Two years ago this month, I set out from Central Florida with four other team members to Central Taiwan to take part in the Rotary International’s Group Study Exchange program. While I learned many things from our Taiwanese hosts, I gained an exceptionally unique perspective by traveling with one of my GSE teammates, Kyle Coon.
Kyle Coon is an accomplished athlete and adventure sportsman. Determined to live a life without limits, this young buck takes on new challenges – such as triathlons and mountain climbing – with gusto and grit. Kyle also happens to be blind.
On one of the very first days in Taiwan, my GSE Team took a tour of the Wann Ying Art Garden in Changhua County. The sun was radiant on that blue-sky day, and our group strolled through the park admiring the natural scenery. But I don’t remember that day for the greenery. I remember watching Kyle interact with his surroundings – the way he touched the bonsai trees and followed their twisted branches to the leaves; the way he ran his hands over the giant stones, measuring the scope of the rocky behemoths; the way he traced the sculptures with his fingertips ever so lightly, searching for minute details in the carvings. That day I was shown a completely new way to approach my travel experiences, and it’s one I’ll never forget.
Traveling around Taiwan with Kyle really opened my eyes to experiencing a destination differently (no pun intended). To mark the upcoming anniversary of our 2015 GSE Trip, I invited Kyle to share his perspective on Taiwan, international travel, and living a life without limits.
AN INTERVIEW WITH KYLE COON
Hey Kyle, thanks for joining Global Heartbeat! Will you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sure! I lost my sight at six years old due to a rare form of childhood cancer, called Retinoblastoma. Afterwards, I met Erik Weihenmayer, a world-class blind adventurer who encouraged me to live my life to the fullest extent possible. Inspired by such a great man, I became a rock climber, downhill skier, tandem cyclist, wrestler, triathlete and world traveler.
Where in the world have you been? And what took you there?
Most of my travel experiences have been within the USA. To date, I’ve been to more than 30 of the 50 states. Outside of the country, I’ve been to London for a family vacation, Peru for community service projects and to hike the Ankascocha Trail into Machu Picchu, Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and Taiwan with the Rotary Club’s GSE Program.
How do you prepare for international travel?
Before an international trip, I usually do some research on fun things to do while I’m in that country. I like to try and do a few “touristy” things, but I really prefer to find people and places that are off the beaten path, places that give a real semblance of that country or the culture in the region I’m visiting.
For example, on my trip to Peru, my team and I helped paint a local schoolhouse one day. While our painting efforts were successful, we had even more fun playing soccer with a group of 10- and 11-year-old Peruvian mountain kids… we lost spectacularly. Again in Tanzania, my team and I spent two or three days with 15-20 Tanzanian students. They taught us some of their language, showed us traditional dances, cooked traditional foods for us, and gave us great insight about themselves and their culture.
Another thing that I always do before an international trip is check into the laws regarding guide/service dogs and learn what kind of paperwork it would take to bring my Seeing Eye® dog along with me. More often than not the paperwork is too much of a headache to handle on top of all of the other travel considerations. So, I usually end up leaving my furry companion with a family member.
How would you advise sighted travelers to experience a new place as you might?
My biggest advice would be to simply take some time to focus on your other senses with sincere intent. Find a place, close your eyes and just open up your other senses. Be still and listen. Reach out and touch. Try to taste the local cuisine without looking at it first. Sometimes, it can be overwhelming to not have your sight, but from that chaos comes something new and beautiful.
What is the greatest challenge to traveling without sight in a new country?
I would say that the greatest challenge to traveling without sight in a new/different country is the language barrier. My impression is that as a sighted person, you can find English written on signs, menus, etc. here and there. Also, if you’re having trouble speaking with a native, you have ways of communicating via some form of sign language. For this reason, it can be tough as a blind person because I typically have to have someone I trust travel with me to help me out with things like the local currency and in-country travel arrangements.
However, I would like to experience traveling to another country all on my own at some point. I think it would be a unique and very interesting challenge – a grand adventure, to be sure!
And what is the greatest reward?
There are tons of great rewards to traveling in general – whether you’re blind or sighted. For me, the shared experiences I’ve had with the people I’m with have been the greatest rewards. When I spent a couple of weeks in Peru, that shared experience with my fellow travelmates is what spearheaded our efforts to travel the very next year to Tanzania. Likewise, Hailey, I think I got the most out of our trip to Taiwan as a result of our shared team experiences in that amazing country.
