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In the second of a series of articles looking at the ethics of travel, David Jobanputra argues that we need not worry about rights and wrongs so long as we are properly ‘immersed’. He goes on to suggest how we might engage in immersive travel experiences and why they can benefit both the traveller and their host.
In last week’s piece, we began looking at the normative ethics of travel, or what I otherwise called ‘should questions’. ‘Should questions’ come in many shapes and sizes, from the trivial (e.g. ‘should I put the kettle on?’) to the profound (e.g. ‘should I pull the plug?’). In the context of travel, we find a similar spectrum; there are little ‘should questions’ (e.g. ‘should I take a towel?’) and big ‘should questions’ (e.g. ‘should I really be here?’). Previously, we looked at the question ‘where should we travel?’, which, I argued, is best answered with another question: ‘how should we travel?’. This brings us to the thrust of this week’s piece.
To recap briefly, it is important to remember that ‘should questions’ have no ultimate answer (outside organised religion that is); in making decisions, all we have are our own subjective scales of cost and gain, right and wrong. Now this can seem a little scary for a species obsessed with order, and for this reason most folk hold fast to normative ideas, going so far as to try to convince others of the rightness of their own perspectives. My aim here, however, is not to impose my own answers to the question ‘how should we travel?’ so as to appease my personal doubts. Instead, I invite you to move beyond the shoulds and should-nots to a land that is governed by instinct. Allow me to explain…
This morning, when you got up, showered, had breakfast or whatever, did you ask yourself: ‘how should I act today?’? Of course you didn’t. And the reason is that for the most part we are totally immersed in our day-to-day activities, such that much of what we do is instinctive. To put this another way, we don’t need to waste time with the question ‘how should I act today?’ – we know automatically – and the same can be said for ‘how should we travel?’; when we are properly immersed in any activity, there is no call for conscious strategy. Immersion, then, is key. It does not answer ‘should questions’ so much as makes them disappear. And so, for the rest of this article, I want to think about some possible paths to ‘immersive travel’.
To be immersed is to be wholly engaged or absorbed in one’s environment, to recognise unity. For the casual traveller, one way to achieve this level of engagement is to study something of their new setting; a language is an excellent place to start, but one might also consider music, dance or martial arts, to name but a few. In each case, the learning process brings one into contact with both culture (in an abstract, historical sense) and the bearers of that culture: the people themselves. Crucially, this contact is reciprocal not reactive, born of unity not difference. Through study, then, it is possible to achieve immersion; the more one learns, the deeper one goes.
Like learning, work can induce immersion. Now the idea of working whilst on holiday may seem horrendous to some, conjuring images of sun-loungers strewn with spreadsheets and sand in your Blackberry. But ‘work’, in a more general sense, refers simply to any task or undertaking in which, to co-opt its scientific definition, energy is transferred from one physical system to another. To work, then, is to invest energy in something, and travel affords us countless opportunities for this. Voluntourism, as it has come to be known, comprises a wide array of activities, from teaching and care work to construction and conservation. Providing the project is well-realised (unfortunately, there is no guarantee of this), voluntary work can lead to a special form of immersion, in which the individual shares not only a social space with others but also their methods and motives. Again, unity prevails.
The prospect of immersion is not limited to long-term travel. Even if there’s not enough time to study yoga or lend a hand in leper colony, one can still look to immerse oneself in this new social reality. Chatting with people, hanging out, sharing a cup of tea – these are all ways of breaking down the barrier between guest and host. And through this flows unity, immersing all around it. When we notice our common humanity, when our interactions are not merely instrumental but also empathetic, any question of how one should act dissolves in intuition. There are no abstract, antagonistic classes (i.e. ‘tourists’ vs. ‘other cultures’), there are simply people, other real people.
So, how should you travel?
Well, how did you act today?
