Last night I determined the closest thing I have experienced to being blind is learning a foreign language.
I had the opportunity to attend The Blind Café, courtesy of the organizers. It was an experience that will stay with me a long time and one I energetically recommend. Don’t be put off by the unknown.
Approximately 80-100 Boulderites gathered at the Integral Center at Balsam and Broadway, checking in at a desk in the lobby and then hanging out in a small foyer waiting for the event to begin. Some in the crowd were veterans but most seemed to have no idea what to expect.
Eventually, the event organizer Rosh (Brian Rocheleau) stood up on a chair in the middle of the room and made a short speech. Other than not bringing in any lights whatsoever, including digital watches and cell phones, the rules seemed to be pretty touchy-feely – laugh, sing, cry, or do whatever you felt.
Still in the foyer, we were grouped by table numbers and quickly shook hands with the other 10 at our table of a dozen, wondering whether we’d be forced to have a conversation with them in the dark. Then we were led into a pitch black room, shuffling around a figure eight makeshift hallway designed to keep all light out, while putting a hand on the person in front of us.
The feeling was strange … and intense. We were led to a table, sort of haphazardly told there were chairs and to keep moving left until we found ours, and then left alone. Noise filled the room from other tables. The complete darkness itself was fine for me; the thought of having to sit there for two hours was a little discomforting.
Gradually any discomfort wore away, for some of us in a few seconds and for others in a few minutes. The table was filled with food. Each of us had a salad plate, fruit plate, water, and fork. In the middle of the table was bread, olive oil, and some chocolate. Since there was no direction as to what to do, I started to feel around in the dark, touching my food to find out what was there. The experience was not for germaphobes.
We sat in that room for over two hours. Gerry Leary from The Unseen Bean, who has a warm, melodious voice, gave a nice talk about being blind, followed by a question and answer period with the diners. The band, Rosh & One Eye Glass Broken, played a few folk songs that, in the dark, seemed extraordinary. It helped that cello player Phil Norman was extremely talented, vocalist Allegra Michael’s voice was captivating, and Rosh himself was a humble, charismatic leader.
One’s other senses are certainly performing with greater intensity when sight is taken away. The food on the table – cheeses, bread and olive oil, a fruit plate, a salad, and chocolates – tasted better than it would have in a normal restaurant. Each flavor individually revealed itself in an explosion of taste on the tongue.
My sense of smell was heightened as well. At one point, I could tell my fiancée was eating a cracker because the aroma wafted over when she bit into it. It was interesting to find myself contemplating in the dark how the cracker’s smells were contained in the hardened mixture but released when broken – not something one normally takes the time to think about while dining.
We each had a fork but to understand what was on the table, we had to use our hands. The touch of cheese, of pears, of bread, even of olive oil was as revealing as the sight of them would have been.
I found my enhanced sense of touch had a downside as well, though. All night I felt a consistent kick on my legs from one of my neighbors that had me wondering if she had restless leg syndrome. Each kick stood out remarkably in the dark.
In all, the experience was amazing. Yes, it was a bit intimidating to even register for this experience and scary during the first moments of being in total darkness. The voices of the blind waiters and their confidence in navigating the space, however, was soothing. The singing we were treated to and eventually partook in was joyous. I felt a strong sense of peace, of community, of happiness.
The closest experience I have had in my life to this was in learning foreign languages. One does not learn a foreign language by reading a book or even sitting in a classroom. The best way to learn a foreign language is to experience it in the real world. And having courage to reach out, to make mistakes, to try new words and experiences is a big part of learning a language successfully.
Such was my experience in the Blind Café. I found I could sit there, within myself, and do fine. However, when I reached around the table to find what was on it or raised my own voice in the community song, my experience was that much stronger. I don’t know what it is like to be blind but it must take a lot of courage.
Go to the Blind Café the next time it is in Boulder. You will appreciate the experience.