Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Please Touch

Back when our theme in the Lab was Light, one of our lab members described a restaurant in Tel Aviv where the waiters were blind and customers ate in a totally dark environment.  We were captivated by this idea and remembered it when we created our itinerary.

Have you ever imagined what it would be like to live without sight?  How about without sight and hearing? One of the most unusual experiences that we have had in our visit to Israel was at the Nalaga'at Center. Nalaga'at means "Please Touch", a request that makes perfect sense when you learn about its history. The center was started by people with an unusual disease, Usher Syndrome. People with this disease are born deaf, but in their first decade typically lose their sight as well. When young they learn sign language and by touching the communicator as they sign they learn to read it even without the visual cues.

Today the center offers plays, education and a restaurant in which we are blinded by darkness. The waiters and actors are either deaf or visually impaired or some combination.  We began our visit with a workshop led by two deaf people who taught us how to sign basic words, lip read and pantomime specific words. We ascribed names through gestures which expanded on some descriptor, either physical or perhaps based on personal likes. We learned that sign language reflects the culture out of which it comes. For example the sign for "food" in the United States is holding a hamburger, in Chinese sign language it is manipulating chopsticks.

Following our workshop we moved to the dinner portion of our evening.   We selected our dinner before entering the dining room.  I was careful not to select the fettuccine as I end up wearing it even with advantage of sight. We were also asked to put cellphones and other belongings in a locker prior to entering, lest we or the waiters trip over them. We entered the dining room in train fashion, our hands resting on the shoulders of one of our table mates.  As we entered we joined a world of darkness that our waiters were far more adept at navigating. This was not a blackness to which one's eyes adjust, it was a velvety darkness that allowed no light to gain a foothold. I felt my stomach lurch as we entered and thought of those yoga balance poses that become infinitely more difficult if one closes one's eyes. I felt off balance.

We were guided to our table by our waiter. He then taught us how to pour water into our glass with our finger in the glass so we didn't overflow. I missed the glass anyway dampening the table, but I discovered an advantage in this world of darkness, no one could see it.  We heard the jingle of bells approaching, signaling our waiter Mohammed nearby with our meals.  There was no waiting until everyone was served as there was no way to determine that. My husband and I reached across the table identifying each other's location. That coveted taste of my husband's meal was going to be difficult.  I'd be lucky if I found my own plate.  The inability of others to see quickly eliminated any table manners.  After a few empty forkfuls, I quickly developed a stabbing strategy with the objective of navigating food to mouth.  It wasn't pretty, but then no one saw me.  The food was actually quite flavorful, perhaps enhanced by a focusing of our senses. My special treat at the end was when my husband had the waiter bring some of my husband's leftover meal to me to taste.  We left in train style, grateful for the anchor of the person in front, blinking as we moved back into light as we adjusted to the world of the sighted.

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