The Braille Monitor                                                                                               March, 2002

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What I Did Last Summer.

by Barbara Pierce
Barbara Pierce stands beside a Hittite portal lion outside the Ancient Oriental Museum in Istanbul
Barbara Pierce stands beside a Hittite portal lion outside the Ancient Oriental Museum in Istanbul

From the Editor: Do you remember in September or maybe in the depths of winter getting an assignment in school to write a couple of paragraphs on the topic, "What I did last summer?" For the fall, 2001, Buckeye Bulletin, the publication of the NFB of Ohio, I wrote such an essay because my first true vacation in twenty-five years had just ended, and I thought that some of my experiences might be of interest to NFB of Ohio members. Many of them agreed, so here it is to lighten the gray days of early spring:

Few things are deadlier than listening to a friend talk about the details of a recent vacation. I hope that this column will not fall into that category of wasted time because I do have some reflections to make about foreign travel and blindness. This is my only excuse for inflicting the following paragraphs on you all. Just be grateful that you don't have to sit through the ordeal of looking at all our pictures.

My husband Bob and I celebrated our wedding anniversary by taking a tour which began in Athens, spending five days cruising among and visiting several of the Greek islands, and ending with three days in Istanbul. Since I knew that we would do a lot of scrambling over rocky, uneven ground to visit ruins, I decided to take good walking shoes and a straight cane with me. These days I usually use a telescoping cane because of the convenience of collapsing and storing it in tight places. But I knew that what I did not need was to have the cane collapse on me at the wrong moment. It is a pain in the neck to stow a sixty-three-inch cane when you are seated in the center rank of seats on a 747 jet, where you have no fuselage wall to slide the cane down against. I always seem to be assigned one of those center seats. Going to Athens, I had to keep my foot on the cane the entire trip to make sure it did not roll. Coming home, we were on a 767 with only three seats in the center, where we were again seated, so I had no choice but to ask the cabin crew to stow the cane for me. Since I had two other canes in my hand luggage, I was not at their mercy. But of course they managed to misplace the cane, and it took us some time to turn it up again in New York.

Even with that inconvenience, I would not have been without the straight cane on some of the climbs. Greece is incredibly rocky, and climbing to the Acropolis or the ruins at Delphi is a very unsteady business. I really had to develop my own cane technique. Ideally I would have liked to keep the cane tip in contact with the ground throughout the arc in order to identify small steps, but the ground was so uneven that it was impossible to do anything other than tap the cane. High steps were easy to identify, but I found it all too easy to miss drops of two or three inches. The best I could manage was to keep the cane as low as possible and try to remain alert to anything that might be a little step.

I must admit that I would not have liked to do those tours without walking with a sighted person. First of all, following the guide was a tricky business. They carried either signs with the bus number or a parasol that could be seen at some little distance.

The interesting thing is that with nine different tour guides, not one questioned my ability to manage the climbs. Not only were we walking over uneven ground and steep climbs, but the rocky steps cut out of the hillside frequently had a sheer drop-off on one side. None of these places had handrails. Fear of litigation just did not exist; it was amazing and very refreshing.

The guides may have been willing to live and let live, but not so the ship's crew assigned to get people on and off the ship when we were using tenders to get to shore rather than the gangplank. Two men stood on each side of the exit area. They did not speak much English, and they had it firmly in mind that they were not to let any of us drop into the drink. As soon as I got into their clutches, my arms were grabbed firmly by four sets of hands, and my hands were immobilized. I would begin saying, "You have to let me move the cane. Let me move my arm." I might as well have been speaking Martian. The ship's crew in general were so indoctrinated with the notion that they were to provide service that it sometimes caused annoyance. One evening I ordered pheasant, which came with one small bone still in the serving. After the waiter put my plate down, he inquired whether I could cope with the bone. I assured him that I would have no difficulty. He went away, but in a minute he was back to ask Bob in a whisper if I could really manage. Those of you who know me can imagine just how delighted I was with that officiousness.

