Marcel Proust, the French novelist, once said that ‘the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but having new eyes’. However arguably my most memorable experience on this trip so far goes somewhat against that quote, as it involved using literally no sight whatsoever.
After a recommendation from a friend I had met in Brussels on my first stop, I found myself at the Dialogue Museum in Frankfurt and proceeded to have the most amazing experience I have ever had at a museum (although that is not saying too much as I’m not normally a museum buff). The idea of this museum is to give the visitor the experience of what it is like to be completely blind by taking them through everyday scenarios in the pitch black, so completely removing their ability to see.
After paying my €15 I was led through to be briefed, taught how to use my white guide stick, and then led, with the rest of my group, into a pitch-black room to meet our guide; a man called Benjamin.
Benjamin is partially blind with only 4% sight. He is someone I had to place so much trust in for an hour of my life and yet I never actually got to see Benjamin at all, which although felt odd, certainly added to the reality of my experience. All I know is that he had a thick East African accent. I imagined him to be short and a little stocky with no hair and perhaps in his mid-to-late 30s – pretty much like Dave Benson-Phillips from 90s UK kid’s TV show ‘Get Your Own Back’!! These are all my assumptions of his appearance and an image I constructed in my mind – reality of course could be very different – he could have led the tour naked for all I know!
The experience started by being led through a series of rooms, all in complete darkness. These rooms are changed regularly to encourage people to come back and experience different scenarios as a blind person. The day I visited, each room was part of a certain mystery country and we had to guess which country at the end of the experience (I guessed The Philippines- no idea if I was right though!). The rooms corresponded to a part of the country’s traditions or culture and ranged from being in a rain forest, to tribal concerts, to visiting monuments of Buddha and experiencing the hustle and bustle of the capital city, including having to cross the road blind.
Each time Benjamin described with amazing clarity, the scenario we were in and encouraged us, where possible, to use touch to help build up a picture of where we were in our minds. There were about 8 of us in our group so we had to work out some sort of plan or order in which to move, this proved quite entertaining as there were some very limited English speakers and there were regular battles for position with our white sticks! I struggled to get over how dark the experience was, there was literally the complete absence of light. I felt very claustrophobic and a little suffocated and in the initial minutes, as I walked further into this dark abyss, I questioned whether I would actually make it through the full hour. The rest of the group clearly felt the same, as freedom of movement seemed so difficult for all of us, I had the extra accessory of a nervous Korean lady, who spoke no English, but attached herself to my arm! A bit of extra company, however, wasn’t such a bad thing given the circumstances, although I did fear I might be leading her straight into a wall on more than one occasion.
Slowly, as my confidence grew, I felt more comfortable and I learnt to trust my senses and those people around me, to help guide me through each situation. I couldn’t however seem to lose the feeling that I was going to hit my head on something or fall off whatever I was walking on, this caused me to walk hunchbacked and I had a constant feeling that my next step might be doomed!!
Strangely, towards the end I started to think I was actually seeing shadows and glimpses of dark shapes of what I thought I was seeing in front of me. However, Benjamin said that was actually my brain trying to force me to see something as it’s normally so used to seeing things.
The tour concluded at the bar of this mystery country where we had the opportunity to buy a drink or snack whilst still in complete blindness. The barman, who was also blind, listed out all of the options that we could buy and also helped us to feel the size of the notes we had to make sure we paid the right amount. Having a range of notes from a 5 to a 50 note in my wallet I was obviously a little nervous that I wasn’t walking into an elaborate scam to rob me of my money, but I was confident we had located the smallest note and I was duly handed an Apfelwein which is an apple wine, famed in Frankfurt, that had previously been recommended to me by a German friend. I proceeded to drink this, still in complete darkness, while chatting to the rest of the group and asking Benjamin some questions. My taste senses certainly heightened with the lack of sight, or maybe it was just a very strong drink!!
I said my goodbyes to Benjamin, and most importantly thanked him for keeping me safe. I was taken back to the front of the museum and was greeted with the glare of the natural light – how bright the world seemed to me at that point! Without realising it for a while, whilst walking back to my hostel, I found myself looking at every detail of life and nature along the river Main, clearly my eyes were enjoying the luxury and privilege of seeing everything around me again. Marcel Proust was right after all.