“Listen, there’s a hell of a good universe next door, let’s go!”
- E.E. Cummings (1894-1962)
Hiking in developing countries means leaving your comfort zone – linguistically, socially, culturally and culinarily. That being said, once you actually make the leap of faith, board the plane and head out into the hills, all of those pre-trip worries about “how different” everything was going to be will magically disappear. You will go from “what if?” to “Wow, what was I worried about?”
Before your trip, make an effort to research where you are going. Guide books, the internet, the local library; whatever you can find. 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 culture and history, they are more likely to open up and be genuinely friendly and helpful.
GUIDED OR INDEPENDENT?
In First World countries, the majority of people hike without the assistance of guides, porters or travel agencies. Yet, when many of these same hikers travel to developing nations they make the decision to go on guided treks. Why?
Guided treks offered by adventure travel companies provide their clients with a relatively “worry free” wilderness experience. Details such as getting there and away, route finding, navigation, potential campsites, language barriers etc., are all taken care of by the people in charge. You have your tent set up for you, your food cooked for you, the bulk of your gear carried for you. In addition, a guide can provide insights into local flora, fauna and the nuances of village life. If you are short of experience and time and just want a hassle-free holiday out in nature shared with potentially like-minded people, then a guided trek may very well be for you.
In contrast, hiking independently means the acceptance of all responsibilities. If something goes wrong the onus is upon you to make it right. Pre-hike preparations can at times be lengthy, complicated and dealing with Third World bureaucracy is rarely easy. However, despite the logistical challenges, the majority of independent trekkers will attest that the rewards far outweigh the inconveniences. Principal amongst these benefits is a sense of freedom – the freedom to choose where you camp, what you eat, whom you hike with (if anyone), when you take a break and how fast or slow you walk.
Whilst a guide may provide valuable insights into regional culture, it is equally true that when local people see someone hiking independently, carrying their own pack, taking the same dodgy buses and broken down pickup trucks that they do, an affinity is created without a single word being exchanged. In a sense the independent hiker represents a more empathetic figure, simply because he or she is attempting to accept and adapt to local conditions without the safety net of a guided trip.
Whether you hike independently or with a guide comes down to personal preference. We all have different motivations, family and work commitments, levels of fitness and experience. Ultimately, the most important thing is to go with an open mind. If you can put aside preconceived ideas and accept a place and its people on their terms rather than your own, chances are you are going to have a fantastic time no matter how you choose to hike.
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.
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. The novelty would wear off pretty quickly, no? Would you feel as if the person taking the photos had any interest in your friendship?
When visiting Third World 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. If rural children know that they can make easy money simply by smiling and holding their hands out to foreign hikers, what’s to stop them from making it a full time career? In the case of sweets, many rural kids don’t have regular dental hygiene habits. In regards to other gifts, such as pens, often children are more likely to sell them than use them at school.
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 actually volunteering at a charitable organization or NGO. A third is to simply make the effort to interact with and get to know some of the locals. Show your interest by spending time with them rather than handing out tokens.
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, then 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 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?
HEALTH & SAFETY
Many people are dissuaded from hiking in developing countries due to health and safety concerns. The list of potential hazards is long: malaria, rabies, amoebic dysentery, dodgy medical facilities, robbery and kidnapping. That being said, it is worth remembering that for the vast majority of people who hike in Third World countries, the worst issue they end up facing is a three day bout of the runs. In other words, don’t worry too much. Do what needs to be done, and then just go.
A great place to start when making your plans is one of the Travel Doctor websites: http://www.traveldoctor.com.au/ (Australia); http://www.thetraveldoctor.com/ (USA); http://www.traveldoctor.co.uk/ (UK). These sites are full of useful information in regards to anything and everything pertaining to Third World travel. Once you have done the research, go to your doctor and/or clinic and organize any necessary vaccinations and medications.
Two of the above mentioned health issues which generally don’t concern hikers in developed nations are malaria and rabies. Let’s take a brief look at these two diseases, and how they specifically relate to hiking in developing countries.
When hiking in first world countries, we are fortunate in that for the most part mosquitos represent more of an annoyance than a serious threat to our health. In the developing world the situation is quite different. Malaria accounts for thousands of deaths every year. Other mosquito borne diseases include dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis and the West Nile Virus (which is becoming increasingly prevalent in First world nations as well). One of the most commonly asked questions amongst hikers when planning a trip to developing countries, is whether or not they should take anti-malarial tablets. A few observations:
- Altitude: Much of the hiking done in developing countries is at altitudes higher than 2000 m (6561 ft) above sea level (e.g. Andean or Himalayan nations). This is an important fact to consider as mosquito borne diseases do not usually occur above this altitude. If you are travelling to a high altitude country specifically to go trekking then there is often no real need to take anti-malarial tablets. Notable exceptions to this point include Ethiopia, Kenya and Papua New Guinea. The common denominator amongst these three countries is warmer climates, even at relatively high altitudes. With global warming on the rise, it may not be long before other high altitude areas previously exempt from such diseases need to be reassessed.
- What type of trip? : If you are combining your hiking with other travel activities at lower altitudes, anti-malarial tablets may need to be considered. Research the areas you are planning to visit and consult with your doctor before making your decision.
