Tag Archives: guy debord

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.

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Excerpt from The Hitchers of Oz

22 Jun

The Most Lateral Digit

In 2007 I travelled to eight Asian countries, mostly by air, sometimes by coach and train, less frequently by sea and occasionally by the means of hitchhiking. Getting my thumb out usually resulted in taking my fate in my own hands. I enjoyed the ambiguity – who will pick me up? Where might I be dropped off? – and the freedom to bust out of the safe ‘n’ easy limits of modern tourism, what Guy Debord called ‘human circulation packaged for consumption … the opportunity to go and see what has been banalized’. All across Asia are outposts of the banal catering to Western tastes, colonies of the familiar in which you’ll find American fast food outlets, bars selling European beer, mock-bohemian hostels and – above all – the beach.

I could never spend too long on the beach, even though, as a creative writer, I liked its unreality, its suspension from the normal diktats of time, order and motion. The excess of heat and light distorts your perception of everything around you. You can feel like you’re in an invented world of isthmuses of blazing sand that reach into the lucid ocean through which the naked eye can see coral patterns of alien intricacy. There are newspapers and TVs on the beach but what they report seems so remote. A nuclear bomb could explode ten miles away, but its radiation wouldn’t leak into the hermetic bubble of the beach.

Other people seem unreal too. When you ask them about themselves, their answers seem contrived and implausible: a German whose parents own a huge porn shop in Hamburg, a UN peacekeeper on a weekend break, an undercover drugs agent for the Jakarta police who also happens to be a reflexology masseur.

As the sun sets, you find yourself sinking happy hour beers at a palm-shaded bar playing Jack Johnson. You’re living the cliché (or is it now a myth?) of postcards, TV holiday shows and what every Western traveler is told to want from a foreign trip.

The close proximity to bizarre animals can make you think you are roaming the Lost World or the Island of Dr Moreau. You wait for a six foot monitor lizard, essentially a mini-dinosaur, to cross the path that leads back to your hut where there’ll be a different critter to contend with each night: an audacious monkey trying to steal washing, a mysterious gold-backed spider – straight out of Poe – that takes hours of smothering with towels and insect repellent before it dies, cockroaches – those evolutionary strongarms, flying at your face like an apocalyptic beast – worms, frogs, birds of prey beating their wings against the frame of the window, and mosquitoes. Mosquitoes everywhere.

You lie in your sweaty bedclothes staring at the ineffectual fan on the ceiling, hoping its revolutions will hypnotize you to sleep. You reek of the science fictional smell of DEET that is all over your body to prevent bites. Bites that can give you malaria or dengue fever. Mosquitoes, the most dangerous animals in the world if you go by body count.

At around 4am, locals start burning great pyres of rubbish right outside your hut. Back West this is deemed so eco-unfriendly that it could only happen in a bad dream.

What further adds to that unreal feeling is that, on the beach, no-one has a job, is told what to do or has to abide by a routine. That is, of course, apart from the locals who all work extremely hard to maintain this ‘free space’ for the travelers who play roles like actors in a film. Every beach has its resident crackerjack who’s changed his name to mean ‘god of the wind’ or some such thing in the local language. Invariably he is from white middle-class origins, has dreadlocks and carries around a didgeridoo, even though he is unable to play it very well. He is holier than thou about the milieu – he knows every bar, fishing and diving spot, and everyone.

TS Eliot wrote ‘humankind cannot bear too much reality’, and I wonder if sometimes the opposite is true also. On one particular beach in Malaysia, I came to the decision that I’d borne too much unreality. So I hitchhiked out of there.

Taking his cue from Debord, Will Self makes a point in a Google Authors talk about the tyranny of modern transport, in which the traveler is oppressed by prearranged flight paths or train routes or boat courses.

First published in The Hitchers of Oz (2009)