accessibility · climbing · fitness · hiking · holidays · inclusiveness · nature · running · traveling · yoga

Women, mountain sports, and privilege – thoughts on an all-female sports festival in Austria

Two weeks ago, I attended the Women’s Summer Festival in Ischgl, Austria. It’s basically a three-day summer camp for female adults. You can sign up for lots of different sports workshops, including yoga, mountain biking, climbing, hiking, the full works. All of it women-only, set very scenically in the Austrian Alps. I’d read about last year’s edition and it sounded like a ton of fun: a chance to try out new things, meet people and spend a few days frolicking in the mountains? Sign me up.

View over a lush green alpine valley, from the beginning of our via ferrata.

I agonised for a while about my choice of workshops – there’s no way you can do them all – and finally put myself down for a via ferrata (complete novices), trail running (beginners), morning yoga (all levels), and an all-day hike (experts). Aside from yoga and hiking, I decided to do things I hadn’t done before, so for instance bouldering fell by the wayside in favour of the via ferrata. And I was too much of a chicken for mountain biking. Somehow, the thought of hurtling down a mountain on two wheels terrifies me a lot more than the thought of being suspended above a precipice secured by nothing but a fixed steel cable and two carabiners attached to my harness through a via ferrata set.

Bettina in full gear, taking a well-deserved sip of water after completing her first ever via ferrata.

The classification of levels, I later learned from fellow participants, stumped not only me. How do you know you’re an “expert” hiker, rather than an “advanced” one? As I’ve mentioned before, I have my share of athletic impostor syndrome, so I was mildly terrified of both the trail running (should I have signed up for the “complete novices” one?) and the hiking tour (what on earth had made me think I was an expert? The hubris!). If anyone still needed proof that women tend to underestimate themselves, they only had to attend this festival. Nearly everyone rocked up with the same self-doubts.

But these shared concerns actually ended up making for an incredibly supportive environment. Everyone cheered each other on and kept encouraging others. It had been a long time since I’d seen two people as happy as two women with vertigo after crossing an incredibly scary suspension bridge on our trail run, fuelled by gentle coaxing from our guide and the supportive cheers of the other participants. It was wonderful to watch.

The really quite scary suspension bridge we had to cross during our trail run, complete with some runners from our group approaching in the distance.

The other thing I’d been a bit wary of is going by myself. I wasn’t organised enough to enlist anyone else to come with me, and I’m not exactly a social butterfly – my small talk is limited and I tend to get incredibly intimidated by people I think are cooler than me, which is pretty much everyone. I ended up really, really enjoying myself, both in terms of the activities and the company. I met some very nice people, and the activities were great. In fact, both the via ferrata and trail running (who would have thought, considering how badly I do running uphill!) left me hungry for more.

The morning yoga was beautiful, and the hike was out of this world stunning – three three thousand-metre summits in one day! With bright sunshine! And incredible views! If I were to do this again, and I’m definitely keeping this option open, there are plenty of things I didn’t get around to doing: a more challenging via ferrata, bouldering, more hiking, and maybe, just maybe, even some mountain biking?

Bettina in a red t-shirt and hiking gear, beaming widely with one of the summits she climbed during her all-day hike in the background.

There was a framework programme too, to keep yourself occupied while not attending a workshop, with ad-hoc activities such as TRX training, massages, pilates, etc., and you could even get your nails and your hair done if you wanted (I opted for the nails, which I usually never do or get done, and also because there’s not much you can do with my hair). In the evenings, one night there was dinner at a local hut, which ordinarily is a hip après-ski joint, and another night there was a concert with a local band in the festival tent. And as these things are wont to go, there were exhibitors peddling the latest trail running shoes, hiking poles, outdoor and yoga clothing, etc. You could also try all these things in action, which was fun, though it didn’t motivate any purchases for me.

The whole thing was a very enjoyable affair, but I wouldn’t be a good feminist killjoy if I didn’t have some issues with it. This was obviously not a free event. The all-in festival pass set me back just under 280 Euros, and I treated myself to a nice hotel in addition. There was the option of booking just individual workshops, but they also weren’t super cheap. There was a goodie bag for those who’d booked the festival package that contained some ecologically very dubious plasticky giveaways (although in fairness, there were some great quality ones too that I’ll definitely be using). And diversity at the event was limited to cis-gendered almost exclusively white, almost exclusively able-bodied, relatively fit women who could afford to be there, and a bunch of invited press, bloggers and social media influencers who were there for free (disclaimer: I wasn’t one of them).

