Ten years of independence

This day ten years ago, I met OJ for the first time, and he changed my life for the better.

 

When I nervously picked up OJ’s harness handle for the first time in Cork in June 2007, I knew something special was about to happen. I hoped after a few minutes of walking with him that the trainer would say we were a good match. I can honestly say I’ve never instantly connected with any dog like I did with him that day.

 

OJ has been a huge part of my life during the last ten years, giving me independence and confidence that I never had before. He enabled me to go where I want safely when I want, travel, meet new people and make new friends, find new jobs and volunteering opportunities, visit family and friends, babysit my nephews, move house and live my life the way I want to.

At the beginning of our training, his trainer described him as such a genuine dog, and that has always been a good description. He’s gentle, affectionate, giddy, clever and charming. He’s obsessed with food, still walks to the left of everything, wags his tail the minute you speak to him, loves barking, loves poking people with his nose to get attention, enjoys swimming, getting groomed, playing fetch and play biting, loves his bed, and adores curling up as close to the fire as he can get until he nearly goes on fire himself.

 

OJ is my favourite dog in the world. I wish I could have him forever. His puppywalkers gave him such an amazing start for the first year of his life. I’m so lucky that his trainer persevered with his high body sensitivity and got him through the training at just seventeen months old. Other trainers might not have been so determined. I’m so grateful that she trained him, and even more grateful that she matched him with me.

 

 

Ten years of blogging

It’s hard to believe that in August I’ll have been a guide dog owner for ten years, and have been blogging for the same length of time. Over the next few weeks I’m going to share some links to some of my favourite posts on
Twitter
so anyone who follows me there will see them. It’s been fun looking back over the blog and being reminded of all the things we did, how busy we were at different times over the last ten years, and how much OJ really did change my life. Thankfully I’ve become a lot better at writing since those first few months!

What a weekend!

Clearly the wordpress app on my phone doesn’t work. I attempted to write a quick post while I was away last weekend but it didn’t work. I can’t remember exactly what that post was supposed to say, so I’ll just write about the great weekend we had instead.

My family went to Donegal town (which is only about 90 minutes from where we live) to stay for the weekend. Friday was my nephew’s first birthday, and it turned out we had a lot to celebrate. I’d been very busy with work all week, but made sure to take Sibyl for a long walk and a couple of runs in the good weather. She went to a new groomer on Thursday, and she came back feeling and smelling lovely. The groomer insisted on doing the job free, which was really nice of her.
We had a relaxing weekend walking, eating and playing lots of board games because there weren’t many channels on the television which was great. I wish we had weekends like this more often. One of my nephews missed a lot of the weekend because he was playing football in a friendship cup, and he played really well.

The main reason why we stayed only 90 minutes from our home for the weekend was that we were all attending an award ceremony last Saturday evening. I was nominated in February for a ten outstanding young person (TOYP) award from Junior Chamber International (JCI) which is ultimately a world-wide event. I attended the awards ceremony in Donegal at the end of March, and it was a fantastic night. Everyone was so nice, and all the speakers were so humble. Three weeks ago I got an email to tell me that I was chosen as one of the three award winners from Donegal, and one of ten overall winners to be awarded at the ceremony organised by JCI Ireland in Harvey’s point. The hotel is located three minutes drive from the house I rented for my family, and we cecided to make the most of the opportunity.

After a nice walk and lunch, I met the other JCI members at the hotel where we drove to a mountain called Sleeve League for a bit of a climb. Only three of the winners were able to attend. I was nervous because I didn’t really know anybody, but everyone was so welcoming and friendly, and helped Sibyl and myself to climb part of the mountain, before it rained and we were all absolutely soaked! We came back to the hotel like a bus load of drowned rats. We had an hour and a half to get ready, and my sister was her usual brilliant self at helping with this!

The award ceremony was so enjoyable, with inspiring speeches, amazing food, great company and lots and lots of fun. It was hosted by John Loughton, who was perfect for the job. He’s also very inspiring, and definitely worth listening to if you have a chance to hear his Tedx talk online. Each awardee had a different reason to be nominated, whether it was for business, humanitarian work, or personal accomplishment like mine was. They were all very inspiring,, and whoever is chosen to represent Ireland in Amsterdam will be a worthy choice.

