Traveling Blind

Traveling BlindTraveling Blind (The Pacific Sun, September 27- October 2, 2000)

Early one afternoon in November of 1999, 32-year-old Denise Vancil was walking through the lively Havana neighborhood of el centro, where impromptu baseball games take over the streets, salsa music emanates from the surrounding balconies and the Caribbean Sea, never more than a few blocks away, smacks itself against the malecón sea wall, drenching passersby with its salty spray.
The heels of Denise’s dance shoes clicked out a fast-paced rhythm as her cane tripped along the uneven sidewalk. She walked with two American women from her salsa class, one of whom offered her elbow for support.

After two months of planning for this trip and nearly 10 years of fantasizing about it, after numerous attempts to convince her friends and family that she would be safe traveling as a blind woman in Cuba, Denise had finally made it here. And in this moment, she was high on the adrenaline rush of her first Cuban salsa class. She would be here for two weeks as part of an Afro-Cuban dance and percussion program organized by Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based nonprofit.

But somewhere along the walk back to the hotel in Havana, Denise’s friends were deep in conversation and forgot where they were and forgot that they were with Denise, who slipped on a large pothole and fell with all her weight on the side of her right foot. She went to the hospital, got a cast and crutches, and stayed on until it became obvious that she couldn’t maneuver Havana’s potholed streets in her condition. And then, a week after she’d arrived, she flew home to recover. In the U.S., her physical therapist told her that her injury, a break in the fifth metatarsal bone, was, ironically, referred to as a “dancer’s break.”

“As soon as I got home, the first thing I did was to make a reservation to return in January,” Denise says. “I didn’t have a lot of time because I had quit my job and was starting a new one in mid-February.”

Her doctor said it would take at least three months for her foot to heal 50 percent and up to a year for it to heal fully.

“I never exactly told him I was going back,” says Denise. “But I went prepared. I brought sturdy tennis shoes to dance in and an ice pack, pain medication and foot wraps. I remember being in physical therapy with a cast and a wood shoe and telling the therapist, ‘Okay, I know my foot’s broken, but I’ve got this salsa class in Cuba to get back to.’ Everyone thought I was crazy, which I am.”
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Denise lost her sight at age 13 when her retinas detached following complications from a birth defect knowon as Persistent Hyperplastic Primary Vitreous. Ever since, Denise has spent much of her life doing things that others considered crazy or risky, especially for a blind person. She has white-water rafted along the Yampa River in Utah and hiked the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru. She has swam naked off the Caribbean coast of Belize, danced merengue on a bar top in Ecuador, held an anaconda in her hand in the Bolivian rainforest, and tandem biked through lavender fields in France. Closer to home, she has cross-country skied in Tahoe, sea kayaked in Tomales Bay and tandem biked down Mt. Tamalpais, which butts up against the old hunter’s cabin where she lives in Mill Valley, California.

Although Denise and I live less than two miles away from each other in the U.S., I first met her in the lobby of Hotel El Bosque in Havana this past February. I had just flown in from Mexico to study Spanish with a Global Exchange program, and Denise had just returned from two-and-a-half weeks of traveling throughout Cuba. She was standing at the reception desk when I first saw her, asking for her room assignment, her long blond hair ruffled from a breeze that blew in from the open entrance. Her cane was resting against the counter.

In the coming two weeks, I watched as Denise immersed herself in Cuban life, as she walked down the colorful Callejón de Hamel alley with its Afro-Cuban murals and installation art pieces, running her hands along the different shapes. I watched one evening as she danced salsa beneath the stars at a rooftop café in Old Havana, spinning in such swift, fluid steps that a Cuban friend of mine shook his head in disbelief and asked, “Are you sure she can’t see?” And one afternoon when I walked with Denise through a building that housed a scale model of Havana, I learned how to communicate what I saw to someone who knew colors and shapes only from memory. I touched the miniature houses and museums with Denise. I felt the Brillo pad tree tops and, during those two weeks, I traveled through Cuba more aware of my surroundings.

Traveling in a foreign country, even as a sighted person, can be difficult. There are speech and cultural barriers that no amount of language classes can translate. For Americans in Cuba, there’s also the taboo of travel and the 40-year information gap between the two countries.

“I was really nervous about going,” says Denise. “It’s this place you don’t really hear too much about because we don’t really have relations with them. I was a little intimidated as a woman, and a blind woman at that. People kept telling me how dangerous it was. People asked, ‘Cuba? Aren’t they communists? Why would you want to go there?’ So I didn’t exactly get the type of support that I’d wanted, that I’d gotten for other places I’d traveled to.”

For the past seven years, between studying for her master’s degree in special education and teaching at independent living centers, Denise has traveled in Mexico and Central and South America with her boyfriend Tripp Carpenter. They met on a ski trip for the blind that Tripp led ten years ago, and became traveling partners five years later. But Denise had been dreaming of Cuba long before she and Tripp began roaming through Latin America.

“I picked up this flier for Cuba in a Global Exchange store about ten years ago,” she says. “I’ve always loved salsa dancing and Latin music, and I was just fascinated by Cuba because it seemed so mysterious. And I wasn’t disappointed at all. It was worth the wait to get there, and the dancing was phenomenal.”

Before she lost her sight, Denise had taken a combination tap/ballet/gymnastics class. And after she lost her sight, she kept right on with it, eventually adding jazz, modern, ballroom, swing, salsa, merengue, and flamenco to her repertoire.

