By Natalia Foster

If you had told 14-year-old Natalia, that in six years’ time she would be flying 3,500 miles to meet an internet friend, I think she would have stared at you with fear in her eyes and shaken her head as if to say, ‘No way.’ But, in those six years so much has changed, and I have (somehow) found myself on a transatlantic flight heading towards Toronto.

As it is, this isn’t an easy thing to do; but doing something this big with a lack of sight creates a whole array of things to consider and get anxious about. I want to share with you, dear reader, how this trip became a reality, what we got up to while I visited Canada and my tips, tricks, and sneaky hacks to make this a reality for you too.

I think first we need an introduction though, don’t you? Well, everyone, I would like you to meet my wonderful friend Jorja! We met in the murky depths of 2016 via Instagram. I won’t bore you with the details, but it was a mutual interest in content creators that drew us together. Like any online friendship, we had our own ebbs and flows in communication over the years but overall have kept each other afloat in times of stress and cheered the other on in moments of hopefulness. Jorja, from the day we met, has always been an important person in my life. So, when, in December of last year (2021) Jorja suggested I fly out to see them, it felt like an impossible, but incredible opportunity.

Natalia & her friend smiling in front of Niagara falls

The Canadian flag in front of Niagara Falls

We initially started working out where I would like to go in the week I would be spending in Canada and the easiest way to make it all fit. Luckily for me, the two places I was desperate to go – Toronto and Niagara Falls – were both very accessible to us! After that, it was time to look at flights. This was also the time to approach the subject with my parents. Now, I’m not a parent, but I can understand the terror my parents must have felt when I first spoke to them and said, “Hey mum, I’m going to be hopping on a flight to Toronto, on my own, to meet someone I’ve never met before!”

Fortunately for me, my parents are very supportive and, in their words “I’m an adult now, so can do what I want.” It’s always good to have these conversations before putting plans into action, our parents like to know what’s going on, if they can help and support us in our insane endeavours. So I guess that would be my first tip; communicate these plans with people that like to know!

I believe this goes without saying but travelling as a visually impaired person I would make sure you know and understand how booking assistance works. Most of the time (from my experience) when booking the flights, you will be given the option to select disabilities and thus, it will appear on your ticket and the airports will be notified of your needs. But it is always a good thing to check as you may have to go through the airport accessibility system separately.

Flying from England over to Toronto doesn’t require that much paperwork and in comparison, to other countries in North America you are able to get in pretty easily. But something I would recommend if you plan on solo travelling is to make sure you fill out all the paperwork as early as you can and keep track of what you need. I did a fair bit of research after booking the flights and was very glad to see that Canada does most of its boarder control through the ArriveCAN app. Obviously, not all countries will be that easy though!

Friday 17th June

And before I knew it, I was on my way! It was probably the most anxious and stressed I had felt in a long time. But it was all in my head. I flew out from Gatwick Airport and found myself through check-in and security with an hour and a half to spare. I was taken to the accessible waiting area from where I would be collected to head to my gate. I allowed myself to relax and listened to a podcast while I waited for my flight to board!

Natalia taking a selfie in her mask at the airport

View above the clouds from the plane

During this time, I also sent out my flight details to my family and friends that had asked for them. Something I found a lot of my friends wanted to do when talking to them about this trip was track my flight. It also allowed my parents to feel more at ease knowing I was on my way and when I had landed. It was a very easy flight. I entertained myself with another podcast episode, watching Shrek 2 and journaling. I would always recommend having a good variety of things to do on long haul flights. Download that movie you’ve been meaning to watch, journal about your feelings and excitement for the trip ahead of you and listen to that podcast you like. Distraction is the best way to keep your mind occupied in the air.

The only downside to ‘accessibility services’ at Toronto Airport was that the only way they would assist individuals was by placing them in a wheelchair. As someone who has a decent level of sight and who had just been sitting on a plane for 8 hours, the last thing I wanted to do was to be in a wheelchair. But, as mentioned, it was the only way they would guide me through the airport. It took us a good hour to get from the plane to customs alone and then once I had collected my bag, they just disappeared. So, if you plan on flying to Toronto, I would just be prepared for a lovely hour-long wheelchair experience.

Prior to my departure, Jorja had informed me that they would come and meet me by the letter and number shown at the door to the terminal once you exit through arrivals. It was actually quite a clever system, and the numbers and letters were big enough we found each other fairly quickly.

Once we united, I sent a photo to my Mum, and we headed to our first stop… Tim Hortons! This is where I was informed about the infamous ‘beibs brew’ and ‘beibs balls’ dedicated to Justin Beiber, the Canadian icon he is.

The Tim Hortons drink

Saturday 18th June

To kick things off on my first day, Jorja and I made our way to Toronto which is about an hour from where we were staying. Once we reached Toronto we headed to the Royal Ontario Museum (the ROM) to take in the weird and wonderful sights inside. We then headed over to China Town for lunch where we discovered banana sushi (very bizarre, but surprisingly good) and walked through Kensington Market where I picked up the CUTEST strawberry top! One thing I will say is Toronto, and Canada in general, has a very interesting architectural style.

That evening, we also headed out to ‘Onion Fest’ which was a small fairground which had been constructed in a residential area!