Sibyl behaved like an absolute superstar during the whole event. and so many people were commenting on how good she was. Even I was surprised! Do you ever have one of those times when your guide dog just does it’s job to perfection? They don’t happen often here, but that was one of those days. Even after climbing part of a hill, she was still determined to make me proud!

I was genuinely so surprised to be nominated for an award like this, never mind win an Ireland one. Two friends who I don’t see very often took the time to nominate me, which I really appreciate, even though awards like this terrify me and I was so nervous all week. I just do what I do, and I don’t think it’s anything special or unique. I feel like I got an award for doing nothing! Just being myself. And that’s not hard. But it was really such a special day that I won’t forget in a hurry.

Here’s my unplanned and very nervous speech from Saturday, which was filmed by JCI. The other speeches are on their website too.

How Home Sweet Home helped me

On 16th December, I went with my cousin Laura to see Glen Hansard play in the Guildhall in Derry. I decided to call it my staff night out. Recently setting up my own business and becoming self-employed means that staff nights out are a thing of the past. Glen was accompanied by a group of musicians playing strings and piano. It was great to hear a few Leonard Cohen covers among the variety of songs from his two solo albums. The music was relaxed, but I felt that there was something different about Glen’s performance. It was passionate and emotional, but it was like there was something else. I can’t explain.

Four weeks later, Laura and I were lucky enough to be two of 180 people in the audience at Seamus Heaney HomePlace for a solo concert that Glen played there. Other than to say it was really special, in the smallest music venue I’ve ever seen him play, I can’t describe it. Hearing Glen read poetry between songs in the hometown of a poet he really admires seemed to be a privilege for him. For me, it was the perfect venue to bring my guide dog Sibyl to her first ever gig, and she behaved well. It was nice to say hi to Glen after, as well as meeting some Frames friends I hadn’t seen in a while.

The second concert, (which was definitely the better of the two) was a more relaxed performance, but there was a good reason for that. The same night that Glen played in Derry in December, he featured on the Late Late show. He sounded nervous and frustrated. He didn’t speak for long, but that was our introduction to Apollo House and the Home Sweet Home campaign. This involved a group of people occupying a vacant office block in Dublin city centre, and providing accommodation for homeless people who would otherwise probably have spent Christmas on the streets. The group left the building on January 12th in compliance with an order from the high court. During their time there, almost 90 people stayed and moved on to six-month supported accommodation where they can live comfortably and feel safe. In my opinion, this was the best thing to happen in Ireland since the marriage equality referendum. It showed how powerful people can be if they work together. Each person’s small part can make a big difference.

So why am I writing about Home Sweet Home now? The answer is that I don’t really know, other than the fact that I’ve been thinking about it very often since before Christmas. It’s very easy to ignore a problem if you can’t identify with it or have no experience of it. It’s easy to say things like, that will never affect me. That’s only a city problem. People who end up in that situation got themselves there or didn’t try hard enough to get out of it. People with addictions can’t be helped. There are enough beds for people who are homeless, why don’t they just be grateful and take them? Of course the real story of homelessness is much different and much more complex than that. The Home Sweet Home campaign told the stories of some of the people living through these experiences. It made them more real. It made us listen and pay more attention. Our government are being put under more pressure to actually do something about the housing crisis, and the people of Ireland aren’t going to stand and do nothing any longer. This campaign won’t be going away any time soon.

Glen Hansard was only one of many activists who supported the Home Sweet Home idea, and he was always very clear about that when he spoke about it. Homelessness is a cause that he’s been involved in for a long time before this campaign even existed. It was never done for publicity, like some people who have done nothing better themselves have been suggesting. Through his music, he was able to promote an idea and a message, and encourage other people to give their support. For someone like me who loves music and was going to the gigs anyway, he really helped capture my attention in a way that other people or the government certainly wouldn’t have. Music can be very powerful! When you’ve been watching someone perform and hearing them talk about music for the last fifteen years, you have an idea of the kind of person they are, and sincerity is a big thing for me when it comes to charity. That’s something so many people in Ireland, even some who are employed in charities lack.

