Cultural Considerations When Hiking Abroad

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.”

~ Henry Miller

Hiking abroad often means leaving your comfort zone – linguistically, socially, culinarily and culturally. The extent to which you are able to “embrace the discomfort”, will in no small degree influence the quality and depth of your overall experience.

If you’re hoping to derive more from your journey than simply hiking from A to B and taking some pretty landscape photos, you have to make the effort. Always remember that you’re the visitor. The onus is on you to accept and adapt. Not the other way around.

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Ki Monastery | Indian Himalaya, 2008 | I stayed at this beautifully set Buddhist monastery for a couple of nights during the Spiti Valley High Route.

Research

Before departing on your trip, make the effort to research the region and/or country that you will be visiting.

I’m not just talking about hiking-related information such as weather data, terrain and altitude gained and lost. I’m referring to what makes a place and its people tick. Culture, history, religion, social do’s and don’ts.

Your efforts will be rewarded.

People the world over love to talk about what they know. When locals realize you have a genuine interest in their home, they are more likely to open up and be genuinely friendly and helpful. A little knowledge can mean the difference between being treated like a stranger and being accepted as a welcome guest.

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Masuleh | I spent a few days in this friendly mountain village in northern Iran in 2008. I used it as a base camp of sorts. Each day after breakfast I would pack my bag and head for the hills. It was my favourite place in the whole country. I turned 39 years old during my stay.

Photography

Never take someone’s photo without first asking permission.

Ask yourself how you would feel if complete strangers, who neither spoke your language nor seemed to have anything but a fleeting interest in your culture, came up to you at regular intervals and started snapping away before promptly marching off to find their next subject (victim?). The novelty would wear off pretty quickly, no? Would you feel as if the person taking the photos had any interest in your friendship?

Generally speaking, my policy over the years has been to get to know someone before I consider asking to take their photo. Sometimes this might mean chatting over tea for thirty or forty minutes in a nomad encampment. Other times, such as in the image below, I may take a farewell keepsake of hosts that had subsequently become friends.

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(L to R) Yours truly, Ismael and Tsering | Lamayuru to Padum/Serchu Trek | I hiked into the tiny Himalayan village of Manchu early one evening. It had been a long day and I was tired. I was hoping to find accommodation with a local family, which took me all of 0.7 seconds to do so thanks to these two little characters. They spotted me wandering into the village and knew what I was looking for without having to say a word. I followed them to their home and ended up spending a couple of memorable days getting to know the whole family……..no small thing when you consider there were eight of them! One of the highlights of my time in the Indian Himalaya.

Clothes

As a foreigner, you will usually be cut some slack in regards to your attire. Nonetheless, dressing in a culturally appropriate manner will go some way in helping you to gain the acceptance of your hosts. Remember first impressions matter. By not drawing attention to yourself you are making a conscious effort to adapt. Your efforts will be appreciated.

In developing countries, the reality is that women are often held to a stricter code of dress than men. For information on what is considered culturally appropriate clothing for women in developing countries, see Journeywoman.com, an excellent online travel resource aimed specifically at females venturing abroad.

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Yours truly about to start the hike from Ganden to Samye monastery | During all of my treks in Tibet, I wore pants rather than shorts. In some two months of travelling around the country, I didn’t spot a single person wearing shorts.

Handouts

Whilst visiting developing countries, many foreigners give out sweets, money and other gifts without a second thought to the long-term repercussions of their actions. Their mindset is: “I am only here for a short time, what harm can it do?”

Such an attitude is short sighted. It doesn’t take long for begging to become endemic.

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Village of Munerachi, Copper Canyon, 1995 | My friend, Mike, and I spent the best part of a day chatting with the school teacher and playing frisbee with local Tarahumara children. It remains one of my fondest memories from some twenty years of visiting the Copper Canyon Region.

If rural children know that they can make easy money simply by smiling and holding their hands out to foreigners, what’s to stop them from making it a full time career? In the case of sweets, many kids in these areas don’t have regular dental hygiene habits. In regards to other gifts, such as pens, children are just as likely to sell them as use them in class.

So what to do? If you really want to make a contribution, one possibility is giving a donation direct to a local school. Another is volunteering at a charitable organization or NGO. A third is to simply make the effort to interact with locals. Show your interest by spending time with them rather than handing out tokens.

Language

When hiking in remote areas of developing countries, even a few words of the local language will be greatly appreciated. If people see that you are genuinely trying to communicate, nine times out of ten they will make the effort to understand and help in any way they can.

If on the other hand you just start rambling on in English without making any effort whatsoever, then chances are that people will be a lot less likely to assist you.

Put yourself in their shoes.

How would you react if someone came up to you in your own country and started speaking to you in a foreign language, seemingly under the assumption that you are automatically going to understand and assist them? Wouldn’t you be more inclined to help if you sensed that they were at least making an effort to communicate in the local language?

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The best Russian I ever spoke was after four or five quick vodkas with this colourful old timer | Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russia, 2009.

Summary

Accepting a place and it’s people on their terms rather than your own isn’t always easy. It takes effort to “embrace the discomfort.” But it has been my experience over the years that the potential rewards are many. Not least of which is a broader perspective on the world. And that is no small thing in this day and age.

 


Comments

Cultural Considerations When Hiking Abroad — 2 Comments

  1. Hi there
    Could you advice me trekking in
    Mustang im Sommer, i would love to trekking there, but i have only time off in Sommer /up 15.07till end of August,
    Thank so much for answer ;
    Sincerely yours Sylwia F

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