Montage of the sights Natalia saw in Toronto

Sunday 19th June

After a very eventful first day we spent Sunday a little more slowly. Our only mission today was to head to Niagara Falls! Despite the four hour drive we had coffee, good music and a huge amount of catching up to do! The only mildly eventful part of this journey was the 10 minutes we were convinced that we had crossed over to the USA boarder. Once we reached Niagara however, we grabbed some dinner and headed to bed.

A meal out, the big wheel and the lanterns

­­­­­­­Monday 20th June

Monday was a long but wonderful day. With the sun beating down, Jorja and I headed out onto the strip that occupied the street before the falls to immerse ourselves in the craziness. The day was spent attending a very…. interesting wax model museum, dinosaur themed golf and a fabulous lunch at Applebee’s. This is also the day we ventured onto the actual river between Buffalo NY and Niagara. The views we encountered were exquisite and something I will never forget! We also treated ourselves to a lovely dinner with a view of the falls. To finish off we were able to enjoy views from the Skywheel that is located just close to the falls. We were able to get stunning views of the water at sunset.

Wax work, dinosaur & Natalia & her friend in their rain ponchos at the falls

Tuesday 21st June

On Tuesday the goal was to head to Jorja’s apartment out in Kingston. It was a lovely drive with the music on high and the vibes immaculate. Despite the distance we travelled that week, the road trips were absolutely a fave for me! En-route we stopped at a service station called ‘The Big Apple’ which, you guessed it, sold apple-based products. I ended up getting some apple tarts for my family and went outside and saw the big apple! Once we arrived in Kingston the plan was to dye my hair and head out to the local university to fulfil our tourist desires. It was wonderful to see where my friend spends their time, and it was really fun to re-dye my hair.

Natalia’s hair dye and the ‘big apple’

 Wednesday 22nd June

Wednesday was spent exploring all that Kingston has to offer. We started off in the shopping centres where I purchased some great clothes and, in the evening, we found ourselves eating sushi and in a bar called Barcadia. Something that will always shock me is how big the servings for alcohol are in Canada!

Sushi on a heart-shaped plate

Pitcher of drink on the bar

Thursday 23rd June

One of the many things that was brought out on this trip was my love for scrapbooking. Thursday saw us leave Kingston and head back to Jorja’s family home. On the way we ended up craft shopping and buying things to scrapbook with. We had a very chill evening indulging our creative side and relaxing after such a crazy week.

Friday 24th June

My last full day Jorja and I spent in the town of Whitby. We decided that today would be the day we went thrift shopping and to a delicious desert place called Demetris. It was verging on 30 degrees so it was nice to spend most of it inside! We also took a trip to Reptilia Zoo and saw a wide variety of snakes, lizards and tortoises.

At the Reptillia Zoo

Saturday 25th June

The last day of this incredible adventure. As my flight wasn’t until later that evening, we had time to travel into Toronto city and go to (apparently) the pop star Shawn Mendes’ favourite café. I love Shawn and his music so this was right up my street. Unfortunately, the coffee was not that good for how expensive it was, but it was something to do so I can’t complain! And then before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye.

It had truly been an incredible trip that I never in a million years thought I would be comfortable to do. But I did, I flew all those miles, got to experience the most amazing sights and got to finally meet someone close to my heart.

View from the plane on the flight home

The flight home was a quiet one that took me over the Atlantic at sunrise and allowed me to feel both grateful and proud of the things I had just done.

Niagara Falls at sunset

I think the first piece of advice I have would be not to worry and, if possible, keep yourself as calm as possible. I found that at various points when travelling I overthought everything, including if planes were really that safe. Our brains are programmed to run from unnatural things, such as being 30,000 ft in the air, so it’s normal to overthink, but letting it consume an experience (even a stressful one) isn’t fun. So, keep that brain in check!

Something else I want to mention is the importance of just asking. Sometimes, being visually impaired can make us feel like asking for help is stupid or make us feel inferior, but in situations like airports, people only want to help, they are most likely paid for helping people. So use them, and don’t be afraid to ask!

Of course, an obvious thing to mention is to have fun! Challenge yourself to work outside of your usual comfort zone and try things you never thought you could. As a disabled individual, I find that once I’ve done something for the first time, I’m more likely to do it again. The initial anxiety has disappeared making it so much easier to do.

There is so much more I could say, things I could advise but at the end of the day, I think that’s for you to discover, dear reader. But, overall, no matter what, the limits of our vision should not affect the limits of our life. So get out there, and dare to do the unimaginable!

About Natalia…

Hello! My name is Natalia and I’m an undergraduate at the University of Birmingham, studying psychology. When I’m not analysing the human brain I can be found attending concerts and theatre productions, writing poetry and my very own fantasy novel; Or just curling up with a good book! I have worked on various creative projects, such as producing content for ‘Rocket and Rabbit’ Theatre company, owning a 6 year old blog and am currently writing for a sci-fi/fantasy anthology!

My personal blog:
My poetry/writing account on Instagram: @toallmyghosts
R&RTC Instagram: @rocketandrabbittheatre
My YouTube Channel: featured
Anthology I’m a part of on Instagram: @queersffanthology