The blind man who wants to show you the world

Meet Amir Latif: adventurer, entrepreneur, an inspiration and the man who could save you 50% on your next trip

Peter Moore
06 September 2012

By the age of 20, Amar Latif had lost 95% of his sight due to the incurable eye condition ‘Retinitis Pigmentosa’. Once he got over the shock, he dusted himself down to become a TV actor and director, entrepreneur, public speaker and world traveller.

He also founded Traveleyes, a unique travel company that runs tours for sighted and blind travellers. Together. Amar talks to Peter Moore about his astonishing life.

What motivated you to start Traveleyes?

I became blind in my mid to late teens. I was facing two problems. The first, obviously, was that I was now blind. The second was that I still wanted to see the world. I knew  there were so many problems facing an independent blind traveller. Basically, what I wanted didn’t exist.

I realised that there were two ways forward: One, I could do without it, just accept that as a blind person I was not able to travel. Or, second, I’d need to change something. I chose the second option and that’s where Traveleyes sprang from.

Had you travelled much before you became blind? Or was it something you’d always planned to do later?

As a kid, my family didn’t go on many overseas holidays. We used to just go down to Blackpool from Scotland. That was our summer holidays. We used to leave at 5am and then get back to Glasgow in the early hours of the next morning. So, basically, a day trip!

Other than that, I hadn’t done much travelling. I did go to Malta with a friend when I was 16 and that whet my appetite.

Then, when I lost my sight, it came as a big shock – something that I was planning to do, I might not be able to do.

Just looking at your bio, you’ve certainly lived life to the full.  Were you always such a dynamic high achiever, or is it something losing your sight brought out in you?

I may have had elements of it in me, but losing my sight pushed me into pushing forward.

Once I got over the initial shock, I decided I wasn’t going to be wrapped up in cotton wool for the rest of my life and I was going to get out there and do the best I could. I always had the mindset that life was short, with or without sight, and you’ve got to get out there and do what you can. This isn’t a dress rehearsal. You can’t stop life. You can’t rewind it. The only way is forward.

What is the aim of Traveleyes? Is it to make travel easier for blind people? Or to push them like you’ve been pushing yourself?

It’s not about pushing boundaries like serious expeditions. It is having a holiday and experiencing the world. Having said that, if a blind person hasn’t travelled much, and they’ve always been with their family, I guess a trip with Traveleyes is pushing their boundaries.

Can you explain how Traveleyes works?

Each Traveleyes trip has an equal number of blind and sighted travellers. The sighted travellers travel for a substantial reduction in price in return for being the eyes for the blind travellers.

We pair a sighted travellers with a different blind traveller for each day of the trip. So everyone gets the chance to meet everyone else. The sighted traveller is not a carer in any sense of the word. There just there as a sighted travel companion, to describe the sights to the blind traveller. Both types of  travellers learn about each other and make new friends.

The tours are conducted in English but we’ve got customers that come from all over the world. So for a sighted traveller, one day they might be guiding someone from England, and another day they might be guiding someone from the States or Australia.

Are the sighted travellers given any training on being a guide?

We give the sighted travellers training, but to be honest, it’s not rocket science. Most of it is common sense. More often than not it’s just reassuring them that they don’t have to walk on egg shells.

Sometimes sighted people are concerned they don’t know the correct  terminology to use, or that they’ll slip up and say something like ‘Did you see that TV program last night?’ We don’t want people to be thinking about their language like that. It’s unnatural. We just want you to be as normal as possible. If you ask a blind person ‘Did you see that programme?’, that’s cool. It’s fine, we use it, it’s the way we speak too.

Besides, blind people are used to it. We’ve all been grabbed by old ladies and walked across the road, only to discover once we get there that we didn’t want to be on that side of the road. We just have a laugh about it. We just want the sighted traveller to feel comfortable about it. And that’s what the training is about.

You describe the relationship between sighted and blind travellers on the Traveleyes website as ‘mutual independence’.

Sighted guides get so much out of our trips. It makes them look at their lives differently as well. They realise that blind travellers are out here on the other side of the world and they can’t see but they are not letting that hold them back. A lot of our sighted travellers go back to their normal lives with renewed inspiration.

