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Tony on a boat in Muscat, Oman

Tony Giles

Johnny’s Journeys

Blind, deaf, and traveling the world

Despite being given a poor hand in life, Tony Giles has spent the last twenty years adamantly pursuing his dream of traveling the world. In the course of his adventures, he’s visited every continent (including Antarctica) and 125 countries and counting. I caught up with Tony to find out how....and why.

By Johnny Bliss

I found out that Tony Giles exists, courtesy of a BBC documentary that showed him traveling to Bethleham. I was instantly transfixed by the notion that a person who could neither see nor hear properly could still go out into the world alone, and live a full and independent life of their own choosing.

Reality Check, 23rd-27th April

In a series running on FM4’s Reality Check, our roaming reporter Johnny Bliss is in London to meet Tony Giles, a backpacker who has himself traveled to over 120 different countries, despite being fully blind and over 80% deaf. But how can you really experience a place if you can’t see or properly hear it? Wouldn’t this be dangerous? Why bother?

In this series, Tony shares his motivations and stories, every day this week on Reality Check, and afterwards seven days on demand.

Check this spot at the end of the week for the Reality Check podcast!

Tony hails originally from Weston-Super-Mare, in the southwest of England, but now lives in Devon, for those brief periods when he isn’t on the road.

As it happens, I was planning a short trip to London, so I shot him a quick e-mail on the off-chance that he might be available at the time I was there.

My luck paid off! He was between trips at the moment, and planning to be in London the very day I was arriving.

We arranged to meet at a pub called the Plumber’s Arms, to compare travel notes (I too get around), share stories, and discuss the logistics of traveling full-time, when you can’t see, can’t hear without the assistance of digital hearing aids, and have to take a variety of medications thanks to only having one working kidney.

Above all, I wanted to know what motivates Tony to go to all the trouble. It would certainly be a lot easier to stay in the UK, given everything.

„It’s the challenge!“ he told me. „It’s a reason to get up each day. And I don’t really worry about danger. Most people, they see a blind person, or a disabled person, in their country, they just think ‘Wow, what?’ They just want to help!“

But that must have been a real steep learning curve, I reasoned. There’s no way you were this confident at the beginning!

"I went to a boarding school far away from my home when I was ten. That’s how I learned to use a long cane. And with mobility training, I learned how to catch buses and trains. I started traveling home to see my family when I was thirteen, and a few years later, I started backpacking around the UK.

„But my travels really started in 2000, when I went to the States to study.“

Tony Giles with two camels in Oman

Tony Giles

Tony, with some camels in Oman

"The first time I was on my own, outside the UK or Europe, completely by myself, was in New Orleans. And at first, I did panic. I just stopped, still on the street, like how do I do this? How do I find a tram?

"I started shaking, but then I took a few deep breaths, and I said Tony, this is what you want. If you don’t want it, go back inside the hostel and go home. I took a few more deep breaths, walked down the street, found someone to help me to find the tram, and the rest is history.

"I’m very spatially aware. My memory’s probably my biggest asset. If I put something down on the table, I have to remember where it is, because I can’t look at it. If I walk down the street to a restaurant or to a shop, someone might help me go there the first time, but I have to remember as I’m walking, so that I can get myself back to where I was staying.

„Whereas most people use their eyesight to work out what’s going on, I have to use my brain. So you need clues, especially in social situations where it’s busy and noisy, and sometimes you can still get the wrong end of the story…“

Tony takes us on a journey around the world in audio
Tony posing with penguins and ice in Antarctica

Tony Giles

Tony, penguins, glaciers, and Antarctica

"One thing that did happen a couple of years ago, was we were on the beach in a seaside place, and I was listening to the sea, trying to judge which way it was going, and I thought it was going out... But then I suddenly realized, our feet were getting wet! The ocean was coming in. We managed to stand on this rock, and my girlfriend was sort of panicking, and we splashed up out of the sea and ran up the beach… that was a bit traumatic!

"I was quite aware when I was walking around Thailand that I could fall into open holes, or fall in a river, and sometimes my cane would go over the edge of a high cliff or the platform at a train station, and I’d realize that I’m closer to the edge than I thought, and have to step backwards.

„Wind’s a real problem for me, because it goes over the microphones, and it takes my hearing and all the sense of direction away. So sometimes I have to just stop in the middle of the sidewalk, because I’ve lost my direction!“

Tony with King Penguins in Falkland Islands

Tony Giles

Tony, with a bunch of penguins in the Falkland Islands

Have you had to worry about your hearing aids breaking? I can imagine a very harrowing situation with neither the benefit of sight nor sound!

„I take spare hearing aids. Water can be an issue. I had a problem when I was in Paraguay, because I accidentally fell in a swimming pool and my hearing aids got wet. So I needed to find some batteries, and there weren’t any shops anywhere. So I kept walking around, showing people these batteries, and eventually this lady said, ‘oh! Si, si!’ and she took me to this shop where I could buy some more batteries… that was lucky!“

How do you fund your travels?

"My dad left me a pension when he died. It’s not a lot of money, about five hundred euros [a month], which I use to travel, and I also get some money from the government. And then I make some money from my two eBooks, Seeing the World My Way and Seeing the Americas My Way.

„I do okay! I travel cheaply. CouchSurfing, that’s the way to go. And don’t go to Oslo! Most expensive place in the world.“

Tony at a whalebone arch, in Nólsoy, Faroe Islands

Tony Giles

Tony, underneath a whale-bone arch in Nólstoy, Faroe Islands

You take a lot of photographs. Photographs which you’ll never see.

„I take pictures, because I think it’s funny. The idea of a blind person taking pictures just slightly messes with people’s minds. Also, if I’m visiting all these places, I should take pictures, because otherwise someone could say, Oh you’re just sat at home, making all of this up, which I could be, especially with the internet! This is so I’ve got evidence, actual proof I’ve been there.“

Would you have any tips for somebody like you, just starting out?

"Definitely take a spare cane with you. I would say to anyone who wants to travel who is blind: start off with small trips. When I was young, I started by going to the States. The country was similar to England, I could speak the language, the infrastructure was similar. If you’re a bit worried about traveling by yourself, team up with someone else and go away for the weekend, or a few days… and if you like it, then slowly venture further, and go from there.

"Do your research. That’s the crucial thing. Get on the internet and research the country or city that you want to visit. Your first night in a foreign country, have somewhere to stay, and then you can go from there. The worst thing is you turn up in a foreign country and you’ve got nowhere to sleep.

„Another good thing is to take a money belt with you. Wear it under your clothes, put your passport in it and separate your money. Always try to bring a little local currency to each country you’re visiting, because if you want to change money or use an ATM machine, you have to find someone you can trust, and that can be quite difficult, particularly for a blind person.“

Tony at Maria-Theresien-Platz in Vienna

Tony Giles

Tony, hanging at Maria-Theresien-Platz in Vienna!

The 23rd-27th of April: In a series running on FM4’s Reality Check, our roaming reporter Johnny Bliss is in London to meet Tony Giles, a backpacker who has himself traveled to over 120 different countries, despite being fully blind and over 80% deaf. In this series, Tony shares his stories, every day this week on Reality Check, and afterwards seven days on demand.

Want more from Tony? Catch up with him online, or on his Facebook page!

Check this spot at the end of the week for the Reality Check podcast!

Johnny Bliss meets blind and deaf globetrotter Tony Giles
Tony with a crocodile in Ghana

Tony Giles

Tony, getting up close and personal with a crocodile in Ghana!

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