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Baking Blind: How Penny Melville-Brown changed perceptions about disability by cooking across six continents

Belgian-born chef and entrepreneur Noam Kostucki summed up 2017 Holman Prizewinner Penny Melville-Brown like this: “She’s bonkers. She’s completely mad.” This from a man running a restaurant in the middle of the Costa Rican jungle — but he meant it as a compliment. And for those who know Penny, it’s pretty much spot on.

Penny has big ideas and the gumption to carry them out — there’s no stopping her once she puts her mind to something. The woman has fortitude, military-learned logistics skills and an uncanny ability to connect with everyone she meets and put them immediately at ease.

From the onset, Penny’s Holman prizewinning project looked to be the one with least risk involved (compared to tending killer bees and solo-kayaking a highly trafficked shipping channel). Her plan was to leave her home in the green, port-side town of Fareham, UK and travel to six continents over the course of one year. Along the way she stopped in Costa Rica, Malawi, Australia, China and the United States, and met with chefs, other blind people and community leaders all over the world. She traveled with her nephew Toby Melville-Brown who documented her whirlwind world tour in a video blog series, Baking Blind.

“Some people were tentative and quite cagey before I showed up,” she says. “As soon as we were cooking together, they forgot I was blind. Then it was just two people sharing an experience together. Usually they had something simple in mind that they wanted to cook and I bullied them into doing something much more interesting.”

The risks of cooking seemed minimal to an experienced baker like herself— a burned wrist here, a nicked finger there — and yet somehow Penny’s project was the one with the most sturm und drang. Penny’s tour was met with much more intrigue than she had planned— coming face-to-face with Tropical Storm Nate in Costa Rica, a visa-related marooning in China, an air-sea rescue in Australia, to name a few. But Penny took it all in stride, and embraced the uncertainties as an unavoidable and rich part of her journey.

“As I crisscrossed continents and connected with people in vastly different cultures, I became even more convinced that something like this needed to be done,” she says. “There is very little media coverage of a blind person interacting with the rest of the world as an equal —  an ordinary person, who is really keen on something, operating as an equal with others around the world.”

Penny has a special connection with the namesake of the Holman Prize, James Holman, a 19th Century world traveler known as the first blind man to circumnavigate the globe. Both became blind while serving in the British Royal Navy (albeit nearly 200 years apart). Penny served for 22 years in the Women’s Royal Naval Service and Royal Navy, reaching the rank of commander. She was also the first woman to hold the position of naval barrister. After being medically discharged from the Royal Navy in 1999, she created her business Disability Dynamics to help other people with disabilities find employment.

“The majority of disabled people acquire their disabilities during their working lives, as they’re growing up or while they’re working,” she says. “If you’ve build yourself the strength of character motivation, optimism, determination, those skills will take you through life’s challenges of any sort, like acquiring a disability or getting a job.”

So much of Penny’s work focuses not only on changing the minds of people with disabilities themselves, but changing widespread public perceptions about disability. And when asked to identify the highlights of her Baking Blind tour, it’s the small human connections that Penny pinpoints — the ones that ripple out into the collective psyche to help evolve peoples’ understanding of what it means to be disabled.

Her favorite moment was cooking with two 20-year-old women in China, who didn’t even know how to hold a knife — and how quickly they formed a bond and began helping each other, growing more confident with each passing moment. Or wending her way through the bush and scrubland of Kiama, Australia with an Aboriginal chef as a guide to show them which plants were edible. Or even cooking deep in the jungle of Costa Rica with Chef Noam during a tropical storm and being forced to improvise due to the ironic lack of running water.

But the end of Penny’s journey around the world didn’t turn out quite as she had expected. During a visit to France just before Christmas to explore new cooking opportunities, Penny almost died in a serious car accident where she fractured several vertebrae in her neck and broke multiple ribs and her sternum. She spent two months in intensive care and was put into an induced coma for five weeks.

Penny says, “The breathing tubes stopped me talking so communicating with the French medical team was a challenge for all of us and even more complicated by my blindness. When you’re blind and in intensive care, and trying to communicate in a foreign language, it’s not easy. I had a whole vocabulary of sound effects that I used to communicate with the nurses.”

It was an incredibly trying time for Penny and her loved ones, but Penny fought hard — facing her rehabilitation head-on, and recovering much faster than her doctors anticipated.

“When you’ve already overcome significant life challenges, you’re an old hand at it,” she says.

