November 05, 2005.
The Sunday Times (UK).
HIS courageous 220-mile trek through the jungles and desert of Nicaragua endeared him to millions of television viewers.
Now Amar Latif, the disabled Glaswegian star of the BBC's Beyond Boundaries documentary, has launched a travel company specialising in holidays for the blind.
Latif, who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive degeneration of the retina, was inspired by the arduous journey during which he and 10 other disabled people crossed Nicaragua, braving mosquito-infested jungles and the searing desert heat.
The experience convinced the 30-year-old accountant, who has been gradually losing his sight since the age of 15, that independent and adventure travel for blind people is possible.
His company, Traveleyes, pairs blind people with sighted travellers who, in return for a 25% discount on their holiday, act as guides.
The firm, which was launched in April, has organised trips to Malta, California and Italy. An expedition to the Atlas mountains and the Sahara desert is planned for next year.
"Beyond Boundaries was so difficult that at the end of it I was convinced that whatever I put my mind to could be achieved," said Latif.
"The fact that we were disabled people out there helping each other in very difficult circumstances convinced me that holidays wouldn't be a problem.
"In terms of travelling, blind people are largely sheltered and mollycoddled when they go with relatives or friends and they aren't able to drive the direction of the holiday.
"My holiday company allows blind people to travel anywhere in the world without having to rely on family and friends."
Sighted travellers have to undergo a criminal record check and provide a reference from their employer before being accepted. They are also given a short training course to help them to describe the sights to blind travellers.
Bob Matthews, 44, the winner of eight Paralympic gold medals for middle and long distance running, joined the trip to Malta earlier this year, where he drove a wetbike and went scuba diving for the first time.
"It was so liberating not to have to ask family and friends to go on holiday with me," said Matthews. "It was a big step for me to go to Malta and I discovered a new self-belief and confidence as a result. I would now like to go on an adventure holiday and do something with an element of risk."
Glyn Evans, a railway signalman who travelled to Malta and Seville as a sighted guide, said that the holidays had broadened his horizons. "You feel an all-round better person once you have been on one of these holidays," said Evans. "You get to do more, such as swimming with dolphins or actually touch a crocodile, because touch is such a large part of the experience for blind people.
"Describing the texture of the stone or tracing the outline of a building with them with their cane you just notice so much more - it is a wonderful experience."
Despite having lost about 90% of his vision, Latif has battled to overcome his disability. He has completed the three peaks challenge, scaling Scafell, Snowdon and Ben Nevis, in less than 24 hours and has performed as a professional blues guitarist in America.
Latif hopes to set off travelling again soon and is eager to undertake a new challenge. "The feeling I got when we reached the Pacific Ocean was such a high and I would do it again just for that," he said. "I couldn't believe that we managed to persevere through all the suffering the journey entailed - but now I need something more challenging."
Latif's business venture follows a similar initiative by Ewan McGregor's mother, Carol, who runs a company that provides the visually impaired with descriptive commentaries of films.
A spokesman for the Royal National Institute for the Blind said: "This idea has a lot going for it and we welcome any initiative that encourages blind, partially sighted and sighted people to share activities and increase their understanding of each other. It's all very well saying that blind people can smell the pine trees or hear the birds singing when they are abroad but when the sights are described in vivid terms can make all the difference."
Source URL: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2090-1859837,00.html.
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