Blank Canvas Voyage

blank canvas logoThis month we have been lucky enough to catch up with Thomas Giddens and Telma Louro. It was not easy as they have been on the move since last November! Tales from their Blank Canvas Voyage have captivated their many followers on social media since they began their backpacking mission to meet the Deaf Community and volunteer around the world late last year.

Thomas and Telma left London on a one-way ticket on the 23rd of November 2015 with the objective of promoting long-term adventure and sustainable living through video, photography and stories – all self-produced.

The aim was to travel slowly, experience new cultures, explore places and stay away for as long as they could!

This was their original mission statement: “Our hope is that through the sharing of our travel experience, volunteering, meeting new people around the world, being part of different cultures, getting to know the Deaf Community, videos and photos, that we can help inspire others to not only travel but also to realise that we only live once and we should chase our dreams, no matter what.”

Thomas Giddens is 28 and Deaf.

I was born into a Hearing family. My parents didn’t know I was Deaf until I was nearly 3 years old. For a while the doctors couldn’t detect my Deafness or perhaps they didn’t want to accept that I was indeed Deaf. The news came as a shock, but my parents were very determined and willing to find out more about what to do with a Deaf child. They joined sign language classes and got involved in the Deaf community, through our Council and the local church. From the tender age of 3 I was wearing Hearing Aids, which helped me a lot in developing my speech. I grew up bi-lingual, fluent in British Sign Language and spoken English.

I never saw my Deafness as a barrier; I had a very supportive and loving family by my side all the way. I have always been very confident and able to communicate with everyone, whether Deaf or Hearing.

Being involved in the Deaf community was always a passion. That was where I felt the most comfortable. I went to Deaf schools, clubs, events and the most rewarding of all was being involved in many Deaf sports, such as Tennis, Basketball and Football.

Among my career highlights were being selected in 2013 to be part of the ICSD Media Team at the Deaflympics in Sofia and a year later as part of the BSLBT Zoom Project, directing my own Documentary called Does Deaf Football Have A Future?

Telma Louro is 32, hearing and is from Portugal.

I moved to London in 2004 and could barely speak any English but in time I would fall in love with the city, meet so many wonderful people and discover British Sign Language which would change my life.

One night, at home, I was watching the American movie Speed 2: Cruise Control, and a Deaf girl signed to her dad, using ASL – American Sign Language. I thought that was really interesting and I wondered how amazing it would be to learn.

At that moment I thought “That’s it! I am going to learn British Sign Language.”

The following day I found a course and immersed myself in learning BSL. I was fascinated and fell in love with the language and the Deaf Community very quickly. The unknown, the people, how mysterious the language was and how amazing it was to have a silent conversation. I was hooked.

I managed to finish Level 6 – Language Development in British Sign Language before Thomas and I left the UK in November 2015.

Thomas and Telma met in May 2013 at the Healthy Deaf Minds event. Although Telma was clearly new to the Deaf community, Thomas could see how passionate she was about sign language and how much effort she was making to speak with people. He says: “I remember our first conversation very well. We were standing in the queue to get some tea and biscuits, and Telma kept asking random questions, wondering if I had any brothers or sisters, the name of my pets and what was my favorite colour. I figured out that was the only thing she could sign about, because that is what you learn in Level 1!”

That evening they hooked up on Facebook, and started chatting. They were friends for a few months before starting to date. “I am glad she didn’t turn me down,” said Thomas.

Thomas had always travelled. “As a family we would go to Spain every summer, as my grandparents had an apartment in Denia, near Alicante. In school there were a lot of school trips outside the UK and later in my teens, I was part of the Deaf Basketball Team, so travelling was a big part of my life, especially for the World Deaf Basketball Championships.”

“After we became an item, I tried to persuade Telma to go travelling, but she wasn’t very keen. I had no money and she wanted to buy a house. Also, as we grew fond of each other and the relationship was solid we started thinking of living together. With her help, I got myself a full time job, got extra freelance work and started saving.

“Although my career progressed and my finances improved, I wasn’t sure if I was satisfied with my job, but I stayed for the money. And then, Telma’s job was at risk and I remember how “lost” she was. She became very unhappy, and unsure of what to do next.

