It almost sounds like a bad Helen Keller joke: “How does Helen Keller sightsee?” “You tell her that she’s standing in front of the Eiffel Tower.” Hardy har har.
It’s hard to escape the visual when we talk about sightseeing. The entire word is just a combination of two words that have to do with vision. Not only is sightseeing redundantly visual, but it is so entwined with travel that the two are nearly always conflated. Guidebooks are filled with phrases like “Must-See Sights!” “Don’t Miss This Sight!” Sightseeing adventures comprise a majority of travel suggestions and blogs. It’s almost as if to travel is simply to look at things.
But what happens if you’re blind or deaf-blind? I was born profoundly deaf and retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition that causes progressive blindness. This condition is called Usher syndrome, a relatively rare genetic disorder. I got my first cochlear implant in 1991 when I was 6 and my second in 2004 at 20, but I am far from “cured.” About 5 years ago, my vision suddenly deteriorated into legal blindness and I began my new life as a deaf-blind person.
As someone who sees the world in spotty, unfocused pastel colors, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about this viscerally visual aspect of travel. What would I do as everyone trooped to the must-see sights of the world-famous Venetian canals and the grand Angkor Wat? Would I go along and dwell on my bygone sight as everyone around me clicked their cameras? Or would I simply abstain altogether, spending most of my travels in restaurants stuffing myself? I didn’t even have the luxury of listening to the local music. My hearing is a crude and auto-tuned version of natural hearing. (I remain largely indifferent to music for a variety of reasons I will not get into here.)
So, how would I sightsee?
As my boyfriend and I made our way through Europe during our 4-month trip around the world, I came to realize that sightseeing is such a misnomer. It has more to do with how you understand your surroundings, not what you see or hear.
This lesson had the most profound impact on me at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the infamous Nazi concentration camp near Krakow, Poland. Not typically grouped with the Eiffel Tower and the Coliseum as sightseeing, the camp is still a point of interest and therefore a sightseeing spot. Funny how the word sightseeing seems too trivial for some sites.
When we arrived in Krakow, Poland’s cultural capital, I knew I wanted to go to Auschwitz. I became fixated on the Holocaust as a preteen. My favorite book was Number the Stars, a children’s book about a girl in the Danish Resistance that smuggles Jewish children out of Nazi-occupied Copenhagen. I would go on to read many more books on the subject and take courses on the subject in college. I, of course, watched “Schindler’s List” among others when I could still see well. I wanted to understand how such a thing happened and what it was like. No matter how many books I read and movies I watched, I couldn’t quite … imagine it. I only understood it in an abstract way. I conjured up flashes of vague imageries of Stars of David on lapels, soldiers pushing people into railroad cars, and soldiers pulling lovers apart. I had read about all of that, but something eluded me. I wanted the full picture.
I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau to get that picture, even if it was a fuzzy and unfocused one.
Deciding how to visit the camps was a difficult decision. I didn’t want to go with a tour group as I couldn’t follow the whispered information on headphones. (I can’t listen intently for that long and most headphones don’t fit well over my cochlear implants.) It is also not a place you can simply show up and buy a ticket: admission is free but a reservation is required. We also had to arrange our own transport from Krakow, which is more than an hour away, since we weren’t going with a tour group. We ponied up the cash for a private driver to have a more flexible schedule. We also had to rely on a guidebook to take us through the camp since it wasn’t possible to hire a private tour guide.
I felt dizzy and off-kilter as soon as we walked under the notorious Arbeit Macht Frei sign. Several hordes of tour groups swarmed around us. Everyone silently shuffled along as they listened to the tour guide whispering into a microphones connected to their headsets. English, Spanish, French, and Hebrew were being whispered all around me. (This I learned later when I asked my boyfriend what languages they were speaking.)
We were the only ones not attached to a tour group. My boyfriend fretted about relaying what he saw and read (our usual approach). “I feel a bit weird talking too much here … disrespectful,” he said. I couldn’t blame him. It was a place of silent remembrance, not chatter. It was also against the rules to talk too loudly. This sign of respect, however, put us into a bit of a quandary. My boyfriend usually told me what we were witnessing as we walked around and I would ask various questions to get more context. This approach wouldn’t work here.
