On the Move Around the World
When I was twenty-two I graduated from college in Wisconsin. The same day I got a Greyhound to New York City. I was a young dreamer. I wanted to be an international journalist—one of those famous correspondents who gets to travel all over the world and know the truth about exciting events.
I had a backpack and two small bags. For three months, I rented a patch of hallway in an apartment for $200 a month and worked as an intern at a national magazine. But after that I’d had enough of playing by the rules. I packed the backpack, shouldered a professional video camera I’d obtained through an equipment grant from the Oregon Commission for the Blind and set out for… Kazakhstan.
No, I didn’t actually spin a globe and jab. I had some very vague reasons for going specifically to Kazakhstan, but mostly I was just going. I had very little money and I emailed everyone I could find in Kazakhstan who had an email address and eventually found a volunteer for an organization helping people with disabilities who wanted some free English speaking practice in exchange for a place to sleep.
I spent the next several years traveling all over the globe, making just enough to squeak by writing articles for small newspapers and magazines. I wasn’t famous, so I didn’t get to go to all the most media-saturated places. But I got to go way off the beaten track and stay in a remote village in Nepal where the nearest off-road jeep, gasoline generator or rudimentary trading post were a day’s hike away. I also hiked into the Amazon rain forest, the slums of Bangladesh and the pirate mining operations of the Eastern Ukraine.
Marginal food. Rarely more than a thin camping pad between me and the ground. Mostly it wasn’t exactly fun. But it did make me feel really alive.
I rarely used a white cane in those days and I didn’t make a big deal about my vision impairment. But neither did I hide it. Sometimes when I did short stints in a local newsroom, other reporters ribbed me over it—the way we all teased each other. I’ve been legally blind from the beginning since I was a baby, due to an under-developed retina and severe nearsightedness. In good light, I can see reasonably well within the first six inches and general outlines up to about ten feet.
One night I was relaxing with journalistic colleagues in the relatively calm city of Prague in Central Europe. The streets were dark and rain-slick. In that light, I couldn’t see anything except a few erratically moving lights.
“Just a sec,” I told the culture editor of the newspaper as we stepped into a side street. I reached into my bag and pulled out my cane.
“What in the world?” she exclaimed.
I gave her the nut graph on my vision impairment.
She shook her head and said, “That isn’t true.”
Confused, I tried to explain again and the conversation ended in an argument and accusations of lying. I didn’t work for that newspaper much after that.
And I put my cane away and didn’t get it out again for ten years.
Some of my colleagues had a an inkling of how bad my vision really was—among them the tough-as-nails female photo editor who sometimes accepted photos I took if they were as good as anyone else’s. Most didn’t really know. And I liked it better that way. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time explaining and I’d gloss over the fact that I rarely knew who was who in a group conversation.
I am no particular genius with voices and when people were introduced in a newsroom, they would quickly mill around and I would lose the vague connection between the blurry images and the names. I kept moving fast and mostly no one noticed that I knew their names in print but didn’t actually attach them to their physical bodies.
Journalism was an okay profession as far as it went. I always had to ask every interviewee for their name anyway. I mostly wrote in-depth features on social, political and inter-ethnic issues. This required going to sites and events and a lot of one-on-one interviews. Analysis of interviews, on the scene impressions and as much reading as I could handle.
You might be surprised but on-the-scene reporting wasn’t that difficult to do with a significant vision impairment. Most crisis situations are pretty chaotic and I could make out as much as any other journalist by sound, blurry vision and the tenor of voices. It was all the print reading for background information that hurt.
This was before the days of digital readers that turn text into spoken words and most information a journalist needs was never in Braille. I can only read print at about a tenth the speed of other adults and when I had to land in a new country and study up on its history, politics and culture in a single evening, I was at a disadvantage.
I made up for it by knowing languages. I planned this. I knew I wanted to be a journalist since I was about sixteen, so I studied the hottest languages of the day. This was just after the fall of the Iron Curtain so that meant Russian, Czech, Serbo-Croatian and a smattering of Arabic and Spanish. I couldn’t drive or read fast but I made up for it and made myself useful to teams of journalists with my skills.
I ended up reporting on a small, mean war in Macedonia and Kosovo—escaping from an angry armed mob one night by racing into the deep shadows of a well-remembered street that I could navigate without sight. I was never famous but I worked for a major national newspaper and a big magazine. And by then I never told editors or colleagues about my eyes. I just passed as best I could. I knew they wouldn’t understand about me and physical danger.
The truth is that in a war-zone, it’s mostly about luck. A colleague once came to visit me during the Macedonia war and a mortar shell landed one hundred feet from him. In all the time I was there, I was never that close to an explosion. When you’re an unarmed journalist around a lot of guns, you stay low and learn to hear honesty or threat in the undertones of voices. You listen well and think things through. What you think you might see is often deceptive anyway.
That was many years ago, I’m still legally blind and I live a much quieter life with a husband and two kids. And for the past ten years I’ve been carrying a white cane regularly. In this new life of mine, it helps more than it stirs up trouble. I appreciate the feel of it when I’m going down uneven steps. And it helps with traffic safety and getting people to tell me who they are.
The thing that challenged my physical senses the most was raising toddlers, not navigating a war zone. And no matter where I’ve been, whether I’ve hidden it or declared it openly, the lion’s share of the disability has always been social. The actual trouble seeing is a small inconvenience–not exactly a non-issue when I’ve been searching for a spice my husband misplaced in the kitchen for fifteen minutes, but not too bad.
It’s the reactions of people who either are told I can’t see much and don’t believe me or aren’t told and see my strange eyes and tell my friends, “She must be a little off her rocker with those eyes. You can always tell a person’s mental state by looking in their eyes and she’s either retarded or completely out of it.” It’s people who make a game out of making me guess who they are or get into a huff because I’ve asked them their name several times. It’s people who say I can’t possibly keep small children safe, even though I teach preschool kids and have never had a safety incident on my watch.
For most people, it is very difficult to grasp what it is like to have little or no sight since birth. That’s okay. I don’t know what it would be like to see well since birth. We’ll just have to work at discarding our assumptions about one another.
About the Author: Arie Farnam is originally from Oregon and now living in the Czech Republic. She writes literary fantasy and science fiction as well as children’s books and several blogs. You can get her no-nonsense weekly virtual pick-me-up and a free ebook of your choice by subscribing to her Hearthside Email Circle at www.ariefarnam.com.