I rarely read books more than once. If I do, it’s because there’s so much material that I just know that I missed something the first time around, and I’m usually right. “Touching the World” by Cathy Birchall and Bernard Smith is one such rare occurrence.

About the book

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.

Blindness: both Ever-Present and Absent

This book is a traveler’s journey. It is in some ways about blindness but in others it’s about learning more about yourself and others than you ever thought possible. In many ways Cathy’s blindness elicits sympathy, while in others it opens the minds of those she encounters. I wonder if she would be treated differently had she been a local, or had her blindness been immediately obvious (as it’s indicated clearly that it’s not) or had she visited certain places alone. Her own views on blindness – about being as independent as possible – really resonated with me, though her partner guides her through public women’s washrooms, which I found incongruous and strange. A couple of passages where her hands are guided to chairs or wineglasses are viewed by her as “kindness” (possibly due to language barriers?), but may be considered as invasive to others. That being said, Cathy has an articulate way of responding to her blindness, describing how many blind people get things done, as well as her own viewpoints regarding education, employment and marriage for a blind person.

But it’s not just about that. One reviewer indicates that not enough was made of Cathy’s blindness in this book, that it didn’t encompass the journey as a whole… I tend to disagree. It was neither the focal point of this book, nor was it discounted. The journey was more about a lifelong dream of Bernard’s in which Cathy enthusiastically participated.

Traveling, Digging Deep, Swerving Into the Curves

I’ve got a thing for motorcycles. Riding around the world would probably never be my dream, but it’s fantastic that it has been done. Cathy and Bernard’s year around the world showed them – and, by extension, me – that people are really not so different after all. Maybe circumstances are different – one country’s residents struggle for employment while another can’t get enough food – but they found people (even in areas they were told not to attempt to ride) were warm-hearted, generous, and open to learn. From the security detail that trailed them most of the way through Pakistan, to the (sometimes helpful, sometimes not) border or Visa agents they encountered on their journey, to the hospitable Nepalese who gave them respite from the Indian roads that nearly destroyed them emotionally if not physically, they were looked after many steps of the way.

While they were overwhelmingly positive during many portions of their journey – even through mechanical breakdowns, government bureaucracy, and inadvertently spending nights in brothels – I would not agree that it’s “always`positive.” In fact, there were certain points – India comes to mind, but there are others – where both Cathy and Bernard were at their breaking point. The last two weeks saw them simply wanting to be going home – after zipping through small central American countries, then the heat of Mexico, and then having to book it eastward to make it home on time (thanks to American bureaucracy). You see them and their relationship, warts and all, and in this reader’s opinion made it a more well-rounded book.

Conclusion

If you’ve ever wondered about foreign countries – culture, food, living conditions – in some ways this book only scratches the surface. Blindness organizations were explored in many countries – guide dog training centers, schools, vocational training centres – but, again, it wasn’t necessarily the focal point of their journey. I enjoyed every minute of this book, but it left me hungry for more. Thankfully, the World Tour Web site has many bits of information about the trip and what happens next. My understanding is that Bernard has another – in many ways more difficult – book ahead of him, and while it will be without Cathy’s wry sense of humour, I think I’ll see traces of her in it.

Overall, “Touching the World” was both moving and poignant, with moments that delighted, frightened, and inspired me.

4.5/5 stars.

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