By Lekshmi Mendez
It all started with my freshman year in high school, when I took World Geography and History. These classes fascinated my curiosity and wonder about the world. Growing up in a family of diverse cultures, I wanted to see the world and experience it with my own eyes. One of my brothers was born in Korea, and I was born in India. My Mom and Dad’s ethnicity is German and English, with lots of other mixtures, and this was unique to me.
My first opportunity to travel as a visually impaired teenager was with a group of adoptees from India who were living in Wisconsin. The trip was planned for the summer of 1988. I was determined to save every penny I could to go on this trip. Being visually impaired and a teenager, I felt self conscious about everything. I had only one friend in high school. I felt like an oddball because I did not go out with friends. I stayed close to home and did not want to spend any money.
In my junior year, I transferred to the Wisconsin School for the Blind to complete my high school studies. I was asked to speak at a Lions Club meeting. I shared my hopes and dreams for my life after graduation. My hope was to see as much as I could as a visually impaired person. This meant that I could NOT allow my visual impairment to hold me down or back. The Lions Club invited me, over all the other students in the “normal sighted” arena, to serve an Ambassador for Youth– in India, of all places!! I was so ecstatic and afraid, all at once!!! I felt so glad that I had saved for several years already and some left over!
Traveling alone as a visually impaired person was a totally scary and hairy experience. I was always afraid of asking for help to find my way through airports, bus terminals, etc., and I always felt afraid of being ridiculed, mocked, or trapped in large crowds. Luckily, I asked for assistance prior to my travels. In New York, I met up two other youth exchange students from other states. When I arrived in India, we had to go our separate ways. Being visually impaired and not knowing the language was a torturous learning experience.
Now 26 years later, I still have great memories of adventures of long ago.
(To be continued)
Lekshmi Mendez lives in Janesville, Wisconsin.