In other words, we spent three days oozing privilege from all pores. Is this inherently a bad thing? Probably not. We had a lot of fun and it was great to completely disconnect from the news and the heat wave gripping the rest of Europe for a few days, being active among a bunch of very nice, like-minded women and pushing our comfort zones in a highly supportive environment. The event is absolutely fantastic in that it lets you test the waters with new activities that might otherwise be quite intimidating, which I think is very important in getting women to be more active. But it’s important to be aware of that privilege – and of the fact that if you were insecure about doing any sort of exercise, you probably wouldn’t sign up for a three-day mountain sports festival in the first place, so a substantial threshold is still there.

Enjoying these views was part of our privilege: panorama of the Alps with some flecks of snow in the sunshine.

And things could be done to make the event more inclusive. One could think of travel stipends, marketing the event a bit differently to attract a more diverse crowd, and so on. Again, the organisers are a for-profit company that makes money with this, so it’s not surprising that it’s all a bit commercial, and all things considered, the commercialness is very low key – you’re not forced to buy anything or partake in any activities that aren’t your jam. And yet. A bit more of an effort in making the event more diverse and accessible would be very welcome.

Will I go back? Maybe. I had too much fun not to contemplate a return next year. I’ll keep you posted – and if I do, perhaps it will be in some fit feminist company? Would be fun.

fitness · race report · racing · running · training · traveling

A beautiful day for the Guelph Lake 10K (group report)

Image description: Left to right Violetta (black cap, red t-shirt, fine chain with pendant), Ellen (blond hair tied back, bangs, white tank), and Tracy (blue cap and sunglasses, purple and pink tank), all smiling.
Image description: Left to right Violetta (black cap, red t-shirt, fine chain with pendant), Ellen (blond hair tied back, bangs, white tank), and Tracy (blue cap and sunglasses, purple and pink tank), all smiling.

As I reported last week, I’ve been prepping for the Guelph Lake 10K and I recruited Violetta and Ellen to do it with me. It was a gorgeous day for a Sunday run, not too hot, sunny with a bit of cloud cover, a light breeze that felt just right at least some of the time.

As I like to do when there’s a group of us doing an event, I asked Ellen and Violetta to write a bit about their experience. We were all in different places with the 10K. I had been prepping. Just a few weeks before, Ellen had never run that distance before. And Violetta has been sporadic in her training and didn’t feel she had time to prep as she would have liked.


So today I did my first 10 k in my life! At 54! Actually, it was my first running race of any sort! No 3Ks, or 5Ks to start out with ….But then again, I have always been the kind of person to “go big or go home” in all areas of life. This has got me into some troubles in the past, such as excessive smoking and imbibing for many years, but I digress.  For the past 6 and a half years or so, I have tried to confine this mentality to more healthy pursuits ☺.

I really didn’t know if I could do it.  I have been running for a little while and not tracking any distances, but then one day about a month ago, I actually tracked myself doing 8.5K, and my friend Tracy, said no problem, you can do it!

My high school memories are filled with shame of being the last pick for teams, and being next to the end when it came to any sort of running.  But, I am a grown up now, and I have met many other personal challenges, so I summed up my courage and tried it out today.

What a feeling of accomplishment! And what fun to share the love of this sport with other like-minded folks!  I am grateful to Tracy for encouraging me to overcome the fear and just go out and do my best.

Who knows… maybe a half marathon is now in sight. I never thought I would say that! So, to all the readers out there, I am at my fittest ever at 54…And sky is the limit! I challenge you all to go after your fitness dreams and be your best ever, at any age.


I’ve really let my running slide over the cold, cold winter.  So when Tracy let me know about the Guelph Lake 10k, I thought it would be the perfect thing to get me back into running regularly.  It didn’t quite work out that way because I wasn’t feeling very well the last couple of weeks.  Since I couldn’t prepare physically, I spent a lot of time trying to work on the psychological aspect, telling myself that I can do this and re-reading Tracy’s blog posts about running without prep and quickly regaining confidence.

I’m not going to lie.  I was certainly questioning myself.  Could I do this?  Was I risking injury given my lack of training?  Well, I did it! I now know, for myself, that it is possible to complete a 10k without much prep, not much at all.  I haven’t run more than 5k in many, many months.  I’m not saying it’s advisable or even preferable.  And it certainly wasn’t easy. But I was very lucky—the weather was perfect, the atmosphere was casual and laid back and I was running with a friend I don’t get a chance to spend much time with.

