by Sandra Sermons
As I departed for Madrid, Spain, I really did not quite know what to expect. While I have traveled abroad extensively, I have never traveled with a group of people. In addition to that were the usual worries one would experience on the inaugural trip: "How will this trip turn out? Will people want to go on other ACB/RoadScholar trips?" As the chair of international relations committee, I suppose there was a great deal of anxiety on my part, as I wanted everything to turn out well. So off I went to Baltimore-Washington International Airport. I was quite surprised to learn that on my flight were three other participants of the trip, Oral Miller, Denise Decker, and Margarine Beaman.
The trip really began with our touchdown at Barajas Airport on Sunday morning, April 22, at 7:00. I was very pleasantly surprised by the fact that the RoadScholar group leader was waiting for us at baggage claim. We were transported by bus to the hotel (Confortel, a hotel owned by ONCE), which was amazing. There were braille labels everywhere, including on the shampoo and lotions.
On Monday, April 23, we began with a walking tour from the Puerta Del Sol square to the heart of old Madrid and the Plaza Mayor, a legacy of the Hapsburgs and considered to be the capital's finest piece of architecture. It was a wonderful way to get a flavor of Madrid. We also passed the National Palace, which is also a major tourist attraction. That afternoon, we were able to participate in a hands-on preparation of Spanish cuisine. The empanadas and paella were truly flavorful. The facilitator of the cooking demonstration (Gabriella) did an incredible job of describing what she was doing, including passing around some of the cooking utensils.
Tuesday, April 24 was a highlight. We visited the headquarters of ONCE, which is the national organization of the blind in Spain. ONCE is an extremely comprehensive organization. They provide such services as orientation and mobility, itinerant teachers for children who are blind, braille instruction, as well as the production of braille, employment readiness, cultural events and much, much more. Speaking of braille production, ONCE has several high-speed braille embossers. They produce everything from children's books, textbooks, and braille maps to leisure magazines. With the production of texts and technical manuals, I would like to focus on two aspects. First of all, they put a great deal of emphasis on children's books. Not only are they in braille, but they also have wonderful tactile reproductions. All types of materials are employed for the purpose. In addition, they are very colorful. They are really works of art and I for one wish that I had had such books as a child. In addition to their wonderful children's books are the braille maps. They produce extremely high quality with accurate representations of such things as rivers and mountains. However, these maps produced with ease and speed and are very common. Clearly, there is an emphasis on people who are blind or who have low vision learning such things as geography. We received some of these maps as gifts.
After the overview was a trip to ONCE's museum. In this museum, there were extremely accurate and detailed replicas of some of the world's most important monuments, including the Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty. In addition, there were instruments which have been used by musicians who are blind. The replicas were done so well that I could actually picture these places in my mind. You could spend a week in this museum and still never get bored. The National Building Museum pales in comparison to this wonderful place.
Throughout these experiences, we met several representatives from ONCE. All of them were extremely gracious and did an excellent job of describing ONCE and its various components.
Another memorable experience was visiting ONCE's guide dog foundation. Here, as previously mentioned, ONCE does everything from breeding dogs to the actual training. At one point, we were introduced to some puppies. These puppies were lovable, well fed, and most of all very clean. We even got to test a guide dog in training; his name was Neptune. He was quite good. We went through an obstacle course, and for the first time, I was able to experience using a guide dog. I think that Neptune will make an incredible guide dog for some lucky handler.
I could really go on for several pages, but I think I'll stop here. Suffice it to say that it was wonderful. From the flamenco dancing to the Tunas (troubadours), we received a comprehensive overview of life in Madrid. The food, while different, was very good (even the gazpacho, which is cold soup). It was an experience of a lifetime. I hope that all of you will join the international relations committee on one of our trips in the future.