It took some misfires where I kept tapping him and mouthing, “Where are we? What is this?” and having him just shake his head at me. (It turns out that he didn’t know either as there’s not much in the way of written explanation at the museum). We eventually figured out a way for me to follow along with the guidebook. When we stood outside a barrack, my boyfriend would read to me what the specific bunker contained. Some covered the deplorable living conditions of the prisoners where they had to sleep nearly atop one another. Some focused on the slow and deliberate manner in which people were separated from their loved ones, from their worldly possessions, from their hair, and finally, their lives. Some held individual cells where POWs were kept before being shot en masse. This ensured I knew what lay ahead before entering.
I didn’t see things in sharp clarity as others did. The mountain of hair simply looked like a blob of brown that could’ve been wool or a pile of dirt. The roomful of pans was just flashes of silver, but I understood what they meant. They were the earthly possessions of people cruelly discarded and disposed of simply because the Nazis deemed them unworthy of life. I couldn’t help the tears that came to my eyes as I felt the impact of that hard reality all around me.
The most profound portion of the camps was in Birkenau, the relatively barren camp where the Nazis had burnt down nearly everything before the Allied forces arrived. Beside the infamous sorting wall that everyone stops by, there is a long footpath that those chosen for immediate extermination (rather than labor) had to walk to reach the crematorium. As all of the tour groups returned to their buses, we decided to walk down that path.
I stumbled quite often as it was full of rocks and potholes. I asked my boyfriend, “What do you think they were thinking as they walked? Do you think they knew they were going to die?” He replied after a moment, “I think they still had hope. I’m sure they had heard the rumors … but you know how people are. They hope none of it is not true.” It was then that I could picture the scene perfectly: masses of women helping their children navigate the uneven terrain, the elderly stumbling over the potholes, and a few even whispering to each other as they shuffled toward their deaths. I didn’t have to see that with my eyes or hear it with my ears, I could imagine it with full detail. A sense of profound sadness swept over me along with gratitude. Gratitude that I had been born in 1984 rather than 1930s Europe. Even though I’m not Jewish, I would’ve likely died here alongside many others since people with disabilities were the guinea pigs for the gas chambers.
We stopped at the end after 15 minutes of walking. The crematorium was now a muddy field enclosed by sticks. My shoes were full of pebbles that dug into my feet. There was nobody else around as nearly nobody ever went to this part of the camp. It was a good place to remember the dead.
We walked back to the parking lot along the roadside, not wanting to revisit the long path that led to so many deaths. As I saw some shadowy figures emerge from the camps and heard some distorted sounds, my boyfriend told me that it was some Israeli school children singing. I thought, “That’s a good way to leave a place so weighed down by death and cruelty. It’s a celebration of survival and the fact that we won’t let that happen again.” We chatted with the driver all the way to Krakow. There seems to be an irrepressible impulse to be merry and thankful after visiting such a profoundly horrifying place.
It turns out that seeing is the least of the sightseeing experience. It’s more about recognizing the significance of what you’re witnessing. The understanding of the blurs that I saw made me feel like I was getting an experience just as — if not more — rich as someone with 20/20 vision and perfect hearing. That’s a good feeling.
I went on to appreciate all sorts of things. I squinted at a replica of Michelangelo’s David as it was lit up at night in wonder of the man’s talent. (The thing is big.) I marveled at how cheerful and colorful the Alcázar of Seville was — the palace built by the Moorish rulers of Andalusia was so much more lively than the depressing Gothic churches of the Christian West. I smiled up at the Sleeping Buddha in Bangkok, wondering how much gold paint covered that thing. And so on.
Perhaps that is the punchline to the Helen Keller joke. You tell her that she’s in front of the Eiffel Tower and she — the smart cookie that she was — will appreciate the architectural wonder.
This article was originally published on Medium and republished with permission.