When Justine and I first met in 2013, we didn’t even realize that we were both living without a sense each: Justine is legally blind and I am profoundly deaf. Every year or so we meet up to explore another international destination and the bond of striving for an independent life, despite living with a strangely invisible disability, deepens.
“Donde?” I muttered. “Donde diablos está?”
Barcelona Sants railway station teemed with people, all making beelines to platforms, trains and places unknown to us. The order of Barcelona’s streets above — buildings set in a terracotta ice cube tray — was abandoned down here. Here, we had no idea where to start. An edge crept into my voice as I pleaded with Google Maps: how do we get to Montserrat without spending 12 hours on foot? My blisters were quite bad already. (Spoiler alert: it took us six hours when it was supposed to take a mere two.)
A lot of blogs out there will tell you how easy it seems to navigate Barcelona’s public transportation system. However, once we had descended into the bowels of the underground to venture out of the city, we realized one thing: they forgot about us — seeing as Justine can’t see signs more than two meters away and the cacophony of public spaces makes for a singular rush of noises for me (and that’s in English, let alone in Spanish). So, armed with charm and a particular set of social skills, we set out to ask for help.
Asking for help is something not a lot of people like doing. For us, it’s something we have had to cultivate. If we don’t push ourselves, we lose the independence that has taken us years to build. If we are too stubborn, we would never get to where we need to be.
Often, on our travels, we have made friends with the people we have stopped on street corners and in bazaars to ask for directions or to help us listen out for changes to the boarding gate. Of course, we are just as tethered to our phones as anyone, but we can’t always rely on that. Sometimes I think we are model pre-internet citizens: we actually know how to speak to others face-to-face. Eye contact can be glorious. Who knew? In fact, in Deaf culture it helps indicate who you’re talking to. Come to think of it, you know that ex or friend who was always too proud to ask for help when you were lost in a foreign city? Well, we don’t have the luxury of cutting off our nose to spite our face. (We’ve already lost our eyes and ears). We get everywhere much faster when we just open our mouths and forget about feeling ashamed or embarrassed.
Back in Barcelona’s underground, we finally fished someone out from behind the ‘closed’ information desk and he told us which platform would lead us to the magical monastery in the mountains. After an hour and a half, we finally sat down on the train, exhausted. It wasn’t even past noon.
“At least the views will be amazing,” we agreed. We then learned that two train stops have the word ‘Montserrat’ in them and that we had missed the right one. (FYI: get off at Aeri de Montserrat to take the cable car). Just look up the weather before you go. A blind girl squinting into the fog from the top of a mountain is a tragic sight if ever there were one.
Barcelona is notorious for pickpocketing. So much so that you’ll wish you had a euro every time someone sucked in their teeth and told you to be careful. People seem to think Justine and I are particularly vulnerable every time we step outside because of our deafness and blindness. In a way, they’re not wrong but, oddly, we are much more street smart than you think. For example, for what I lack in hearing, I make up in being incredibly attuned to body language. More often than not, I have spotted hostile behavior in someone’s body than in their tone way before others have. Justine is so intuitive that she can smell a bad vibe from the next suburb and there’s no way we ever get completely lost because of her inbuilt compass that baffles everyone. I think there is Google Maps where her heart is.
We read something the other day: “Empathy is not a learned trait and highly empathetic people usually learn to be that way …..[from] needing to understand/predict others’ actions for their own survival and peace of mind.” Being deaf and blind has meant that our whole lives we have had to fill in the gaps. This involves a lot of prediction and guesswork in order to follow a conversation, not stand out, do the activity right, and be included. In other words, we are the spies of our own lives; constantly assessing and aware.
That said, sometimes we’re too tired for all that! We are not helpless nor need to be pitied or coddled but have had to also embrace our vulnerability. We admit we might need to borrow your eyes and ears for a bit. On the other hand, if folks don’t assume we are easy targets, there seems to be a lot of people who say we are “so brave” to travel or, one of my favorites, “You’re so inspiring.” What exactly did we inspire you to do? Honestly, we’re just as lazy as you. We aren’t held back so much from our disabilities but from the way the world is designed. Our disabilities don’t inspire; our attitudes towards the additional obstacles that society puts in front of us do.
The altar at Montserrat wasn’t as impressive as Tripadvisor promised. We asked for blessings to get home but not to cure us anytime soon — we’re not ready to give up our Deaf/Blind (read: sympathy) cards just yet.
Once, a man, having heard my voice (which doesn’t have a deaf accent), decided against giving me a commissioned ticket even though he had seen my sound processor — to him, I wasn’t disabled enough! Drawbacks, like missing out on the wealth of geeky facts on audio guides or not being able to see the details that are typically the main focus of the place, add up.
But this means we also discover more joy in unexpected moments. For Justine: finally arriving at the Cascade d’Ouzoud in the Atlas Mountains after hours of struggling to climb rocky terrain (bad depth perception strikes again), holding my hand in a hamam, giggling as we tried to not slip into the maze of pools (very dark), and driving through snow-capped mountains on road trips (can’t drive), all were times on par with any magnificent building. Such a moment for me was in the Blue Mosque when my sister asked someone to sing their Arabic prayer into my microphone, just so I could hear it, too. Those are the moments we live for. It’s a privilege not to take these luxuries for granted.
Two years later we are hugging in our favorite restaurant (the owner still remembers our order) and I comment on how these particular streets of Barcelona feel like a portal for us. Over the patatas bravas, we discuss what to do tomorrow. Our friend turns and suggests Montserrat. We crack up laughing and when we next gulp in some air, we say, “Not this time.”
What personal challenges have you faced while traveling?