Experiencing The Blind Cafe in Portland

The Blind Cafe - Portland, Oregon

In true Portland fashion, my bus was running over 30 minutes late to get over to the Northeast. I quickly walked a few blocks over to catch another bus that was leaving soon, and managed to get to The Blind Cafe about 15 minutes late.

I apologized profusely and they graciously let me come in with one of the last groups to head into the darkened room. The night was just getting started and everyone was still getting to know each other.

My group was a mix of different backgrounds, and had various reasons behind why they were there and how they found out about the event. One thing we all had in common was a friendly readiness for the night, and an idea of the unknown waiting for us on the other side of the curtain.

I quickly felt like I was a part of the group even though I was the lone one out. My friend had canceled on me a few hours before, so it was just me going solo to the event. Regardless, it wasn’t something I was going to miss – I knew from reading up on it that it was going to be a one-of-a-kind experience.

All met and introduced, with our complimentary wine in hand, a blind man came out into the hallway to lead us into the pitch black room and to our table for the night.

We each put our hand on the shoulder in front of us and trusted our guide to lead us safely to our destination without being able to see a thing.

The Blind Cafe - Portland, Oregon
Photo via Asha Poyzer, The Blind Cafe

When I say pitch black, I mean it. I had never experienced anything really like it before. I’ve been in dark rooms where my eyes gradually adjust, but in this room there was no sliver of light to adjust to.

We were in complete and utter darkness.

Surprisingly, this didn’t freak me out at all, even though I knew I had an hour and a half to sit like this without sight. I was ready to experience fully what the night had to offer, with nothing but an open mind and an acceptance of my recent disorientation.

Darkness at The Blind Cafe - Portland, Oregon

A few at the table laughed nervously as we felt around and realized we had plates in front of us with food. There were water bottles on our right (which I didn’t find until halfway through the night), and it was a mission trying to find the spoon already on my plate.

I used my fingers to feel what kind of food I had in front of me, and I discovered a hard biscuit that I tried to gracefully guide to my mouth.

The Blind Cafe - Portland, Oregon
Photo via Asha Poyzer, The Blind Cafe

One of the hardest parts of eating in complete darkness is trying to get food on your spoon and making it to your mouth all in one go. As we started getting used to doing simple tasks, like eating without being able to see, Rick, the head waiter, started the night off with a Q&A session.

What I loved about this event is the transparency it had in terms of the blind community. They make it clear from the beginning that this isn’t an event meant to make you feel like you’re blind – no one can really knows what that’s like except those who are actually blind.

However, it is meant to give you a sense of what the blind go through every day, and the little things in life that those of us with sight barely even think about.

The Blind Cafe - Portland, Oregon
Photo credit via Asha Poyzer, The Blind Cafe

Crossing the street, driving a car, listening to music while walking down the sidewalk, being able to see the color of someone else’s eyes – all of the activities that we take for granted every day.

The Q&A was an open discussion with the audience and our blind waitstaff. There would be no judgements, just an honest conversation about what it’s like to be blind.

It was interesting sitting there and listening to perspectives from the blind. I’ve never had many visually impaired people in my life, so this was a whole new world I was discovering.

I learned a lot in the span of 20 minutes or so. Notably, those walk signs that make noise, such as the bird chirps or saying “walk” over and over again, aren’t actually all that great for helping the blind cross the street.

It distracts them from hearing the noises they really need to hear when stepping off the sidewalk. For example, where oncoming traffic is coming from. And when there are multiple walk signs going at once, it’s just distracting and confusing.

One of the most poignant moments of the night came from a person asking what the word “beauty” means to a blind person.

As a constant traveler who relies so much on my sight to not only get around, but to experience the world around me and the beautiful scenery in any given place, this was especially interesting to me.

How one waiter described it, beauty comes in so many different forms. He related it to the fact that no one would ever be happy in their relationships if they only ever based who they dated off who had the best looks.

You have to find a balance between attractiveness, personality, empathy, and a person that gives to those around them. That’s how he described the true meaning of beauty.

Other questions were simply practical, such as how can blind people find braille on random signs? Apparently, braille has to be in a certain placement and height just for that reason.

Further questions included, should you help a blind person cross the street? (Only if it looks like they’re lost or struggling).

Should you open the door to help a blind person? (Just keep the communication open – ask them!).

And what would be the first thing you would do if you had sight? (Most answers involved the independence of being able to drive a car).

After a short break, the night continued into spoken word poetry about the reality of the blind and disabled community and the struggles they still face today.

How the impaired are still questioned as to whether they should be able to have a family. Whether they can take care of anyone else. How women in wheelchairs are often turned away from women’s shelters.

The blind waiters were constantly walking around making sure we were all still good. If you had to leave the room, you could call someone over but no lights whatsoever were allowed.

After a dessert that tasted like some sort of chocolate pudding, the last segment of the night began: the music component.

The musician explained how we should listen to this as if we were 16 again, running up to our room to listen to a new 8-track, with only our headphones and complete focus on the new music in our ears.

He was right. Not being able to see, cellphones and lights banned from the room, all we had was the music to listen to coming out of the darkness.

And that could be said for the whole night in that darkened room. The food, the poetry, the music, the conversations at the table, everything just seemed more peaked and intriguing without the usual interruptions of daily life.

I enjoy events that make you think and physically put you outside of your comfort zone – The Blind Cafe was no exception. It was an absolutely beautiful night in Portland. I learned how to be more in tune with my senses, and more about the local blind community through such an honest and open event.

Street art in Portland, Oregon

In a world where we’re always distracted by something, usually technology related, it was refreshing to spend almost two hours in the dark with just voices, music, and good company to keep us entertained.

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The Blind Cafe started in Colorado in 2010 and has been going strong ever since, now touring the country in different cities across the nation. The concept of the event is to inspire social change in local communities, to open up the discussion of an ignored and even taboo topic in our society – the lives of the disabled and impaired.

The food we had for the night was all delicious and vegan, the waiters all graciously friendly, and the event well organized.

If you’re looking to support a good cause that also provides you with an incredible experience, I would highly recommend checking out when The Blind Cafe is next coming to your city. I could not have been more pleased with a Saturday night out in Portland.

Note: The Blind Cafe was kind enough to host me for the event, but all opinions, as always, are my own.

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Experiencing the Blind Cafe in Portland, Oregon - one of the most unique dinners I've ever been to. | The Atlas Heart

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Mimi McFadden
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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
Mimi McFadden
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