About David Jobanputra
The Saharan desert stretches across vast parts of North Africa, from the Red Sea, to the Atlantic, covering some (or all) of 11 countries in the African continent. Bar the occasional oasis, the desert is made up from rocky plateaux, salt flats and sand seas, or ergs. These ergs, or 'dunes' are shaped by the wind and can reach peaks as high as 180m. They rise like a sea out of the desert and are an alluring place to visit. Due to political reasons, some of these sand seas are inaccessible to tourists, others, such as the ergs in Libya or Tunisia are more accessible, although independent tours to these are difficult, if not impossible to arrange. The easiest to visit, are arguably the Erg Chebaga and Erg Chebbi dunes in South Eastern Morocco. Measuring 22km long and 5km wide, the Erg Chebbi dunes offer an astounding experience. Sleeping under the stars in a Berber tent, camel trekking and the silence only the desert can offer all contribute to making it a must-see on everyone's travel list.
The gateway town to the Erg Chebbi dunes is Merzouga in South Eastern Morocco. It is about a 10 hour drive by car from Marrakech.
Guided Tours: Many people choose to travel here in guided tours from Marrakech, where groups depart for the desert in 4 x 4's. These trips often incorporate stops along the way to the Unesco World Heritage site of Ait Benhaddou and the Dades and Todra gorges, which are worth a visit in their own right.
Hire Car: If you choose to travel independently by hire car, there are plenty of guesthouses along the way and petrol stations in most sizeable towns. Keep an eye on your fuel gauge, however, as the stretches between towns are long.
Bus: Supratours run bus services from Marrakech to Merzouga (12 1/2 hours) and also Fes to Merzouga (11 hours) and Meknes to Merzouga (9 hours).
If you have travelled to Merzouga, independently, you will need to arrange your Erg Chebbi trip locally. Your best bet would be to book through your hotel in Merzouga.
The Erg Chebbi tours all follow roughly the same format. From Merzouga, you will head to a Kasbah on the edge of the dunes, where you will meet with your guide and camels. It will probably take about an hour to get to the Kasbah, depending on where it is and whether you are in a 4 x 4 or not. You will probably arrive there late afternoon and will then decant your belongings into a smaller backpack before alighting your camel. You can expect to trek on the camel for around 1 - 2 hours to reach your desert camp. If the timing works out, you will be able to stop along the way to sit on the dunes and watch the sunset. Once you arrive at your camp, you will be served dinner under the stars. Some camps offer additional entertainment after food, such as Berber singing and drumming. Depending on your timings the next day, you may head back out on your camel before sunrise, so that you can reach a good vantage point for the sunrise on your way back to the Kasbah. Time permitting, you may also have a chance to do some hiking in the dunes or go sand sledging. Some of the larger camps also have quad bikes for rent. You will arrive back at your Kasbah in the morning, where you can have breakfast and freshen up before your onward journey.
3 Day Erg Chebbi trip from Marrakech from £301 pp
Three day guided tour to the Erg Chebbi dunes. Given the distances involved, this is pretty much the shortest time you can make it from Marrakech to Erg Chebbi and back. There is time for short stops at the Todra Gorge and Ait Benhaddou along the way.
4 Day Boutique Erg Chebbi trip from Marrakech from £505 pp
The four day trip takes the same route as the 3 day route but gives you more time to explore Ait Benhaddou and the opportunity to visit the crumbling Kasbah Telouet. It also takes advantage of the more relaxed pace to enjoy some lovely boutique guesthouses along the way.
Camps in the desert tend to be basic, even the luxury ones. At the simpler end, you can expect a rustic Berber tent set up around a simple table. You will sit on rugs on the floor for dinner and will sleep on thin mats on the ground. Facilities will be basic - either at the mercy of mother nature or a shared portaloo. The more luxury camps have additional extras such as beds, table and chairs to dine on and some even have showers. However, think hard about whether you need these extras. You might get more out of the experience if you go basic and forget about the mod cons for a night. If you don't like the idea of camping in the desert, then you can go for the camel trek in the dunes and then sleep in the Kasbah instead.
You don't need any experience of riding to camel trek. You just need to hold on tight and let the camel do the work. Your camels will be attached to eachother in a train and lead at the front by a walking guide. It can feel quite precarious initially when you are perched on top of a camel (and quite wobbly) but once you get used to the motion, you will be able to sit back and enjoy the magnificent scenery.
