Diary of a Blind Traveler
Traveling is perhaps one of the most eye-opening experiences a human being can ever have. Through traveling you will see many new things that teach you about other cultures, which will ultimately help you see your own culture from a totally new perspective. So, with all the sights to see when traveling, what would it be like if you were blind?
Traveling is and has always been one of my passions, despite the fact that I am totally blind. It’s true that I cannot see however, I am a sharp observer. By listening to people and following how they react to different situations, I can sometimes see more than what meets the eye. So, it’s my intention in this column in America’s Muslim Family to let you experience the world through the eyes of a blind traveler, me!
Recently, I spent a month in Germany and notably a few days of leisure in Berlin towards the end of July 2004. I had been studying German and felt pretty confident for most of my month-long stay in the country, as a matter of fact, practicing my German was one of the most compelling reason for my accepting the assignment for my business in the first place. My hosts in Stuttgart, who were fluent speakers of English, dropped me off at the train station at around 11 AM. As we said our good-byes, I suddenly realized that I was on my own, without the benefit of a sighted guide, but even more nerve-racking was the fact I was without the benefit of a translator! I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist especially with language and so the prospect of needing to communicate in German was a daunting proposition.
I arrived in Berlin, after an exhausting but interesting 6-hour train ride from Stuttgart. You would think that on a long ride like this people sharing a row of seats would converse with each other and get to know each other, but alas, as typical in Germany, everyone buried their head in a book or put on a headset and simply minded his or her own business.
I reached the furnished apartment that would be my home in Berlin via taxi, conversing with the driver in German only to find at the end of the ride the gentleman spoke English. Mr. Cobin, (who actually spells his name with a K), spoke no English, which made the tour very interesting. I was pleased because I was able to converse with him despite his heavy Berlin accent, and I learned a few new German words.
My first thought, after I got settled, was to find some place to eat. I was looking forward to the experience, especially since I had spent the previous evening practicing my repository of food related vocabulary with Anna, my Stuttgart host's 12-year-old daughter. Specifically, we went over how to ask for a seat, asking what's on the menu, and most importantly, telling my server that I do not eat pork or drink alcohol. As you can imagine, I was eager to practice what I learned, but I needed to get to a restaurant first!
I explained to Mr. Cobin what I wanted, and after trying in vain to give me directions to a nearby Italian restaurant, he finally offered to take me there, an offer for which I was thankful.
As soon as I got there, a young man who was very accommodating greeted me. I went through what I had practiced with Anna the previous night, and when I got to the point where I explained that I did not eat pork or drink alcohol, he immediately informed me that he was the same way. He asked me where I was from, and I informed him that I was born in Jordan, and that's when he immediately started speaking Arabic with me. He was the restaurant owner's son, and his father has been living in Germany for over 31 years. Needless to say, all my practice the night before was in vain, seeing how we had more in common than just the language. I enjoyed the meal and the conversation and left the restaurant pondering the question, why would an Arab open an Italian restaurant in Germany?
I quickly became familiar with my surroundings and was able to find the Ban Huf, which is the German's way of saying "train station". I took the train the following day to the center of town and walked around, checking out the shops and talking to people. Needless to say, everyone spoke German, and I was truly proud of my ability to communicate with the townspeople in their own language.
Germans have a reputation of being cold by nature, however, people (mostly women) still came up to me, asking if I needed help finding something or crossing the street. In the spirit of sharing for which we Americans are renowned world wide, I'm proud to say that I have taught English to many people with whom I came in contact. Whenever someone tried to teach me something in German, I'd try to teach him or her the same word in English, whether they were interested to learn or not!
I found a Starbucks, and was quick to grab my favorite drink of a chocolate mocha with lots of whip cream on top. To my dismay, the whip cream was not as sweet in Germany as it is in the US. This made it especially strange, since, while I use whip cream in the US to sweeten my coffee, I found myself doing the exact opposite, namely using the Mocha to sweeten the rest of the lot. Small differences become significant when you’re far from home!
The following day was a Friday, and I was determined to find a mosque in which to pray. Blind, with limited knowledge of the city, the language and the people, I headed out, found a mosque, prayed, ate a delightful Indian meal, and went home to my furnished apartment. How I did that was an adventure deserving of an article by itself, and you will, my dear reader, read all about it in the upcoming Winter Edition of America’s Muslim Family, God willing.