As a visually impaired travel writer coming to the USA for the first time, Milagros Costabel experienced Miami — and a certain big-box icon of the American life — in a way most of us have never considered.
Sleep was calling. My heavy bags weighed me down when I first stepped onto the streets of Miami, but the smells of a city that had just woken up welcomed me. The unbearable heat, mixed with the rain of the middle of June, dragged me into its hypnotic madness. A jumble of voices and languages, mainly Spanish and English, made their way through the tide of sounds of a city that, even at 6 a.m., was fully alive.
At night, things changed. The sound of thousands of steps, conversations, and endless traffic was replaced in part by thousands of loudspeakers, some in shops, some in cars. Mixed with the songs of street musicians and millions of voices, they created a rich landscape of sound that had something new to offer whichever way I turned.
My trip to the United States from Uruguay was an opportunity for me to get to know the culture of America, which, from a distance, is so strange and so fascinating. Anyone traveling to a new country for the first time will find surprises — things that are just like home that you might not expect, and things that are completely different. For travelers who have a visual disability, like me, this is just as true, though it’s our other senses that get surprised. I’ve been totally blind since birth. To make up for the lack of visual information, I focus on the information I receive through my other senses. Hearing is what allows me to get an overview of where I am and what is happening around me, and the other senses, such as touch and smell, are what complement the experience and make it even more enriching.
I took this trip with my godparents when I had just turned 15. In my country, arriving at this stage of life is celebrated in different ways, and trips are one of them. With my family, we decided to visit some of the stores that were open at night. In one of them, a candy shop, the employees urged me to try everything because I couldn’t see what was on the shelves. In another, a giant clothing store, I was invited to touch everything I could find. I understand this may not be the norm everywhere, but in the places I went, the attitudes of the people who worked there allowed me to enjoy the experience like anyone else, without limitations.
On the street, under my feet, things were different, too. Podotactile signs, which are textures on the ground that warn of dangers and seek to indicate the right path for the visually impaired, made their appearance at the first intersection, and I encountered them on every corner. In most countries, these signs are only found in important places, such as city halls or government sites, so the change was welcome. People walking past me likely paid very little attention to them, if they noticed them at all, but to me it added a welcoming feel to my experience.
Many travelers enjoy exploring supermarkets abroad, but for me they are a premier travel attraction. At Walmart, one of the biggest and most iconic supermarkets I visited, the mix of aromas was both unfamiliar and enticing. Every step I took, there were always different products on the shelves to each side, which I could touch without any problem. Despite having gone with other people, I was offered help without my asking. In these kinds of huge stores, where finding specific products can seem like an odyssey, getting the right help allows us visually impaired people to shop as independently as possible.
Americans have a reputation for doing things big: big food portions, big buildings, big personalities. Even knowing this, I was surprised by what I found. Things that are supposed to be small seemed overwhelmingly large to me. The food, although it may sound cliché, was one of the aspects that surprised me the most. What is considered a small portion of food in the United States was equivalent to one of the largest portions served in my country. When I asked for a small drink, I was given one of the largest glasses I have ever held in my entire life.
Braille, the tactile reading and writing system used by the visually impaired, was also present everywhere — or at least it seemed that way to me. I’m not at all used to finding it in public spaces. Most of the public toilets were clearly signed with Braille and textured drawings, and I also came across posters and doors with it. However, none of the restaurants I went to I had accessible menus, something that was a bit disappointing, but in some places there was a button on the tables that allowed me to call the waiter simply by pressing it. It really came in handy a few times, and I would like to see it replicated in other places.
I soon found that I didn’t have to worry about problems I might encounter. Maybe it was the people who came up to offer a hand or point out things, like that time I spent a long time trying to buy a Coke from a vending machine in a mall without much success. Or maybe it was the infrastructure of the places, with their Braille signs and marked roads, that made everything seem simpler than it perhaps was.
In the short time that I spent in Miami, I noticed first-hand that although things are not exactly perfect, accessibility does play an important role in society, and it is something that — to a greater or lesser extent — people are accustomed to thinking about. For a person with a disability, the fact that spaces are accessible, and that people act accordingly, is important when it comes to traveling. Not only does it allow us to have independence in the places we are going to and therefore to be able to enjoy them fully, but accessibility also allows us to believe that such a change is entirely possible in our own countries.
When all of this is over and we can enjoy the pleasure of traveling again, I plan to return to the U.S. to continue to get to know and be surprised by all these things which, although they may seem simple, make a huge difference to me and expand my understanding of the world. I’m told that there are many more amazing things to experience beyond Walmart. To that I would say, perhaps you should try experiencing Walmart the way I do. It feels incredible.