Watch and read Chris Venter’s inspiring talk at Successness Fest 2017
Chris’ inspiration highlight: “I believed if you wanted to tell a good story, you need to live the story first, and little did I know that my adventure of a lifetime would turn my world upside down inside out, and change the way that I see the world, both literally and figuratively.”
The adventure of a lifetime, that is all I was looking for, a way to reinvent myself, to create a new path, to steer my career in a totally new direction, after 20 years of working in the same career. I had to find a way to be brave, I had to find a way to take a plunge. And only at the age of 40 did I eventually pluck up the courage to have my adventure of a lifetime. I’d always wanted to be a writer, I wanted to write about travel and adventure. What a big leap it would require. Because I believed if you wanted to tell a good story, you need to live the story first, and little did I know that my adventure of a lifetime would turn my world upside down inside out, and change the way that I see the world, both literally and figuratively. I blame it on my years spent as a member of the boy scouts, I was a curious little snot nosed punk. I wanted to explore, discover the unknown, figure things out, adventure to places that nobody else was prepared to go. Books by Enid Blyton captured my attention, for hours, days, weeks, months. I wanted to be the sixth member of the Famous Five, but alas, things don’t always work out the way you plan. And after I completed my studies, I started on that 20-year career, the career that had up to that point defined me. I became a chef.
A story worth writing about. I decided I’d do my expedition on a little hundred 50cc two-stroke Vespa scooter. Myself as well as 3 friends on their scooters travelled for 8 months, a distance of 30000 km, touching 20 countries, with no support vehicle. Now, when 4 crazy guys ride scooters through Africa, there is going to be a bit of media coverage, I decided that it was essential for me to not only create a story, but to do something good out of my story. I decided that the most worthy recipient would be or the paediatric healthcare organisations scattered across the continent. My journey started here, in the Mother City, at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, and finished after those 8 months of riding, at our lady’s children’s hospital on The Emerald Isle, in Dublin. Through the continent we visited kids’ hospitals, children’s homes, schools and all sorts of paediatric healthcare organisations and boy oh boy did they get coverage. And boy oh boy, did I get a story. Of course this is the very story that would cost me my sight just 3 and a half years ago, it would change my world, and would cause me to wonder whether I had made the right decision to reinvent myself.
I’m sure you’re wondering how on earth does a person travel 30000km through the darkest continent on a little framed machine with an engine the size of a lawn mower, spluttering oil, bellowing smoke. But like any good adventurer, I have video proof and I’m going to stand here for 2 minutes while you watch a little clip.
I always knew that when you put yourself out there in the face of danger and you do something as offbeat, and crazy as I did you can lose your life. This was a gamble that I was prepared to take, I was more than happy to play Russian roulette. I always knew that my curious nature might end up costing me my life, but never for a second did I think that it would cost me my sight. During the trip I became very ill and although I had to fly home for medical treatment, I did manage to go and complete the expedition. When I got home, my health went from bad to worse. I was falling apart, knocking at deaths door, I had lost 30 kilograms, doctors could not figure out what was wrong with me, I was juggled around like a hot potato, from hospital to hospital, specialist to specialist, clinic to clinic. Nobody knew what was wrong, I was falling apart. And every time the medical staff gave me a course of antibiotics and some more vitamins, I felt ok for a little while, but I wasn’t. And then all of a sudden, in June of 2014, just 6 months after my expedition, my sight suddenly disappeared. 48 hours from seeing everything to seeing nothing, black, starless nights. I was rushed to an ophthalmologist, he took one look through my eyes and diagnosed that a rare virus, most probably contracted during the expedition, was attacking my retinas. I was checked into the hospital, where more tests were done as if the blood tests, the lumbar punctures, chest X-rays, MRIs and everything were not enough, they stuck a needle right through my eye, twice, which was the most excruciating pain, both physically and mentally. It made me question whether it was a foolish move to try and reinvent myself, why didn’t I just stay on that straight road, why did I gamble with a loaded revolver. The doctors manage to save my life, but they could do nothing about my sight. I sat stunned and silenced when they told me that I would most probably see nothing for the rest of my life. I found myself lying in a hospital bed, questioning everything, how would I now live as a blind man in a world that is so clearly designed for the sighted? How would I now survive? How would I live as an adventurer, traveller, a writer, how would I even survive?
I found myself on a road of blindness, a road ripped, rough, rugged, torn, full of potholes, littered with obstacles, and no way for me to go backwards. And then far to my one side was a far more desirable road, the road of medical breakthroughs, gene therapy, stem cell treatment, anything that would allow me to again see. But no, between the road that I stood on, and this road, was a massive canyon, and there was no way of getting there. and yes, to the other side yet one more road, the road of technology, a bionic eye, some sort of microchip implanted in my brain that word again bring light into my world. Again, no bridge, no little slip road. I stood there and made a conscious decision, after standing still for a long time, breathing and thinking, I chose to put one foot in front of the other and started moving down this road of sight loss. I refused to allow myself to be imprisoned, solitary confinement, a sentence for which I had committed no crime, I had to break free. I hoped that this road that I found myself on, would become smoother as I ventured down it and it did. And I still hope today that there is a bridge, a link road, a slip way, any way of me getting to either of these more desirable roads. I had to learn about something called accessibility, a term that I had heard thrown around but had never really stopped to contemplate. Google describes accessible to mean when a product, a device, an environment, software or a service, has specifically been designed with the disabled in mind. I had to learn how to use a computer with a screen reader that told me how, using audio signals, to navigate my way around. A mobile phone, with a little robotic like voice telling me how to communicate with the world.