I will say I didn’t love the repeated rolling hills (well, I didn’t mind going down them) or the repeated loop.  In the end, the race served the function I needed it to, to get back into running, to remind me how much I love it.  It’s too easy to lose your rhythm and get out of good habits.  This was my first step back.

Thanks Tracy for inviting me to come along and for encouraging me when things got difficult.  And what a treat it was to have Sam cheering us on!  I’ve taken my first step and now I’m planning my next ones.  Maybe another 10k … maybe another half?  I’ll let you know.


The race has that local event feel that you get in the smaller cities and towns. I enjoy traveling for events because you get a change of scenery and a slightly different vibe wherever you go.  This one was at Guelph Lake Conservation Area, with the course taking us along the lake for awhile, then through the camp ground, and park. It’s not a bad course but any race that involves two loops is always a bit psychologically tough (in my view). There could also have been more water.

I ran with Violetta, and we had committed to keep each other moving forward. She was worried she wouldn’t make it the full distance (I knew she could) and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to make it without a walk break (I wasn’t so sure). Ellen didn’t want to run with us because, according to her, she’s really slow. She of course came in 26 seconds earlier than we did.

My main goal for this one was to do a continuous 10K, no walk breaks. I did it! Other than a very brief walk through an aid station where I was so thirsty I had to drink a cup of water properly, not letting it fly out of the cup while running, I kept a steady pace throughout the race, averaging 7:00/K for a 1:10:01 finish. That’s slower than my 10K without prep! But I think part of the reason for that is that Violetta and I spent quite a bit of the first 8K chatting, and I can’t push quite as hard when I’m chatting. (not that it wasn’t nice to catch up!)

I would have liked to come in under 1:10. But one second over is alright with me. Linda told me recently that I am not aware of my athletic potential. This may be true — I still feel a rush of skepticism when I think about getting measurably faster. Like I’ll always hover around the same speed no matter what I do. But that is a topic for another post. I mention it now because the doubt sets in most acutely on race days.

Image description: Tracy and Violetta running side by side, smiling, trees in the background.
Image description: Tracy and Violetta running side by side, smiling, trees in the background.

But the day had many bonuses: Besides getting to do something with Violetta and Ellen, Sarah and Sam rode their bikes to the park to cheer us on and take great action shots!  And then, when all was said and done, we went out for a fancy brunch at a lovely shaded patio in Guelph.

It was a great time with friends and it’s got me now thinking of my next goal — 10K continuous AND shave some minutes off of my time. I’m working with Linda again and I’m feeling revved up and ready to go.


Here are the three of us at the finish line, after re-hydrating:

Image description: Full body shot of Tracy (tank top, shorts, cap and sunglasses, bib 219), Violetta (t-shirt, capris, cap, bib 216), and Ellen (tank and shorts, bib 189), standing on grass, trees and people in background.
Image description: Full body shot of Tracy (tank top, shorts, cap and sunglasses, bib 219), Violetta (t-shirt, capris, cap, bib 216), and Ellen (tank and shorts, bib 189), standing on grass, trees and people in background.
cycling · feminism · Guest Post · traveling

Guest Post: Feminist Biking in Italy (or, Feminism 101 in Lecce)

When I found myself on a bicycle trip through Italy with my mom (about which I wrote last week, the last thing I thought I’d be doing was discussing the basics of feminism over dinner with an eclectic bunch of strangers. But there I was, at a little pizzeria just off the main square of the fascinating Baroque town of Lecce, debating, discussing, and explaining the social construction of gender norms, structural injustice, affirmative action, #MeToo, and consent, with a rather unlikely audience.

As I wrote last week, I’m new to biking and to biking culture. I’ve never been on an organized trip of this sort, I’ve never biked long distances (alone or with others), so I’m not sure what it does to people and how (and whether) it can transform them. When a bunch of random people who haven’t chosen to be together are thrown together, does this make them more open to ideas that they’ve never encountered? Are people less closed and closed minded when they’re biking with strangers of different stripes?

Probably not, but the following events have at least compelled me to ask such questions.


(Image description: Baroque cathedral in Lecce)

On every night of the trip but one, there was an organized dinner where all fourteen participants ate together. On the one night where we were on our own, I found myself at dinner with my mother, a 71-year-old spitfire feminist lawyer, a retired successful businessman, his son (who’s my age), and our southern Italian bike guide.

Typically, I don’t socialize with businessmen (or women, for that matter). We just don’t run in the same circles. But during this trip, on several short rides, I found myself biking alongside the businessman. Attempting to make conversation, I asked him why very wealthy, successful business people keep doing business and making more money, even when they probably already have more money than they could ever spend.