I’ve been frustrated that I couldn’t do much to help with Home Sweet Home during the last month, apart from offering to volunteer if a suitable opportunity came up. However the whole thing has made me realise that there’s much more I could and should be doing to volunteer and help others in general. Even small one off things could help make a difference. Being blind definitely makes it more difficult to go where you want spontaneously, and to help people with things in the same way that sighted people can. When you are blind, you are often the one who needs help, and automatically are linked to specific charities and organisations. That can be frustrating, but it can’t be my excuse. I want to do more to open my mind and benefit others. I have no idea exactly what yet. I just know that this is something I’ve intended doing for a long time, and Home Sweet Home has given me the push that I needed.

When my family and I left Phuket Island in December 2004 to travel to the airport after being caught up in the tsunami, I remember feeling guilty. I knew I was lucky to be safe and to be alive, but I felt bad for escaping and leaving the people behind. Their lives and their town was destroyed. They’d been so good to us, helping us to get out of there, and we were leaving the country and leaving them to sort their lives out. I know there’s nothing we could have done right at that time, but that day changed something in me that I’ve never bothered to properly explore. I’ve always had a gnawing feeling that I should be doing more, because I know I’ve had such a lucky easy life compared to many people. So this is it. This is the year. I have no idea what I will become involved in, but I do know that the Home Sweet Home campaign and the events that took place in Apollo House over Christmas and New Year have made an impact on me in a way that I really wasn’t expecting.

Where Did July Go?

I’ve been writing this blog since August 2007, and I’m almost sure I’ve posted something at least once a month every month since then. I know that’s not many posts in nine years, but the point I’m making is that I never missed a month. Until now! Disgraceful! I did think about this during July, but never sat down to write, so here’s a summery of what I’ve been up to.

In January this year I became a volunteer with the local Foroige club in our town. I help out with the junior group on a Monday night, and the children are between the ages of ten and thirteen years old. Everybody was very welcoming right from the beginning, but I feel like it has taken me a while to really find my feet, and learn how I can be a help to the children. On second July we spent the day in Dublin at the citizenship awards, because our group had entered a project that they had been working on throughout the year. It was a long and busy day, with lots of noise and food around to distract Sibyl. She was quite sniffy and tried to eat sweets from the ground a lot, which is something we have to work on preventing. Apart from that she was good. The kids won an award for their project, so they all went home happy.

The following Saturday I travelled to Dublin again, without Sibyl this time. Myself and my five best friends went to see Beyoncé in Croke Park, which was a present for one of the girl’s 30th birthdays. I’m not a fan of Beyoncé at all, and honestly didn’t even know how to spell her name properly until we were getting the tickets!! The weather was beautiful, I had bought some new clothes, and we all rarely get a chance to meet up without partners or children anymore, so I was happy enough to be there. While a few of us waited for a taxi or bus to the stadium after dinner, a rickshaw drove passed, and I was so excited when the driver said he could take us there. It was such a fun journey, and I hadn’t laughed so much in a while. I said that even if the concert was rubbish, it was worth it for the journey there.
The concert wasn’t as bad as I thought. Beyoncé’s voice was amazing, and she seemed very humble and genuine, not what I was expecting. It was a very visual performance with lots of costume changes. Videos were shown each time she went off stage, which I didn’t really appreciate, and she played bits of some songs, without doing the full thing, which I found annoying. It definitely was better than I expected, but I wouldn’t go to see her again.

I had the next weekend free, which I used to finish a big transcribing job which I’d been working on for almost two months. It was really enjoyable and I learned a lot.
The following weekend Sibyl and I, along with my parents travelled to Liverpool, where we met Nicky and went to a wedding. It was very different from weddings we’d have at home, but it was good fun and the weather was amazing. I had a chance to meet a friend I hadn’t seen in a few years, and meet her new baby for the first time. We also used the trip as an opportunity to spend a few days in Wales, as Nicky had a friend there who he’d been promising to visit for a long time. I’d never been to wales before, but I definitely want to go back. We spent a few days with lovely friendly people, who I liked as soon as I met them. We went to Hereford to meet other friends and their new guide dogs, which Sibyl loved. We went to a seaside town called Barry and had the nicest fish and chips ever! The children walked Sibyl and bought us two mugs to keep as suveneers. We had drinks sitting outside a pub which had blankets if we got cold. We were spoiled and looked after so well. Hopefully I can return the favour if they come to Ireland next year. Sibyl wasn’t there long enough to really learn her way around, but it was useful to have her, especially in the airport on the way home, when Nicky walked with the assistant and we followed behind. By the time we had landed in Belfast, Sibyl had been to seven different airports, which isn’t bad considering that she went on her first holiday almost exactly one year ago. I wonder how many she’ll have been in by the time she retires?