I’d like to take a minute now and give you all a glimpse into my world, so humour me please: would everyone close their eyes tightly, for just one minute, and then stand. Now reach into your pockets, into your bags, find your mobile phone, if you don’t have it with you, don’t worry, pretend you’ve got it in your hand. For those of you with Samsung’s, don’t worry we have fire extinguishers on standby. How many of you are able to, with your eyes closed, point that phone at me, the blind adventurer, here on the stage, at this successness festival, and take a picture. How many of you could even switch your phone’s on? And how many of you are able to tweet that picture to me, and tag me at blind scooter guy. How many of you are able to caption that picture, and feel free to embellish, remember I don’t know what they’re showing, you’ll have to tell me. I’ll put you out your misery and allow you to open your eyes, and sit down again, just give yourself a round of applause, thank you for indulging me in my silly little experiment. I just wanted to give you a glimpse into the world that I found myself living, a world that was like a torture.
But let me assure you that I am today able to, thanks to accessible technology, take pictures with my mobile phone, to tweet them myself, I’m also able to post my own Facebook status updates, send and receive Mail, listen to clips on YouTube and stream my favourite radio station. Most importantly I’m able to navigate and find my way around the world and I am able to write, I’m able to be a travel and be an adventure writer. Since losing my sight just 3 and a half years ago, I’ve travelled the world by ocean, by air, by road and by rail. I’ve built a garden cottage behind my home with my own hands and I’m about to start building another as we speak. I cook gourmet meals for friends, family and foes, almost daily, in fact I do all the cooking at home, and my gorgeous wife thinks that she’s the lucky one. Most important thing, I get to write, I get to share stories, I’ve become a travel and adventure writer, I just never thought that it would be possible for me to be a blind travel and adventure writer.
My book titled, “How I Became a Blind Scooter Guy”, is being published as we speak, you’ll be able to pick up a copy from our website, blindscooterguy.com, if you’d like to read more of my story. Let me tell you quickly how the name the blind scooter guy came about. My name’s Chris, and Chris is quite a common name, I’m sure that in this very audience, there are a couple of Chris’s at least, Mike’s, Dave’s, you know how I feel. I’d call my buddies up and say, hey man its Chris here, the normal response was, which Chris? Now being a vintage Vespa scooter collector and enthusiast for so many years, and being known amongst the scooterists, I’d drop in, it’s Chris the scooter guy, and then I was lovingly known as Chris the scooter guy. All of a sudden I found myself being referred to as Chris the blind guy, and that would not suffice. I decided to reinvent myself, and call myself the blind scooter guy, and the persona was born.
I have learnt so many valuable lessons since losing my sight. Let me share a couple with you. I’ve learnt to focus. I’ll tell you a short story about a young boy in Nigeria, who used to walk down the road with these massive gutters, with his group of friends and being blind the friends would tell him when the gutter appeared and say jump. And he’d jump across the 1 metre deep, 1 metre wide little trenches. And then somebody told him the one day, hey, your buddies are teasing you, they’re making you jump where there is no gutter. and then he got brave and cheeky, and one day they said to him jump and he didn’t, and he fell right in the gutter, and had 6 stitches across his forehead, when you’re blind you have no choice but to trust. And let me assure you when I first became blind, many of my friends chose to disappear with my sight loss. They struggled to deal with it, as I was. The ones that came into my life and the ones that stuck behind are certainly the ones I can trust.
Patience, this was probably the hardest lesson for me to learn. I’m an impatient bastard at the best of times, but if you wait, someone comes, someone helps, and everything is alright. Perseverance, it’s ironic that at school I had received a certificate for perseverance, but I really learnt to appreciate what that means now, you have to keep trying. There is nothing more rewarding than completing a task independently, and let me assure you, as a blind person, I never want to ask for help unless I absolutely have to. I also never expect special treatment, just equal treatment.
Listening, you have to stop and be prepared to listen, you have to follow instructions carefully, so if you don’t listen to them you won’t know what people are saying.
Focus, when I go into a shopping centre with a list of 5 items, I come out with just those 5 items, when I go into that very shop with my good wife we come out with my 5 items, and another 15 that she’s seen – the marketing whammy gets her every time. And this rule applies to blind people in all sorts of tasks, you focus, you get the chore done, you do nothing more, nothing less. But patience – that was the big one.
Since losing my sight, I’ve become more curious, more compassionate, more interested in the world and more focused on being a better person. The thorn that was poking at my side has now defined me and determined, and shown me who I am. My next adventure will be happen between March and May next year, it’s a multi-faceted, Mediterranean Mobility Meander, now isn’t that a tongue twister. What it is, is a sightless journey between Sicily and southern France, I will be navigating my way by any means, ocean, air, road, rail, hot air balloon, Formula 1 car, donkey cart, you name it, skateboard, sea kayak, and this will hopefully be the next book for the blind scooter guy.
Let me leave you with a quote by Ray Charles: “You need to live your life each day, as if each day is the last, because one day you’re going to be right.”
Thank you very much.