Tony Giles has had a lot of obstacles to overcome in his life and sometimes he’s handled them well, other times not so much. He has had blindness, deafness and illness to cope with. Regardless, he has managed to put his problems aside and do something positive and inspiring with his life by travelling around the world. His adventures have been published in a book, Seeing the World My Way. Contrary Life tracked him down for a quick chat about his life and adventures so far.
I begin by asking about what it was like growing up as that seems like a logical place to start. I ask him about the obstacles he’s had to overcome and whether it has made him a more determined person, the sort of person that is happy to travel and go off on adventures. “Yeah, really from a young age because I got sent out into the street.” He explains. “It was a one-way street so I always knew which way the traffic was going to come. But since the age of four or five really I was just sent out into the street to play with my friends and just run around. Because I could see shapes and objects when I was little so that helped. I could see black and white shapes and objects. I had a big three-wheeled bike that I used to ride around on so that was a big help.” All in all, for someone with such disabilities, it seems that he had a pretty typical childhood, in fact by today’s standards he could be seen as pretty carefree and untroubled. It’s not as though kids really get left to their own devices to play outside with friends these days.
So I ask him if that was the point at which he got rid of any issues and fears about going out, enabling him to later become independent enough to travel alone. But it seems his youth was not all fun and games. “The issues and stuff came later really, early teenage stuff. Going to boarding school and the bullying stuff really, that’s when I had more social issues. But when I was young I never really thought about being blind and being deaf you know, but that’s just always the way I was. You don’t really think about it when you’re a little kid as long as you can play and have fun and do things. If you are happy you don’t worry about it. It’s only when you get older and your brain starts to work and then kinda realise, oh you are different.”
I ask him if he thinks he has become more like the carefree person of his early childhood again. “Yeah, I mean once I’d got beyond my twenties and I started drinking, I realised I was intelligent and that fact that I was different and unique was fine, because everyone is…by going travelling helped me to see that quicker than if I’d just stayed at home and just done the regular thing.”
I can’t help but be impressed by his decision to travel, but I’m curious to know where the idea for turning it into a book came from. It turns out he has his mum to thank for that. “It was my mum’s idea really, she said I’d had so many different experiences and done so much that I should write a book so her friends could read about it and have a laugh; and also, you know, maybe inspire other people too. I thought no I don’t want really want to write a book, I just want to travel. She kept saying I should do it and I thought alright then lets give it a go. I just kinda wrote down everything down I could remember, everything I did and then went from there really. It ended up being two hard books it got so big, I’m working on my second one at the moment.”
Two books worth of travelling, that’s a lot of adventures. I have to ask him what his highlights have been so far. I hear Tony suck in his breath, to be fair for someone like him it’s a tough question but I’m keen to know. After a little thought he tells me. “New Zealand is the best country I’ve ever been to cos of the people, cos of the nature, the wildness, especially in the South Island. Being able to do bungee jumps and do other crazy activities, a motorbike ride, they let me drive a jet boat, which is kind of telling that they let a blind guy drive a jet boat round a lake!” I agree, but New Zealand is well-known for its adventurous side and I think it’s just as telling that Tony is happy to take up any challenge permitted to him.
He also likes Iceland, a place I have been meaning to visit for years. We seem to share a love of the cooler climates. “Probably my happiest travels have been in the colder countries, Iceland, Alaska, Scandinavia.” He reasons. “Because I like being out with the wind, being able to feel the elements, they are probably the highlights.” He also points out it is not just the activities and the climate that makes a country memorable though. “In Cuba, the people were amazing, they are so poor but they give you their hearts. Absolutely beautiful people.”
I begin to wonder, with all the scary and dangerous things he’s done, is there anything he hasn’t tried? Surprisingly it turns out there is. “I’ve never skied, I’ve never skied in the snow, I’d like to try that. I’ve water skied and skied on grass when I was a kid but I’ve never skied in the snow.” It sounds as though he’s approached things back to front, doing all the really daring things first and now all that’s left is the slightly less frightening things. He finds that amusing. “Haha! Having a relationship is pretty dangerous!” Really, I ask? I’m unsure of where this part of our conversation is going to lead. Tony is quite happy to be honest about his personal life though. “It has different responsibilities, I guess, you’ve gotta think about another person which is different. I’ve always travelled alone, always had to think about myself, it’s a lot easier. It’s nice to share the experiences with someone, that’s nice…”
This brings us back to his life as an independent traveller, he usually travels alone, staying mostly in hostels and backpacker hotels. He even camped in when he was in Canada and Africa, when the majority of us would prefer the comfort, warmth and safety of a hotel bed. I ask him whether this style of travelling makes it easier for him to meet new and interesting people. “Yeah, that’s the reason and also it’s cheaper. The idea is to meet as many people as possible.”
I ask him about the people he’s met so far. “I met this guy down in South America, and his mum; right at the bottom of the world in this little town called Ushuaia. I said I was going to Alaska to a town called Haines and they actually lived there. That was cool. And a lot of people say they are going to get to Alaska and never do and eight months later I actually turned up. I was about an hour or two away and I’d just had everything stolen, I’d been camping, had my tent and both my backpacks stolen. So I rang him up and said hey I’ve had all my stuff nicked so I’m coming to stay. That was cool, I ended up spending a week with them, it was a pretty unforgettable experience.” Well, they do say it’s a small world! Thankfully the bad experiences he’s had while travelling don’t seem to have put him off at all.