You will need a decent sleeping bag. If you are going in the winter months then it will need to be an all season bag. For winter trips, warm clothing is recommended. It is more comfortable to wear long trousers when riding on a camel. It is also recommended to take a good head torch and wet wipes with you.
You can visit all year round, although because of the long distances involved, many tour companies do not offer the round trip from Marrakech during Ramadan, as it is a tall order for guides to drive the long distances in the heat with no sustenance.
Temperature wise, between November and March it can be warm in the sun during the day, but at night there can be lows of -5. In the summer, midday temperatures can reach 45C . For this reason, most tours arrange the camel trekking at sunrise / sunset.
In the latest in his series of articles exploring why we travel, David Jobanputra asks what impact our travelling has on the places we visit, and by extension what factors we should take into account when deciding where to travel. Government advice warns us against going to certain countries on grounds of safety; but should we base our final decisions on considerations framed more around the deeper implications of our visit?
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In the series so far, we have looked at modern-day leisure travel from a range of provocative perspectives: travel as religion, adventure or chronic consumption, as imperialism, idealism or international development. The point of these at times pejorative polemics was to get us thinking about what travel is, which paves the way for more moral musings on the matter of what travel should be. This forms the theme of these final two essays.
Before we kick off, a word about normative ethics. (Don’t worry – it’s not as scary as it sounds.) Normative ethics, quite simply, are concerned with ‘should’ questions. Should we go to war? Should we have the death penalty? Should we legalise bigamy? And so on. ‘Should questions’ are funny things really. They allude to a kind of template for existence (e.g. ‘what you should have done was…’) where none really exists. Nevertheless, we are everywhere confronted with normative claims (e.g. ‘you should recycle’, ‘you shouldn’t pick your nose’, ‘you should get a haircut’) and travel is little exempt; the question ‘where should we travel?’ is of this same type. Bear in mind, though, that what is normative is also subjective; in the end, what you should do is up to you.
So where should we travel? Well, at the time of writing, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised against all but essential travel to over 50 countries, including Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Zimbabwe and Haiti. Such places, we are told, are unsafe, but is this reason enough not to travel there? Here, as with any normative dilemma, we suppose there are pros and cons. There are x number of reasons why we shouldn’t travel (the risk to our safety, the cost of insurance, the concern of our family and friends, etc.) and y number of reasons why we should (supporting economies, offering aid, spreading democratic ideals, etc.). Ultimately, our decision boils down to a crude cost-benefit analysis; we weigh our gain against others’ using our own subjective scales and then take action accordingly. If the balance tips in our hosts’ favour, we may feel free to proceed. If, however, it is only us guests who stand to gain (as is the case for self-styled ‘disaster tourists’, gawping shutter-bugs with a Robert Capa complex), we might do well to reconsider.
Often, the normative issue isn’t one of danger and disaster; for some countries, the question of whether or not to travel is based on political considerations. Take Burma for example. On the one hand, we are told that tourism provides economic benefits to civilians and ‘raises awareness’ of their situation; on the other, we hear that it sources income to the military junta, thus furthering the cause of oppression. Should we travel to Burma, or Tibet, or the DRC? Again, the normative is subjective.
Whether or not one chooses to visit such places cannot be seen as either a violation of or an assent to some essential moral standard. Rather, the decision is a personal one that is likely informed by a wide range of factors: our thoughts about democracy and freedom, our sense of adventure, our concern for how others may see us and so on. It is not about a right or wrong choice. Nor is it about perfect information (e.g. ‘don’t you know that [Country X] has the one of the world’s worst human rights records’) – the normative makes no appeal to reality. What should we do? Look once again at the scale, and make a personal choice.
There are some tourist destinations that are contentious for reasons other than risk or political instability. In recent years, the dense forests of Western Papua and the upper Amazon Basin have become sites for so-called ‘first contact tourism’, in which wealthy hicks cough up upwards of $5000 to come face-to-face with a previously ‘untouched’ people. Okay, so ‘first contact’ may be a myth – almost all the world’s tribes have had at least some interaction with ‘the outside world’ – but regardless, one is inclined to wonder how anyone’s personal moral scale can tip in favour of such a trip. It would be difficult to argue that the terms of this arrangement are anything other than slack-jawed adventure freak-show for me, bother and bemusement for them. This, then, is as close as we come to a normative consensus, for it is nonsense to allege that anyone other than oneself derives significant benefit. Indeed, only the intruder takes pleasure in intrusion.
