story and photos by Kayte Deioma
My foot tentatively follows the unfamiliar cane, testing the ground to feel where the dirt path gives way to lawn. I brush against a tall bush and reach out to touch the waxy leaves with my fingers. Birds chirp somewhere nearby and the scent of earth and grass reach my nose. In a suddenly dark world, I find myself in what feels, smells and sounds like a garden or a park.
Hyper-aware that my cane keeps bumping into other people, I follow my guide’s voice until I am through the park. The sound of traffic rushing by on a busy street makes me stop. My cane finds the curb, bumping into a car and a bicycle before I reach the solid pole holding the traffic signal, which, my instructor assures me, will indicate when it is safe to cross.
I am learning to navigate a sightless world at Dialog im Dunkeln (Dialogue in the Dark) in Hamburg, Germany, where blind guides lead sighted visitors through invisible, yet multi-textured environments inside a converted coffee storeroom in the Speicherstadt (Warehouse District). The exhibit is designed to increase awareness among the mainstream population of the challenges of disability, while at the same time demonstrating that for the disabled, the world is not “less,” just different.
My visually deprived comrades on this journey are a group of American students on a German study program and my friend Birgit, who lives in Hamburg. Since we are all equally impaired, no one objects too much as we bump into each other feeling our way along an exterior wall and window into our next destination.
The aroma of cloves and cinnamon fill my nostrils as I enter. My fingers explore piles of burlap sacks filled with what? Coffee beans? Peppercorns? Birgit calls me over to some kind of raised pedestal, where my hands find bowls of powder. This is where the cinnamon smell is coming from. We are in a spice warehouse.
The student group has booked the short tour, so it is just Birgit and I who continue with our guide, Brita, out into the cool air, across a wobbly bridge onto a waiting boat. We can hear the water lapping and smell the sea air as we feel our way to a bench at the side of the boat.
I reach my cane over the side and splash it around to assure myself there is really water there. I know we are still inside the warehouse, but the sense of being out on the water is incredibly real.
The wind picks up and I am splashed by the spray as the engine starts, the boat rocks and we take off on our excursion. Brita tells us about the ships we are passing in port. She also describes the Ferris Wheel, tents and hoards of people gathered for the Harbor Festival, which I had seen for myself out in the real world earlier in the day, but now perceive only from her word pictures.
We disembark to a brief interlude of musical immersion, and then adjourn to the bar, where we have our coins ready to buy soft drinks from the blind bartender. I trust that he counts the coins correctly. My fingers are not familiar enough to make out the denominations of the Euros.
Seated at a low table, over bottles of Fanta that taste like Sprite (has someone played a joke on the bartender, or on us?), we have a chance to talk with Brita about her blindness and functioning in the world without sight. This opportunity to openly discuss what some would consider a sensitive subject is just one more dimension to our immersive experience, and does create a real dialogue in and about the dark.
Dialog im Dunkeln originated in Hamburg in 1988. Since then, they have created permanent or temporary exhibits in over 130 cities in 20 countries, providing more than 5000 jobs for the blind.
Dialogue in the Dark also offers special programs including “Dinner in the Dark,” “Blind Passenger” and on-location leadership training workshops “In the Dark.”
Reservations are required. Visit http://www.dialogimdunkeln.de/prehome_en.htm for more information.
Dialog im Dunkeln
Alter Wandrahm 4
Booking line: 00 49 (0) 700 44 33 2000