Faces Behind the Screen: Tony Giles
Tony Giles is a well-known solo traveler from the U.K. The United Nations states that there are 193 recognized nations in the world. Of these nations, Tony has visited 122 of them…and counting!
Despite being completely blind since birth, Tony has managed to leave his footprint on most of the world, proving that traveling is more than a visual experience.
Tony currently lives in a small seaside town in southwest England. You can learn more about Tony and his travels by visiting his website, or following him on his social media accounts, Facebook and YouTube.
When did your interest in travel begin?
My dad told me his stories about his adventures when he was in the Merchant Navy before I was born. So, I guess that kind of planted a seed when I was young. Unlike my brother and sister, who are older than me, and don’t have any disabilities, they went to a local school. I couldn’t go there because there wasn’t any support. This is in the early ’80s.
I traveled 20 miles or so every day to school so I suppose it started then. Then when I was 10, I went to a boarding school over 300 miles away from home. I lived there for six to eight weeks and came home on the holidays. I suppose it was all that going away and wanting to come home – wanting to be independent from that young age – that sparked my interest in traveling.
When I was 16, I had the opportunity to go to Boston, Massachusetts with my school. It was very different. People had different accents and spoke more loudly. I noticed there was much more space — the sidewalks were huge compared to England. Everything was faster and noisier.
When I visited Boston, I was like, “oh, I like this”. I wanted to go back. Then I did. I eventually received an American Studies degree in 1998 and lived in South Carolina for five months. That’s when I really started traveling independently.
You mentioned that you were born blind and that you started going deaf when you were four years old.
Yes, I have nerve damage in my eyes and nerve damage in my ears. It could be connected, but the doctors don’t really know.
I was born with a rare eye condition, which basically means I don’t see any color and I’m very light sensitive. I have something called photophobia and cone dystrophy. I don’t have any cones, which are the nerves that allow us to see color.
When I was born, for the first three years, I couldn’t open my eyes in any light. Then when I was given dark glasses, at about three years old, I was able to open my eyes. Because I have my rods, which allow us to see in dim light, in cinemas, and at night, I was able to see shapes and shadows.
I actually learned to read and write with very big, black letters on white paper at about the age of five. Then print started getting smaller, and I stopped using my eyes because I was taught to look at objects and listen to the sound. However, as I got older, things became more difficult to look at.
So that’s why I was sent to a boarding school. I needed to learn Braille, mobility, and other stuff. My eye condition never changed, but my sensitivity has lessened as I’ve gotten older. I can still sense sunlight if it’s very bright. I can sometimes use sunlight to give me direction.
What was it like growing up without your vision and losing your hearing at a young age?
I just got on with it, really. I played in the street with my friends. I had a big three-wheel bicycle that I rode around with on the streets. I could see objects, so I could see where the cars were in black and white shapes. I kicked a football [soccer ball] around. I lived on a dead end street, so I always knew which way the traffic was coming.
I sort of realized I was different from my friends when I was 7 or 8 years old. My hearing went very subtly. I don’t really remember becoming deaf or my hearing worsening. I was given hearing aids straight away.
My sight was more of an issue as a child. I occasionally became very frustrated with the world and smashed things up. But for the most part, I had a happy childhood. It was only later that things became more difficult – as a teenager. When I went to boarding school, there was a lot of bullying, which is pretty typical.
That’s how it goes. It makes you stronger. I think the biggest problem for me is when I was in my mid- t0 late-teens trying to socialize. I could hear reasonably well, but in crowds and in groups, it was more difficult because I can’t lip read.
Traveling alone can be pretty daunting for anyone. Did you have any fears traveling alone at first? If so, how did you overcome those fears?
No, I never really had any fears about traveling. I think it was just a natural progression. My desire at a young age was to go home from boarding school and visit my parents. My dad was aging. I was very close to my mom and my dad. So that was my initial goal, really, is to get out of school and work out how to get home.
The only fear I had at 12 or 13 with mobility was trying to cross a crossroad, a four-way crossroad, without audio lights. I’d walk up each week from the school to this four-way crossroad, and I would listen and wait for when the traffic was stationary. For weeks, I was afraid to cross.
One day, I just woke up and did it. Once I did that, I never really looked back. I found myself catching buses and catching trains, and just learning to ask people for help. My teachers told me I would do things. I was never told I couldn’t do anything.
When you’re told that you will do things all the time, it can only give you confidence. So, no, I never really had any fears about traveling.
How does your experience differ when you travel alone vs. traveling with someone else?
For me, traveling alone is the ultimate freedom. You can do what you want, when you want. No one can tell you what to do or not to do. You don’t have to compromise.
I travel with my girlfriend now, and she’s also blind. It’s a whole new and different experience. It’s good because you can share things, and we can both have different opinions on certain experiences.
But, it also means a lot of responsibility because I have to look after her and make sure she doesn’t walk into anything or get hurt.
When I’m traveling with people who are sighted, and if I’m traveling with them for any length of time, I tend to find that they try to do everything. They’re the one asking the questions and getting the directions.
Also, when we meet sighted people — because obviously, 9 times out of 10, you’re meeting sighted people when you’re traveling — they’re talking to the sighted person, rather than talking to me. It sort of cramps my style a little bit.