He tried to explain it to me. I didn’t really get it. He joked with me about being a philosophy professor who teaches ethics. We implicitly agreed that we just aren’t interested in the same things.


(Image description: ancient ruins found underneath main square in Lecce)

But at dinner that night, he asked me what I do. And he was interested in hearing more than the 30-second stock answer. So I told him. I talked a bit about a book I’m writing (on microaggressions and medicine) and about some of the classes I teach (feminist philosophy, medical ethics).

Surprisingly, the feminism part piqued his interest.

His questions kept coming; they were genuine. “Why focus on women?” “Can’t we just have ‘humanism’”? “Why affirmative action? “Is it wrong to just hire the ‘best candidate’?” And many other standard objections that arise when people are first exposed to such ideas.

I’ve been having conversations of this sort long enough to be able to distinguish between two different types of interlocutors: those who’ve made up their minds about what they think before the conversation begins, who push on only to have more ways to disagree with you, and who who just get a kick out of getting you riled up; and those who ask questions because they really want to learn about ideas that are different from their own. Though up until that point I would have pegged him for the former, during our conversation, it became very clear to me that he was the latter.

Had he been the former, I would have quickly and politely ended the conversation. It’s too easy to make yourself vulnerable and to get too invested in an argument, only to continually run up against a cement wall. But as the conversation drew on, it became clear that he really wanted to understand how gender is socially constructed, what the implications of that are, and why the claim “but I just worry that my 6 year-old-grandson, because he’s male, will have it so much more difficult than his twin sister” is problematic and misguided.

Everyone at the table was chiming in. The scope of our discussion expended. We talked about cultural differences regarding conversational norms and touching (in Italy, in Germany, in the United States), and why it’s dangerous to just assume that everyone wants to be hugged and that hugging is always a benign gesture.

After several hours, the pizza got cold, the wine (for those of us drinking it) had dried up, our muscles were tired from the day’s biking, and we realized that we needed to get up early to peddle away for another day. The dinner was lovely; the conversation was heated, but not aggressive. We all agreed that we’d enjoyed the evening and we walked back to the hotel together.

Over the next two days I thought a bit about how unexpected it was to have such an animated, extensive, genuine, and lovely conversation with such an unlikely interlocutor. He’s a thoughtful guy and we sure had plenty of hours left on our trip to do some good thinking on our bikes. I assumed he was thinking about some of what we’d said, I hoped so, but I didn’t really know.

During some of the subsequent social interactions with those who were out for dinner that night, we joked around about touching, hugging, and consent, but not in a way that ridiculed these issues. On the contrary, the jokes were sincere and well-intended attempts to go over some of the conceptual terrain that we covered that night. It felt to me that I’d gotten some ideas across and people were working them out for themselves.

Then we biked some more.


(Image description: author and her mother in the close by town of Alberobello)

But it wasn’t until our dinner on the last night that I realized what a difference our conversation had had. The entire group plus our two guides were seated at two long tables. I was sitting next to the businessman, now friend, who was positioned at the head of the table. We were chatting and he mentioned that we should thank our guides for a wonderful week. I agreed. I assumed he would take the lead on this. He’s a good public speaker and would have done a great job.

But he pulled me aside and said, “But you know, I’m a man, and most of the people on this trip are women. And you know, I wouldn’t want to just speak for them. I don’t really feel right speaking on behalf of everyone. You should do it.”

I looked at him, astonished. Proud.

I thought to myself, “Wow, I came here to bike. Not really to make friends. Not to convert wealthy businessmen to feminists.” What he said was on the one hand, a tiny gesture; but on the other hand, indicative of careful self-reflection and mindfulness of the impact of our small actions, like speaking for others.

Do I think people really change their minds and beliefs on the basis of one conversation in a small Italian town over delicious pizza? Definitely not. Will I ever see this person again, let alone become friends them? Probably not.

But this experience made ponder how intense biking, when are aren’t immersed in the habits of our daily routines, might make us reconsider our long-held beliefs, and maybe even change our minds.

Not only can a biking trip change one’s attitude or expose one to foreign ideas, but I’m coming to see that it can also reestablish faith in the openness and receptivity of other.


Paro, Bhutan

“I want to walk to the monastery and the dzong.”

It’s my first full day in Bhutan, and I’m alone with my guide Chador for a few days. We are visiting sites around Paro and hiking in the Haa Valley; then the other four people from our group join us for a 7 day cycling trip.

