“Put your left hand on the wall to guide you. Ok, now bend your right arm and put it in front of your chest to protect you just in case you bump into something.”
These directions came from a young woman standing behind me holding open a heavy, black curtain. I was standing in a completely dark room while she was in a brightly illuminated one. With the lights shining behind her, all I could see was her silhouette as she gave the final instructions: “Now, walk forward slowly and listen for the voice of your guide.”
And with that she closed the curtain separating our two worlds. I was engulfed in darkness shuffling my feet to move ahead although I had no idea who or what was in front of me. This wasn’t the kind of darkness that your eyes adjust to. The kind of darkness that eventually allows you to at least make out the shapes of the people and objects around you. This was the beginning of Prague’s Invisible Exhibition, and I had already learned something new: the true meaning of pitch black.
“Give us your blind trust!” That is the motto of the Invisible Exhibition in Prague, and it’s a fitting one. Inside this intriguing display which some have called “the greatest exhibition you’ll never see,” you are led through various rooms all while in complete darkness to simulate the feeling of being blind. Each room creates a different atmosphere and setting that requires you to use your remaining senses to figure out where you are and how to get to the next room.
You won’t take on the challenge alone, though. Visitors are separated into small groups to go through the exhibit together along with their own guide. What makes this experience even more unique is the fact that all of the guides working there are blind or visually impaired in some other way. They give you a glimpse into their world, and the whole experience gives new meaning to the phrase, “the blind leading the blind.”
“Step forward a little more please. Don’t worry. There are no spiders in here.” The booming voice of our guide cut through the silence, as the other visitors and I stood there frozen in our tracks. Slowly but surely we inched forward towards the comforting voice of someone who actually knew what was going on. Knowing that there were no spiders or other creepy crawlies definitely gave me a boost of confidence to walk ahead into the darkness.
At that point, introductions were made. My fellow visitors included a young Brazilian couple and a Taiwanese college student. Our guide was a 26-year-old man from the Czech Republic who wasn’t originally from Prague but had been living there for several years. It was a strange feeling to meet new people and have no idea what they looked like. If you’re telling me a story about your life, I’m the kind of person that will ask to see a picture of all the people involved. I like to put faces to a name and in this case to a voice. I immediately started to imagine what the people in my group could possibly look like. It made me wonder how my guide processed this sort of situation. Was he also curious about what we looked like or was he already used to not knowing?
With those thoughts swirling around in my head, we started the tour by walking forward and into our first room. My left hand and the voice of the guide were the only things guiding me. When I hit a corner I knew I had to turn. If the walled curved to the right then so did I. My left hand was pressed up against that wall clinging so hard for dear life that I thought I would end up making a hole in it.
As we passed from one room to the next, it was amazing to see how I felt more in tune with my other senses. I really had no other choice. I had to touch, smell and listen to everything in my surroundings to figure out what kind of situation the room was trying to simulate.
I don’t want to give away too much about the different rooms so you can go and discover it for yourself, but the most nerve-racking one was without a doubt the room that simulated being outside on a busy sidewalk. I walked through a “street side” market touching and smelling all of the fruits and vegetables to figure out what each item was. I’m already bad at picking out ripe fruit and vegetables even when I can see them so I can’t imagine how I would do without my sight. I started to wonder how my guide did his food shopping. Did he always have to go with a friend or has he found ways to maneuver his local markets with no trouble?
The most intimidating part of that room, however, was the noise. The sound of cars and trucks on a busy avenue along with people walking by and the general buzz you hear in the background of any big city was all so disorienting. The sound of a car honking startled me so much I jumped back and hit the person behind me. (I scare easily though.)
In this room, we also had to let go of that precious security blanket known as the left wall, walk out into the middle of the room and “cross the street” all by simply following the voice of our guide. Even though I knew it was all just a simulation, it made me nervous imagining cars zooming by while I tried to make it across. I started to wonder how my guide tackled getting around the city or even exploring new ones. Did he ever feel overwhelmed like I was feeling in that moment?
My fellow visitors and I made it through that challenge and a few other ones before coming to the final room. After almost an hour in complete darkness our last stop was a bar where we could relax and buy drinks served by our very own guide. Fumbling through my change trying to figure out which coins I needed to pay for my drink proved to be yet another challenge that my guide had to take over and handle for me. If he wanted to, he could have ripped me off big time and I would have had zero idea (of course he didn’t). It made me wonder what kinds of systems blind or visually impaired people used to organize their money, especially if they were from a country like the U.S.A. where all bills are the same size.
Sitting in the bar gave all of us the opportunity to speak with our guide and learn more about his life story. I was also finally able to get answers to some of the many questions that popped into my head throughout the experience, and that was probably the most eye-opening part of it all (yes, pun intended). The whole thing only lasted a little over an hour, but it truly gave me an interesting peek into the world of a blind person.
After finishing up our drinks, we were led to the exit and the same young woman from earlier came to open the black curtain and let us back into the well-lit room. Now under the bright lights, we stayed around chatting a little bit more with our guide. It almost seemed unfair to be back in the light and to be able to see what my guide and the other participants looked like while our guide could not. It seemed unfair that I would walk back to my hostel and enjoy the gorgeous scenery of Prague, while my guide would not. I felt a small sense of guilt. My experience in the Invisible Exhibition was just that. An experience. While for my guide, this had been his life since he was six-years-old. I am not saying that I felt sorry for him, but just that the little glimpse into his world made me realize how my ability to see has made my life much easier, and I wished he could share in that.
While I processed my weird mix of emotions, I couldn’t help but notice the huge smile on my guide’s face as he told us more about the exhibition and how their contract had been renewed to keep it open for at least another three years. He was so genuinely happy to have shared that experience with us, and that happiness was infectious.
I left the exhibition not only with a great experience and memory to add to my collection, but also having learned so much about something I had basically no experience with. Above all, I left with a new sense of gratitude for something that I certainly take for granted on most days.