“A lot of people ask me how I can dance if I’m blind because they think of dance as being so visual or,” she says, laughing, “they’ll ask if I feel the vibrations in the floor and I have to tell them, ‘I’m blind, not deaf.’”

“People see my cane, and they automatically think, ‘Get that girl a wheelchair.’ At times like that, I realize that, no matter what my profession is, I’m going to be a lifelong teacher. I’ll always be educating people about the blind.”

Denise tells people who ask about dance that it’s not as much about visuals as it is about body language.

“I’ve learned to read body language from walking with someone’s arm all the time,” she says. “When I’m walking behind someone on the stairs, I can feel their body going up or down a step. Or if they’re going around a tight corner, I’ll know because they’ll pull their arm back behind them. It’s the same with dance. With salsa, the guys lead and if they’ve just gone forward so many steps and are preparing to go back, they accent the last step before they change directions. So you learn to pick up on that.”

In Cuba, Denise’s dance instructors verbally described the steps to her. They also put her hands on their waists or their shoulders or their legs so she could understand how they moved.

“It’s a little different and more difficult when I’m not doing partner dancing,” Denise says. “I like to try to stay in contact with someone all the time. I’ve danced with blind friends and we’ll have a signal, like I’ll clap and they’ll clap back so we know where we are.”

As a rehabilitation teacher at the Earle Baum Center of the Blind in Santa Rosa, Denise has also taught dance to the blind.

“I teach tap a lot because it’s so rhythm-oriented,” she says. “And I’ll go around individually. I’ll touch my students or have them touch my feet. Maybe we don’t dance exactly like everyone else. Maybe it takes a little extra explanation or a teacher dancing with someone so they can learn a new step, but there’s no special technique or knowledge a teacher has to possess.”

Beyond dance, Denise felt such a connection with the Cuban culture and people that she returned for a third visit in late spring.

“Cuba is so unique from anywhere I’ve been because the people are so genuine,” she says. “I’d meet someone who’d invite me into their house for juice after having known me for just a couple of minutes. This family I’d met only one or two times wanted to throw me a goodbye party when I left.”

When Denise went to the hospital in Cuba with her broken foot, the doctor told her he’d teach her to dance when she got better.

“I was so upset, and that type of kindness was exactly what I needed then,” she says. “But what sticks out most in my mind is how doctors here [in the U.S.] treat you like a science experiment. They poke and prod you and send you off on your way but the doctor I saw in Cuba really listened.”

Denise was also struck by the sparsity of the hospital where she witnessed firsthand the effects of the U.S. embargo on Cuba’s health care system.

“It was just one big room instead of individual consultation quareters, and all there was to sit on was this old metal bench,” she says. “Since the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba didn’t have that financial support coming in, they’ve been going through a really difficult time. Food isn’t plentiful and a lot of home are rundown and without running water or hot water, but this isn’t any different than other underdeveloped countries I’ve been to that weren’t socialist.”

In 1993, in an attempt to jumpstart the economy, Fidel Castro legalized the U.S. dollar and ever since Cuba has been edging slowly toward capitalism. More than a handful of foreign companies have moved in and tourism has replaced the Soviet Union’s aid as Cuba’s main source of revenue. If religion was once considered the opiate of the masses, the U.S. dollar is today considered the god of the Cuban government (which still pays its workers only in Cuban pesos), and tourism, which brings in more U.S. dollars, is protected at the cost of the Cuban people.

“What really struck me was the inequality of Cuban in comparison with the tourists,” says Denise. “I could use any bathroom in any hotel, but they couldn’t even enter the tourist hotels. As an American, I had more rights than they did. Cuba is like a volcano waiting to erupt and unfortunately I’m sure the U.S. will have their hands in it when that happens. It’s a misconception that so many people think that Cuba is in such a horrible situation because really there are so many positives. There’s no violence. People are entitled to free education and medical care. It’s a hard life, but it’s not a bad life.”
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Form her travels, Denise has witnessed many hard lives, especially for the blind. In Guatemala, where she studied Spanish for three weeks in 1993, Denise met a blind man walking down the street.

“He had a rebar cane,” she says. “And I remember thinking it was so wild that he was actually using it to walk. It’s really heavy and it doesn’t have a tip so it can’t glide over anything. It just jabs into everything. I gave him a cane because I’d brought some extra ones and his eyes teared up and he kept saying, ‘Que increible, que moderno’ How incredible, how modern.”

Although there are more provisions for people with disabilities in the U.S., Denise has found that there’s just as much ignorance and perhaps more fear of people who are different.

“We’re such a busy society that we don’t have time to understand disabilities,” she says. “This is why I thrive on traveling. Not only do I get to see differences and how wonderful they are, but I also feel like there’s more of an equal exchange for me. In the U.S., people want to know about how I lost my sight and then they go on with their lives. In Guatemala, I was in this small town called Santa Cruz. It was the first time I’d been in a place without cars, and it was wonderful. Everyone there was super friendly and interested in me because I was blind. And I was curious about them too. I’d show my cane and then ask if I could feel their looms or their babies wrapped up in their serapes.”

It’s this exchange of information that keeps Denise traveling and also planning for the next adventure.

“I still want to go back to Cuba, but what I’m thinking about now is something a little bigger,” she says, smiling at the thought. “I’d like to find some grant to travel the world and study dance. Do tango in Argentina and flamenco in Spain. I’m happiest when I’m dancing, and I’d like to learn more and then bring it back home as a teacher.”