We had struggled with the pre-tour paperwork, which demanded disclosure of any physical impairments that would require special assistance by the ship's company. Since I knew they would not be inconvenienced, I did not like the idea of mentioning that I was blind. But they warned that the penalty for not disclosing such information could be cancellation of the cruise, which I also did not want to have happen. Moreover, since this ship does not come into American ports at all and the entire line, as far as I knew, did no business in the U.S., I was sure that the Americans with Disabilities Act did not provide me protection or even a tool to threaten with. So on our attorney's advice I wrote that I was blind but that I would not require any assistance.

When we went to our assigned stations during the lifeboat drill the first evening, a man from the medical office was waiting for me to assess my independence, I guess. He offered to take me back to my cabin, which I declined firmly, and that was the end of that.

Setting aside the peripheral issues that I've been talking about, what was it like to visit so many sites where history was made and civilizations rose, flourished, and clashed? In some ways I am sure that such a tour is very different for a blind person than it is for a sighted one. After all, almost everything is off limits for touching, and Greece and Turkey are very far from having funds to create models and other tactile ways to give a blind person access to the treasures in view everywhere. Bob is a very patient describer and plaque-reader, and that certainly helped. I was also able to touch a couple of things that gave me much more of a thrill than seeing them could have given another visitor who was already satiated by looking at so many treasures. In Ephesus archeologists have reclaimed the library, which was standing when St. Paul visited the city. Outside the reconstructed ruin of the building stand four statues on high pediments: Wisdom, Study, Understanding, and Knowledge. These are all female figures, much deteriorated by more than 2,000 years of sun and rain, but I could reach up and touch the bare toes of Sophia, Wisdom.

In the same way I discovered a pair of portal lions outside the Ancient Oriental Museum in Istanbul. These were Hittite in origin and about 3,500 years old. I was able to examine both of them completely and compare them to a more recent portal lion inside the museum. The comparison taught me a lot about how a civilization grows in the sophistication of its artistic conception and execution. I found these small insights and experiences extremely meaningful.

The other thing I found is far more difficult to put into words. It was profoundly moving to stand and walk in spaces that had so much history associated with them. At Delphi we climbed to the Temple of Apollo and the treasure houses. We walked along the Sacred Way, and I could imagine all the people who had come to consult the Delphic Oracle, prepared to be guided absolutely by what they heard. Greek drama is filled with references to the Oracle, and I found just walking through these ruins stirring. But then the guide suggested that those who had the strength and interest could climb higher and see the small theater, where Greek plays were performed for visitors, who sat on stone benches that marched up the hillside around three sides of the amphitheater. We started up the irregular steps and pathway, and there it was. I could stand in the center of the stage and clap my hands to hear the acoustics of the space. I could sit on the uncomfortable benches and imagine what it would have been like to watch a play unfolding right in front of me.

Then we climbed even higher and found the stadium, where athletic contests took place. It was close to 100 degrees that day, and I simply could not conceive of doing more than collapsing on a stone bench at the top. Maybe in April one could run races or throw a discus after climbing that hill, but to have under my hands the proof that men had carried stones up that far and built an entire stadium for athletes to perform in was astonishing.

Most of the people in our tour group went peacefully down to wait for us at the little museum and simply asked us what the theater and stadium had been like. I would not have missed climbing up to experience it for myself for anything.

Did I enjoy this tour? I had a wonderful time! Did I miss seeing the things I couldn't touch? Of course. But my nine days of tours and shopping were full of wonderful experiences. When Bob and I were buying a Turkish rug, I got a hands-on demonstration of how these double-knotted rugs are made. The other people in our tour only got to watch a demonstration from a distance. The bazaars were filled with exotic odors and sounds, shouting vendors, and a dozen languages. Nothing in my life has been remotely like it. The poverty of the people in Istanbul was painfully obvious. The exchange rate was 1,350,000 lira to one dollar. A year ago it was 700,000, so their money is being devalued at a rate I cannot conceive of. I think it is important to be reminded every so often of just how fortunate we in this country really are. I recognize that I am very lucky, and I am very grateful for this trip that taught me so many new things.

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