"Western Africa 2012" story # 1

Rymarov, Czech Republic           April 6, 2012

After my first trip to Africa ended in September of 2011, I went home to Michigan. I was home for the holidays, and just long enough to take part in my second "New Year's Resolution Party" led by my friend Zach Tolan.
     Most of my dozen or so resolutions were designed to make my next three months more enjoyable and productive. I would be spending those months in the small town of Rymarov in the Czech Republic. My resolutions included things like: "go for a walk before breakfast" ... "Attend at least three balls." ... and "No fighting with Klara (my dear friend and always-welcoming host)."
     And I was especially excited about:
     Resolution # 5. "Observe a full day of blindness by the time I leave Rymarov." This ought to satisfy my curiosity and need for a challenge!
     It also made me nervous. I'd been told about a young Austrian who'd recently attempted three days of blindness, in Vienna. He'd gone outside of his apartment at one point for a walk. After a short distance, he - in despair - hugged a lamp-post and cried for help. People helped him, and he would later call these three days "a wonderful experience".
     At 1900 ft. above sea-level, I waited for all the snow to melt in the streets of Rymarov, so I wouldn't slip on ice and break my blind head open. I scheduled my "Day of Blindness" for Thursday, March 29th. In preparation, I: 1. Found myself a long, sturdy stick to walk with, 2. Counted out steps to one location, 3. Bought food so I wouldn't starve, and 4. Invited - Begged! - my friends to come hang out with me.
     Ultimately, however, no friends would get a hold of me on my day without vision. (And Klara was out of town, meaning I would be home alone.)
     I was with friends, though, when the "Day of Blindness" began. We'd just finished playing a game of cards in the pub. I hadn't wanted to play that last game so late, but my friends assured me, "We'll walk you home." And so, at 11:59 p.m. in the pub, I tied a scarf around my eyes. Fifty-five-year-old Lojzo (a short man) and forty-year-old Jirina (a woman) led me through the empty streets of Rymarov - which would've seemed dark even with my eyes open - and over the town's mountain stream. I followed their formless voices, scared that I might smack into something with my head.
     (Flashback: to a week earlier. I'd been teaching high school English, and my lesson plan was THE BLIND WALK. The students partnered up. One was blind, and the other had to lead him around, giving directions in English. The blind person had to "go down the stairs, find and greet Mr. Skylark, go outside, touch a plant, pick something up, etc." I took part in it, and even though the Czech teacher leading me was a great guide, I was terrified I'd smack into something with my head. My guide was great - except when she told me, "Come a bit further. Okay. Now, you're in the womens' bathroom." Ha ha, I didn't find that funny, Mrs. Mikulkova!)
     Home safely from the pub, I slowly brushed my teeth and got ready for bed. It was difficult to be sure I wasn't using one of Klara's toothbrushes. If I used hers and she found out about it, little Klara would kill me! Once I identified my brush, I put my thumb and fore-finger around its thistles, to try and measure how much toothpaste I was putting on it.
     In bed, I replaced the scarf around my eyes with a sleeping mask - which I would wear for the next twenty-three hours.
     In my dream, I was observing a "Day of Blindness". But, no matter what I did, I could see through my blindfold. Such a dream was horrifying for me, a person who insisted on keeping vows.
     I almost did, in reality, abandon this "D.o.B." when I was awoken at 06:30 by construction workers pounding on the walls of our building. If this continued, it would mean a miserable day for me: unable to sleep, unable to see, grumpy like a mole. But, the construction sounds died down, and I fell asleep until 09:00.
     I showered with my eyes closed. Elsewhere within my flat, I soon realized that organization was very important. I made sure to remember where I'd put things. I kept doors shut. I washed plates as soon as I used them.
     But, before I could eat breakfast, of course, I had to go for a walk. I grabbed my walking stick and stepped outside into a world of darkness.
     I wanted to go to the shop down the hill, and buy myself a pastry ...
     Exiting my building, I immediately turn right. I walk alongside the front of my building and find a metal trash can. Shouldn't there be three metal trash cans? Suddenly, I find there's a piece of "police tape" in front of me. It's blocking my path, at waist-level.
     Oh, no. My proposed path has been blocked! Why? I'm confused, disorientated. Patiently, I turn towards every direction, but move nowhere. I wonder, am I still in front of my building? Should I just go home? I probably look awfully strange, to the many pedestrians out this morning.
     A woman, and one of the construction workers, appear to help me. They're relieved to hear I'm not really blind, but only doing an experiment. They say I can't go forward, because the construction workers are throwing things down into the street. Something would probably smack me in the head there.
     The woman says she can lead me to the shop. But, she begins leading me uphill, to the town square and its shop. I say, I don't want to go to that shop. She gets me started off going downhill. Now, I hear a street full of people's footsteps, going up to and descending from the town square.
     On the sidewalk beside the street, I know it's about eighty steps down to a staircase. I feel the fence and grass beside the sidewalk, find the staircase, and descend to a busier road. About a dozen cars pass every minute here. Using my ears, I do my best to not get killed by them.
     On the other side of the road, I wander around a grassy lawn until I find my way to and into the shop. But, I'm not able to maneuver my way past the check-out lanes to where the aisles and merchandise are (luckily for the shop-keeper). An employee brings me a pastry, though it's not the one I wanted.
     The plumbing company I worked for in 2009 lies just across the river from this shop. In an attempt to visit it, I return to the grassy lawn and follow the river's railing. Where oh where is the bridge? Ouch! i've just run into a pine tree. A nice man arrives to help.