“We sat down and talked about our future plans. Things had changed. We had changed.

“We no longer thought that buying a house was a priority and travelling while on annual leave seemed pointless to us. We wanted something more. Something that would make us happy and worth living for. Because the routine, the 9-5 jobs were making us miserable.”

Seeing a Facebook post calling for volunteers at the Deaf Games in Adelaide in January 2016 was the moment that the idea of a travel adventure began to take shape. “As they were recruiting for volunteers, we thought it would be a great idea to apply for it,” said Thomas.

“Going to Australia to volunteer was a wonderful idea, but we thought it would be nice to stay longer, in order to explore the country. And perhaps visit New Zealand as well.

“At first we thought of going for four weeks, but soon realised that we wanted more than that.

“The fact that we had no mortgage and no children meant it was a great opportunity to see as much as we could on a ‘one-way’ ticket.

“We were also motivated by the chance it would give us of meeting the Deaf Community in other countries.”

thomas giddens at emerald lakes tongariro alpine crossing new zealand


How much planning and preparation did you do before setting off?

Leaving London on a one-way ticket, without a return date, meant that we had to make sure everything was done prior to our departure. We had a “to-do” list that just got longer every day, and seemed endless!

The first stage was to understand a few things to help us plan: What kind of trip were we doing? How much money did we have? Where did we want to go? Which Visas did we need? How long did we have? Which vaccinations did we need? Which documents did we need to renew or scan? How much more money could we make or put aside before the departure date.

There was a lot of planning and preparation before we left, I am not going to lie, but we managed to do everything.

Did you have a rough itinerary or was it literally “blank canvas”?

When we first started planning our route we wanted to go everywhere. Yes, we did think that would be possible.

Reading and researching, according to other travel blogs, we knew exactly how long we were going to stay in every country we would visit. We looked at what other people were doing, how long they stayed in certain places, their dreams, their bucket list, their budgets… and the list goes on.

But we wondered what we could do in order to make this special and not just an ordinary couple backpacking around the world.

So we thought of a little project. Getting to know the Deaf Community in every country we visit.

We knew that we didn’t want to fly to Australia straight away, because of the jet lag, so Hong Kong and Macau seemed the right location to start off our adventures. We only knew that we had to be in Adelaide, Australia, on the 6th January. So the travel plans started developing from there.

How are you funding the trip?

I had to change my life around if I wanted to achieve something this big. There was a lot of compromise and quitting. But I was happy doing it because I had a goal. It’s amazing how much a person can actually save when you put your mind into it.

For Telma it was a bit easier because she had already been saving for over eight years. I only started saving after I had met her!

We had a rough idea of how much we needed for each country and the things we just couldn’t live without, like accommodation and food.  After we had established those two, we had a different budget for flights, activities, visas, etc.

The Deaf Community has been a big part on our travels. We have volunteered twice, have met countless Deaf people and Deaf communities and have been offered accommodation in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Solomon Islands.

These people did not know us prior to our travels, but through our videos and volunteering connections, we ended up being approached many times by families wanting us to stay with them. It’s been overwhelming.

From the day we left London, we knew that we couldn’t see and do everything. So we are very selective and conscious about our budget.

Travelling is as expensive as a person wants it to be. We decided that if we ate locally, joined free tours, lived like a local, haggled, got good deals on flights, volunteered, met the communities and stayed in places for as long as we could, our trip could be very affordable.

Also from day one on our travels we had secured a sponsor, SignLive. In time we want our Facebook page to grow, and our travel blog to go live, so hopefully we can get other sponsors interested in working with us.

We aim to travel slowly, so that our budget would stretch for as long as possible.

What have been the highlights so far?

• Driving the Great Ocean Road in Australia

• Road Trip in Tasmania

• Living in Melbourne for 5 weeks

• Walking on a Glacier in New Zealand

• Trekking the Tongariro Crossing in New Zealand

• Volunteering at the Gospel Deaf School in Fiji

• Swimming with Manta Rays in Fiji

• Standing on the edge of an active volcano in Vanuatu

• Meeting a real Tribe, in Vanuatu

• Being waved off at the airport by the Deaf Community in the Solomon Islands, everyone was crying. It was such a beautiful moment.

thomas and selma with imaio tribes wanna island vanuatu

Tell us about the Deaf communities you have visited. 

