Why you should try this Dinner in the Dark experience, and no, not the Eskom kind!

Sonder (n).

Described as the "profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passed in the street, has a life as complex as one's own, which they are constantly living despite one's personal lack of awareness of it".

And while the world swirls with talk of soft skills like empathy and what they mean in this seemingly de-sensitised digital, always on life - putting ourselves into somebody else's shoes is not something we do often, or willingly.

At least I don't. And certainly not when it comes to having a disability.

However, I recently did so during a dining in the dark experience. This wasn't a load-shedding induced incident thanks to Eskom. It was a voluntary meal in the dark, at a restaurant run by the Cape Town Society of the Blind (CTSB) in Salt River

For our group of 15 individuals, the actual specifics of the dinner were kept as a surprise up until our arrival. 

CTSB Information Officer Vincent Daniels took us through a briefing of what to expect as we gathered in the workshop and showroom for those who work at the society. It is filled with handcrafted wicker products and beautiful furniture dotted all around the room.

He then asked us to remove any digital watches or smartphones that might let off artificial light. I watch as Vincent navigates along the metal and glass panels of the wall behind him. He is almost 100% blind - but it is hard to note off the bat as he looks at you almost dead-centre while talking. This is because he only began to lose his sight at the age of 45, due to Retinitis pigmentosa (RP). Vincent is now 65. In his case the breakdown and loss of cells in his retina are due to a "ripped gene" syndrome, caused by his parents being cousins, he explains. 

Our group is quickly broken up into two. Those with vegan diners and those with vegetarian food options. I'm assuming it’s to ease the serving process for our waiters. All of who have a visual impediment of some sort. 

We're given plastic aprons to put on. Right, so things might get messy. 

We're instructed to latch our arms onto each other’s shoulders. Then we proceed to a flight of stairs, thankfully still with our eyes open at this point. Vincent ascends with the greatest of ease. 

If you've never noticed textured tiles on public pavements leading up to robots or pedestrian crossings – take a look when you’re next out and about. This was the first time that many of us in the group realised these tiles act as a navigation guide for visually impaired people. 

Even with our eyes open, linked to the person in front of us, hands to shoulders - our movements are awkward.

We're then told to close our eyes, just before being lead into our dark dinner room, with its entrance shrouded in heavy black velvet drapes.  

It's dark. I open my eyes and can feel my pupils straining, trying to find light.

We shuffle. Awkwardly. I lose my grip on the shoulder of my dinner companion in front of me. I feel sudden panic, even though I know I'm in a safe space.

I lurch out to try and grab anything, somebody. Her voice guides me and we connect again. 

Phew! The room feels long and narrow. A faint red light can be seen upwards - vampire lights from the aircon I assume.

We're seated and prepare for our first course. All diners are murmuring about how dark it is. How do we pour our own drinks if we can't see, we wonder?

"I'm putting my finger in the tip of my glass," says my companion to my right. "I'm counting the glugs,” says another to my left. 

I'm going with the finger. In fact I'm using my hands to touch and decipher everything. Although not intended, I sense myself becoming very quiet. In the absence of light, I'm tilting my head from side to side more. I’m trying to hear conversations at the other table. 

Wait, this is a dinner, so I try to make conversation. “Wouldn’t this make a fascinating team building experience for Eskom," I ask?

As easily as dinner flows from the soup to main course of a salad and lasagne, so does the conversation from trying to come to terms with the darkness to the topical issues of the day. Like, why do we see so few visually impaired or disabled people in public spaces or in the work place?

It really got us thinking.  

The basic concept of dining in the dark is that the removal of vision enhances the other senses and increases gastronomic pleasure. I taste every nibble of garlic in my soup. The mushrooms have a textured layer of umami to them. I've never eaten my salad with my hands like this. Textures become sentences, smells the punctuation. 

I'm surprised the evening is spill-free for most of us, baring my pinkie finger ending up in my dinner companion to my right's plate. Thankfully she was done. Yet, still the need for aprons tells a story of its own.  

Just before dessert, our host informs us we need to close our eyes, as they will begin lighting the room. First by candle, to bringing us out of the dark. 

Even with the small flickering flame I can feel my pupils contracting. We open our eyes. I am quite surprised by the size of the room, the table and a few other aspects. My of lack of depth perception and an imagination that was allowed to run free had an impact. 

But the most profound concept of the experience is that I'm all too aware that, unlike me, my hosts are still visually impaired, even though the lights are now back on. Yet, they are smiling from ear to ear, delighting in our reactions and comments about the extraordinary evening. 

It reminds me of a conversation I had earlier with a young man, who is blind since birth but so tech-savvy and amped for life.

"I really just want to feel and be treated like a regular human being, being independent means so much to me."

Everybody who served and hosted us did an amazing job. I get it. And after this dinner in the dark experience I'm seeing his need to be independent and accepted clearer than ever before.

- To arrange your own Dinner in the Dark experience, you need to be a group of 12 people or more. The event can be tailored according to your menu and budget. Click here for contact details

Find Your Escape by signing up for the Traveller24 Weekly Newsletter – Subscribe hereOr download the News24 App hereto receive expertly curated travel ideas and deals directly to your mobile.

*Disclaimer: Traveller24 Editor Selene Brophy was hosted for the Dinner in the Dark experience at the Cape Town Society for the Blind as part of a Future Skills 2020 Workshop.