- Prevention is better than cure: Whether you decide to take anti-malarial tablets or not, your best defence against mosquitos is wearing appropriate clothing, using insect repellent and being inside during the peak times of dawn and dusk. A permitherin impermeated bed net is a good investment for town stops.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 55,000 people per year die of rabies. The majority of these cases are due to dog bites. If you are planning on hiking in developing countries, it pays to educate yourself in regards to the threat posed by rabid dogs. A few observations:
- Vaccinations: Whilst rabies vaccinations do not preclude you from contracting the disease, they do buy you more time in case you are bitten. This fact could potentially prove lifesaving if you happen to be hiking in a remote region where medical attention is not readily available. It is important to note that even if you have been vaccinated, you still need to seek medical treatment ASAP.
- Wide Berth: Nomads encampments invariably have guard dogs. These animals are extremely territorial, and not that friendly to strangers. It is wise to give such campsites a wide birth, unless you are actually invited in by the owners as a guest. Tibetan mastiffs are probably the most consistently aggressive canines I have encountered. Sort of ironic, considering how genuinely friendly and hospitable the Tibetan people are.
- Rocks: In developing countries dogs are accustomed to having rocks thrown at them. Hikers can use this knowledge to their advantage. When confronted with an aggressive canine, shape up as if you are going to throw a rock at it – going through the motion of actually bending down to pick up a rock can make your act even more convincing. More often than not the dog will cower away. In the event that it calls your bluff, it pays to have a couple of real rocks at the ready in order to show you mean business.
- No Fear: If faced with an aggressive canine do not turn your back on it and definitely don’t run.
- What to do if you are bitten?: Wash the wound with soap and water for a minimum of five minutes. Seek medical attention immediately.
Generally speaking, whether you are in a First World or a Third World country, you are safer out in the wilderness than you are in a big city. Nonetheless, never take your safety and/or the generosity of local people for granted. Before leaving home garner as much information as possible in regards to any health, cultural, political or economic issues pertaining to your proposed journey. The two keys to hiking safely in developing countries are thorough preparation and keeping your wits about you at all times. A few other observations:
- Be aware, without being paranoid: The vast majority of people you encounter will be honest and friendly. However, there is no way around it, poverty often breeds crime. If you are in a poor rural area and happen to be camping in the vicinity of a village or town, keep a watchful eye on your belongings – just as you would if you were in a poorer area of a First World country. It is worth noting that theft is much more common on popular treks such as the Inca Trail and the Annapurna Curcuit. Generally speaking, more tourists equate to a greater incidence of petty theft.
- Low Profile: Don’t bring attention to yourself by wearing fancy clothes or accessories. Be understated and humble.
- Leave Trip Details: Just as you would when hiking at home, be sure to leave details of your itinerary and your planned return date with a responsible contact person. Once you are finished, be sure to inform them.
When hiking in developing countries, take equipment that is durable, low maintenance and lightweight. Quality replacement options are often thin on the ground. You want gear that is going to last.
- Durability: When making your way to and from the trail, chances are you will be constantly getting inand out of dodgy old buses and pickup trucks. That being the case, your pack inevitably takes an absolute beating. In such circumstances, you want a pack that is constructed of durable materials. There are a number of different options on the market. For hiking in developing countries I recommend backpacks made of Cordura and Dyneema. I would stay away from Cuben Fiber models, which despite having good tensile strength, tend not to be quite as resistant to abrasion and puncture.
- Simplicity: Avoid packs with too many straps or zippers. The simpler the pack, the less chance that anything will fail, break or get caught.
- Size: Limit yourself to a pack with a maximum capacity of 65-70 litres. That should be sufficient to carry all necessary clothing and equipment, plus up to 5 days food. It’s a funny thing, but people who bring along 85-90 litre packs are more likely to find ways to fill them. If you limit yourself to a smaller size by necessity you are forced to bring only the essentials. Think practicality over superfluous luxuries. Your back and knees will be grateful.
- Go with a Tent: I recommend carrying a tent rather than a tarp or bivy sack while hiking in developing countries. Locals will often be curious as to the cost of camping equipment. The privacy of a tent enables the hiker not to have all their gear on display. This helps in avoiding the inevitable question, “how much does this cost?” Such queries can be uncomfortable, as they emphasize the discrepancy in affluence between yourself and your hosts. If asked about the price of a particular piece of equipment, I often try to deflect the question by indicating that the item was a gift from my family.
- Theft can occur. Whenever possible try camping away from village centres. A small padlock for your tent zippers is also a good idea.
- The Options: Alcohol or Multifuel stoves are your best bets. They can be carried hassle free on planes and finding fuel is rarely a problem. Click here for a table of International fuel names.
- Multi fuel stoves such as the MSR Whisperlite can run on practically anything. Petrol, white gas, kerosene. The downside? They are relatively heavy, and need to be regularly maintained in order to function at their optimum level. You will need to bring your own spare parts, as finding replacements in Third world countries can often be difficult.
- Alcohol stoves are my preference. They are practically maintenance free (just don’t step on them), super lightweight and denatured alcohol (methylated spirits) can be found throughout the world.
- Canister stoves are not practical for many developing countries. You cannot carry gas canisters on planes and outside of backpacking centres such as Kathmandu and Huaraz, it is often difficult to find replacement cartridges. In addition, most Third World countries do not have the means of recycling empty canisters, so environmentally speaking they are not a good idea.
THE THREE A’s
In 1996 during a hike in Bolivia’s Cordillera Apolobomba, I spent a full day in an abandoned miner’s hut riding out the mother of all storms. During this enforced break, I came up with the Three A’s of travelling (and hiking) in developing countries: acceptance, adaptation and appreciation.
- Accept the people and their environment on their terms, not yours.
- Adapt accordingly.
- Appreciate and embrace the differences and similarities alike.
If all else fails, a big smile and the ability to laugh at yourself go a long way.