And though Penny still has some recovery to do, she’s hard at work producing Baking Blind videos that she and Toby shot while traveling all over the world for the Holman Prize. She’s also working on a cookbook using recipes and ideas from her world travels.

The strange lesson in all of Penny’s adventures is that the most serious mishap occurred not while she was stuck in muddy, pockmarked roads during a downpour in Costa Rica, or eating unfamiliar foods in the villages in Malawi — but while she was driving in a taxi in a major European metropolis. It goes to show that risk is unavoidable, and Penny would tell you there’s no use holding back from the things you want to seek out in the world.

“Life is all about taking risks,” says Penny. “And we survive to tell the tale.”

In little more than a month, Penny will again return to San Francisco to regale attendees at the LightHouse Gala about her accomplishments and discoveries during her year-long adventure funded by the Lighthouse’s Holman Prize.

About the Holman Prize

In 2017, San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind launched the Holman Prize to support the emerging adventurousness and can-do spirit of blind and low vision people worldwide. This endeavor celebrates people who want to shape their own future instead of having it laid out for them. In early July, we announced the 2018 Holman Prizewinners — congratulations to Stacy CervenkaConchita Hernández and Red Szell. Ojok and his fellow 2017 prizewinners will visit San Francisco in November 2017 to speak at the LightHouse Gala.

“We are thrilled to be able to continue the Holman Prize for a second year,” says LightHouse CEO Bryan Bashin. “These three new prizewinners represent a wide range of ambitions and life experience: from tackling social obstacles to huge tests of physical and mental fortitude, they reflect the diversity and capability of blind people everywhere.”

Created specifically for legally blind individuals with a penchant for exploration of all types, the Holman Prize provides financial backing – up to $25,000 – for three individuals to explore the world and push their limits. Learn more at holmanprize.org.

Blind Explorer Erik Weihenmayer on Occasionally Forgetting His Socks and Being a Blind Ambassador

The Cover of Erik's Book, No BarriersOn May 2, we’re welcoming blind explorer Erik Weihenmayer as our guest for the next installment of LightHouse Listenings — a live event “for ears only”. Erik will join Davia Nelson of NPR’s The Kitchen Sisters for a candid conversation about his work as an athlete, adventurer, author, activist and motivational speaker, as well as his new book (relaunched April 24) No Barriers

Many of us are familiar with Weihenmayer’s worldly feats — climbing Mount Everest and kayaking the Grand Canyon, to name two. But while it’s easy to focus on the dazzling peaks (literal and figurative) of Erik’s achievements, this doesn’t leave much room to talk about the nitty gritty, behind-the-scenes of traveling the world as a blind person. What goes into planning a trip like this? How do you ignore the haters? What silly things has he forgotten?

With our Holman Prize semifinalists filling out their proposals and preparing to embark on adventures of their own, we decided to grill Erik for more than just lofty inspiration. The Holman Prize Team collected some practical advice for blind travelers including fully immersing yourself in the experience, getting to know the currency and occasionally making time to do some adventuring in your very own backyard.

Here’s the full conversation:


Holman: When putting together the trip of a lifetime, how long should you take to research and plan? Any rule of thumb for time spent planning versus the actual execution?

Erik: What gets attention, and what people remember, is the summit, the big rapid or whatever that “apex” is – but I don’t think people realize for every hour of summiting, there’s a hundred hours of tedious planning. It’s sitting behind the computer writing everyone you know, trying to raise money, trying to understand the business side of how to make it happen, promoting it in the right way, and all the tedious hours that go into training.

Holman: When you walk out the door, what do you most often forget?

Erik: First of all, when I get on the plane I feel relief, I take a nap. One of the hardest parts – the planning – is over. Now it’s just put your plan into place – execute well, and that’s completely different from all the planning, all the worrying, all the anxiety, all the orchestration. You get on that plane and you’re like, ok, stage one of the adventure is done.

That being said, I’ve forgotten all kinds of things – even socks. Imagine going up Mount Everest and realizing “Oh my god! I thought you were going to bring all the socks!” and then you have four pairs of socks for going all the way up the mountain. Then there we were, looking for yak-wool socks in the markets of Namche Bazaar, and trust me, those aren’t as warm as SmartWool.

I’ve forgotten books. When you’re blind, and you’re not really getting stimulation from looking out the window, sometimes you need a good book to help you – with jet lag especially. If you have insomnia don’t forget those books, or music, or podcasts or whatever you need.

One thing I tell people is to be careful to separate the experience itself from the promotion of the experience. Of course you have to send out the travel blog or the video or the Facebook update, and that stuff’s important to spread the message, but there has to be a very clear line. You have to be ready to immerse yourself in the experience, and that’s a tricky thing in the modern world – being there to actually be there, not for your résumé.

