Scott Dagostino investigates the world of adventure travel and the gays who love it
Gay travel used to be simple. Buy a plane ticket to a gay hub (Montreal, New York, San Francisco, P-Town, South Beach Miami, London or Berlin), pack a few ribbed tank tops and a pair of white pleather pants in a suitcase with a secret compartment, check the local gay rag for which hot DJ is playing where and you were set. But then we had to go and spoil it all by becoming curious.
Now, even the kind of guy who gets nervous east of Parliament St wants to travel to the exotic places only lunatics and libertines like William S Burroughs or Bruce Chatwin previously dared.
Part of the blame for this must be laid at the feet of locals Steven Larkin and Robert Sharp, who channelled their passion for exploration into Out Adventures (OA), an adventure travel company that takes small groups of gays and lesbians to the far corners of the globe. For those travellers sick of being protected from the world in gay-exclusive resorts or exhausted by the aptly named cruise ships, hiking through Nepal or kayaking in Thailand is a welcome change.
“We were frustrated that only straight companies offered this style of travel,” says Sharp. “It’s not the style of trip most of our friends are interested in, but we’re creating a sort of forum for like-minded people to find each other and travel together. Maybe one or two out of every 10 gay men might be interested in what we have to offer.”
That sounds a bit like a dare, but it’s one that copywriter Paul Fung decided to take, signing on for the trip to Peru. “I went in with low expectations,” he admits, “because I don’t do group trips, I don’t do tours. But this actually turned out to be amazing because there were things you wouldn’t have been able to do without this group.” Fung describes some of the activities on his OA trip: “They organized a day out to a rural area of Peru, and we helped the people we stayed with cut down this tall grass and feed the guinea pigs, which they then fed to us! Apparently, guinea pig is a traditional Peruvian dish and we got it real fresh.” This meal, however macabre, was still not as harrowing as the Lima gay bar where the group went salsa dancing. “A drag queen pulled me onstage, forced vodka down my throat, wrapped a towel around my head and shook me around. I can check that off my list now,” he laughs.
All that and Fung hasn’t discussed the hiking and camping yet. “You think South America will be warm,” he says, “but because you’re up in the mountains, it’s freezing. In the sleeping bag, I had to put on socks and mitts and a toque.”
He says Larkin and Sharp explained in advance, “You’re so high up, there’s less oxygen, so the hiking is hard work. I actually trained a little bit for this trip.”
I’ll admit this sounds alarming to me, a man whose idea of “adventure travel” is a hotel bed with less-than-400-thread-count sheets. I’ve always enjoyed road trips with my boyfriend who, when once informed that our small hotel probably wouldn’t have “anything too fancy,” spontaneously squealed, “But I have fancy needs!” It sounds like we’d be better suited to Out Adventures’ Comfort or In Style trips, but that just reads “femme” to the Active trips’ “butch.”
Don’t be too sure, Sharp says. On one of the Peru trips last May, “We had a very diverse group of people, one of which was one of my favourite travellers ever: this guy Donny from New York. He teaches under-privileged kids theatre and sang show tunes while we were doing the Lares trek. So yes, it has its butch moments but…”
“You’d think after spending 10 days with people you’d run out of things to say,” says Fung, “but we never stopped laughing. With a group of gay guys, you instantly have a lot in common. You can make butt jokes and not worry about offending someone or be as flamboyant as you like at the top of Machu Picchu without your brother being embarrassed!
“True, says business consultant Gord Lamrock, but when travelling in homophobic countries, he admits, “Frankly, I’m not sure I’d want to attract that much attention to myself.” He prefers “less camp, more camping.” Although he’s based in Toronto, Lamrock’s job has taken him from Montreal to Cairo, Dublin to Malawi, making him about as welltravelled as the globetrotting character Tintin (though still not as gay).
“Most of the trips I go on, I don’t really have an idea of what I’m going to do until I’m on it. These kinds of package tours are better for people who don’t have a lot of time and are afraid of wasting a day.” Hearing Fung’s guinea pig story, he’s impressed by Sharp and Larkin’s commitment to authentic local culture, even as he doubts the reality. “As a tourist, you’re never fully immersed,” Lamrock says. “It’s not like you’re staying in shacks that are being held together with cow shit.” He’d still prefer to see people travel on their own: “The Third World is cheap. You can get a hotel for $25 a night. On safari in Africa, for instance, I was only spending $100 a day.”
As for the social aspect, Lamrock says, “You end up running into other people anyway. How important is it that they be gay?” He pauses and says, “Well, unless you’re wanting to hook up.” But even then, he says, travelling alone has its advantages. “I met a German guy on a lop-sided ferry boat in Malawi. It keeled a bit to the starboard,” he says. But did the German? Lamrock laughs and admits their conversation on the beach eventually led to “having sex on some strange fishing nets while a lightning storm happened in the distance. It was quite romantic, actually.”
“It’s good to have surprise in one’s life,” Lamrock says, “and if you travel in third-world countries, surprise is a regular occurrence.” That sounds like a dare, one that social worker Derek Feltz is taking on. At the young age of 22, he’s decided his first solo vacation will involve hiking through the Himalayas on OA’s Active Nepal trip this October.
“I’ve done Cuba and Mexico with my family,” Feltz says, “but always all-inclusive. My parents have always liked that, and they always got antsy when I’d rent a moped and go off into the villages. I liked seeing the actual culture.” For his first trip alone, he says, “I wanted a trip where I could be myself while I was on it, and when I looked at Out Adventures and saw that Nepal was an option, it seemed like a fairy tale come to life.” This, says Sharp, is OA’s strength, taking clients to “areas that people are afraid to travel to on their own. We can make [them] accessible.” Still, Feltz admits, “I’m just nervous I’ll get lost in the airport. They’ve promised me there will be a guy holding up my name on a sign.”