The blind backpacker

IMAGINE travelling to exotic places like Myanmar, India and Pakistan. 

Imagine the people you would meet, the places you would see, the food you would taste. 

Imagine the baggage carousels and the traffic and the foreign languages and the negotiating of taxi rides, bills and plane rides. 

Now imagine doing all of that, blind. 

That is the reality for blind Swan Hill backpacker Kristan Emerson.

Born and raised in Swan Hill, Kristan's immediate family have been in the Heart of the Murray and surrounds for generations.

A Mallee man through and through, it is no surprise then that he is currently doing the seemingly impossible and backpacking his way around the world. 

Travelling to some of the world's most remote, sometimes seemingly dangerous locations, Kristan is determined to prove to himself and others that a disability doesn't have to be just that. 

"Being legally blind or having any other disability can make it seem like you are 'uninvited' to the world, there can be many closed doors and often it can seem like there are no options or opportunities," he said.

"I hope that by sharing my experiences through the blog I can show other people with significant visual problems that there are ways to do the things you want to do, even if you have to go about them in a slightly different way than normal." 

The blog he refers to is 'Blind As A Backpack,' a platform Kristan uses to share his worldly experiences with family, friends and hopefully the world. 

When you pay a visit to his website, in the top right corner a passage reads "seeing the sights of the world with a legally blind guide." 

Kristan is the legally blind, his brother Caleb is the guide. 

With the help of brotherly love, Kristan has been able to fulfill a lifelong dream of wandering. 

"I have always wanted to travel, both in Australia and overseas but previously couldn't go too far as being legally blind makes it difficult and it can be hard to find travelling partners who are willing to help," he said.

"For too long my bedroom walls and those of operating theaters have been my main surroundings and I was well overdue for something different." 

Kristan admits that he is extremely lucky to have a familiar support in a foreign setting. 

"It is great having someone to share the experiences with and means we both have familiarity and someone we can trust even in the most unfamiliar situations," he said. 

The brothers in blind adventures prefer to seek out the path less trodden and one that most likely has not felt the tip of a blind aid cane. 

"People in such places are genuinely happy to see new faces and want to talk for talking sake, rather than just seeing tourists as dollar signs which occurs in more frequented places like India," he said. 

Many of the places Kristan has traveled to (the list so far stands at Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia, India, Nepal and Pakistan), have posed challenges for his disability, and that is just the way he likes it.

"Footpaths are non-existent, meaning pedestrians must share the road with some of the world's craziest traffic," he said. 

"Language barriers can make things difficult but this can usually be overcome with a smile and hand signals." 

The biggest challenge? Getting a good cup of coffee in Pakistan.

The biggest frustration, however, is not being able to recognise his new travelling friends, something many people would take for granted.

"It is an awful feeling when I find out someone has waved or smiled and I haven't responded as I can't see them," he said.

"These challenges also present themselves at home though, it is hard to recognise my own family, so at least when travelling these challenges and frustrations occur in new and exotic locations." 

Kristan has been legally blind for some time now, referring to his disability as "an ever-evolving thing." 

"I was born with cataracts and since then have also contracted glaucoma and had numerous retina detachments," he said. 

In all types of Glaucoma the nerve that connects the eye and the brain has been damaged, cataracts are often associated with a 'clouding' and retinal detachment occurs when the tissue at the back of your eye detaches from the layer of blood vessels that provide oxygen. 

On top of this list of sight problems, Kristan has had a dozen or so surgeries in the last decade that have only made matters worse.

"There are also many, many other problems which I can't spell let alone pronounce, I've always only ever had limited vision in one eye," he said.

"It used to be my left eye which kind of worked but due to surgeries that caused more problems I now have to wear an eye patch over that eye so as to squeeze a little bit of vision out of my right eye." 

On top of the poor vision, Kristan has suffered from a series of symptoms including his vision being upside down and suffering from Charles Bonnet Syndrome, where people with vision impairment experience visual hallucinations. 

"It has to be experienced to be believed," Kristan said of the syndrome. 

Kristan hopes that by challenging the norm and himself he can show others that there is some light in the darkness.

"I hope that other people with disabilities can see that while they might be in a dark place now and looking for a way out of it that things can change and they can find a way."

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