Traveling alone is the ultimate for me. You’re never lonely because you’re always meeting people.
When I’m traveling, I’m constantly asking people for directions. I’m going into shops and cafes and asking, “how far is this building or this place?” You’re told, “oh, it’s two blocks away, or take a left, or you need to go back or whatever.” You’re never really alone.
What is the most challenging part about traveling alone? What’s the most rewarding part?
The most challenging aspect of traveling alone is using an ATM by myself in other parts of the world In the U.K., ATM’s have audio technology so you can use them with headphones, but other countries don’t have the same capabilities. When I travel to other countries, I have to find someone I can trust – either someone I’m staying with or a fellow traveler – and then get them to help me use the machines.
Another challenge is getting a visa. I need someone to fill the forms and paperwork for me. That can be challenging, particularly in countries where there’s a language barrier.
Crossing borders can be a challenge for me as well. I have to hand my passport over, but I can’t see who’s taking my passport. I have to hope that they give it back to me and actually give me the stamp. On several occasions, I crossed from one South American country to another, and I wasn’t given an entry stamp. So then, I had to pay a bribe or negotiate.
When I go to restaurants, particularly in countries where English isn’t the first language, I can’t read a menu. So before I travel, I need to know two or three national dishes.
But in most cases, you meet someone who can speak a little bit of English. You can also use a smartphone and go from English to their language and back again. There are always ways to get around most situations.
The most rewarding thing about traveling, for me, is getting from one place to another. It’s magic when I wake up, the sun’s coming out, and I’m surrounded by nature. It’s completely peaceful. Those are the magical moments.
Another rewarding part is discovering something new. I was in Ethiopia in April and I went to this art center. These people made tactile art for blind people and I never thought I’d come across something like that. Traveling is amazing.
How do you trust total strangers when you travel alone?
I don’t read, watch, or listen to the news. As a blind person, I don’t have a lot of choice but to trust people. I could just stay in my house and live a very boring and safe life, but I’ve had to trust people ever since I was a child. People have helped me cross the street, give me directions – simple things.
I always pay attention when I meet people. How do they react when they meet me? You can tell if people are comfortable or if they’re nervous or if they’re mistrustful. Usually, you can sense their energy.
If you can’t find someone you can trust, you can always go to a trusted institution, like a bank, and have a staff member help you.
We all have to trust people, sighted or not. Sometimes it can go wrong, but that’s life.
What’s it like visiting a place you can’t see? How are you able to experience a new place with your other senses?
I use all of my other senses to give me a mental picture of the place I’m visiting. When I walk around a city, I feel the different textures under my feet. I can feel the difference between pavement, grass, or gravel. I know if I’m going up or down gradients, or if I’m walking in the mountains. The smells and sounds also give me an idea of what the city or town looks like.
I like to go by waterfalls and fountains because it’s something I can hear. I can pick up the energy.
I also do my research before I go to places now. I didn’t when I was younger. I just went partying and meeting people. But now, I’m visiting more difficult countries and places.
What is it like meeting the locals of the countries you visit? Are you able to connect with people whom you may share a different culture, language, etc.?
One of the most important things about traveling is meeting local people. I don’t go on holiday, I travel.
I just spent three months in Africa, and I try to stay with local people. I don’t stay in hotels unless I really have to. I use a website called couchsurfing.com, to find people who I can stay with. You can send them a message on the dates you want to come and tell them a bit about yourself. I just tell them I’m blind and I’m a world traveler.
When I stay with local people, I eat local food. They can show me around or I meet the family. So by that way, I’m getting a more authentic experience in the country.
How many countries have you visited to date?
Well, it depends. According to the United Nations, there are 193 official sovereign countries. Out of them, I’ve visited 122 now.
I’ve been traveling for 21 years on and off. I have my own list of about 250 countries or nations. So it depends on what you classify as a country, really.
I classify Greenland as a country, even though it’s technically part of the Kingdom of Denmark. The Faroe Islands are also a part of Denmark, but again, I classify it as an independent nation.
From my own list, I’ve visited 142 places, countries, islands. But according to the UN, I’ve visited 122 places.
Out of all of the countries you’ve visited, which destination is your favorite and why?
New Zealand is my favorite country. I did my first bungee jump in New Zealand, which is great fun. People are always asking, aren’t you scared? I say, “no!” I have an advantage because I can’t see the bottom so it’s easy to just jump off! I’ve bungee jumped 17 times so far.
I’ve skydived three times. I’ve been white water rafting in Africa, Canada, and the U.S. I love adrenaline. You need to feel things when you’re blind. You need to feel everything and experience everything with your body. If you ever go to my website or my YouTube channel, you can see me doing crazy things.
There’s a sport I like that I played in New Zealand. It’s called zorbing. They basically put you in a massive beach ball made of plastic and roll you down a big hill. It was great fun!
Stay Tuned for Part 3!
Faces Behind the Screen would like to thank Tony Giles for participating in our storytelling project. If you’re interested in sharing your story with us, fill out our nomination form.
Faces Behind the Screen is a storytelling project focusing on members of the Deaf and hard of hearing community.