When it comes to embracing new experiences, there’s very little off-limits for the Yorkshire-based adventure seeker Amar Latif and even more astounding is, that at the age of 18, Amar lost his sight.
As a youngster in Glasgow, I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder of the eyes that causes loss of vision. At school I would crash into things, I’d hit the hurdles or miss the rugby ball in sport. I struggled in lessons and my desk had to be moved to the front of the classroom. In my late teens, as the doctors had predicted, I lost 95 per cent of my sight. Waking up and not being able to see the Madonna poster at the end of my bed or the faces of my parents and siblings, I realised that the day had come. I was blind!
Losing my sight seemed like it was the end of my world. A downward spiral of feeling depressed ensued as I was surrounded by friends enjoying their teenage years, learning to drive and gaining independence. After several months it dawned on me that I had to switch my mindset and look at things in a positive way. I graduated with a mathematics, statistics and finance degree, spending my third year studying in Canada and sparking my love of travel. Everyone around me was completely shocked at what I’d achieved. Many had said that a blind person couldn’t study to be an accountant, but I went on to be Head of Commercial Finance for British Telecom. Not bad for a bloke who can’t see!
Blindness gave me my love for adventure and travel. Lack of sight has heightened my curiosity. Some travel companies rejected me when they realised I was a blind person travelling independently, so I set up Traveleyes, my own company taking groups of sighted and blind people on holiday, offering trips to over 70 destinations across the world.
The BBC were looking for people with disabilities to take part in Beyond Boundaries, a TV documentary throwing together strangers with different physical challenges and sending them on a big adventure.
I got onboard, trekking 220 miles across Nicaragua from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast was a gruelling experience. Scaling a 5000 foot volcano (stepping two centimetres to the left or to the right would result in a 2000 foot drop), tramping through dense tropical jungle in temperatures of 40°C, was certainly a challenge, with crocodiles and snakes deciding amongst themselves whether they should eat you now or later. Pushing another traveller who was in a wheelchair and sleeping in hammocks was exhausting. Each morning I thought I can’t do it, I worried that physically I wasn’t capable of tackling the arduous journey ahead. I then realised it had to be power of the mind that would get me through and it then turned into the most wonderful experience.
Work initially brought me to this great county I now call home. I love the breathtaking beauty and even someone who is blind can see and feel it. I’ve walked the Yorkshire Three Peaks (Pen-y-ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside), 26 amazing miles in 10 hours.
I can’t physically see it but I can feel the wind on my face and I have incredible images of rolling green hills in different shades. Sometimes I think I have a better picture than a sighted person. It’s like reading a book that’s then turned into a film. The picture conjured up in the mind is often far more vivid than when you actually see the cinema interpretation. Returning from another far-flung destination, I recently headed to The Coniston Hotel Country Estate and Spa in the Dales to embrace quiet relaxation, delicious cuisine and to have a lot of fun. Being handed a double-barrelled shotgun for the first time ever was surreal.
As a blind person it’s crucial to listen to instructions. A helpful instructor explained the importance of taking the correct stance. If you pull the trigger and you’re not in the right position, flying back and toppling over is highly likely. The gun was loaded, I carefully rested it on my shoulder and I was about to fire. Luckily my positioning was bang on and although I was scared, I also had an overwhelming feeling of exhilaration.
For my second go I relaxed into it more, but the jolt is powerful every time and the intense smell of gunpowder made me think of how life must have been in the past, hunting and gathering to survive. It may seem like a reckless activity, a blind man clay target shooting but with a sighted professional instructor to verbally guide and ensure I was aiming in the right direction, all went to plan.
I didn’t know what an archery bow looked like or how it felt. It reminded me of a violin bow and I was convinced I was going to play music. Surprisingly, the skill of firing an arrow requires a lot of strength and I was relieved that my time at the gym had prepared me well. The bow has to be pulled back gently. My sighted instructor gave me accurate guidance, encouraged me to relax and the sound of the arrow whooshing through the air at top speed and hitting the target with such force is something I will never forget.
The spa was certainly a full-on sensory experience with the intense scent of the beautiful oils and potions. Relaxing in a luxurious room with dimmed lights, the only challenge was to stay awake!
Archery is very onerous and firing guns is a strenuous sport. A good back and head massage is ideal to feel rejuvenated. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, I then took a dip into an outdoor infinity Jacuzzi, overlooking The Coniston lake against a backdrop of rolling Yorkshire Dales hills. Bubbling water and the sun on my face was magical and the perfect way to unwind.
Taste is important to me. I think sighted people get distracted if someone puts lovely leaves on a plate, if it looks good you automatically think it will taste good. When you’re blind you can feel and taste and it has to be right, as you have no preconceived idea what it looks like. I had delicious fishcakes with haddock and prawn inside, then the trout on a bed of potatoes was incredibly satisfying. Dessert was ginger rhubarb and custard, a mixture of sensations and tastes, blended together perfectly. Custard is just THE most underrated treat ever!
Being driven off-road is something else when you have no idea what lies ahead. Riding along in a Land Rover tilted 32° to one side plays with your mind. I was convinced it was going to go over, but what a sensational experience. Accelerating up steep steps then plummeting with an enormous splash into a lagoon, I could feel the spray of the water. The description of each twist and turn from the experienced driver, added to the excitement and anticipation.
Getting the chance to actually drive a John Deere Gator was incredible. An offroad buggy (often used by farmers) and being guided by the brilliant expert James was so much fun. We had a great rapport and got a descriptive guiding system going ‘9 o’clock...10 o’clock, right back to 12’. This was all done in a private field and is similar to a business team building activity offered to companies who have awaydays at the hotel. Sighted staff take part in a blindfolded driving experience.
Whatever your disability, if you feel hesitant to get involved in any adventurous activity or trying something new, I know that as soon as I started saying yes and getting involved (after an initial panic), my life changed for the better. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and your world will become bigger and more enjoyable. It doesn’t have to be a massive daredevil activity, it may just be something a little different that gives you a buzz.
THIS ARTICLE WAS TAKEN FROM THIS IS Y 2020 - YOU CAN VIEW THE FULL MAGAZINE HERE.