Counter intuitively, getting ‘back to nature’ seems to be very much a Western, city-dweller thing to do. Last week the Sydney Morning Herald carried a full-page ad for Merrell hiking boots. And catalogues for the Kathmandu outdoor store chain regularly appear among the flyers in magazines. When I saw the Merrell ad, I said, out loud, to myself, ‘this is why I live here. Because in other places I’ve lived –Lima, Shanghai, and Doha, for example– outdoorsy stuff is very much niche and not mainstream. If you hike, and wild camp, and enjoy being ‘away from it all’ in Peru, for example, you are Bear Grylls at best, and clearly insane at worst (and it’s gendered too, of course).
Here is my theory as to why this is: in Peru, China, and Qatar –along with other so-called developing countries– there is, in living memory (or in the stories of grandparents, at least) the experience of privation, of never having enough, and of having to effectively camp out, because of housing insecurity, internal displacement, civil war, and poverty. In all these places, there are also plenty of people who walk everywhere (or who did until very recently) because they had no other option. Indeed, in China, there is plenty of starvation in living memory, too; thirty million died in the Great Leap Forward as late as the 1950s. Up until a couple of generations ago, then, a great many people struggled in these places, and so the idea of voluntarily being uncomfortable, or camping out and hiking for fun, is preposterous.
Crucially, also, very poor people still, even now, live in shacks and lean-tos that are rather less substantial than some of the camping setups I’ve seen in Australia (and, as I’ve written before, for some folks, ‘camping’ is simply a re-creation of all the luxuries of suburbia, albeit partially under canvas). And poor people’s ‘camping-as-living’ is not necessarily away out in the distant hinterland, either. In the pueblos jóvenes on the outskirts of Lima, I’ve met people living in plywood shipping containers and under sheets of polythene and corrugated metal. These areas usually have no running water only expensive tank water, and there may be open sewers. People have few housing rights, very little fire safety, unreliable electricity, unpaved roads, and inconvenient public transit options. Much of this is comparable to the cramped, makeshift living conditions experienced by internal migrants working outside of the houku system in Chinese cities and also South Asian workers with few legal rights in the Arabian Gulf states.
So if, in your country, camping is what very poor people do because they have no choice (and, perhaps also, in living memory, it is what your now middle class family used to do through necessity, too), then why on earth would you do it out of choice? Better, surely, to find a nice hotel with carpets and en suites and room service, so you can still visit las provincias but in a style that reminds you, and that also tells the world, that you are ‘above’ those who camp out because they have no other choice. This is certainly the way my middle class Peruvian and Chinese friends travel, and I have often heard talk of luxury hotels as the point, the very purpose of travel. None of my Lima or Shanghai friends goes camping, and none really understands why I do.
This may explain why, as China develops (as in Korea, thirty years previously), camping is now, slowly, becoming a ‘thing’ among young, upwardly mobile middle class city folks. Only those far enough, socially, from those who camp through necessity can safely camp for fun.
So in Australia there’s a Rays Outdoors or an Anaconda or a Kathmandu in every decent-sized town. We are so very lucky, in this lucky country, that the very hardscrabble lives of the earliest settlers are longer ago than our immediate family or we can remember. And while there are certainly homeless people ‘camping’ in city parks in Sydney and Melbourne, and there is some shockingly ‘third-world’ housing in Australian Indigenous settlements, for most of us these are far from our day-to-day realities. This is why the accoutrements of getting back to nature are popular enough to warrant full-page ads in national newspapers and why it is safe, culturally, for us to want to rough it on holiday. We go camping, perversely, because we do not have to.