Monday, September 2, 2013

Staying fit while traveling...a version for remote regions

Travel can be a challenge anywhere, and traveling on a budget to remote areas in countries with different attitudes towards exercise ("what is that woman running away from??") requires particularly good planning, flexibility, and tenacity.

masks from the tribes along the Sepik River, Papua New Guinea

I had the opportunity to visit Papua New Guinea this month - the reason for my blog silence these last 2 weeks. The place has great masks, carvings, and handmade bags called bilums, as well as electricity in most urban and tourism centers, but a functioning internet exists almost nowhere.

man wearing a bilum made from the fur of a cuscus
and decorated with jawbones of bandicoots
and dried plant stems

As a relatively frequent traveler, I've been wanting to write a post about maintaining fitness while traveling, and I'd recommend this Runners World tips for traveling runners for anyone who wants to do just that.

Nevertheless, after 2 weeks in places that are really off the beaten track, some of the article's tips made me giggle when applying them to PNG or other countries I've worked in and visited over the years as a conservation biologist.

So I decided to modify Coach Nancy's tips for use in backcountry regions and hope this photo-heavy travelog of a fitness post will be helpful to those interested in or headed to remote regions!

-- Walk as much as you can - this might include an actual hiking trip, which means hours of great exercise, but could also include sightseeing, or pacing airport terminals while waiting for your connecting flight.

hiking in the highlands of Nepal
take the stairs, wherever you may be (Nepal again)

I get a sore back from watching birds or art museums, so if they are on my itinerary, I try to build some fast walking into my day as well. However, there are places you simply can't walk around, such as the Kakamuga airport in the highlands near Mount Hagen, noted (by me) for its filth and high crime levels.

very unhappy to be in the caged-in departure "lounge" at
Kakamuga International Airport. No walking around, no food, and,
apparently, no toilet facilities (people go out in an adjacent vacant lot...)

exiting the Tari airport (2002 photo) is a challenge,
even without attempting to run in this highlands region

alternatively, Ambunti airport in PNG''s Sepik region has a grass airstrip
(at least did in 2002), which I bet would make a superb running site
if they'd let you run there in between the (infrequent) flights

-- Run (or walk) locally if you can. I love to run in new places and discover little tucked-away corners in cities or interesting rural landscapes, and most of all, forests and beaches. In more developed, urban areas, runners, walkers, or hikers might contact a local Meetup group, such as our Bangkok Runners, or local running or outdoor stores, many of which organize regular runs or hikes in areas you otherwise might not learn about.

Bangkok Runners gather in the dark (5am) for a long 555 Run
(55 km for some of the group!)

---- If you have access to a hotel that offers a fitness center, you can exercise safely, regardless of outdoor conditions, such as Bangkok's oppressive heat & humidity or PNG's city crime.

In places with few foreign visitors, such as much of rural PNG, such a hotel does not exist, though curious onlookers not used to seeing either foreigners or runners may watch and follow and would probably cheer you on.

students late to class to see the crazy foreigners walking through Unda village along the Minamp River,
in PNG's Enga province
somewhat more aggressive-seeming onlookers
in Unda village, but mainly just curious

If the area is safe, look for accommodations near a park or trail, either through online reviews or searching the area or hotel in Google Earth to look for areas to run or walk. Remember to say Hello to people!

running in rural Sri Lanka -- covering my legs
but otherwise easier than expected

---- Runners World suggests asking the front desk of your hotel for nearby running routes. Many have maps of safe roads to run in the area, the article says, but that doesn't count rural PNG.

the Wagu guesthouse in PNG's Sepik province didn't provide running maps
in 2002 - not sure about today!

---- Exercise early, before you lose the opportunity to unplanned events or a crazy work and social schedule. This is true everywhere.
this is Alfa, who I'm guessing has never done
CrossFit or Boot Camp but manages to stay
in shape hauling wood, crops, and other
heavy items up and down hills

---- Cross-train with strengthening workouts, which can be done nearly anywhere, even a hand-cut, hand-constructed hut, with a curtain for a door...

Depending on your how cramped or private your space is, you could walk up and down stairs, jump rope, perform squats and lunges, do a circuits or boot camp type of workout, run a few sprints, focus on your abs or upper body (yes, you can do punches even in an airplane toilet), and repeat for 20-30 minutes (probably not in the airplane toilet -- that's just a desperate measure on long-haul flights).

If your travels or work require physical exertion, you might not even need to do a formal workout. Walking up hills, through forest, around farms, building houses or other volunteer activities all build muscle and fitness, depending on your intensity.

gratuitious photo of cute boy who's just
caught a bunch of fish and appears to be
eating one right out of the river
gratuitous photo of a Pigs for Sale sign, with the prices in PNG
kina -- we wondered who would buy a pig for US$1,500-2,500!

If you lack time, you can aim for higher intensity. Done rapidly and powerfully, any of these will get your blood moving, burn calories, and complement your normal exercise routine. Don't forget the cooldown.

---- The article recommends foam rolling after a long day on your feet, standing in heels, sitting on planes, trains, automobiles, and canoes, and sleeping in different beds (I've never tried one, but many swear by them).

canoeing is a way of life on the Fly River, which connects villages
in a mostly roadless region

-- Pack healthy, nutritious snacks for the road, such as nuts, apples, or carrot sticks. Your food choices, as well as your schedule, may not be your own, whether in a business meeting or a site visit to PNG.

I got stuck during this trip to PNG with very few dining options (yes, this is me outside a very rural village up the Fly River, not actually that delighted with the white bread and spam I was just served for lunch).

Needless to say, I ate peanut butter and banana sandwiches on white bread 2 times a day for 3 days - not a sacrifice, but I was glad we'd brought some bananas.

Planning and flexibility are definitely key to rural professional and personal travel!


  1. This article is very interesting.

  2. Everyone keeps saying how important it is to travel. So what's all this fuss about? Why do people travel and love travellingTravel nice