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Urban Trekking: Eye Opening or Ugly and Dangerous?

21 Feb

In 2007 I made a 6-mile trek across downtown Calcutta; not the most typical of trekking holidays. I could have been killed many times and in several different ways: by speeding juggernauts, motorbikes or taxis, by various forms of pollution, by mangey and irate dogs, or by falling into a distressingly un-signposted 30-foot trench bristling with masonry spikes.

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Urban trekker in India. Image: Flickr/ artist in doing nothing

Obviously I didn’t get killed or I wouldn’t be writing this now. But far from being traumatised by my experience, the feeling of satisfaction after reaching my destination – Alipore Zoo – was equal to that I have felt after conquering any hill or jungle.

But mention the rather newfangled term ‘urban trekking’ to most people of sane mind and they tend to give you an odd look. Why ambulate around somewhere busy, man-made and ugly when you can explore nature in peace and solitude?

 

So what is it?

There are varying definitions of the term. For the Potomac Area Council in Washington, DC, urban trekking is an educational programme intended to help disaffected young people navigate their way between American cities.

A swift Google shows the term to have been hijacked by various tour operators that are headquartered in cities but offer trekking holidays in the Great Outdoors – which makes the term a bit of a misnomer, if you ask me.

One blogger describes a pleasant mooch around the elegant cities of Florence and Pisa as ‘urban trekking’. While we can agree with him that this form of travel is perhaps the most sustainable there is (another good argument for using your legs), I’m not sure that checking out the posher parts of Italy offers quite the adrenalin-pumping challenges the hardcore hiker requires.

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The flower market in Calcutta. Image: Flickr/ abogada samoana

So instead let me offer this definition of a textbook urban trek: ‘a journey on foot through an urban environment that should involve some element of physical exertion or even risk, and that yields a new and surprising insight into a city.’

Why bother?

Whereas most trekkers are Romantics i.e. they hold up nature as the most life-affirming and spiritually/physically-renewing place to explore, others believe that it is the city that offers the greatest challenges, lessons and rewards to the hiker.

According to Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums, for the first time in history there are now more people around the world living in cities than in the countryside. Like it or not, the city is now the place to be, the place to explore. It is where the most interesting things happen, it has the most interesting things to see. It is where the agendas are set and where the future is decided.

Trek against the machine

There is a political dimension to urban trekking too. The French philosopher and ‘psychogeographer’ Guy Debord saw drunkenly ‘drifting’ around the streets of Paris in the 1960s as a way of frustrating the oppressive and controlling boundaries of the modern city.

Author and ambler Will Self updates the creed like this: ‘The contemporary flâneur is by nature and inclination a democratising force who seeks equality of access, freedom of movement and the dissolution of corporate and state control.’

Which sounds like the urban trekker’s version of ‘the rambler’s right to roam.’

But what about the weirdos?

It is true that pests and nutters are occupational hazards for the urban trekker. I recall an initially delightful mosey through Muscat amid the palm trees, the lively souqs and the rosewater scent of ladies’ perfume – which climaxed (almost certainly the least appropriate word) with a sexual advance from an Indian migrant worker.

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You may see a fight while walking along the streets of India. Image: Flickr/ Proxy Indian

But disaster was averted: as soon as he squeezed my thigh I bade him farewell and exercised my flaneur’s freedom of movement as quickly as I possibly could!

I appreciate that not every urban trekker gets off (again, not the choicest phrase) as lightly as I did in Muscat. There is of course a risk – especially to women, according to the stats – of walking in certain streets at certain times in almost any city in the world.

While assaults on female tourists abroad often make the national headlines, the two most recent incidents occurred as a result of break-ins at hotels in Tobago and Goa. This is not to say that urban trekking is less risky than staying in a hotel, just that everyone should take sensible precautions in any travel context.

Give it a go!

Calcutta didn’t kill me it made me stronger – and wiser. It was worth getting up close and personal with the city to understand something about Indian culture and society, something I wouldn’t have learned from a ramble in the sticks.

Originally published on Exploco.

Missive #20 – Spiffing New Element Site

10 Feb

Element, the copywriting company that runs Adventure Sports Holidays has a brand new and highly professional-looking site. As a staff writer for ASH, it’s reassuring to be working with people who palpably know what they’re doing.

Sherpas: Underpaid and exploited – so what are you doing about it?

1 Nov

It’s a dilemma that anyone who travels in the developing world encounters, “When you pay someone for goods or services are you exploiting them or helping them?”

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Getting ready for the summit. Image: Flickr/ ilkerender

In the specific case of the Sherpas, concerns about their welfare have been hanging around for a long time. In 2006, The Independent’s Justin Huggler in Everest: No Room at the Top reported a widespread belief that ‘the Sherpas who climb Everest with Western expeditions get a raw deal, and are often exploited.’

It says something about the attitude of foreign climbers that many wrongly assume that all who help out on expeditions are Sherpas, when in fact this is just one ethnic group amongst many employed in the Himalayas.

