A Deaf Backpacker's Experience
I'm in Thailand, the land of smiles. But it seems like the smiles aren't getting me anywhere.
Racing to catch the train from Don Sak - the gateway to Koh Samui, Ko Phangan and Koh Tao - to Bangkok, I'm stranded. Asking at the ferry terminal how to get to Surat Thani's train station, I'm greeted with just smiles and their broken English which I can't hear well enough to understand.
Why am I struggling? Is it because I'm tired? Drunk? Not concentrating?
No, it's because I'm profoundly deaf in both ears.
I can speak and listen like any other hearing person, but when people talk in tonal languages such as Thai with very high pitched sounds, I'm in trouble.
It can be a constant challenge being a deaf backpacker - especially if you're travelling on your own and don't have a friend to fall back on when you don't quite understand what someone's saying. But I choose to view these situations as opportunities to overcome; chances to become a much more confident and independent backpacker, and also grow as a person.
So what are the main challenges for me?
Everyone has their own language and their accents in English can be an issue for me to understand. Often I'll have to ask people to repeat what they have just said, albeit more slowly and clearly. But on the flip side, sometimes they speak better English than English people!
Each word might have several meanings according to the way it's pronounced. For example, a low pitched tone might produce a disagreeing word whereas a high pitched tone might give a happy word. However, sometimes I can't distinguish each tone and put myself in an awkward situation.
Sleeping on Transport
As a solo backpacker, I generally get on edge if I'm on an overnighter transport - arriving at a place may not necessarily wake me up if the driver announces a destination. Sometimes I get around that by using a vibrating alarm clock to wake me up just before we reach a destination. However, then there's South East Asian Time, which means you could easily arrive two hours before or after the scheduled stop time! So I usually try to catch transport during the day. That way I can meet people on the bus as well.
One of my biggest bugbears is the dreaded tannoy. The voice that sounds muffled to me and I could be standing on the platform wondering what the hell it said. Is it my train they are talking about? Usually, I get round that by regularly checking with the station master or ask people next to me what the tannoy just fired out.
Another bugbear is someone shouting amidst traffic noise about which bus to get on. All I can see is a flapping of mouths and booming voices that are completely unintelligible to me. Rather than grabbing the man and slapping him one, I calmly go up and ask what he had just said.
Throw a phone at me and ask me to ring my mother, I'll do it no problem. Ask me to ring a bank that I'm having problems with my card, I'll hesitate. Sometimes I can't understand the person on the other end. When I had my wallet stolen, I had to ring up to cancel my card. It took forever to understand the person who patiently dealt with me on the other line. Now, after speaking to my bank, I communicate using email. Or, for general enquiries, I use Twitter.
Carrying the Hearing Stuff
A large portion of my backpack is dedicated to my hearing aid maintenance. I'm away for eight months and it's important that I do not find myself without a working hearing aid or cochlear implant, so regular maintenance is needed. So that space for more clothes is sacrificed for this box of tricks.
Attitudes to Deaf People
During my planning of my round the world trip, I often thought about how the other countries would view my disability. But during my travels, I've only been asked a few times in South East Asia about what that 'thing on my ear' is. Happily, I would make them aware. But since then, I've had no patronising or any awkwardness. They sometimes don't even realise I'm deaf!
So as a solo deaf backpacker, have I met any other disabled backpackers abroad? Of course I have. I'm amazed how many other deaf backpackers there are, all with varying different types of deafness. It's inspirational to me that we can all be independent solo deaf backpackers.
So did I catch that train to Bangkok? Yes, I did. After giving up trying to make the Thai people understand using my poor grasp of Thai and broken English, I suddenly signed to them by rotating my arms as wheels, reaching up to pull an imaginary level and saying “choo choo.”
They recognised what was going on and promptly directed me onto the right bus. Sitting down, I couldn't help laughing that to understand anything, it all boils down to one universal language: body language.