Paro is a tiny town in narrow valley. Before we began our descent, the pilot warned us about sharp turns and flying very close to the mountains — this is normal, he said.

The wing of a plane seems to brush against a small mountain as it lands

Nothing is “normal” about Bhutan, though — it’s completely unlike any place else. Tucked into the Himalayas between Tibet and India, it’s a landlocked kingdom that became a constitutional monarchy at the hands of the same king who invented the notion of the national happiness index. Then he retired and handed the kingdom over to his son.

It’s a Buddhist country of just over 700,000 people that closely guards its quiet culture — you cannot visit without being part of a tour organization, and you have to pay a visa fee for every day you’re here. The money goes into universal education and healthcare. Unlike other places I’ve been where government sanctioned guides are to guard against tourists finding out too much, Bhutan requires guides to protect the country from the commercialization of the backpacker culture that sprawls over Asia.

Being a mountain kingdom, even the valleys have significant altitude for someone who lives at sea level. I’ve been training all winter to be comfortable riding and walking here, but I’m still fretting about the mountain passes. So I ask Chador if we can walk up to the museum that — being a former watchtower and dungeon — is perched high above the town.

Chador takes me up the “shortcut” from the Dzong (Fort) to the museum. As I find myself brushing scratchy bushes out of my face, the road above us fenced off, I realize we took a wrong turn. We both laugh, slipping around in a suddenly muddy track, a light rain falling.

At some point, I have to use my hands to keep from falling, and we arrive at the museum entrance covered in sticky brown mud. I wipe my hands on the wet wipes I have in my daypack and then surrender my phone and camera to go into the museum.

We watch a video of ceremonial dances and tour the dozens of masks, tapestries, statues, wildlife exhibit. The national animal is a takin, a creature with “the body of a cow and the head of a goat.” The national flower is the wild blue poppy.

This is clearly my place.

This is what all of those hours in a dark spinning studio, the 115 workouts since January 1, have been about. Being free and powerful in my body, to find energy that gets closed up in my tight work life.

We will be riding for several days, but for the first time, I haven’t brought anything to record my distance. I want to just be on the bike, in the mountains, on the muddy trail.

In my own body, finding every step. In a magical land, cultivating patience and openness.

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who blogs here the first Friday and second Saturday of the month. She lives in Toronto when she’s not exploring the world.

accessibility · disability · inclusiveness · injury · traveling · walking

Bremen, so many steps, happy tears, and academic travel

It’s summer. I’m in Europe. It’s part of the rhythm and flow of academic life. What’s new? This visit I’m here in my Dean’s role rather than as researcher/writer/philosopher. We have an exchange program with the University of Bremen, involving faculty, grad students, and undergraduates. I’m here with the former Dean to meet the people and learn all about Bremen and the Bremen Guelph connection.

It’s also the 10th anniversary of their Institute for Quebec Canadian Studies.

Just as academic life has a pattern and rhythm so too does the blog. It’s time for the annual post about how much more I’m walking in Europe. Here’s my day on Tuesday.

15,000 steps is a lot of steps given that it included a full working day.

On the one hand, I love living even temporarily in a less car reliant culture. I love being part of a community in which exercise is part of everyday life. But I also worry about access and inclusion and where this leaves people who aren’t so mobile.

I raised the worry in this blog post about walking lots while at a conference in Berne Switzerland four years ago. I blogged about it again from Sweden two years ago (see here) also Scotland and Innsbruck, Austria also two years ago.

It’s a thing I note and wonder about and enjoy all the while worrying about disability. That said, European friends tell my worries about disability are unfounded. What’s your experience? Do you use a wheelchair? Have you traveled around European cities? How did you find it, recognizing that Europe isn’t one place?

The worry, well founded or not, got personal this year traveling to Germany with my injured knee. I noted that the agenda for my campus visit to the University of Bremen included a two hour walking tour of campus. I was frightened I’d have to decline. It’s a big change in self perception and identity.

And the big day of walking was fine. Thank you knee brace. I got all teary wth relief.

(The emotional moment was likely also due to the movers who’d been signed up to do our move phoning me to say they couldn’t do it after all. It’s the busiest weekend of the year for movers, they say, and my agreement made back in April didn’t count for anything. Sigh. Luckily the company who came in second for the bid was willing to take it on.)

But I have wondered how I would have coped had my knee not been in good shape. I’m going to have to learn to advocate for my mobility needs. Lots to learn. I also had an experience in the airport with airport security as my knee brace sets off alarms. I told them it would hurt to take it off and send it through security and they didn’t insist.

