastic cups, which is exactly how I remember going to football matches in my youth. I was crunching along on broken boxes and cups, and then climbing up the steps and discovering that we were absolutely shoulder to shoulder on the terraces.

A lot of people would find that rather intimidating but actually, for me the more vivid that kind of experience is the more I am likely to enjoy it. I had the sense to buy a Galatasaray scarf before I went in and identified myself as a supporter and therefore got talking with the guys on the terraces and swapping cans of beer and in the end got one of them to more or less commentate for me.

Istanbul is a visually dazzling city, and I imagine that is the prime memory for sighted travellers rather than the sounds or the smells. How was it for you?

There is a problem in that although it clearly is visually dazzling, one mosque feels much like another. I've had the same problem elsewhere. The stone of the Taj Mahal is incredible to the touch, the marble is a wonderful smooth sensation, but there comes a point when you've mined that sort of experience for all that it's got to offer. I've been in what are supposed to be some of the most spiritually rewarding places in the world, like the Sistine Chapel and the Taj Mahal, and I find it very hard to find that spirituality because it isn't coming from sound in a way. So for me it was more things like the underground reservoir in Istanbul, for example, which was great from a sound point of view. The baths are enjoyable places to go, but they've got to be places that have got quite a lot of living sound.

One of the problems is that often people are not giving out a particularly spiritual nuance themselves. I remember sitting on Hadrian's Wall while two or three tourists wandered by discussing the latest plot of Neighbours.

You must be far more acutely attuned to sound – and smell – than the sighted tourist?

I guess that's true, the problem – and it may be true of vision as well, for all I know, having never been able to see – is that senses can get overworked. Take, for example, somewhere like the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul. It's great when you first go in there but there comes a point when you feel that you've been overloaded.

Also they're not very good for radio. On the whole with this programme I've tried to concentrate on things that really do make a noise, rather than me talking about other senses. You can talk about the touch of stone or marble or whatever it is up to a point, but it's very difficult to convey it.

What is your advice to sighted travellers who might want to get more out of the world?

Listen. I can be completely absorbed sitting in a bar, not doing all that much, just listening. In San Francisco, for example, I travelled on the buses a lot. It's a microcosm of the city, because you have Chinatown, you have Italian areas, you have Spanish areas, and you travel on these buses and you actually hear yourself go through them, listening to the languages and the nuances and the voices that are getting on and off the bus. So while other people are looking out the windows, no doubt, I'm listening to these conversations.

The buses were remarkably lively places. I suppose I had a rather clichéd idea of an American city being very abrupt and rather brusque but a lot of the bus drivers were very chatty, or they would sing songs. I heard a lot of political debate on the buses between people – and not just about the extent of the bus fares. There is a whole world out there of other people's conversations, not necessarily directed at you but directed at each other, and it never ceases to keep me interested.



Peter White is the Disability Affairs Correspondent for the BBC. 'Blind Man Roams the Globe', about Istanbul, is broadcast on the World Service at 8pm today. To hear the programme on San Francisco, visit http://bbc.in/fJdjHv

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