Maribel Steel is a published author, writer and inspirational speaker. She is legally blind and loves to travel using a white cane with bike bell attached. Currently she writes about vision loss for Verywell network and VisionAware (American Foundation for the Blind). She is based in Melbourne, Australia, is the mother of 4 children and is never far from planning her next trip with her sighted partner so she can continue to enjoy touching landscapes through all the senses.
How did you get started traveling?
In the early 1970s I was fortunate to travel with my family by ship to Europe from Australia (and back). My father had a one year sabbatical leave from the university where he worked, and we headed for Spain and England. The ocean liner captured my young imagination — having the rare freedom as children to roam the many decks of such a large ship for 4 weeks, twice! My older brother and I explored our floating playground while at sea and went ashore with our parents to many ‘exotic’ places. We cruised over the Equator and watched the level of sea water rise while passing through the Panama Canal. On the two ship journeys we also stopped, for 10-hour visits, at iconic destinations like Rio de Janeiro, The Canary Islands, Barbados, Curacao, and New Zealand. The sheer size of the world as I viewed it from the top deck of a large ocean liner in comparison to roller skating around my neighbourhood was thrilling to an impressionable teenager: standing on the majestic deck looking out onto a vast horizon of blue while tasting salt spray on my lips, thoughts were lost on a voyage of discovery.
It wasn’t until many, many years later that I was able to return to Europe. This time there was another exciting opportunity with a water theme. My film producer partner, my teenage son, and I returned to the UK to take film footage for a project called Precious Music, Precious Water. Film shoots with Harry Williamson took us mainly to North Devon (West coast of England) where his father, Henry Williamson, wrote his acclaimed novel, Tarka the Otter. We explored this outstanding region of natural beauty for several weeks. That is where I caught the bug of jotting down my thoughts in a daily travel diary.
How did you get started writing?
It was just after we had fulfilled on the Tarka Project in 2010 that I began writing a life blog. Gateway to Blindness which was my debut appearance as a writer. I wanted to share anecdotes from a “blind” perspective to help others who might be curious to know the good, the bad — and sometimes the ridiculous — side of living with a so-called ‘disability’.
I had drafted over 200 pages of an autobiography and felt I had plenty of material to share with readers. But I also wanted to include our travel stories from the Tarka Project and other travel tales. So, with the tireless help of my partner, we created the travel blog, Touching Landscapes. It was so exciting to have a blog devoted to travel tales and somewhere to showcase Harry’s photography. The first series I wrote was “Touching the Sites of France” — a journey through all the senses. I wrote about exploring the textures of Paris and being on a small boat on the Canal du Midi. I also wrote about improvised singing in a Cathar Castle in the Pyrenees and following a path up a volcano at Puy de Dome in the Massif Central.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
My first break came as a result of taking a risk. As an emerging writer back then, I subscribed to several writing sites to gain as much knowledge as possible. I was passionately keen to carve out a niche in the blogosphere in order to become a positive voice with an international presence on the topic of living with possibility. In 2012, I was reading a blog entry by an editor of a major site who gave his tips on “How to pitch an article to become a guest blogger.” I thought, “What the heck! I’ll pitch him an idea he can’t refuse.” Within a day, he invited me to write the post. The article was on how blind people manage to use a computer without being able to see the screen.
Since that first post, I have not only gained the confidence to pitch a post to many other bloggers, but I have also been able to build my writer’s profile so that other bloggers and writers now approach me for a guest post. Sometimes the topic is travel and at other times it is memoir-based. It always amazes me to receive invitations, and each one is as treasured as the first, opening a doorway to a whole other landscape.
What is your biggest challenge on the road?
I have two equally challenging obstacles when traveling. The first is in taking notes. My vision doesn’t allow me to write things down quickly so I work with my memory to observe details, either gained from my sense of hearing, touch or smell, or by quizzing my fellow traveler for information on the scenery. I then insist I must have time to jot these details down into my computer. The second is not being able to read signposts, place names and important information plaques. Again, I have to scout out verbal information from those I am with and, sometimes, my partner will take specific photos or film footage he can describe or read to me for later reference.
To interpret a visual world through “blind eyes,” it takes extra time, energy, and a great deal of patience, but it is well worth it!
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Getting an Internet connection when traveling is a major challenge, so I use my own portable modem wherever possible to access the web. I also do as much research before traveling as I can and store copious notes to file so I can refer to them when in that city or when looking for contact details. I print out summarized notes as a back up so my sighted partner can read them in case my laptop thinks it is time for a holiday too and decides to run out of battery.
One challenge in the writing process is getting started. Not from a lack of notes but from an over-active mind. There are a million ways to begin a paragraph and sometimes, I write and rewrite the first couple of paragraphs a dozen times before I can get a real feel for the direction and purpose of that particular article.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Even though I was head-hunted by a top-ranking New York web-network to write on the topic of vision loss, I do find breaking into the travel writing market quite difficult. One of my travel writing dreams is to write for In-flight magazines. Richard Branson, are you reading this?
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Yes, I have had a varied career path. My first career many moons ago was as an aromatherapist and masseur. This world of fragrance was replaced by the world of sound when I started working with my partner in his recording studio. My acute sense of hearing earned me the loving nickname of ‘Big Ears’ because I often heard minuscule sound errors that he then had to track down in the mix. I’ve also been a teaching artist, running music programs in primary schools in Melbourne for new arrivals to Australia in order to help the children learn English through song lyrics and music games. Currently, I also earn a crust by giving presentations on “Living with Possibility” as well as being a freelance writer for the VeryWell network on the topic of vision loss.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I highly recommend Rick Steves‘ travel documentaries, which I find inspiring. I also did a travel writing course with Rob McFarland a few years ago, and he was generous with his feedback to my first attempts at travel writing.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Like everything in life, it takes time and practice to become good at your craft. You really have to love traveling and you must be prepared to network like a ninja! Keep persisting when doors seem to close and perhaps make sure you can earn a living doing something else until you gain your first paycheck as a travel writer.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Having a legitimate excuse to plan the next trip! And embracing this quote by Jack Kerouac: “Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”