Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
In 2019, blind traveler Ryan Knighton visited Jordan with travel writer Matthew Teller on a journey led by sound, taste, touch and smell. They talk to Meera Dattani about what made it so special—and why the World Heritage Site of Petra left Ryan underwhelmed.
Ryan Knighton has traveled a lot—but without the one sense many people rely on the most: Sight. And while he acknowledges that much exists to encourage someone like him to travel, does it go far enough?
“Most museums offer audio tours with helpful descriptions of objects,” he says. “That’s cool and fine. But I could be at home listening to that same information. So if a museum is about looking at objects as much as learning about them, that part remains inaccessible to me. This isn’t the fault of museums, of course.”
Meanwhile, Ryan, who’s based in Vancouver, had been building up a friendship on Twitter with Jordan guidebook author and Middle East specialist, Matthew Teller. Matthew had recently spent the night in the Jordanian hills in a house designed to maximize the acoustics of the landscape.
The house, called Beit Al Fannan (House of the Artist), was being developed by Baraka Destinations, an organization that’s developing rural tourism in Jordan. Matthew knew he’d just stayed somewhere special—he had to get this story out.
He quickly put two-and-two together. Ryan, an advocate for going beyond ‘accessibility’, creating highly sensory experiences for blind travelers, and who’d already written and spoken about his travels and experiences, had to come to Jordan.
Adventure.com caught up with the duo to find out more about the trip, traveling blind, and what ‘accessibility’ really means in the 21st century.
Meera Dattani: ‘Accessibility’ is a broad term, but can you distil the travel experience from a blind traveler’s perspective?
Ryan Knighton: Most of the time, accessibility is about reducing barriers to travel itself, for example, guides at airports, wheelchair access for local transportation, hotel assistance. These things are important. But to access the same experiences as abled bodies is a harder task. With blindness, most solutions try to find an audio version of visual culture. And that’s legitimate. But real success would be to find cultural experiences that are specific to our other senses.
Instead of helping the blind ‘see’ what others see, why not meet the blind traveler on their own terms? What is the ‘Grand Canyon of sounds’? What can I taste to help me appreciate the landscape? For obvious reasons, I’m not particularly interested in what things look like, no matter how well described. Accessibility has many services to get the disabled to where we are going. But what it means to be disabled when we get there is another, deeper, philosophical, matter.
You hadn’t met each other until you were in transit to Jordan, at Heathrow. How did this trip eventually come about?
Matthew Teller: Hard work from Baraka and lucky circumstances. In 2018, while researching the new Rough Guide to Jordan, Baraka’s boss Muna Haddad put me up at a rural property they’re developing. It’s an amazing house in the Jordan Valley, above the Roman ruins of Pella, built and lived in by Jordanian artist and architect Ammar Khammash in the 1980s and ‘90s, but unused for a while.
That night was a life-changer. The house is gorgeous—Khammash is known for his paintings—but the soundscape blew me away. The way sound swirled between rooms, and the way the hilly landscape focused natural sounds onto the house like a hand cupped around an ear: Birdsong, voices from the village, the call to prayer, crickets, croaking of frogs, squeaks, barks and yelps of night-time wildlife, the soft sounds of early morning.
It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. Of course, it was deliberate: Khammash is known for using acoustics in his architecture—he’d built this house to appeal to every human sense. The next day, I told Muna she had to get a sound engineer to mic the house and do a podcast or something. People had to know about this.
How did things develop after that?
Matthew: I’d been following Ryan on Twitter for a while, since his astonishing piece from Zimbabwe about going on safari as a blind person. He has a very distinctive voice on social media—quiet, wry, insightful, tapping into worlds I knew little about. Then I made the connection. Get Ryan into that house. Get Ryan to hear that sound symphony. My sighted brain can only do so much. His unsighted brain could take it to another dimension.
I suggested it to Muna who wrote: “Matthew, WOW! I love him. Let’s do something. YESSSS.” I still have her reply. When I found out she’d secured funding, I could have screamed!
‘Show, don’t tell’ is often the key to good travel writing—using sound, taste and smell, going beyond the visual. Does that help work for what it means to be ‘well-guided’ for a blind traveler?