So where should we travel? Well, the answer comes not in the shape of a neat list of safe and civil locations, but rather in the form of another question: how should we travel? As the present debates makes clear, it’s often not where you go that matters (even in a subjective sense) but what you do when you get there. (Compare, for example, cholera relief in Haiti with a cross-dressing pub crawl in Crete.) So how should we travel? We’ll return to this question in next week’s piece.
Love it or loathe it, the big golden arches provide an instantly recognisable landmark on the most unfamiliar of skylines around the world. For many travellers McDonald's represents a safe and often cheap meal, even if a highly unimaginative one. For others it may be considered a useful stop as the cleanest free public toilets in town. Either way when passing through many parts of the world it's easy to believe that the red and yellow American fast-food giant has conquered the world.
It might be reassuring therefore to know that there are still a healthy number of countries that have yet to experience the cultural delights of the Big Mac or the Filet-o-Fish. Whether they have just said no,non, nyet, nej, etc or whether they have flirted with McDonald's before giving them the elbow, there's many a place where the fast food giant has failed to make its mark.
Here is just a selection of 10 of these countries where you'll have to make do with the local variety of fast food:
1. North Korea (ok, not so surprising here)
2. Seychelles (proof that a tropical paradise does not need to serve Big Macs to be complete)
3. Syria (as a member of George Bush's Axis of Evil it is not considered worthy enough to have a McDonald's)
4. Vatican City (the smallest country, yet it is packed with tourists who would no doubt welcome a happy meal)
5. Cambodia (it's on the cards apparently, but for now the millions of visitors to Angkor Wat have to do without the reassuring taste of home)
6. Zimbabwe (an argument for regime change surely, if one were needed)
7. Vietnam (old wounds run deep?)
8. Nepal (shame, as they could easily claim to be the highest McD's in the world - would a Quarter Pounder taste any better at 4000m?)
9. Kazakhstan (the largest country in the world to be McDonald's free)
10. Barbados (one outlet opened in 1996 and closed six months later due to poor sales)
And conversely, here are 10 surprising places where McDonald's has successfully arrived:
Iraq (ok, the McDonald's is hidden away in the Green Zone)
Qatar (maybe swung the World Cup vote?)
Japan (not surprising that they are in Japan, but more so that they have 3,500 outlets there; more than anywhere in the world outside the US)
So next time you have a hankering for meat in a bun in a box and feel guilty for supporting an all-conquering global imperialist capitalist machine, take some reassurance from the fact that there are some corners of the world that, for whatever reason, will never be lovin' it.
About Tourdust: We take a specialist approach to everything we do. We walk the trails and pore over maps evaluating different routes to make sure we can recommend the best adventure for each customer. We inspect hundreds of hotels and carefully pick the best and most reliable local guides. Each trip we organise is a deeply individual and genuinely local experience. Our areas of expertise are:
- Morocco holidays, Ethiopia and Kenya.
- Kayaking Holidays in the Mediteranean countries of Croatia, Greece and Turkey
- Multi-day treks in the Atlas Mountains, Simien Mountains, Mount Kenya, Kilimanjaro and Inca Trail
- Adventurous holidays for families. Many of our family holidays have been tested out by out founders own children.
The Torres Del Paine National Park is situated on the far southern edge of the Patagonian ice fields. Here, giant granite torres (towers) jut out of the earth’s crust and stretch into the vast blue Chilean skies. These mighty formations are millions of years old, dating from a time when the earth was still being moulded out of fire and ice. Many of the peaks of the Paine Massif are permanently covered in ice.
The National Park itself is over 180,000 hectares in size, and boasts iridescent lakes, fresh rivers, lagoons and waterfalls, as well as an impressive array of wild animal species, some of which have been rescued from the brink of extinction. Watch out for eagles and condors soaring around the peaks of Torres and Cuernos, while on the ground you might spot pumas, culpeos, guanacos and a whole host of other unusual creatures.
