Out of sight: Blind and unable to rely on sounds for guidance ‘the only option was to proceed without thinking’ anyth

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By IRINI COSESCU
Guest contributor
At the end of February I had an experience that can hardly be described in words. A week in Svalbard – an island in the Arctic Ocean, close to the North Pole. Despite cold, ice-covered landscapes, there are warm, friendly people who come from all over the world to taste everything that nature has to offer.

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Irina Cosescu gets four of the five sensory interactions with Svalbard’s canine population during a visit to the dog kennels near Longyearbyen in February. Photo courtesy of Irina Cosescu.

I had the curiosity of an adventure in such places, I wanted to feel the place and the locals and to perceive in my own way life here. I am 90 percent visually impaired – a macular degeneratiion that began at the age of 13 – and all that I can perceive with my physical eyes is the difference between light and dark and sometimes high contrasting shapes. So, for me, all the experiences were different. The way I interacted with the world there was different, and that made me show others that in life we ​​put up our own barriers.

Of the many possibilities to explore the island, I chose several excursions that proved to be physical and psychological resistance tests. If, with the snowmobile and with the dog sleigh I was just a passenger, on a trip to an ice cave I was 100 percent on my own feet and I had to orient myself only to what I felt under my feet and a few sounds that I could distinguish in the raging beating of the Arctic wind.

Usually, as a visually impaired person, I’m guided by sounds, but it was almost impossible here. Also, the terrain did not allow me to hold on to somebody’s arm; the only option was to proceed without thinking of anything.

The weather and the relief did not seem totally unfamiliar. I have lived for 28 years Brasov, Romania where winter temperatures can reach below -20 degrees Celsius. I now live in Volda, Norway, where I got familiar with very strong winds. What was going to follow involved both extremes, but also other surprises as well.

We were seven people plus Mirko – our guide. When we started the hike, I told Mirko that I could not see, and his warm response was “There is no problem! You will do it!” I did not know if I received a standard encouragement answer without him realizing how little I can see or I was in front of a man that was full of empathy and who understands the capabilities of people regardless of appearances. To my surprise, it was the latter.

The trip started by hiking on a moraine and a glacier. I did not know what to expect on the hike, but, without preconceived ideas about dangers, I was moving forward. People next to me where guiding me by saying “to the left!” or “to the right!” I was following the instructions and continued climbing.

The beginning was more complicated than I expected, but what was happening around me encouraged me to continue. Meanwhile, everything had become accessible. The wind was very strong and it felt just like a blizzard. Under my feet, the frozen snow was crackling making a loud sound. Everything was white, and all the hikers tried to overcome the obstacles.

When they said fearfully “I can not see anything!” I told them, smiling, “Welcome to my world!” I understand them! Everybody on the island talks about the presence of polar bears, Mirko carries a rifle on his back that wont let you forget about it. We crossed an area where there was a steep valley … There’s no way it could be pleasant to see nothing!

Finally, we reached the ice cave that was inside the glacier. In order to get access to the cave we had to slide through a tight and very steep ice tunnel. The guide had told us from the beginning not to panic because we would find a larger opening inside. That’s exactly how it was!

I stood up, fixed my helmet and started exploring. Mirko told me where to walk, what obstacles are on my way and helped me explore, by touching with my hands, all the shapes and ice structures that others have admired with the naked eye.

After I got out of the cave, it was Mirko who guided me back down. This time the sensations were different – the wind was blowing from behind, my legs sank even harder into the snow and the sounds were different. I was already totally adjusted to my surroundings. Thus, the return journey was a simple ride though I was on the same glacier.

In the eyes of many, this kind of excursion was inappropriate for me, and they would not have given me a chance to succeed. That did not even cross my mind!

I admit, however, that I was lucky to have a guide with great skills and friends and colleagues on whom I can rely, and people with whom I faced and enjoyed the richness of nature.

Life has shown me that we are capable of anything, and only ourselves are the ones who decide how far we can go.

“The sky is the limit!”

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