Ryan: Sort-of. What I seek is sensations. For instance, pay attention when you travel to how little, or how much, you’ve used your hands for anything out of the ordinary. I once spent a day in an Italian village with Dario, the master butcher. For two hours, he let me work in the cooler with a knife and a couple of shin bones, learning what textures to feel for and how to move my knife’s tip along the thin line of a membrane. Later, we ate. I remember the food fondly. I remember my time in the cooler even more fondly.
By contrast, a guide took me to the Great Pyramid and ‘showed’ it to me. I couldn’t touch anything. The pyramid remains a blank in my mind and I have little recollection of the experience.
Matthew: From my perspective, this is what Baraka made happen in Jordan—it went way beyond anything. It made me question how all of us assemble our impressions of the world. Take Ryan’s perception of Umm Qais village, a far-flung village at the northernmost tip of Jordan, through his experience of tasting its honey, feeling its stones, sniffing its wildflowers, hearing Baraka’s guide Ahmed Alomari tell his family’s story … Is that any less valid, or less comprehensive, than my impression of the same place, dominated by a memory of spectacular landscapes? Do I know more about Umm Qais because I saw it? Of course not. Perhaps the opposite.
How does—or doesn’t—the travel industry address the needs of travelers with visual impairment? Is it different between ‘comfortable’ and ‘rougher’ environments?
Ryan: Oddly enough, in ‘rougher’ places, travel continues the similar experiences of the disabled. Namely, we find ourselves in a world that didn’t imagine our bodies in it. The feeling is a kind-of passive alienation, be it city or desert.
Without hiring a guide or a fixer who can drive, I doubt I’d want to encounter the challenges of exploring on my own, even a city as large as Cairo. The one time I did, I spent hours convincing myself in my hotel room to step out into the street and its anarchic traffic. I can’t necessarily anticipate what I might need or what obstacles I might encounter so I prefer, when possible, to be guided along the way, no matter how well trod the tourism.
Ryan, you’re often exploring a place’s underrated sensory experiences, and you say sighted people would have as extraordinary a trip if they did the same. Where have you experienced this?
Ryan: Yes, you can’t Google ‘cool smell’ and plan a big adventure. Most of what I’ve discovered has been by word-of-mouth or by accident. For example, Matthew suggested I listen to the lithophone that Ammar Khammash built. It’s a musical instrument, like a xylophone, but constructed entirely from flint stones from the eastern desert. With Baraka’s help, anyone could head out there and play these stones, which are everywhere, and make a day of it. Why wouldn’t you? Nothing else in the world sounds like it.
So many trips have found their way to me by talking to people, and those experiences have been so specific. Listening to the world’s biggest rattlesnake round up in Texas. Exploring hot saunas and ice lake swimming in Helsinki. Too many to list!
Matthew, tell me about Muna Haddad and Baraka Destinations who you’ve come to know well.
Matthew: Muna’s energy could power a million homes. Despite the reliance of the Jordanian economy on tourism, there’s not much innovation going on. Jordan also has a problem with sustainability: Building sustainably, from the foundations up, is disappointingly rare.
But Baraka is now in its third or fourth year in Umm Qais. There’s a community-run guesthouse, community-led experiences, walks on the Jordan Trail, families hosting visitors for meals or overnight stays. Tourism is making a tangible difference to a long-marginalized community. Baraka is a model. I hope others copy it.
What frustrates you the most about how you’re treated as a blind traveler?
Ryan: Safety. There’s a common assumption that because I’m blind, I’m also more fragile. Safety, while well intentioned, is the gateway to boredom—that’s more crippling to me than blindness.
So I travel, even though it’s hard and basic tasks such as finding a coffee can be terrifying, if not lethal. But blindness wants me to sit still, to excuse myself, to sit on the sidelines and pretend to watch, so I refuse. Unfortunately, I still require some help, and those who offer tend to want to keep me overly safe. Needing help isn’t the same as wanting to avoid risk.