Treks start from the foot of the torres. The major routes either circle the whole Paine massif or lead directly into the massif itself. Most people do one of three routes; the 5 or 7 day W trek or 9 day Torres Del Paine Circuit.
Fitness is almost a pre-requisite, as this is mountainous land with changeable weather patterns and basic facilities for washing and sleeping. It is a good idea to go hiking beforehand to build up stamina and strength. Due to the variety of weather phenomena in this region – rain, sleet, snow, sun, winds – it is advisable to be prepared for anything. Hiking is theoretically possible at any time of year, although November to April are the best months. Exposed mountain pass viewpoints might act as a wind tunnel and blow light hikers off their feet, while rainbows might serenely stretch through the same mountain pass a few hours later.
For those less enamoured with trekking, there is always the option to base yourself in one of the several eco lodges in or around the park and head out for short day walks and wildlife tours before returning to the comfort of the lodge for dinner.
5-9 Day Torres Del Paine Treks from £852pp
Choose from the short 5 day W trek, the classic 7 day W trek or for those wanting a challenge the 9 day Torres Del Paine circuit. Combine the luxury of the stunning Ecocamp with roughing it in mountain refugios.
4-6 day packages at Ecocamp in Torres Del Paine Day from £680pp
Stay in the stylish Ecocamp eco lodge in the heart of the Torres Del Paine National Park. Packages included day walks and wildlife tours.
The Torres Del Paine National Park is best visited in the summer months between October and April. Whilst it is possible to trek in the winter, most organised treks take place in the summer months. This is South America in the true sense of the word, and temperatures behave accordingly. The average in summer hovers at around 11C, climbing to a maximum of 24 and descending to 0.
In spring the days are long with up to 18 hours of daylight, allowing plenty of time for exploration and impressive viewing opportunities. These days are frequently followed by rain, sleet and even snow. Summer often sees winds of up to 80km an hour. When you are at the end of the earth the weather is changeable and chaotic.
The jumping off point for most people is Puerto Natales, and most treks include transfers from here. To get to Puerto Natales you can either fly from Santiago or journey overland from El Calafate in Argentina.
From Santiago: Travellers to this region generally fly from Chile’s capital, Santiago, over Patagonia, to the fishing town of Punta Arenas. From here buses run to Puerto Natales. Another appealing option is to travel by ferry from the capital of Los Lagos, Puerto Montt, through the fjords to Punta Arenas.
From Argentina: Many travellers like to come across to the Torres from El Calafate in Argentina. A bus service runs from El Calafate bus station to Puerto Natales (journey time of about 4.5 hours) or you can arrange a private taxi.
There is a choice of accommodation in the park: campsites, refugios, hosterias, lodges and hotels. Mixed accommodation is popular, as people treat themselves with a night or two of comfort before roughing it up and down the slopes of the Massif. There are numerous campsites on the 100km of trekking routes that stretch throughout the park.
It is important to bear in mind that the refugios are crowded at the beginning of the year, and the policy is first come first served. It is possible to book them – prices range from 40 to 200 USD - depending on the type of board. They serve food and drink, which is comparatively expensive by Chilean standards, but of course far cheaper than US and European rates. The refugios have shower facilities; be aware that the water may be cold and the surfaces dirty. Camping is a wholesome alternative, offering space and refreshment for the soul. Camping will save your wallet; the campsites charge from $6 per night and the unmanned campsites are free. It is advisable to go to Torres Del Paine with the attitude that you are on expedition and to expect washing in lakes to be the norm. Therefore if you come into contact with any kind of tap, mattress or purchasable food you will be pleasantly surprised. Keep your expectations of comfort to a minimum and you cannot be disappointed.
As the park is so vast there are numerous guarderias – or ranger stations - run by Chile’s Corporacion Nacional Forestal (CONAF) in permanent residence. These may be found at Lago Pehoe, Laguna Verde, Lago de Grey and Lago del Toro, the latter of which is the main administrative hub for the park. These guarderias can provide camping and trekking information and are a good starting point before any expedition into the interior.