George Abraham has an encounter with the 'Dialogue in the Dark' exhibition in Vienna
Imagine a situation where the lights go off while you are having dinner. There is no candle, torch or emergency lamp available. And you are compelled to carry on with dinner in the dark. I guess you would rely on your hands to feel what is on your plate, you would use your sense of smell and taste to figure out what you are eating and, perhaps, your memory to recall what was where on your plate. This would be an interesting test of your non-visual senses.
I had recently travelled to Vienna, where I had the opportunity to visit an interesting exhibition called 'Dialogue in the Dark'. The exhibition was a one-hour guided tour in pitch darkness where one traverses through undulated terrain, narrow pathways, twists and turns, as well as obstacles and varied experiences with just a cane and a voice to lead you. If you survived the hour, you ended up in the bar where you could relax with a drink in the dark.
We were about eight of us who visited the exhibition. We had to stand in a queue to get our entry tickets. There was a choice between an English and a German tour. We all opted for English. Once we were inside, we were ushered to the basement where we met our guide, a tall, slim lady. Her accent told us that she was either Austrian or German.
Each of us was handed a cane, like the ones blind people use. We were told to hold the cane in front of our bodies and feel our way forward. In addition, we were asked to constantly listen to our guide's voice. It seemed easy to begin with. However, as we moved into the dark, we started bumping into stones, walking into bushes and stumbling over each other. It took each of us five to 10 minutes to get used to the discipline of feeling our way with canes. We also found the guide's voice extremely reassuring. During the course of the tour, we were asked to distinguish the sounds of streams flowing below us, smell and recognise flowers, feel and identify fruits and vegetables and make out the textures under our feet. We had to cross bridges, ascend and descend stairs, board a bus, cross a road, negotiate winding corridors, till we finally arrived at the bar.
I felt my way to the counter and ordered a lemonade, for which I needed to pay 2 Euros. I pulled out my purse and handed out a Rs 5 coin that feels like a Euro coin. The lady across the counter took one look at the coin and told me that she did not recognise the coin. I apologised and put a Euro coin on the counter. I took the bottled drink and a glass and slowly felt my way to a table across the room from where I could hear the voices of my companions. The next challenge for me was to open the bottle and pour out the drink into the glass without spilling its contents. I managed the task by touching the mouth of the bottle to the rim of the glass. The lady seated next to me confessed that she had opted for a coffee simply to avoid the messy possibilities while pouring from the bottle. "Good thinking indeed," I quipped, "but how were you to know if there was a fly or a dead insect in the coffee?"
We were told that dinner was served on weekends. Diners preferred to use their fingers while eating to be sure of what they were consuming. Forks and knives were not to be trusted. Menu cards were called out and diners took their pick. This single hour in the dark clearly sent out a loud message to each of us: Even if we don't see, we can still get on with life. There is a great deal of ability in each of us. We only use a small part of it.
'Dialogue in the Dark' is a commercial venture that has been travelling from country to country, drawing a huge number of visitors. The venture is by and large managed and manned by visually impaired people. It is an experience that helps people take cognisance of the fact that there is life beyond blindness.
And, besides this profound realisation, the experience is also great fun and an exciting exploration of human ability.