For instance, I started surfing in the chilly waters of Canada about eight years ago. The person teaching me was an old friend who happens to be deaf. It went as you might expect: I shouted a lot of questions like, “Where am I?” and he shouted a lot of answers like, “Are you talking to me?” Meanwhile, the waves ate me and my board and I loved it. But my deaf friend and I persevered. It was crazy fun and I couldn’t have done it without his perfect inability to babysit me too much.
Your guide in Jordan, Sanad Abu Assaf, is a disability rights activist with first-hand understanding of the issue. What preparations were involved to create this type of trip?
Matthew: Everywhere we went, Sanad knew precisely how to guide Ryan—physically, to the right places, and conceptually, to the right stories and experiences. At our first overnight stop, Sanad had prepared a welcome card for Ryan, printed in Braille—heaven knows where he found a Braille printer!
It was such a touching, thoughtful gesture. All week, Sanad would explain the food, serving Ryan at each meal, telling him where on the plate each unfamiliar item was. In Petra, Sanad brought a handheld model of the most famous façade, the Treasury, so Ryan could first feel the model, then the real building in front of him, to relate more easily to scale and design.
And at a dinner at his parents’ home in Amman, Sanad introduced Ryan to Ahmed, a Jordanian friend who’s blind. Before we arrived, Sanad had invited Ahmed to Umm Qais and Pella, so he could discuss the needs of a blind person with our hosts there, and to give them the chance to gain practical experience beforehand. The prep was immaculate.
But you found Petra underwhelming, Ryan! As it’s the essential Jordan experience for many, I’m curious to know why.
Ryan: Two things limited my experience of Petra. First, the way sighted people can take in the magnitude of the place, which I can’t. My only variation was surveying the different echoes my cane made when I tapped inside empty halls and chambers. Interesting for scale, but only to a point. I did touch some of the aqueducts and statues, although I kept this to a minimum given erosion.
Compare that to putting my ear to a beehive and hearing 5,000 bees in Umm Qais. That’s a scale that’s small in sight, but audibly awesome. Or compare walking in empty halls in Petra to the afternoon picking and tasting raw almonds with my guide in Umm Qais. Petra is a stone museum of inordinate magnitude, no question. And I’m sure it’s amazing to see. But I’ll be in the eastern desert making music with its stones.
Matthew: Yes, we spent a day at Petra, and Sanad bust a gut explaining the history and conveying its scale, long history, the human achievement in architecture and society. But I could see Petra didn’t mean much to Ryan. It was, in a sense, too big—there was nothing to get a handle on.
That also made me think: What’s important? Why do heritage sites matter? If, by removing the visual, Petra can be reduced to a place beyond the grasp of human comprehension, what are the implications for cultural heritage preservation projects? What are we celebrating when we visit a top-tier global tourism attraction?
What did this particular trip mean to you, Ryan?
Ryan: It’s one of the most exciting and fulfilling trips I’ve taken. That’s thanks to the effort that everyone at Baraka put in, from Muna to every guide and host who shared their stories.
I heard the mathematically perfected echoes of two Roman theaters. I sampled honey that, through taste, ‘showed’ me three different kinds of botanical landscapes. I played the desert lithophone and dug for ancient pottery in an archaeological site. I spent a night in the desert in a camel hair tent with a Bedouin family, listening to foxes and goats and making bread over an open fire.
It was more than just sounds. The litany of specific sensations that Baraka discovered by virtue of my presence was overwhelming. I’m not even sure knew the riches they had until the challenge was put to them: To show Jordan without looking at it.
You’ve been visiting Jordan for 25 years, Matthew, but it sounds like your own experience was heightened traveling with Ryan.
Matthew: It was the most memorable trip I’ve ever had in Jordan, and one of my all-time favorite trips ever! What I’ll take away is the warmth of human contact—the hospitality, the skill of our guide Sanad Abu Assaf, the welcome of the people. That always knocks me sideways in Jordan.
I also learnt we shouldn’t fall into the trap of solipsism—believing that nothing exists beyond ourself and our senses. Traveling with Ryan as he navigated Jordan taught me that sighted people’s reliance on the idea that things are only true if you see them, and that if you can’t see, your understanding of the world is inevitably impaired, is just another trap.