Speaking of Taiwan, when you think back on our trip two years ago this month, what comes to your mind?
What first comes to mind is how incredibly busy we were. We certainly did a lot! But in spite of our full days, my most memorable moments were the times I spent with our host families. I really enjoyed staying with local families, especially one family that included a couple of kids who were close to my age. We got along extremely well, and they made me feel welcomed and relaxed. All of our hosts were extremely hospitable, which defined our travel experience.
While we joined many a Rotary Meeting over the month, we visited local businesses and saw many attractions around central Taiwan. What was the most impactful activity to you?
Hmmm…That’s a tough one, as we did some really cool things. One of my favorite days happened in our first week of the trip. You, Barry (our Rotarian team leader), and I were with our host families in Yuanlin and we took a long walk through the mountain villages, surrounded by pineapple farms. I actually shared about this day on our GSE team blog, Reporting for Rotary:
We explored the area stopping to talk and sample the delicious treats the vendors were selling. We tried cakes, jellies, pastries… Drunk/eaten/slurped on a warm day, [it all] was extremely refreshing.
We spent several minutes playing/attempting to be acrobats at an open air jungle-gym. More accurately, Rotarian host A-Lin showed off his skills and we all failed to replicate him. I hope I’m half as strong and in shape as he is when I’m 65. (Hailey’s inner child made a special appearance, too…)
[At SunnyHills Farm,] pineapple cake and pineapple juice is given out to everyone—for free—every day of the week. My host, Morn Sun, told us that more than 10,000 pineapple cakes and cups of pineapple juice are given out every day. It seems as though many Taiwanese business owners are very generous and believe in the “Give to receive” principle. We experienced this even more when we walked through yet another market in town and were constantly being given small samples of the goods to try. From goat milk candy, to organic fruits and vegetables, to various kinds of tea, the vendors enjoyed sharing their goods and speaking to us.
I know we’ve said it before, but the people here are so welcoming and laid back… We can hardly turn a corner, or go a minute without making a new friend.
Yes, that was a lovely day – with lots of yummy bites, too! From your perspective and experience, how would you describe the culinary culture of Taiwan?
Oh boy! The food in Taiwan was definitely something else. The sheer volume of food we had at each meal was a bit overwhelming. There were so many dishes that tasted amazing, but there are some that I don’t particularly want to ever have again, such as animal testicle or shark fin soup – for personal preference and ethical reasons respectively.
Before I went to Taiwan, I was an extremely picky eater; in particular, I was extremely hesitant to eat seafood and salad. So, one of my biggest goals in Taiwan was to try as many different dishes as possible in hopes of coming home with a more refined palate. I most certainly did that! Actually, tasting so many new flavors on the Asian island has helped me enjoy many more foods here in the USA.
I will say, though, that every time I have a piece of fruit here in the US, I compare it to the memories I have of the fruit in Taiwan…There’s simply no comparison! Taiwan had much better fruit, especially their pineapple and watermelon.
So, where are you and your refined palette now, and what are you up to these days?
Currently, I live in a small town called Carbondale, Colorado, which is about 25 miles down the valley from Aspen. I’m doing a lot of freelance writing work as well as focusing on improving my athletic performance in running and triathlons. At heart, I’m an adventure athlete and I look forward to continuing refining my adventure athlete skills from downhill skiing to rock climbing, to trail running to mountaineering, whitewater kayaking/rafting/canoeing, etc.
Right now, I am finishing up my ski season to focus on training for the Boston Marathon. I’m super excited about this trip, as I’ll be doing quite a bit of exploring for a couple of days before the race!
Images provided by Kyle Coon.
What is at the top of your Travel Bucket List?
That’s a really tough one! On the one hand, I’d really like to travel even more within the U.S. For example, rock climbing in Yosemite National Park has been a dream of mine since I was a little kid, and Alaska is a frontier I’d really like to explore. On an international level, I think I’d like to head back to Europe and travel from country to country. I’d love the opportunity to climb and hike there, as well as learn more about the history of Europe. Deep Water Soloing in Mallorca, Spain and Thailand are definitely way up on my list of things to do, too!
I have no doubt that Kyle’s daring travel goals will remain a dream for too long. Kyle Coon is certainly living life to the fullest and taking on incredible challenges every day. My life was enriched by having him as a teammate and travel companion in Taiwan, and I’m thankful to have such an inspiring friend.
Do you have any questions for Kyle? If so, leave a comment below!