Of course when you come back from holiday, life just goes back to normal, or what seems to be normal in O.J’s world anyway. We collected him from the vet on Thursday after he had another lump removed. I think this is his forth. I’ve lost count. This one was under his tail, and the vet didn’t like the look of it as soon as he saw it. It might be nothing, but he said that if they left it and it grew bigger, removing it could make him incontinent. That would obviously be a nightmare, so removing it was the better option. He had a cone to stop him from itching it, but it was annoying him so we took it off after a couple of days. He’s eating and going for walks and seems lively and happy. It’s the quickest I’ve ever seen him recover from anything before. The fact that he’s so fit really does make a difference.

So there it is, my July update, which could have been made into three or four well written posts if I took the time to write them.

Birthday Celebrations In Belfast!

I know, you’re thinking when is this birthday thing ever going to end? It’s not every year you turn 30, so you might as well make the most of it.
My five best friends went together and gave me a brilliant thoughtful present that they knew I’d love, and that I’ve been looking forward to since February.

Last Friday Nicky and I took buses from Dublin and Derry and met up in Belfast for a weekend in Benedicts hotel. It’s one of my favourite hotels ever, with helpful friendly staff and a great welcome for guide dogs. I’m always impressed by the bowl and bed for the dog in the room, and this time the receptionist who showed us to our room said that if the dog liked the bed, the manager said I could keep it because they have lots!
We ate dinner in Made in Belfast in the Cathedral Quarter. I absolutely love this place! Again the staff were amazing, particularly the man working at our table who could not have been more helpful. When I thanked him at the end, he said he was only doing his job! The steak was lovely, and I really wanted dessert but I was too full up to even attempt it.

On Saturday morning after a lovely breakfas,t we got a taxi to the Victoria shopping centre so Nicky could go to the apple store. After he bought a charger and we asked about a couple of products, we found a Costa coffee to pass a bit of time. A staff member brought us to a nice seating area and came back to take our order. This was nicer than standing at a busy counter, trying to keep Sibyl away from food and low tables of nice smelling things. When he brought the coffee and muffins, he would only take £2 from me, saying that he wanted to give us our drinks free, and that I could use my money to buy something for the dog instead! People are so nice.

Along with our hotel, my friends booked us tickets to do the Titanic tour in the Titanic
exhibition centre. It’s not something I’ve really thought much about doing, but after living in Belfast for three years and doing nothing cultural at all, it was about time I did something. When we went inside the huge building, the first person we met was Stevie. It turned out that he would spend most of the next two and a half hours with us, doing much more than his job required him too. We had tickets for the longer tour inside the building, as aposed to the shorter discovery tour which takes place outside and is accompanied by a tour guide. At first we thought this might be a better option since we had no guide, but it turned out that the other one that we did was much better and really informative and interesting. We wore headphones which gave us short audio described pieces at different stages of the exhibition. There were also some videos we could listen to as we walked around. Obviously it was very visual, so there were bits we missed out on, but the audio was a great addition. There was a great variety of things to experience, including a short cablecar type ride that you went on to experience the sounds, the heat and the working conditions of the people who worked in Belfast during the building of the Titanic. There were a few seats along the way, and we watched a short film in the cinema towards the end of the tour. It is very well put together, with lots of things to entertain children if you had them with you. The staff are helpful and really know their jobs well.
The fact that we had nobody with us, and there was no tour guide inside made it a bit more difficult to know exactly what direction to follow on each floor. The staff kept an eye out for us, and Stevie was practically there for most of it. He took lots of time talking, explaining and describing things, as well as sneaking lots of pets of Sibyl along the way. She was very patient throughout the afternoon.

