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27th August 2011

'Touching the World' by Cathy Birchall
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An 18 year old BMW. A trip across five continents, 31 countries and 26,000 miles. The first global circumnavigation by a blind person on a motorcycle. And a cracking read, says Dave Blendell...

Click to buy a copy from Amazon 'Touching the World' is the tale of a round the world trip by Cathy Birchall and her partner Bernard Smith. The byline, 'A Blind Woman, Two Wheels, 25,000 Miles' tells us it's something a little different from the usual long distance bike travel book.

In the brief introduction Cathy tells us of childhood with restriction vision, married life and running a business as her sight goes completely then the devastation of losing her husband and everything they'd built up.

We then see what kind of character she is as she decides to educate herself, eventually graduating as a teacher after starting further education with no qualifications at all. Bernard found himself, after a variety of other jobs, as a teacher of the visually impaired and fate brought the couple together.

As is usual in this kind of book Bernard's inspiration for the trip was Ted Simon's classic 'Jupiter's Travels'. For years he thought 'I could do that', and then met up with the equally inspiring Cathy with her 'anything is possible' attitude. The thought changed to 'we WILL do that.'

Given the deafening lack of interest from sponsors, the bike chosen was an 18 year old BMW R100LT, christened Bertha. This meant a lot more preparation was required than if something newer and possibly more suitable had been used. After two years of planning and preparation, the journey begins.

So what does a blind person get out of travelling the world? Firstly Bernard keeps up a running commentary via a communications system supplied by Autocom, who deserve a plug for their faith in the couple. Bernard is in effect Cathy's eyes. As she explains to us, her sense of sound and touch are more highly developed than those of most sighted people so with Bernard's input her loss of sight didn't make the experience any less for her.

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Given their profession the couple do visit various places along the route related to blindness - for example, a fascinating guide dog school in Switzerland - but Cathy's blindness is almost incidental. Sometimes the reader needs to be reminded just how brave she is and how much faith the couple have in each other to make the trip possible. Oddly Cathy's blindness appear at times to be a plus during the trip. Time after time, scowling border guards fall over themselves to help the couple enter and leave various countries once they realise her condition. People willingly let them to the front of queues and a small demonstration in Malaysia is held up while the protagonists move aside to let the blind lady pass through the line of tooled-up riot police.

As with seemingly all travel books, the kindness of strangers shines through, as does the oddity of human nature which means that people will gladly help anyone apart from those who live just over their borders. Throughout the book Cathy and Bernard meet charming and helpful people who warn them about the thieves and crooks that inhabit the next country on their trip. Nowhere is this more apparent than during the first phase of their journey where they meet courteous and warm people in Eastern Europe countries, with armed United Nations troops in between them to prevent them from slaughtering each other.

The book covers one year, 35 countries and 26,385 miles so there are plenty of stories; more than enough bureaucracy, impressively few breakdowns and a lot of honesty.

There are times during the trip when either or both of our intrepid adventurers just want their own space. Bernard admits to being terrified throughout the nightmare ride across India where the only rule of the road is sound your horn at all times, and both are on the verge of panic as gun-toting Pakistani security forces insist on them sticking to the rear bumper of their truck as they charge through a few hundred miles of 'Bandit Country.' Cathy tells us of her feelings of helplessness when Bernard withdraws into himself during a moment of introspection and unwittingly cuts her off from the world when the running commentary stop.

More usually he describes everything in great detail complete with local accents and a sardonic view of the world around him. It's very clear that they're two people very much in tune with each other. The couple emphasise that they are 'ordinary people' and the point they want to make is that anyone can do something like this if they set their minds to it. They received very little encouragement, even less support from potential sponsors and most they approached for help thought they were stark staring mad and not worthy of being taken seriously. To do a trip like that with no back up, self-financed and on a bike most bike dealers would refuse to take in part exchange let alone with the extra efforts needed because of Cathy's blindness is really something special.

As an avid reader I know that, no matter how wonderful the tale, if it's not written properly then the whole effort is a wasted opportunity. 'Touching the World' is very well written. By the end of the first couple of chapters I felt as if I knew Cathy and Bernard. By the end of the book I liked and admired two people I've never met. They tell a great story well and discuss bigger issues along the way without being preachy or trying to force their views on the reader. I've read, and enjoyed, all of Ted Simon's books and touching the World is as good. It follows the same formula but while obviously the stories are different Cathy and Bernard share Ted's openness and willingness to accept people as they are, and embrace their differences rather than feeling threatened by them or feeling superior.

I've deliberately not made this review a list of events and anecdotes from the book. For that you'll have to read it yourself. If you enjoy Ted Simon's books then you'll love it. It's insightful, informative, entertaining and in places very moving; funny and sometimes a combination of both. It deserves a wider audience than it will probably get as a 'bike travel book.'

It really is much more than that.

RC reviewer: Dave Blendell

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Touching the World by Cathy Birchall - ISBN 978-0-9564975-8-1 - is published by Panther Publishing in softback at 12.99, and runs to 344 pages with maps and colour photos, and is available via Amazon.co.uk

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