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Is the outdoors really inclusive?

Is the outdoors really inclusive?

April 29, 20

A perspective on growing up in a remote town near the Andes in Argentina

The first time I became aware of the concept of the “great outdoors”, I was 25 years old. I had just moved to Switzerland after being born and raised in Argentina. I had never traveled to other countries or visited many places before. So, the first time I was invited to go on a hike which I then found to mean “ take a walk in the mountains” (they literally had to explain to me what we were doing and why), I thought this was an unusual activity. Everyone seemed surprised about my reluctance to embrace this hobby and they were stunned that a grown adult wouldn’t crave being outdoors, walking in the mountains and enjoying mother nature. At the time, everyone (including myself) came to the conclusion that I just wasn’t “outdoorsy”. That the fact I didn’t appreciate being out in nature had to do with me being lazy. In fact, linking laziness to being Latin American comes up constantly in my life as an expat. Back then, I just assumed it was somewhat true and made it a running joke about myself and everyone in Latin America: “You know us… we are lazy people”. At the time, it didn’t cross my mind how culturally biased it was for Europeans to judge my attitudes with their own looking glass.

For most of my life in Europe, I managed to engage only mildly in outdoor activities (something suitable for the 3-year olds was fine with me). But it was still very foreign to me to see people geared up like professional athletes on the street. Prior to arriving in Switzerland, I had never seen someone dress up in a “Tour de France costume” just to go biking. I have also never heard of hiking shoes or a hydration bag. In fact, to this day, I have a hard time finding a Spanish translation for “hiking” in order to explain this activity to my parents back in Argentina.

Fast forward 8 years. I started working for LifeStraw and suddenly my life started revolving around understanding the outdoor world, outdoor trade shows, outdoor photo shoots, and outdoor gear. All of this was new to me, but I thought this was a good opportunity to “get into it” and finally overcome my inferiority complex as a Latin American in the developed world by trying to see the appeal of outdoor sports. I had often heard how the outdoors was inclusive, it was free, it was democratic, and it was there for everyone who wanted to venture into it. Well, let me tell you: I didn’t experience any of that. Instead, on more than one occasion I was ridiculed and laughed at for my panicked face while walking on rocks up a mountain, way out of my comfort zone. I didn’t experience this collective support and encouragement for trying despite the paralyzing fear. All I found was that many of the people practicing outdoor sports were competitive, petty, overly-geared, and taking themselves too seriously. It was as if proving oneself better and faster than others was a full-time job. This is what prompted me to think deeper about outdoor sports and about my own upbringing. As it turns out, while I was always under the impression that my reluctance with the outdoors was my personal fault, when I tried to think about everyone I knew in Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay… I couldn’t think of one single person that I knew who was into outdoor sports.

I was born and grew up in a small town in Argentina (San Juan), right next to the Andes mountain chain, a region known for its mining resources. The city is in the middle of a valley and surrounded by mountains. It looks stunning in photos, but in reality it is very remote and low-resourced. Recently I read an article about this place written by a British journalist who visited it. The part that struck me the most was the description of it as a place that “reminds him of the national parks of Colorado and Arizona but with one key difference: there are no crowds”. I wonder if he realized that the lack of crowds is not a result of people being too lazy to go there, or not knowing about this place. As a matter of fact, we studied this region in elementary school, and even though I lived next to it for 10 years, I have never been there. Why? It’s very remote, the entry tickets are usually quite expensive when taking into consideration local currency, and it’s risky.

Over the years, I have heard many statements about the outdoors that are taken as the truth or just common sense. But these get lost in translation when extrapolating them to other places in the world.

Cañón de Talampaya - San Juan, Argentina

It is understood that if you have nature, you have outdoor sports, and nothing can stop you from exercising your right to be outside with nature regardless of where you are in the world. Sure, you may not need to pay an entry ticket but in most of the developed world, there are two key elements that make outdoor sports possible: infrastructure and resources. These allow for transportation to the site, trails, gear, and emergency services.

The reality of my childhood was that because none of those essential elements were available, I wasn’t exposed to considering outdoors sports a viable hobby. Instead, I grew up mostly inside of the house playing (computer) games, listening to music or playing with other kids in the cement streets of our small neighborhood. Going out in the mountains was only for advanced explorers with a mission (anthropology, archaeology, etc.) These are people who were prepared for it - almost always foreigners.

There was also the issue of personal safety. For most of my life (and still today), I’ve always considered the wilderness a terrifying place to be. In many South American countries, going out to remote locations can get you kidnapped, raped, or killed. And I know that these terrible things can potentially happen everywhere in the world, but when you grow up in a constantly unsafe environment, you learn to distrust everything around you and this habit never leaves you.

I’m not saying that my own experience speaks for everyone in Latin America. All I’m saying is that the context in which we grow up has a lot of influence in shaping our perceptions, values, and motivations.

Making the outdoors more inclusive means becoming aware about one’s own biases and paradigms. It means being ready to navigate your own predisposed ideals by understanding where everyone is coming from and acknowledging other people’s origin stories. It also means recognizing your privilege and the variety of factors that have enabled you to be there in the first place.