When we finished the tour, Stevie brought us to the carpark to wait on our taxi back to the hotel. The only small downside of the weekend happened when it came, and the driver said he didn’t have to take the dog because even though he worked for a particular company, he was driving his own private car. We asked him if he would call us another taxi then. When he did, and told his colleague that he didn’t want to take “a big animal”, they obviously told him who was boss, because he quickly changed his mind and said he’d take us. We didn’t speak on the way back, and I was careful that Sibyl didn’t put her face or head anywhere near him. He was helpful with his directions when we got out of the car, and we weren’t expecting that.
We met a friend for dinner in a lovely Italian restaurant, had a couple of drinks in the hotel bar and all sat chatting in our room for a while before she went home.

We didn’t stay around Belfast long after breakfast on Sunday. It was frustrating not really knowing my way around much, because the weather was great and I’d have like to have walked more with Sibyl. There is a park with grrass close to the hotel, and it took a bit of practice for Sibyl to find the lights, even though it wasn’t too complicated at all. The location of the lights are different in Northern Ireland. They aren’t very consistent which is annoying. Sibyl wasn’t trained to locate the button like O.J was, but I’m teaching her how to do it because it’s very useful. This weekend reminded me that I need to find reasons to go to Derry regularly and practice this with her. Our town just isn’t busy enough.

So there’s just one other birthday celebration to go. That is the Bruce Springsteen ticket I managed to find and by for myself. Because of course you should always buy yourself a present too, right?! The concert is this weekend, and to say I’m excited is an understatement!!

This was a good week!

There are a few reasons why the last week has been really good.
I love trying new things, and I got to do a couple of them this week, which were unplanned, not part of the 30 challenges, but still good fun!

My two younger nephews were off school last week so I told them I’d make them lunch and take them to the cinema. My PA drove us to Derry and left us off there. The road where the bus lets people off would be too dangerous to bring a dog and two small boys. They were so excited that Sibyl was coming too, even though they’ve been to the cinema with her before. We went to see the Jungle Book, mostly because I wanted to see it myself, if I’m honest. Anything with animals, and especially the fact that I knew the story so well made it seem like a good choice. We got treats and drinks and sat down to watch it in 3D. A man who worked in the cinema came over to ask if I wanted earphones for the audio description. I’ve never used it in the cinema before, and didn’t actually know that the Moviebowl cinema had it, as it’s not very well advertised. I was glad of it because the film was so visual. I was able to adjust the volume separately in both ears so that I could hear the boys to my right and hear the film louder in my left ear. Every ten minutes one of them would say, ‘what’s she saying now? What’s she telling you now?’ It was very funny. I must remember to ask for them next time I go, although every film is not audio described. If I didn’t have Sibyl with me, they probably wouldn’t have noticed that I was blind and wouldn’t have offered them.

The weather has been lovely, so I’ve been doing lots of walking and Sibyl has been doing lots of free running. Tuesday morning was really warm, and when I went to yoga, the teacher (who is my aunt) told us that she was doing the class outside. It was really strange for the first few minutes, being on the grass, listening to the birds and the sea. Most of the things we did felt different, but it was really enjoyable. We actually had to go inside for the last 15 minutes because it was so warm.

In between the walks and enjoying the good weather, I’ve been busy transcribing. I get nothing for a while and then everything comes at once. I could have a potentially big project coming up soon, so hopefully it will all work out, and I’ll be very happy.

The best part of the week was my new nephew being born yesterday morning. Everything went well, and he’s a gorgeous healthy little boy, with three big brothers to look after him. I’m looking forward to getting lots of cuddles in the next few days, especially when he comes home.

Darkness into Light 2016

This morning at 4:15 A.M, I took part in the first darkness into light walk ever to be held in our town. For anybody who doesn’t know, DIL is an annual fundraising event to raise money and awareness for Pieta house, the centre for the prevention of suicide and self-harm. The walk from darkness into light simbolises the hope that pieta house brings to the people who might need it’s services. The first walk took place in the Phoenix Park in Dublin in 2009, with a few hundred people taking part. This year walks took place in almost 180 venues around Ireland, as well as in other countries around the world. It is amazing how such a simple idea can be such a success.

