My Hols: For Sir John Wilson: Sound, Smell, and Touch Are His Compass

by John Hatt

From the Editor: The following story first appeared in the April 26, 1998, edition of the London Sunday Times. Sir John Wilson is a seasoned traveler. His methods do not always reflect the techniques developed in recent years by competent blind travelers, but his confidence and willingness to go anywhere and do what needs to be done are precisely what the best travel teachers strive to communicate to their students. It is reassuring to be reminded that people have been successfully developing and using effective techniques as long as competent blind people have been around.

Sir John Wilson, who is seventy-nine and lives in England, was blinded as a child. He attended the prestigious Worcester College for the Blind, in those years an academically rigorous secondary school for young men only. He then graduated in law at Oxford. Over the next thirty years he pioneered efforts that restored sight to more than one million people in the British Commonwealth. In 1983 he founded Impact, a UN initiative that leads a worldwide attack on cases of avoidable disability. Sir John and Dr. Jernigan corresponded over the years and occasionally entertained each other in their homes. Here is the story:

I was already blind during the earliest holidays that I can remember. Apart from the usual holidays on a beach, my father, an amateur archeologist, took me on caving expeditions. My job—for which touch is probably better than sight—was to sift with my fingers through piles of debris in search of fossils, pottery, or occasionally an ancient coin.

Since then I have been a frequent traveller in my work for disabled people and, during visits to more than eighty countries, have often had opportunities for brief holidays in exotic places. Many apparent problems for blind people are surmountable. For instance, it used to worry me that I couldn't see the fasten-seat-belt sign on a plane; but I solved that problem by finding my neighbor's seat belt, then sitting on it. Then, as a result of his tugging, I would know when it was time to fasten up. Nor is it a problem being unable to use conventional maps: I use Braille ones, which have the advantage of being three-dimensional, so you can feel the mountain ranges.

During much of my traveling I have been alone, but in my experience fellow travellers and hotel staff are very helpful. I have especially happy memories of a West African hotel, where I heard the concierge say to my porter, "You treat this man proper; otherwise I cut you and screw your neck." In some situations I can navigate by sound. In an Indian hotel my problem was needing to cross a large, crowded lobby to the dining room. Fortunately, the hotel band played at meal times, and there was also traffic noise from a door to the street. I found that a line bisecting those two points of sound would usually lead me through the lobby to the restaurant. My maneuvering used to amuse two residents who, sipping beers on their veranda, placed bets on whether I would get there without knocking over the plant pots.

In a crowded room it is helpful if there is an air conditioner: it provides a static point of sound around which you can navigate like a sailor steering by the North Star. A revolving fan has the reverse effect: you turn to face a voice, and find you are just facing a draught; and it can be disconcerting when the verbena perfume that you have identified with the bank manager's wife instead appears to waft from the deep-voiced captain from the Salvation Army.

Of course there are some small difficulties for me. In Borneo I don't feel completely at ease when climbing up a notched tree trunk to get into a long house. Nor did I like the revolving doors of New York hotels, which need to be negotiated at supersonic speed. Americans, reared to this, often go through butt end, but if you can't see what you are doing, you can get a nasty crack on the skull. Once inside the hotel, I'm not very popular when I mistakenly press the red button in the lift, causing an alarm to screech through sixty floors. Even when I reach the correct floor, there are hazards: I once entered the wrong bedroom and found an alien foot in my bed. Now I identify my bedroom by bending a pipe cleaner around the door handle.

My enjoyment of travel and holidays owes much to my early training at the Worcester College for the Blind. There we learned to compensate for our blindness by developing an acute sense of hearing, touch, and smell. Smells carry the memory of many holiday places. In Corfu the pines have a heavy scent, like retsina wine. In Grenada, during the nutmeg harvest, the woods smell like a spice box. Zanzibar is the scent of cloves and frangipani and, at night, the moonflowers. The local Arab women wear a perfume called ylang-ylang, which is distilled to an ancient recipe from pure blossom and is said to be the scent that beguiled Solomon.

At the great Hindu temple in Madurai in India, it was more my sense of touch that gave me pleasure. I can still remember the carved features of a laughing child and the angular contours of the goddess of smallpox. A great treat was the Getty Museum in California, where they turned off the alarm system so that I could feel the exquisite Greek and Roman sculptures. At the Parthenon I could sense the pattern of sun and shade, so I got an exact impression of the symmetry of the colonnade.

Blind people often develop acute hearing. In New York, for instance, when a siren sounds from the harbor, you can hear the Manhattan skyline. An occasional thunderstorm can also illuminate the landscape. During a monsoon in the Himalayas I remember a clap of thunder bellowing through the valley, making the foothills stand out in a silhouette of sound, while a huge, slow echo loomed back from the great mountains.

At the Victoria Falls I enjoyed a fascinating variety of sound. Shrieks came from the Devil's Cataract, which was seething into the grotto: a lower, thunderous tone resonated from the enormous power of the main falls; a subterranean earth-quaking rumbled through the nearby rain forest, where flabby ferns quietly dripped with moisture.

In the West Indies some of the best calypso singers are blind, and I spent an uproarious holiday with them at a carnival in Trinidad. For two days Port of Spain vibrated to the sound of competing steel bands, their rhythm carried along every road by shuffling, dancing feet. In every part of the city the most sedate citizens were unable to resist jumping up; every baby shook its rattle; and I was told that the patients in the hospitals could be injected only during the rare lulls. For days afterwards I felt the rhythm in my feet, just as one feels the motion of waves long after leaving a ship.

Since retirement in 1983 I have continued—on a voluntary basis—my work for the disabled. Thanks to the generosity of British Airways, my wife Jean can now travel with me, and in some respects my travels now seem like holidays—but working holidays with a purpose. In the Asia-Pacific region alone there are still more than 100 million people with disabilities, most of which were preventable, and many of which are curable. I recently stayed with Impact's hospital train at a remote Indian railway station, where a group of surgeons (on a working holiday) had been hard at work for four weeks. Their efforts had produced scenes that were biblical: the deaf could hear, the blind could see, and the paralysed could walk. I couldn't help but agree with one of the surgeons, who told me: "This is the best holiday that I could ever have had."