Touching the World is the extraordinary story of Cathy Birchall, a blind woman, who set off with her companion Bernard Smith, to become the first blind person ever to circle the world on a motorbike, an 18 year old BMW R100. What transpired has become an inspirational worldwide story that challenges people to question their own self-imposed boundaries. From desolate and dangerous mountain roads, difficult border crossings and numerous mechanical breakdowns, to climbing Wayna Picchu (first ever blind woman to do so) and riding an elephant mounted from the front (via its trunk!) - not to mention a poignant visit to the Centre for Blind Women in Delhi where they talked to women abandoned by their husbands, and an (inadvertent) overnight stay in a Kosovan brothel - this book has it all, travel, adventure, triumph over adversity, and through it comes a real sense of just what it means to be blind. Their heart-warming writing reflects a vivid account of the world, often hilarious and always positive.
A journey around the world ob a motorcycle, from nuclear bomb shelters for Swiss guide dogs to (several) Hotel-turns-Brothel experiences, Cathy Birchall and Bernard Smith mount their red BMW named "Bertha" and very kindly take us along for the ride.
The story is charmingly human, without attempts to paint the two protagonists this way or that. It feels real, describing people and events as they happened, talking about strengths and weaknesses, about failures and successes. It's not about heros, it's about people. And both Cathy Birchall and Bernard Smith seem to have an amazing talent for taking people for what they are, no more, but also no less, and for seeing the person behind the story. And given the countries they travelled through, that is saying something.
And that would be the most mystifying aspect of their journey: the route they took. Leaving out Africa, Bernard and Cathy seem to have tried to cross every single country associated with permanent travel warnings and marauding rebels. And yet, the one country that truly seemed to push at least Bernard to his outer limit was India. And for all people who haven't enjoyed Indian traffic: their description was actually an understatement. And for all people who want to travel in India: that "you change lanes unless it beeps" thing is deadly accurate. I was introduced to this rule by my driver upon moving out of the airport: "ohnly ting must nevar break in Indian car is horn, cannoht drive car without horn".
But back to the story. One of Cathy's truly great moments on this journey was climbing machu Pichu in Peru. Okay, she wasn't really the first blind person up there (see "Touch The Top Of The World"), but it's still a great thing, and one more experience flying in the face of common prejudice.
And though the hidden mountain was probably her toughest challenge, I founde the elephant story so much more charming. That's exactly what I would have done in the same situation (pray for the elephant), and it must have been magical.
All these stories can be a great inspiration for blind people. It's not about being the bestest of them all. It's about overcoming fear, and it's about intelligently ignoring the people around you with their ideas about what the blind can or cannot do. Cathy must have asked the same question so many of us ask: How the bloody hell would they know what I can do? Or how would I know myself, for that matter, until I've tried it.
And still, while blindness is the almost omnipresent theme of this book, it's not a book trying to teach blind people anything, except perhapt for the obvious: get out there and do it. Above and beyond that, the book is very much like the journey it describes: it's a long read, sometimes clutch-your-armrest exciting, sometimes perhapts a little dull, but never boring, with lots of details, lots of realism, and above all, lots of humanity.
Thumb's up for this one!
"Touching the World" at Audible