I went to bed early but couldn’t really sleep. I gave up and got up and had a shower at 3 A.M! I felt wide awake, and Sibyl was too. Dougal had the sense to know that it was the middle of the night, but Sibyl was full of life so I brought her for the walk with me. I went with my mum and my three aunts. It was a very mild night, not cold like I had expected. We joined over 400 other people at the local secondary school and began the 5K walk in the dark at 4:15. The event was very well organised, with lights along the way. We brought torches, but weren’t as prepared as the people who had lights on their pet dog’s collar. We’ll have to do that next year! I kept forgetting it was so dark because obviously I didn’t really notice. I found it funny when people didn’t recognise each other, and didn’t recognise voices when people said hi as they walked past. It was all very normal for me. The route was very well chosen, and we had to walk along the beach for part of it, which I loved. We came back to where we started just before 5:15, as it was gradually starting to get bright. The birds were singing, and the atmosphere was very special.

There was tea and refreshments in the school for people who had taken part in the walk, but it was very busy, so we went to my aunt’s house and had a lovely breakfast and a chat. I came home at 7 and fed Sibyl, who went to her bed as quickly as she could. I think she had the right idea!

Easter!

I spent Easter in Carlow this year for the first time, and we had a busy enjoyable week.

Sibyl and I travelled to Carlow on Holy Thursday. After dinner she stayed with Nicky while I went out with a group of girls to a table quiz. I didn’t know most of them, but it was good fun. We came second in the quiz, although I wasn’t much use! Apart from the music round, one of the only questions I could answer was how many toes does a dog have!!

On Friday evening Sibyl had her first experience of going to the theatre. She had visited the pet shop and done a lot of walking earlier in the day so she just slept through the show. She was very relaxed, unlike us humans. The play was called ‘the corner boys’, written by John McKenna, and it was not something I would recommend at all. It was based in the 1960’s. I don’t really know what the point of it was to be honest. I’m not easily offended, but the language and sexual references was absolutely disgusting. I’m just glad we were with Nicky’s mother and not mine!

During the next few days we went out for dinner, walked around town and started listening to two different audiobooks and finished neither of them. We drank lots of tea and ate chocolate too of course. On Tuesday we went to Wicklow to spend a couple of nights in the summerhill house hotel, which was Nicky’s birthday present to me. We had to wait for over an hour in Dublin for a bus to Enniskerry, and Sibyl was much more patient than I was. The bus driver drove us as close to it as he could, and asked a helpful girl to walk us the rest of the way. The hotel was in a lovely location, and it is very popular for weddings. We had dinner there, but it was very quiet and there wasn’t much of an atmosphere. Thankfully the next day was better, the staff were friendly and helpful, and there was more life around the place. We even met a small dog who was there for a photoshoot! We had a lovely massage in the spa beside the hotel, and walked down to the small village for lunch. It can be a bit of a challenge just going on people’s directions, with only one dog to guide us, but Sibyl was so confident. She knew her way back better than we did, and brought us a shorter way home. We had to ask for directions twice because we thought she was going wrong, but if we had gone with her both times, we would have been right. She worked well when we returned to Dublin the following afternoon, even though she had no idea where she was going. She worked hard during the last week, and a good free run is long overdue, so hopefully we’ll do that tomorrow.

When we were in Wicklow, I went to Bray for the first time. It’s somewhere I’ve heard lots about, and have always wanted to walk by the sea there because it sounds lovely, but that wasn’t possible. We went for a Chinese there on the Wednesday night, and met a friend on Thursday before getting the Dart back to Dublin. He has a beautiful golden retriever guide dog called York, who just wanted to play with Sibyl when we were having coffee. She also met Clipper the guide dog later in Dublin, and although she loved seeing both of them, she was surprisingly calm and sensible. We had a nice afternoon in Dublin before getting the bus. The journey seemed long, and I’ve honestly never seen a dog so glad to see it’s own bed when we got home.