Holman: What are the cultural considerations of traveling around the world as a blind person? Any tools you recommend for assimilating when moving from country to country? Any must-have items, besides the obvious?

Erik: In the developing countries I’ve been in, bringing a dog would be really hard. It’s kind of you and your cane. Going from America to a developing country, people don’t know about blindness. The blind people in their communities maybe don’t come out as much. In many places, blind people stay in their huts, cook, and are sheltered.

I went to Russia once and was getting ready to speak at a bank. All the people with different challenges – blind people, wheelchair riders, etc. – would come up in my talk, and they told me ‘You will shock people if you talk about them, because we don’t see those people in our culture.’ They’re hidden away.

For that reason, definitely try to connect with the local blindness organization. Stop in and share knowledge. When I was in Katmandu, I went to the association and it was great, we had lunch together and talked. It was wonderful.

Always go knowledgeable. Learn the money, learn how to identify the money. And if you speak the language, you are golden. If you know the language, then everyone is relying on you to translate and you’re getting pushed to the front to talk and interact with the local people.

Understand that when you go into one of these not-first world countries, there’s chaos. You’re stepping in pig poop, there’s open gutters with sewage, and it’s not ADA compliant. But that’s part of what makes it fun, too. I remember walking through the streets of Katmandu and a guy came by on his moped, and literally his moped bumped me. His hot tail pipe burned my leg. It wasn’t a disaster, you just have to be able to handle these sorts of inconveniences.

Holman: When traveling, how do you keep track of your story? Do you take notes, keep a journal, or somehow otherwise keep track of your milestones with a physical inventory, or do you keep it all in your head?

Erik: Everybody’s different, but writing in a journal throughout the trip is really great. Even bring a digital recorder and just jot notes down or turn it on and capture an experience you might want to remember later. And if everyone takes a journal, then you can go back and read everyone else’s, too. It become a collective consciousness type of thing. If you plan on writing about the experience, you can’t beat a firsthand account of how you were feeling on any given day.

Holman: Ever been an amazing adventure in your own community?

Erik: There’s incredible adventure all around us. Recently my wife and I rode our tandem bike up to this ghost town called Animas Forks, and explored all the old buildings where these miners lived through the harshest of winters. I went to South Carolina last year, to Beaufort, and we took a tour, learned about this language, almost like a separate language that the African-American culture spoke, based on their language from Ghana. There are incredible cultures and adventure right under our noses, you don’t necessarily have to go to the other side of the world.

Holman: Is it more important to do something first or do something best?

Erik: It depends on what your goal is. I’ve never looked at adventure in terms of “hey, I survived it!” The point of these adventures isn’t just to survive. You don’t learn anything from being in a survival stage. You want to be ready. I think it’s more important to take the time to flourish in these environments or cultures. What you’re trying to do is learn things.

If you can prepare for something, and be first, it’s pretty fun, but at the same time, you can be a pioneer without being the first. Because pioneering is mostly in your mind. It’s not about being the first “out there,” as long as it’s a meaningful experience for you. It’s icing on the cake – but it’s not quite enough in itself.

Holman: If people don’t believe in your ability to do something, how do you proceed?

Erik: It’s a tricky one, because even though I’ve done a lot of big cool things in my life, I may be sitting in the airport trying to figure out how to get on the right bus. You’re still  a human being, and still confused in that moment. It’s ok to ask for help and accept help.

It is a balancing act of accepting help and also being practical about what you can do and what you don’t need help with. Honestly, people could argue with this, but getting out there and flailing and bleeding is perfectly acceptable. People want to immediately grab you, and help you, people don’t want to see that flailing. You tap someone’s foot with the cane and they freak out. You have to say “No, that’s how the cane works.”

I think that you’re teaching by being out there and being positive. If you become the grumpy blind guy, you’ve lost. You’ve got to be graceful, and be the consummate ambassador, and if you’re lucky enough to have the time to educate people, do it in a nice way.

Meet Erik at LightHouse Headquarters on May 2 for his talk at 7:00 p.m. Reception begins at 6:00 p.m., with complimentary wine and beer included in your ticket.

The cost is $10 in advance and $15 at the door (cash only). Tickets can be purchased through our Eventbrite page.

If you are unable to buy your ticket via Eventbrite, contact Events Manager Dagny Brown at dbrown@lighthouse-sf.org or 415-694-7311.