The one thing that did hurt was my feet. I haven’t been walking so much in sandals and the weather was warm.I ended up with blisters. The next day I swapped for running shoes and ended up looking very much like a North American tourist. The German women faculty members would have appreciated my Fluevogs. They wear great shoes but I’m not sure how they manage to combine the funky footwear with walking so much.

What do you wear when walking lots, when you’re in urban environments (not hiking) and want to look both stylish and comfortable?

fitness · traveling

Bettina goes Patagonia, hikes a lot, and thinks about things

My husband and I just spent three weeks in Patagonia (both Chile and Argentina). It was fantastic. Here’s a quick round-up of the itinerary and activities we did, and some thoughts about travel and feminism and sustainability.

Santiago, part 1: in which we cycle through vineyards

We flew to Santiago de Chile, where we spent a day and a half. We spontaneously booked a cycling tour of a vineyard located right at the edge of the city (picture below). The contrast between city and vines is actually quite striking.

The Cousiño Macul vineyard with the skyline of Santiago de Chile in the background

The company we booked with offers different cycling tours of the city and nearby vineyards. I liked them because they openly state that they have a pro-LGBTQ hiring policy, and because they try to offer something different and active, but are quite inclusive about it. They make it clear right when you book that you’re not signing up for a workout, but for a leisurely ride. Ours lasted about one hour plus another hour and a half touring the vineyard’s facilities. We also sampled five different wines. It was relaxing and wonderful.

Bettina and her ride, a seasoned green bike ideal for cruising around, but not for competitive cycling.

Torres del Paine National Park: in which we hike a lot and are exposed to the elements

From Santiago, we flew to Punta Arenas in the very South of Chile and took a bus to Puerto Natales, a small town that mainly functions as the tourist

hordes’ gateway to Torres del Paine National Park. We spent a night there, left some luggage at the hotel (we were returning five days later), and took only the necessary hiking and camping equipment to the park.

Torres del Paine is the national park everyone ‘does’ when they travel Patagonia. It’s easily accessible and has some stunning scenery. As a result, the infrastructure is excellent. There are lots of campsites, refugios where you can get a bed, and even some pretty luxurious hotels and cabins. Chile’s only eco-hotel is also located in the park. Also as a result of this, Torres del Paine is totally overrun. I wasn’t joking when I wrote “hordes” above. We visited at the tail end of the season, so it wasn’t too bad, but in high season, around January and February, I can only imagine it must be packed. We did a four-day trek known as “the W” (because of the route, which looks like the letter W) and stayed in our own tent.

View from our trusty red tent. The poor thing got quite battered by the Patagonian winds and rain, but it kept us nice and dry.

The park has suffered quite a lot from this; there have been some major fires and it’s definitely not as untouched as you might associate with the cliché of Patagonia. Rules are fairly strict, you can only enter if you have all your reservations beforehand, fires are forbidden, and at some places they don’t let you cook with a camping stove (conveniently, this also means the campsite/refugio can charge you a ridiculous amount of money for mediocre food; on the upside you have to carry less of your own).

What can I say? It’s still beautiful despite the masses. There is a reason the park is so full – it’s stunning. One morning at 8 o’clock, I’d just woken up and stood, mouth agape, marvelling at the mountain behind the campsite, aglow with the rising sun. It was out of this world.

The mountains, aglow with the rising sun

We had initially considered going to a much more remote park with next to no facilities, where we would probably have been mostly alone. However, we would’ve lost considerable time getting there, plus two contingency days for resting and in case we took longer on the trek. It would also have meant two additional flights and thus even more emissions, and this trip already wasn’t exactly an exercise in CO2 reduction. And as I mentioned before, there are upsides to the infrastructure: hot showers, you don’t have to carry all of your food, and you can go somewhere nice and dry when it’s storming and raining outside, which did happenon a few occasions.

It also occurred to me that on the whole, it may be better if only a few places are “ruined” by tourists – it offers an opportunity to keep the rest of the region largely untouched. I’m really not sure where I stand on this, and whether it actually is better to “sacrifice” some parts for others to be preserved. The way tourists concentrate in a few key locations throughout Patagonia is astounding. As soon as we moved off the beaten track, which we did for a bit of our overall trip, we were often on our own. I will return to this below.

Road trip: in which we bomb around Patagonia, stay at mostly empty campsites, and hike the Perito Moreno glacier.