So far we have been fortunate to have met Deaf communities in every country we have been to: Hong Kong & Macau, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Thailand.

Before we left, our accommodation and volunteering program in Fiji had already been agreed through our friend Matthew Adedeji. We volunteered at the Gospel Deaf School located in Suva for 5 weeks. During that time we met a lot of people. Everyone knew we were friends of Matthew, everyone wanted to meet us.

The Fijian Deaf Community was very friendly and very welcoming. Even though our culture and traditions are very different, they always made us feel very comfortable. We stayed in Fiji for two and a half months.

It was a similar situation in Australia. We were volunteers at the Adelaide Deaf Games. During our 2 week stay in Adelaide we met a lot of people, and ended up staying with Maria’s family for a few nights. Maria and Darren are both Deaf and their children are CODAs. We had so much fun with them. That time in Adelaide we got a lot contacts for Sydney and Melbourne.

The contact for the Solomon Islands we got through my very good friend Brent MacPherson from Stretch Productions, while we were in New Zealand. He had directed his own documentary about the Deaf Community over there, called The Forgotten People. We were so excited to have that connection, because we knew that this was a very remote area and not many people venture out there.

For all the other countries it was done through Facebook. The power of Social Media is incredible. We also joined a few Deaf groups so we could easily upload videos every time we wanted to get in touch with Deaf communities.

The sign languages of Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands have a lot of similarities to BSL. A few differences, but they all use the two-hand alphabet. So communication was not a problem.

In Hong Kong & Macau I had to rely solely on International Sign, which was fine by me because I have attended a lot of international events. Telma did struggle, but I was a good interpreter… I hope?!

So far we haven’t had any issues in getting contacts or meeting people from the Deaf Communities. We have actually been approached three times by people who recognised my face or knew about Blank Canvas Voyage’s videos.

We have been overwhelmed with people’s generosity and kindness, especially in the South Pacific. Everyone has been just fantastic.

If we ever have a house, we will be welcoming a lot of people for many years! And the thought of having so many international connections and making so many friends is without doubt the best gift you could give yourself.

What have you learnt about the different ways Deaf people live their lives around the world?

Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand communities are not that different from the way we live in the Western world. There are a lot of similarities. Even in Hong Kong where the culture and the way of living is slightly different, but I definitely didn’t feel too far away from home.

These people go to work, have families, have a social life, pay mortgages, have a car, or ride a bike etc. Just the usual way of living that we are used to.

But getting to know the Deaf Communities in the South Pacific was the most rewarding experience that we could have ever asked for.

To see the way they live, to understand their culture, their traditions, being part of their families, accepting and respecting their beliefs and realising what is a priority in life, was very humbling for us.

I can’t just put them into a group, because Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands are different, but in a lot of ways very similar. When you finish work, go home to your family, you have food on the table, you are a happy person.

The life in the Solomon Islands for a westerner is hard. But for them, it’s all what they have. And it’s the simplicity that makes them so wonderful.

They might not have TVs, computers or the latest phone, but they have the biggest hearts.

What we found through our travels is that the less you have, the happier you are.

All Deaf communities are eager to learn, to contribute, to experience. To have an education and to succeed in life, regardless if that is related to work or just be surrounded by loved ones.

Where to next?

At the moment we are in Chiang Mai (Thailand) because we really needed a good rest after seven months travelling and we need time to work on our travel blog which we hope will go live soon.

After Thailand, around October, we are hoping to go to India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. This will take us through until Easter time. After that we have a few plans, but nothing set in stone.

We don’t like planning too much ahead, because as we have learnt from the early stages of our travels that the more you plan, the less you experience.

We are not in a rush, therefore we will take our time, experiencing new cultures and most of all connecting with people. After all we are human and want happiness. So if we are happy travelling, and have the opportunity to do it, we will carry on!

Read more about the Blank Canvas Voyage: Meeting the Solomon Islands Deaf Community.

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