Dialogue in the Dark: Blind guides offer sight to the seeing

Tucked away in Hamburg’s warehouse district is the most eye-opening exhibition I’ve been to in recent memory. It’s called Dialog Im Dunkeln, or Dialogue in the Dark. The exhibit is a guided tour through a completely blacked-out environment led by blind or partially blind guides.

You are given a cane for guidance, and you are taken through an incredible journey through six everyday environments, where you can experience life through the eyes of the visually impaired. Immediately after entering the exhibition, you feel a little scared. You and others in your group are now plunged into completed darkness. You’re scared of falling, touching the wrong thing, or walking into a wall. Indeed, my friend did feel me up at least three times, and I did awkwardly stumble over steps and rocks; but we survived.

But the scariest thing is that you have no idea what comes next. If you are interested in the exhibit and you don’t want to know what comes next, skip the next three paragraphs.

First, you walk through a park. You can hear the birds around you and you feel a light breeze. You quickly learn to use your walking stick to avoid hitting other visitors or obstacles in your path. You walk over rocks, holding on to each other and the trees nearby. Your guide’s disembodied voice directs you to follow him over a bridge. You begin to rely on the help of the people around you. Though you can see nothing, you’d be surprised how helpful it is to hear, “There’s a step up ahead” or “Grab on to the rail on your left.”

Then you’re led into a room with barrels containing different items. You have to smell them to figure out that they’re coffee beans or sticks of cinnamon. Before entering the next environment which is a market, the guide opens the door so you can hear the bustling noise inside. You make your way through rows of fruits and vegetables, identifying them only by touch and smell. You walk across the street, using your cane and verbal warnings to guide you off the sidewalk. You touch the cars in the street, the garbage bins. You learn to identify the right path by banging your stick down on the floor to determine if it’s soft or wooden.

After the market, you’re taken on a boat. You sit down, listening to the sounds of your guide maneuvering the ropes and seagulls flying all around you. The boat rocks as you make your way around the Hamburg harbor. You see nothing, but somehow you see everything. Finally, you’re led into a sound room where you can sit and listen to music. The sounds envelop you completely, as though your ears are making up for your lack of sight. You can see and feel the music everywhere.

At the end of the tour, you go into a dark bar, where you can order a drink or a snack. This isn’t a spoiler; they advise you to bring cash for the bar when you book the tour. After pouring out a beer carefully into a glass and enjoying some candy, you can sit down and converse with your friendly guide.

He told us all about his life, how he was educated, and how he does everyday things around the house and in his neighborhood. He joked about waking into the wrong bathroom, and reassuring the screaming woman that he saw nothing. Naturally, I asked him about travel. He said he loves to travel. It can just be a bit more challenging for him to get around, especially if he doesn’t know the language. According to him, people in warm places tend to be more helpful. When we finished our chat, he pointed us toward the outside. As you can imagine, adjusting to the harsh light after being in complete darkness for an hour and a half was a little uncomfortable.

It’s a shame that you never see your guide, but I suppose that’s the whole point. When blind people meet a charming new friend, they only know them by their witty words and the sound of their laughter. It was a pleasure to have met him, and I was extremely grateful for his guidance.

The entire experience forces you to appreciate the difficulty of maneuvering around the world without one of your senses intact. It forces you to understand how critical your help is to someone who can’t see. And though I expected to feel a little sad, I didn’t. As you clumsily walk around your pitch black surroundings, you come to appreciate your other senses. Music never sounded so good, and oranges never smelled so sweet. It wasn’t scary or impossible; it was just different.

The exhibit was started in Hamburg over 15 years ago, but it can now be found in more than 39 countries. I wholeheartedly recommend it. The cost of admission is a small price to pay for the perspective you gain during your visit.


Get the GPS-guided version of this article on GPSmyCity here.