I’m guessing the sighted travellers have a richer experience in that they have to stop and think what is in front of them in order to describe it. And I suspect they also become more aware of smells, sounds and textures.

That’s right. I always tell sighted travellers to ask your blind person to help you identify any sounds or textures or aromas that you’ve got around you. A lot of sighted travellers say that they go home with much more vivid, richer memories of what they’ve seen.

What makes a good destination for Visually Impaired travellers?

At Traveleyes we don’t start from the premise, ‘What would make a good destination for a blind person?’ Rather, we think about what would be a good destination whether you’re sighted or blind. What’s an interesting destination to go to? Then we think, ‘OK, how can we make this interactive and accessible for a blind person.’

For example, there are out-of-the-way places in Africa that initially you might not think would be good for a blind person, with dirt tracks or whatever. But the ambiance you get from these places is amazing. So that’s how we choose our destinations. They must be interesting and exciting for anybody. And then we make them as accessible as we can.

What are your most popular destinations?

Cuba is our number one hit. People love Cuba. There’s so much music.

How is a Traveleyes tour different from other tours?

Our tours are much more interactive. If we spot a sugar cane plantation, we’ll stop the bus and everyone can wander around, feeling what a sugar cane plantation is like. If we’re passing rice fields, we’ll get off and feel what a rice paddy feels like.

It’s the same when we go on safari in Africa. It’s not much fun if you’re just sitting in a jeep. So we’ll find interactive conservation programmes where you can actually walk with lions. You can touch a lion, you can feel its paws. You can get it to lick your hand, discover how sandpaper-ish its tongue is.

In many ways a better experience than many travellers have.

That’s right. Because we put so much thought into the tours, our sighted travellers are totally benefiting from that as well. In Italy, we’ll go to traditional Tuscan farmhouses and learn how to cook the local cuisine and do wine tasting. We make sure our sighted travellers get just as much out of the experience.

How active are you with Traveleyes? Do you still go on the tours?

I do 20-30% of the tours. I think that’s really important. With this being such a unique concept, and one that is continually being developed, it’s important that I can add my feedback and constantly improve things.

What do you enjoy most about travel?

Just that it’s different. As soon as you get off the plane the smell hits you, the temperature change, the people, when you’re walking a round a square you’ll hear the chatter in a different language and you’re trying to guess what people are talking about,  and like anyone else, the food.

Some things are more intense as a blind person. When you’re walking along cobbled streets, hearing church bells in the distance. Feeling the spray of Niagara Falls on your face when your on the Maid of the Mist boat.

You also visit schools in Africa…

If a Traveleyes tour is going into a Third World country, we’ll always seek out a blind school. We’ll go there and share knowledge with them as well. Learning about other people’s cultures enhances your own experience so much. As a blind person you just gain so much confidence.

It must be an incredible inspiration for the kids you visit in schools in places like Africa.

The blind people we meet are amazed that there is a group of blind and sighted people travelling the world. Kids can be quite impressionable, so they can take something away from our one visit. It can give them hope, that they can do this as well.

Not only that, they get to chat to the blind travellers, and a lot of them have great jobs back home, running their own businesses, accountants, lawyers, that sort of thing, so that changes their perceptions as well.

What kind of reaction do you get from the local people?

They’re shocked. In many places in Africa, disability is regarded as a taboo subject. I was doing a talk at the United Nations a few years ago in Ethiopia and I was horrified by the preconceptions that some African people hold. People will tend to speak to my assistant first because I’m blind. But within about five-ten minutes, they realise that the only thing wrong with me is that I can’t see.

The great thing about being blind is that you can change people’s perceptions, you can change people’s views. No-one is nasty to me. It’s just ignorance. They’re just not aware of the potential of someone who is blind.

It’s not just the people we meet. The sighted travellers in a Traveleyes group usually come along thinking that they’re volunteering their time to do some good work. Then they realise that blind travellers are just normal, and they end up just having so much fun. They end up coming back time and time again.They say they’ve never laughed so much.

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