So where next for the intrepid traveller? “Maybe Trinidad and Tobago in January for a couple of weeks. Maybe Africa will be the next big trip by myself for six weeks to a couple of months, but we’ll see; the prices are starting to go up on flights making things more difficult.” Just like the rest of us, it seems Tony still has to be able to fund these trips away. “Yeah, I’ve just looked up flights to America it’s like 350 to 440 quid, I’m like what!” I agree, it’s expensive to go anywhere these days.
The conversation steers back round to Tony’s reasons for writing. “My books been out about six months called Seeing the World My Way and I’ve had my website about six or seven years now; it’s got lots of pictures and videos for people to see.” It’s an interesting take on the unusual travelogues, having sight problems changes the way you absorb new places. Tony is keen for people to be introduced to his world. “Yeah, I mean it’s making a connection and sharing different stories and different ideas, you know, how I see the world through smell ,sound, talking to people and learning different cultures really.” He explains further. “Most people see probably 95% of things with their eyesight and don’t necessarily get take in everything with their eyes and their nose and their feet. Like walking through a forest with your eyes closed for maybe 30 seconds; the things that you’ll hear or smell instead of just seeing the different colours or birds for example.”
It occurs to me that there is probably quite a lot we miss out on when visiting a new country. There is so much to take in though it’s not surprising. “You go to cities like Bangkok and Istanbul and they’re overwhelming, never mind the other senses.” This is where his book comes in. By reading the book and becoming open to new ways of travelling, people may notice and enjoy things that they may have missed before.
With all this travelling, I can’t help but wonder if he gets homesick at all. “No! I’ve never got homesick or missed home at all really because I went to boarding school from the age of ten.” However, he does add. “Since I’ve had a girlfriend, I’ve felt it; I was away for almost three months in South America at the beginning of this year and I was missing her towards the end of it.”
It seems that travelling is beginning to get harder, but what about home I ask. “Yeah, I don’t miss England. It’s nice to come home and turn off and shut the door for the week, just to walk by the sea, not having the stress of looking over your shoulder and having to think about where am I’m going today and that, but no I don’t miss home.”
Even creature comforts don’t seem to bother him all that much. However he does admit to missing the football and a fried breakfast sometimes. “Only the radio, the sport and the news, that’s the only thing I miss out on really.” So I guess this super adventurer is human, after all!
With his first book, Seeing the World My Way, already on the shelves I have to ask what we should expect from the second one. “The next book is called Seeing the Americas My Way, and I’m hoping that’s gonna come out some time next year, probably spring or early summer next year and that’s about South and North America, and that’s what I’m working on at the moment and it’s a lot bigger!” I suggest that perhaps people should use the first book to ease themselves into his world, in preparation for the next installment which could be quite intense. “Yeah my first book’s about my early travels and my drinking and wild stuff and the second books the post drinking stage. I got diagnosed with kidney failure half way through my first trip in 2001/2, so I had to quit drinking. I also had an alcohol problem by that stage as well, I managed to stop and it allowed me to travel in a different way; getting a whole new perspective on the world and life, that was interesting.” Ah yes, you don’t want to wake up and then not remember what you did!
He continues to explain his unique outlook on his life and his travelling. “It’s probably very difficult for readers, even after reading my book to really get and understand how someone who’s totally blind does travel independently to countries. Basically I do it by communicating with people; I’m not afraid to open my mouth and ask for help and I got very good mobility skills when I went to boarding school. I learned to use the cane from the age of 10 or 11 and catch buses and trains by 12 or 13, so I was given that confidence and that’s the key to all of it. It doesn’t matter what disability you’ve got whether it’s an obvious disability like being in a wheelchair or blindness or whether its less obvious, it’s about confidence. I believe, there is one thing I’d want to say to everyone, we can all do what we want to whether it’s just going down the streets to the shops, whatever each persons individual goal is and whatever barriers they feel they have in front of them, they can all be overcome. That’s my message really.” His message is a good one. So many people have something in life that holds them back, so a book like this one could give someone the inspiration to overcome their difficulties. “Some people think they are too tall, too small, too fat, too thin, at the end of the day it all comes down to psychology doesn’t it, how we feel and how we think and that drives a lot of what we do and what we don’t do.”
Tony really does want to encourage others. As he says. “Sometimes you do things and you fall flat on your bum and you think oh I don’t want to do that again but you give it another go and it does become easier. And you get support from other people, because when you’re travelling you all realise your actually in the same boat, same with life really.”
Indeed. I admit to Tony that I have no great life plan but I’m just trying new things and making it up as I go. “That’s the fun of life, you can make it up as you go along.” He agrees. “You do what you do, do what you can, get some happiness out of it that’s the main thing. One day at a time.” It’s a simple comment but I couldn’t agree more.
Tony Giles book, Seeing the World My Way is published by SilverWood Originals and is available from www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk priced £8.99. To read more about Tony and his travels so far visit www.tonythetraveller.com.