     He asks, "If it's not a secret, where are you going?" and, "Do you mind that I'm hoding you by the shoulder?" I don't mind. I'm happy to have a guide who doesn't want to take me to the womens' bathroom! He brings me to the plumbing company and never learns I'm not blind. Thanks!
     Around this time, Martina Ujfalusi calls me. A firend and fellow teacher, she says she's also attempting a "Day of Blindness" today. Unlike me, though, she's at work and teaching. Wow, I'm impressed. She says the students are paying better attention to her ...
     I made it home from the plumbing company without much problem. I became a bit lost once, but luckily the church bell rang, and since I lived beside the church I knew exactly where to go.
     (The next day, the plumbers and plumbers' wives would laugh and say they'd watched me walk home, out their window. They were happy no cars had run me over; they reminded me that an old lady had helped me to the bridge. "I would've found the bridge," I said. My former boss mocked me: "Once I fell in the water, I would've recognized I was at the river.")
     Back at home, I ate breakfast. I used my finger to measure the milk in my cereal, and the juice in my glass. Then, I took a long afternoon nap - which seemed like the safest thing I could do. For lunch, I toasted bread and put garlic and tomato and olive oil and salami and blue cheese on it. It was tough to guess how much oil I was going to taste; but, lunch was delicious.
     At around 17:30, I hoped to walk to the town square and sit in the sun and then head to a pub ...
     I step outside. Oh, it's raining. I step back inside. I get my umbrella.
     I walk past the front of my building and cross the road, towards the church. There are few people out, due to the rain. The first people who walk past speak together in a way that sounds grumbly and monstrous in this blackness.
     Parked vans block my path to the church. This confuses me. It perturbs me. Darn automobiles! The church bell rings loud overhead.
     I come to two dumpsters in the road. That's good. There should be two dumpsters between the church and town square. But, then:
     Where there should be a building, there's nothing but grass. Where there should be a sidewalk underfoot, there's rubbly gravel. I'm lost, helpless.
     I wander a while. I stand patiently. I listen for cars then move towards them, hoping they're on the town square.
     Am I in some dark alley? I wonder. I nearly fall down a steep grassy incline. Am I beside the hill below my house???
     A young man and his girlfriend materialize out of the wet air. They've been watching me from their window. Do I need help?
     Yes. The young man, Lubos, offers to walk me all the way to Inferno Pub. We go through an alley and are in the town square. He holds me by my elbow; I continue to hold my umbrella and walking stick. He alers me whenever a hole or the curb is near. He apologizes, when I once step in a shallow puddle. He points me toward the town hall, so I know where I am.
     He says a friends of his plays basketball with me. He's heard I have a girlfriend. No I don't, I say. (I have a girl I've been seeing a lot of. But, when I told her about my "D.o.B.", she said she wouldn't be seen with me, because she didn't want people to laugh at her.)
     At the end of our walk, Lubos and I say ciao. I enter the pub. It's empty, except for the barwoman who I've never seen before. And I may never see her. But, I spend the next two hours drinking her hot chocolate and talking to her.
     Her sweet, naive voice calls itself Nikola. "You used to teach in Gymnazio High School," she says. And, after a while: "If you don't mind my asking, what happened to you?"
     Talking to Nikola, I notice myself smiling less or smaller than usual. Maybe a smile has less meaning without its visual aspects? Or, maybe I'm just preoccupied thinking about how the heck I'm going to get home, or how to keep from knocking over my juice? ...
     I would make it home, though, miraculously without a single wrong turn. I follwed the town square's northern facade, with my stick, and one of my current students greeted me out of nowhere. "Hello, Tom. How are you?"
     Boy! The uncertainty of going outside, while blind, was emotionally exhausting.
     Additionally, I realized a blind person must keep his emotional life well-organized, not just his physical life. In the hallway of my building, for a moment I felt sad for myself that I was alone. Immediately, the darkness seemed to close in on me like a claw. And I doubted I could handle another wrong turn.
     The church bell "donged" four then ten times. 22:00. The bell would ring no more until morning, meaning my clock was now gone.
     In my room, I meditated. I made tea with honey and lemon. I prepared to cook dinner. I grated cheese and got out the butter. I began boiling green bananas on the stove.
     Just in case I'd turned on the wrong burner, I was very careful around the stove. In fact, I did turn the wrong nob at first - an unfamiliar nob that had something to do with the oven. I kept checking the oven for heat, because I didn't want to burn Klara's building down. Of course, in that case, maybe I shouldn't have tried cooking while blind? Fortunately, the oven was always cold.
     The other nobs had grooves on top, so I could feel when they were turned off properly. Nevertheless, it was still difficult to feel without looking if a nob was turned to the 12 o'clock, or 12:45, or 11:15 position.
     I tried to mash my food up quickly. I ate. The bananas were a bit cold; I got all the butter in one bite; and there wasn't enough cheese. Just then, my mom called and said it was after midnight.
     I opened my eyes and could see. It was a miracle! Even with no lights on, my eyes stung for the rest of the night. I saw that the stove had been correctly turned off. The oven was off. All right! The "Day of Blindness" was a booming success.
     Here were the final statistics:
     times I bumped my head or face: 1 (on the back of a chair, while bending forward)
     items I misplaced or couldn't find: 1 (a sock)
     things broken: 0 (Klara might've wished I was blind more often)
     times I cheated and looked: 0 (However, I did sense light a few times, in order to ensure the bathroom light was turned off.)

See you!
Modern Oddyseus

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