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On Sight

June 14, 2018

‘In small proportions we just beauties see; And in short measures, life may perfect be.’

— Ben Jonson, The Noble Nature



Photo by Philippe Toupet on Unsplash


Around 253 million people live with vision impairment; 36 million are blind. Around 2.5 billion people need glasses but do not have or wear them.


Nearsighted drivers squinting at dusk, children glued to classroom boards, newspapers held at arm’s length by readers who cannot make out the words. Then there are those whose vision is fine but cannot see for other reasons: the weary, broken, distracted, jaded, the too busy or too important.  Whose handicap is self-inflicted; those blind because they do not look.


The human eye chooses what it sees. It must; the retina’s photoreceptors are bombarded with millions of wavelengths of light, millions of visual stimuli. These can only be processed and filtered by the fovea about three times a second. Through those small windows of attention, we drink in colour, shape, construct our world.


The verb ‘to sightsee’ means ‘to go about seeing places and things of interest.’ The world has lifetimes of those to offer those willing … to go and to have interest. Volcanoes and canyons and thick luscious forests. Salt deserts, pink lakes and blue moons. The view of earth from outer space. Clouds from an airplane window. Skyscrapers and the Taj Mahal. Hanging bridges and stalagmites. Statues of the Buddha, Jesus, Mao, and Lady Liberty. Palaces, museums, mountain tops.


A sightseer’s list can only grow longer and the items on it, more grandiose; seeing two oceans at the same time from the top of Panama’s Volcán Barú. Spotting Russia on a clear day from Little Diomede in Alaska. Seeing the desert dip into the ocean on a South African shore. No shortage of sights, and only three snapshots per second our eyes can perceive. But those that truly transform worlds, I think, are not found on bucket lists.


Mihintale, Anuradhapura. Sri Lanka. A town of no touristic interest. Perhaps a hotel, perhaps a shack where on might find a bowl of curry. King coconuts on the side of the road, rice fields, children barefoot. A tropical storm; everything is instantly overrun with rain and mud. And yet, through the downpour, the sight of women, children, crowds of people in white, climbing 1,840 steps to a statue of the Buddha on a hill. Soaked and laughing, slipping and falling, finally at the top, the sight of them praying, the mist hugging the mountains, the sky clearing above.


Alajuela, Arenal. Costa Rica. Barely a village, barely a road. Dusk and hunger settling in and not a single light in sight. Actually, one: a one-room hut with five children and no furniture. A mattress in the corner and a crate of pineapples from the tree in the garden. No language but a dinner is shared: homemade queso palmito on pineapple. Skinny, scraped knees, missing teeth and a big smile on the eight-year-old’s face. Eyes lit with excitement at being the stars of the show for a night. Outside, under actual stars glistening, the sight of them waving us off.


Finally, Ain Aar, Metn. Lebanon. A dog with a marked limp, faithfully trotting behind its owner on an early morning walk. The sight of the two of them, blue collar on one, blue straw hat sheltering the other, nine years of companionship behind them, sharing the silence and road.


To seek to see beauty, to choose to look. We have no right not to. To the sights that transformed my world: places, moments, people… and dogs. To those who saw me too.


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