“I don’t know when you will go blind, Allan. I just don’t know.” My doctor, Professor Peng Tee Khaw, was trying to explain the unpredictable and volatile nature of my degenerative eye condition. “You could be sighted at 90 or you could wake up tomorrow to find that the lights are all off.” This filled me with a sudden sense of urgency. It was a race against time. I was born blind but, thanks to surgery, I have 10% vision in my left eye. It was summer 2015. “I want to see the world before it’s too late,” I told my mother.
A week later I was ready to board a one-way flight to Mexico. I had that weird feeling you get in your stomach when you forget to delete your browser history before your mum starts online shopping at Dorothy Perkins.
All my life I’ve been a stubborn shit: to ask for help was to concede defeat. I threw a hissy fit when my mum refused to let me go home alone on my first day of secondary school. I wanted to climb buildings and throw eggs at buses like the other boys on the estate in London where I grew up. I have sought independence in every area of my life.
When I landed in Mexico City, I slowly began to accept that I could not run this race alone. This was not a one-man sprint; it was a relay and I was the baton. I was passed around from one Mexican hand to the next until I was delivered to my hostel. There, I found my first runner, Yilena, who had left Moscow after a nasty break-up. A few guacamole-laden tacos and cold beers later, we were ready to hit the town.
Boy, do Mexicans know how to party! El Colmillo bar off Paseo de la Reforma welcomed us with open arms and DJs spinning everything from techno to acid house to Latin jazz. Yilena dropped the baton when she got talking to a local boy. Initially, I was filled with anxiety and resentment but, before I knew it, I was picked up by Javi, a barista from Madrid. The party continued into the early hours. Javi tapped me on the shoulder as the lights came on: “In three hours I take the bus down south to the Pacific coast – come with me, amigo.”
Sleepless and pissed, Javi and I set off on an 18-hour bus journey. San José del Pacífico is a misty, mountainous hamlet that attracts wanderers from all around Latin America for its hongos (magic mushrooms). There, I met Kim Selznick from New York. Kim sings the blues and treated me to a sultry cover of Gershwin’s Summertime, Ella Fitzgerald-style, while we watched the clouds shifting shapes above the forest canopy.
I travelled for eight wonderful weeks. First, I went down through Belize for lobster, rum punch and sandy islands; then a caving expedition in Guatemala; El Salvador, where I tried my hand at surfing; Nicaragua, where I climbed a volcano with royal blood (Augusta was related to the Queen); and Costa Rica, where I went zipwiring.
By the time I was looking out on to the runway in Panama City airport, I no longer felt like a baton. I was an Olympic torch – treated with care, love, grace, integrity and kindness by backpackers from all over the world. Granted, not everyone was a saint: a taxi driver abandoned me on a runway in Mexico and a mob chased me home in Costa Rica. They reminded me of the shortcomings of human nature.
But the beautiful souls I met restored my ebbing faith in humanity. They held my hand as we snorkelled, hiked volcanoes, climbed mountains, trekked through forests, sailed boats, caught fish, played chess for hours on end, got merry in dingy hostels, complained about bed bugs, laughed at my attempts to speak Spanish, endured chicken buses, surfed in tropical seas, swam in lakes, got braids, got ripped off, almost got arrested, cried or simply had a gin-soaked chat full of dirty jokes.