AT the age of four, Amar Latif learned he would be blind by the time he was an adult.
When his sight went, he decided to travel the world and got a ticket to Canada. In 2004, Amar set up his own company that pairs blind tourists with companions to help them explore the globe.
In new BBC2 documentary Travelling Blind, Amar asks comedian and self-confessed nervous traveller Sara Pascoe to accompany him to Turkey.
What unfolds is a funny but poignant exploration in which Amar opens her senses to a different way of travelling.
NEVER travelled before I went blind at the age of 18.
It was a condition called RP, or retinitis pigmentosa, and my parents had been told when I was four I would go blind in my teens.
Everybody around me kept saying, ‘You’re blind now, you can’t leave the house alone’, and I felt claustrophobic. I wanted to study abroad, so I went off to Canada.
Over the next few years I tried to continue travelling but I found no travel company would let me, or I’d struggle to get insurance.
I was told I had to bring a carer. But I didn’t need one, I just needed a sighted companion.
So I set up my own company in 2004 called Traveleyes, which pairs blind people with sighted.
The sighted people get a 50 per cent discount in exchange for being the eyes for blind travellers.
With a sighted partner explaining everything, I end up with such a vivid image of what’s going on.
You also listen to sounds and take in smells and tastes and focus on different senses.
Sight is only one sense — that is easy to forget. I enjoy travelling because I love meeting new people and I take risks.
I go skydiving and I’ve skied down black runs. Sara, on the other hand, is risk averse. We came up with this idea to go away together.
I would help her to interact and be braver, and she could help bring the sights to life by describing them.
She described everything brilliantly, from Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar to oil wrestling, a sport in which men wear leather trousers, cover themselves in olive oil and throw each other to the ground.
As the journey went on, she relaxed. I think the experience was beneficial to us both. When I lost my sight I thought my world had ended but it’s great that I can still travel and give something back to people who can see.
I USUALLY travel for work, so I am organised but not an adventurous traveller.
In fact I feel quite shy when I go away. I don’t explore in any chaotic way. Generally in life I’m a scaredy cat. I don’t like scary films or spicy food, and I don’t want to jump off something high — ever.
So I was worried about travelling with Amar, about travelling with someone I didn’t know, let alone someone who was relying on me for descriptions.
I was worried I wouldn’t have the right language to do it justice and that I’d ruin his holiday. I’m also very clumsy, so worried about getting him run over or something. But it was a great experience.
When I first get somewhere, I normally head straight for the hotel and hide. Amar was very open to chatting to people and he pushed me out of my comfort zone. We met many lovely people and I learned that to get a really good experience out of travelling, I have to talk to them more.
Amar knows how to seek out the fun, while my usual method is to avoid it. Most of us are afraid of getting told off, whereas in the bazaar he just put his hands and nose out and touched people’s silk scarves and their dried tea.
He got stuck in, which made for a more fun experience. Everything is interesting to him, things that we would take for granted.
It was good to compromise, too. There were things we did which I thought would be boring. But because of how he processes the world, it forced me to be very “present” and slow, which meant I had some wonderful, completely surprising moments.
Amar is trusting and brings out this warmth in people. It was inspiring. Next time I go away I’ll appreciate the slowness I’ve learned, and push myself to be braver.
I’ll try to find experiences that aren’t just about “the sights”.