But is exploitation of these elite mountaineers a reality? If so, how widespread is it? And what are you doing about it?

 

Worse at the Bottom

As with every society on Earth, there is a privileged minority who do much better than the downtrodden majority below them. At and around Everest, those who work at higher altitudes as guides are entitled to free food and kit and can earn around £1800 for four month’s work – not bad for Tibet.

But some, like climbing blogger Bob Bennell, assert that Sherpas should be paid better given that no Westerner can match their orienteering and tracking skills. He goes on to say, ‘Sherpas get only token credit for any team success even though little could be achieved without their help’.

It’s not so rosy for those who serve food and lug equipment at the lower altitudes. Their equipment and clothing is often inadequate for these harsh climes (and climbs) and they are lucky to receive £1.50 per day. Even by Tibetan standards, this is not a great rate for such difficult and challenging work.

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Make sure you tip your Tamang assistant. Image: Flickr/ ilkerender

Unfortunately, there is a racial aspect to this split within the ranks of porters who may help you trek everest base camp. For historical reasons, Sherpas dominate the better-paid, higher altitude jobs while other ethnic groups such as Tamangs tend to occupy the less glamorous positions lower down.

There is little room for upward mobility, but this is sadly just a reflection of broader Tibetan society.

Complicity

While the division between Sherpa and Tamang is undoubtedly a product of indigenous culture, Westerners must share some of the blame for propagating it with the money they pay out for trek holidays.

So what can you do? One approach is to make sure you tip your Tamang assistant so that he can supplement the measly wage he takes home. You’ll have to be cautious: offering too much money might embarrass him, and too little might offend him.

It’s best to ask around and find out what a fair ‘going rate’ is.

Perhaps the most effective – but also most idealistic – approach would be to help the Tamangs to form a union of some kind, or to establish a campaign to give Tamangs a leg up into the better-paid jobs.

Have you had the help of Sherpas while trekking in Nepal? What do you think the solution might be?

Originally published at http://www.trekkingholidays.net/blog/2012/08/15/sherpas-underpaid-and-exploited-so-what-are-you-doing-about-it/

Get off my %*&$ing land: Are trekkers a nuisance to landowners?

1 Nov

Research suggests that 70% of Britain’s land is owned by an extremely wealthy 1% of the population. This goes some way to explaining why trekkers and hikers have such difficulties exercising their right to roam.

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Trekkers keep moaning about the lack of access. Image: Flickr/ Konrad Andrews

But, so the landowners counter, there are over 140,000 miles of Public Right of Way trails that lead to almost every corner of the country, so why do people who go on walking holidays keep moaning about lack of access?

Is this “baron versus vagabond” debate a waste of time or does it cut to the heart of a serious issue confronting modern Britain?

 

Hiking Sense

Those fortunate enough to own acres of beautiful and walkable terrain often cite the risks of vandalism and littering as good reasons to keep out the hoi polloi. In reality, though, the vast majority of those wanting to explore this green and pleasant land on foot do so with respect and care.

Many trekkers’ associations promote fairly strict codes of conduct such as the Countryside Code. This was established in 2004 but based on sensible ideas that date back to the 1930s, and explained more here on the National Trust website.

Hikers should leave no trace of their visit to the countryside, ensuring that they clean up everything from picnic leftovers to dog faeces. Failure to do so is not just an aesthetic consideration – it can cause hazards to wildlife too.

Above all, the Code advises hikers to cooperate with local people – especially those working on the land – at all times. Avoid herds of farm animals, listen to directions from farmers and, when walking on bridleways, give way to those riding horses.

Of course there are isolated incidents of idiots who abuse our natural environment, but in no way do they represent the overwhelming majority of people who visit the countryside.

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Exercise your right to roam. Image: Flickr/ Tim Dobson

The Land is Ours

Another defence that landowners use is that they have worked hard to earn the money to buy their property, so why should they share it with people on family walking holidays and weekend jaunts?

Then again, others claim that the countryside is a national treasure for all to enjoy and to carve it up amongst a tiny elite is immoral, whether they can afford to pay for it or not.

But even if we take that argument on face value, many landowners belong to the aristocracy and so inherited rather than earned their personal meadows, valleys and forests.

In a modern democratic society is it really rational to cling on to outdated notions of birthright and lineage that essentially boil down to someone’s ancient forefather killing someone else’s ancient forefather, stealing their land and passing it down to their descendants?

A Draconian Future

According to Jeevan Vasagar of the Guardian, more and more public space in Britain – both rural and urban – is being privatised. This is bad news for hikers, as these new private owners are legally allowed to keep out whoever they like.

So what were once free and open community gathering places – a park or a beach, for example – are becoming mini-police states that criminalise citizens for simply wandering over an often invisible boundary.

Originally published on http://www.trekkingholidays.net/blog/2012/10/31/get-off-my-ing-land-are-trekkers-a-nuisance-to-landowners/