Having completed the W, we returned to Punta Arenas via Puerto Natales to pick up a little camper van. We then drove south towards the Magellan straits (where I saw a dolphin! I’m still excited!), and then up to Argentina, across to the Atlantic coast, where we had planned to see a penguin colony close to Río Gallegos. Unfortunately this plan failed because of the poor road conditions and our van’s distinct lack of suspension and 4×4 drive. So we spent a lazy day in Río Gallegos.

This brings me back to my point about people not really moving off the beaten track. Maybe this is different during the high season, but both south of Punta Arenas and in Río Gallegos, we stayed at completely deserted campsites that were like straight out of a bad horror movie. We did get some beautiful sunrises out of this though, below the one from Río Gallegos.

Sunrise over the river Gallegos. Our campsite was located directly on the shore.

Via another stop further north and a guided hike through a petrified forest, we moved on to El Calafate. This little town is another touristy place and the gateway to the Perito Moreno glacier. El Calafate is nice and seems to consist mostly of tourist accommodation. We ate very well there.

We had booked an all-day hiking tour of Perito Moreno in advance. In the early morning, we were picked up by a bus and shipped to the Parque Nacional de los Glaciares, the national park covering most of the Argentinian part of the Southern Patagonian ice sheet, including Perito Moreno and Mount Fitz Roy. Perito Moreno was everything we had imagined and more. We lucked out with the weather and got a sunny day that made the blues of the ice intense and the three-hour hike on the glacier very pleasurable.

The face of the Perito Moreno glacier with some icebergs floating in the water

The guides split our busload into two groups first – a Spanish and an English-speaking one – to approach the glacier. It was a just under one-hour hike up to the access point, where were fitted with crampons before they subdivided us into smaller groups of about eight people for the hike on the ice.

One thing that surprised us was that the tour company didn’t follow through on their advice to wear suitable footwear and clothes, and only allowing people with a good level of fitness on the tour. There were lots of people who wore running shoes or sneakers and jeans rather than the recommended hiking boots and hiking gear. And a fair number of participants struggled on the hike to the access point already.

Bettina, wrapped up warmly and arms spread wide, atop Perito Moreno.

In a way it’s nice that they’re lenient, because it makes the experience more inclusive, but I do have to say that it compromised the experience of the rest of the group somewhat since accommodations had to be made for people who hadn’t read or didn’t care about the instructions on the website. They’re very clear and could only be improved in one way, which would be to remove the advice that this tour is not for overweight people – you can be “overweight” as long as you’re physically fit.

But I digress. Once we were subdivided into smaller groups it was fine; I think the guides did realise this was an issue and formed the subgroups accordingly. We very much enjoyed our three hours and lunch on the ice! The absolute highlight was an ice cave we got to see on the way down. Incredible.

Ice cave below the glacier – incredible hues of blue!

Goodbye Patagonia and Santiago, part 2: in which we “rescue” a solo traveller

From El Calafate, we took a small detour to a lovely campsite on a lake called Lago Roca. This was the only campsite where at least a handful of people other than us were staying overnight, and it was very well run. We then took two days to head back down to Punta Arenas to return the van and fly back to Santiago.

While we were waiting at the airport having a coffee, an American woman suddenly turned up at our table asking if she could talk to us for a while. It turned out she had been pestered by a guy who had kept asking her awkward questions about how long and where she would be staying in Santiago and what she’d be doing there. She had pretended to know us to get away from him, so we invited her to sit with us and had a nice chat.

I had thought about this on several occasions throughout this trip already: my privilege of accompanied by a man, who was also clearly my partner. No man on any of the tours or anywhere we went took any sort of “particular” interest in me.

I have travelled in Latin America on my own quite a lot and this lack of unwanted attention was a welcome change. As a female solo traveller, I have had to spend time fending off such approaches and have generally been a lot more alert. It’s definitely doable and lots of women do travel the region on their own, but it’s a different experience. Aside from general security considerations, this isn’t something a solo male traveller would have to spend a lot of time thinking about.

This also made me more acutely aware of my privilege as a woman living in a society where it is, for the most part, safe to walk around on one’s own after dark and go wherever I want. It’s complex, because in this particular case, it’s also about being a tourist. I don’t know if our airport friend would have had the same experience had she been Chilean. It’s possible, but probably less likely.