Before typing this, I listened to the live broadcast of the ‘imagining home’ concert from the National Concert Hall in Dublin, hosted by Glen Hansard as part of the 1916 commemorations. I really wish I’d gone to it. It sounded like a brilliant night, with some really special performances. Hopefully it is online to listen back to on the
RTE Radio 1 website. I would definitely recommend it.

Visiting Poland With a Guide Dog

On the evening of my birthday, after eating a lovely dinner at home with my family, they gave me my present, which I wasn’t expecting. They gave me a three-day trip to Poland with my mother and sister. They put a lot of thought into it, booking a pet friendly hotel in Krakow encase I wanted to bring Sibyl. They even researched music events that I might like. Glen Hansard is playing there this week, but a Wednesday was too mid-week for us to travel. They are so thoughtful though!

We flew out on Thursday 25th, a week after my birthday. I didn’t have much time to plan since we were busy in between, but I did a bit of research about guide dogs in Poland on the Sunday and Monday before we went. I discovered that although they like dogs, their guide dog school is quite new, and when I contacted them, nobody replied to my email. People told me that access shouldn’t be much of a problem, and through Torie’s help, I found a couple of people on a guide dog Facebook group who had traveled there with dogs. Sibyl’s passport was already sorted from our holiday in Spain last year. As we were only spending three nights in Poland, we didn’t need to bring her to a vet there, so this made the decision to bring her much easier.

When we arrived in Belfast international airport, the staff couldn’t have been more helpful. They checked the pet passport thoroughly, and one of the ladies took Sibyl out to the grass before we boarded the plain. They told us that she was the sixth guide dog they’d had through the airport that week. The flight was great, and staff in Krakow airport didn’t seem bothered by the dog when we landed. The hotel staff liked her as well, and made us feel very welcome. The general public were a bit more surprised to see a guide dog, and stared at us a lot. People often walked close to us, or didn’t make an effort to move out of our way. I wouldn’t say they were ignorant, just curious and uneducated about guide dogs.

During the next two days we did lots of walking and sightseeing. We took a bus to visit Auschwitz, which was very interesting. The photographs and objects behind glass made it very visual, but hearing people reading information and the accounts from survivors was fascinating.
We walked around the streets, had lovely food, coffee and hot chocolate, and went into some shops. We had dinner in three very nice restaurants. The food was so cheap, and they all offered Sibyl water when we came in. On Saturday we took a tour of the old town where we were staying. Our tour guide had great English, and he drove us around in a buggy type thing. Sibyl enjoyed looking out, and especially liked watching the horses and carriages. The place was full of them! We stopped at a church which took sixty years to build. The tour guide told us to go in and have a look because it was beautiful, but that he would watch Sibyl because dogs aren’t allowed in any churches in Poland. Pity we didn’t know this before, because it would explain why a security man in St. Mary’s bascilica nearly lost his life when we went in on Thursday evening. He said we could stay for one minute only, but he would only let us walk so far. I’d love to know more about the reasoning behind this. I wouldn’t have thought Catholics would turn animals away, especially dogs that help people. I doubt God would agree!

Sibyl was brilliant with all the traveling, all the walking around, and being out of her usual routine. She is very nosey, and had more than enough distractions in the city. I took sighted guide a lot because it was difficult to follow at times. It was probably more difficult for my mum and sister having her there. Apart from giving me more independence, and initiating conversations with people that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have had, it confirmed something that I already thought, how adaptable Sibyl is, and that I can bring her to new places very easily. I wouldn’t visit Poland without a sighted person. There are lots of flat kerbs, and not many obvious crossings. I didn’t hear any audible ones. The people are a bit reserved until they get to know you. I know that’s a big generalisation, but it would make getting around as a blind person more difficult. I’m glad I took Sibyl, and the trip made me want to travel more with her. I’d like to learn more about guide dog organisations in other countries, and find out what access is like. Apart from the church, and the constant staring, (which obviously I didn’t notice), Poland was quite good. I’m sure the more people who visit cities like Krakow with guide dogs, the better it will become.

I completed two of my 30 challenges while I was in Poland. I visited a city that I’ve never been to before, and I tasted dumplings, a traditional food which I hadn’t eaten. Only 28 more things to do!