And also, even though it’s mostly safe for a woman to do all those things on her own where I live (in Europe), it’s not completely safe either. At a much lower level, here I’m also on alert walking or running alone in the dark or in a place where there are few other people. Or a creepy guy can chat you up in public and be difficult to get rid of. It’s an interesting thing to think about, and I’d love to hear your experiences with solo travel at home and abroad.

fitness · food · traveling

Do you have control issues re. food? Tracy discovers hers in China

Image description: market stall in Suzhou of varieties of fresh fruit in metal baskets with two large metal scoops.
Image description: market stall in Suzhou of varieties of fresh fruit in metal baskets with two large metal scoops.

I just got back from a work-related trip to China that involved a lot of official and hosted dinners. What that means is lots of meals with more food than you can imagine, platters and platters of it being delivered to the table in an endless procession. It’s all served family style, placed on a turn-table that allows you to spin the dish you want to the spot in front of you.

The focus is on the guests’ enjoyment, and it’s a cultural expectation that there will be more food than can comfortably be eaten. If the plates were cleaned that would indicate poor planning, insufficient food for everyone to feel satisfied.

As a vegan among omnivores, this arrangement challenged me on several levels. First, the most obvious: vegan / vegetarian cuisine is not as readily available in China (or easy to explain) as you might think. I’d been warned ahead of hidden animal products–minced meat tossed in with veggies (which I never encountered), animal stock as the base for soups (yes, on a number of occasions), veggies possibly cooked in animal fat or stock, that sort of thing.

There was also the issue of protein. Since the cuisine (at least in the area where we were) relies heavily on meat, fish, and poultry, there is little need for the locals to worry about protein sources. Yes, you can get tofu and I did have some other legumes at one point (a local bean dish that was quite good), but I never really get around to communicating clearly about the difference between a vegetable dish and a vegetarian dish that includes protein.

I also felt painfully conscious of my desire to be a gracious guest. What happened most frequently at these meals was that, recognizing that I had special needs, the vegetable dishes would suddenly start arriving en masse on the table. And everyone would nudge them my way — “here, we ordered this one for you…”  Protein or not, there was a heck of a lot of food coming my way and I had at least to try all of it.

Shortly into the trip, probably at the second hosted meal, it dawned on me that the top struggle I confronted was that I simply do not like being ordered for. I may be an intuitive eater, but I am happiest when I get to choose what foods are put in front of me. This is not to say I don’t mind trying new things, but entire meals (indeed, a series of entire meals) consisting of new things in which I had no say, turn out to be unbelievably stressful for me. This is not something I’d ever been consciously aware of quite to this degree before because I have never had so many meals in a row of this kind.

It was like the perfect storm of uncomfortable food circumstances for me: incredibly large amounts of new foods, many of which were ordered specifically with me in mind while I remained unconvinced that my vegan needs had been successfully communicated and at the same time keenly aware that I was a guest (and manners matter to me).

I also like to think I’m at least a little bit cosmopolitan and I am for a fact well-traveled, so it’s always a shock to me when I struggle in a new country (with something as basic as the food). This has happened to me in a serious way only once before, and that’s when I went to Tanzania shortly after becoming vegan. There, it seemed like a ridiculous abuse of privilege to insist on vegan food everywhere that I actually stopped doing it while there.

I’ve always associated food control issues with the diet mentality. But I don’t eat that way anymore. I’ve thoroughly converted intuitive eating. But if you think of intuitive eating as eating what you want, when you’re hungry, in amounts that satisfy, it makes sense that when practiced that way it requires some control over the what, when, and how much of eating.

And that is exactly what was absent on this trip. From the first meal, I almost never felt hungry on this trip because there was just so much food at the hosted dinners and lunches. I’m not the only one who felt this way. The colleagues I traveled with had similar feelings of not being hungry. Towards the end of the trip, we actually skipped dinner three nights in a row, one of the nights after walking 10K through the streets of Suzhou.

I’m not down on myself for having this need to have a say in what I choose to eat, when I choose to eat it, and how much of it I eat. Yes, I recognize it as a “control issue,” but I’m okay with that even if it surprised me when I experienced it so acutely in China. I didn’t have it one bit in India, but that’s because it’s one of the easiest places in the world to be vegan and for the most part I was able to communicate more clearly what I needed — less of a language barrier and far fewer hosted meals. Culturally and linguistically, China was more difficult for me to navigate. I imagine with return visits and some strategic language learning, I will do better than I did this time.

One thing I cannot complain about at all is the abundance of fresh fruit available in China. And they have the every best pears I’ve ever eaten anywhere — juicy, sweet, textured, and bursting with flavour.

Do you think of yourself as controlling or relaxed about your food choices?