International Women’s Day: Spotlight on Female Guides

Natural Habitat Adventures March 8, 2018 0

NHA Expedition Leaders Veronica Maruri (left) in the Galapagos and Moira Le Patourel (right) in Antarctica.
Photos © Jennie Lay & Colby Brokvist

International Women’s Day brings a message of empowerment to those who have been catalysts for change in the fight for women’s rights. Today, we celebrate the achievements of women leaders who are actively changing the workforce, including the realm of adventure travel. We recently had the chance to catch up with NHA Expedition Leaders Moira Le Patourel and Veronica Maruri to get an insider’s perspective on what it’s like working as a woman in the adventure travel industry.

NATURAL HABITAT ADVENTURES: What inspired you to start guiding?

Picture of a Natural Habitat Adventure's woman guide MOIRA LE PATOUREL: I was looking for an opportunity to combine both my love of wildlife and wild places with my desire to be an educator; guiding was the one pathway that would allow me to be able to do so. I am a firm believer that if more people learned about and understood more about wildlife species and the diverse ecosystems that surround us, there would be more care taken to preserve them. As such, guiding provides an opportunity to share knowledge about global flora and fauna, with the aim of sparking ideas of conservation and instilling in others a sense of wonder for our natural world.

Photo of Veronica Maruri, a woman guide with Nat HabVERONICA MARURI: The Galapagos Islands have been on my mind since the third grade. My grandparents took a vacation there when I was a child, and my grandfather was inspired to write about the animals, landscape, and people. What resonated in my mind was the image of him when they came back home. I was used to seeing my grandpa wearing a suit and tie for his city job. When he returned, he had grown a white beard and had some sort of animal tooth hanging from his neck. It intrigued me so much that I knew I wanted to live on an island.

Close to ten years later, my heart pounded as I readied to land on the Galapagos Islands for the first time. It was love at first sight. The island had many cacti and rocks, but El Niño had turned this bare region into a lush landscape of waterfalls and wildlife. Once in town, I applied for a job at the Charles Darwin Research Station and was thrilled when I walked out with a position as a scientist’s assistant. The scientist, a few park rangers, and I set out across Isabela Island, through mangroves, overgrown brackish lagoons, and rocks, until we found our home for the next weeks. The first night after pitching my tent on the deserted beach, I heard a frightening noise, and my friend came running with a flashlight. We soon discovered that it was a sea turtle nesting right next to where I had been sleeping. Feeling invasive, I asked permission to move the tent. That was a turning point in my life.

I began to understand that nature is very generous to humans and that people are not at the center of the universe. I wanted to learn more about this amazing place and how everything is connected. It’s a privilege to live with the Galapagos National Park as our backyard. Guiding has brought me closer to nature. My goal is to leave people touched by the wonders of this paradise. I love watching the faces of visitors who soon discover that the wildlife is unafraid of them and that when these animals are given respect, they continue to go about their daily behaviors such as courting, nursing or resting. I love the possibility of guiding groups, couples, families, and individuals, who at the end of their week may say that this was the best vacation of their lives. It inspires me to guide when people are willing to go out of their comfort zone. When they want to learn to snorkel even if they cannot swim, or when kids are suddenly amazed by unique birds, fish, or plants. I see grandparents who travel with their grandkids, and it’s a beautiful connection. The role that we have as guides can be very influential to people of all ages. We are the visitors in this world, where nature reigns!

NHA: What challenges do you face as a female guide in the male-dominated industry?

MLP: First and foremost, I believe we need to stop discussing guiding as a male-dominated industry—this only furthers stigmas and allows such ideas to perpetuate. As a female guide, if an employer isn’t an equal-opportunity employer, they aren’t worth the time and effort. All guides will need to prove their worth and skills at certain times over their career, regardless of gender. As a guide, it matters if you can do your job well and keep your participants safe. Being able to work well as part of a team is highly prized in the guiding industry; I have had many male superiors discuss how mixed-gender teams tend to be stronger and more pleasant to be a part of. I have been guiding for a decade now and I feel that I have seen a positive shift in North American guiding, in terms of skill level mattering more than gender. Clients may have misconceived notions about male versus female guiding skills; a quick comment from a teammate in support of the guide in question will usually provide a swift end to such misconceptions.

VM: I think it’s the same as with any job; one has to be flexible and adapt in order to survive.

NHA: What advice do you have for women looking to take on careers in guiding?

VM: One has to be very creative and sensitive to be a guide. Notice the individual interests of guests and make sure that each person experiences a special moment in nature before the end of their trip.

MLP: Guiding does not need to be a competition; look for an employer who fosters a team of guides, instead of allowing guides to compete for excellence. In Rudyard Kipling’s words “…the strength of the pack is the wolf and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” Some guides are good at guiding solo—this is a valuable skill set. The guides who can do both, who excel when guiding singly and also excel while guiding as part of a team, are the guides that I have seen go farther. A team environment is one in which we can all learn from each other and gain valuable knowledge and skills, allowing us to be stronger guides together.

NHA: Do you see an increase in women joining the guiding community?

MLP: Yes. I have been part of several guiding teams during the last decade and have seen an increase in female guides from all walks of life, from mountaineering and polar exploration to marine and overland tours. There is more work available for a wide array of guides now, as tourism is on the rise globally, providing more opportunity for guide positions to be filled.

I was lucky enough to participate in a guiding exchange with a safari company in Zambia about five years ago. I went into this experience as a younger female guide, but I had been working as a Canadian grizzly bear-viewing guide for the last five years of my life. I was now the Lead Guide at the organization I worked for, so had quite a bit of experience working around wildlife with clients. Certainly, in that particular environment on the guide exchange, a young female guide was more of an anomaly than a common occurrence, based on different societal structures and values at that time. The owners of this company had me give lectures to their guides about the work I did in Canada and also had me discuss the other guides I worked with (which consisted of a team of both males and females). Some of the local guides were resistant and some were receptive. Happily, I can report that the first female guides for this company were taken on as training safari guides the year after my trip.

VM: Yes, there are definitely more women guiding in the Galapagos Islands now than when I first started.

NHA: What do you think women are looking for in their travel experiences?

VM: Someone to talk to, as many women like to make friends with others who share the same interests. Some women who travel with a tour company like the feeling of safety as they seek to be more adventurous.

MLP: Henry Miller said it best: “One’s destination is never a place, but always a new way of seeing things.” I think most of us seek a new way of viewing the world when we travel; we seek to explore outside of our own minuscule corner of the planet and to give ourselves some perspective, as well as an opportunity to understand our true selves.

NHA: Have you seen any changes in the way women travel over the years? How so?

MLP: Something I have noticed is that the trips I lead have had an increasing number of women traveling on their own. I have encountered many solo female travelers, across a wide range of ages, in the last decade working as a guide. I have been lucky to travel with young women who have embarked on incredible trips across the world, who have saved up enough money to travel and learn and live and embrace other cultures outside of their own. I have been lucky to travel with mature women who have led a lifetime of adventure with their partners and have unfortunately lost these partners to the hands of time. I have been lucky to travel with women who love adventure and new experiences, who have left their loved ones at home.

Perhaps in our changing world, it is more comfortable now for women to travel on their own, but there certainly have been many solo female adventurers throughout the centuries before this one. Regardless of age, traveling alone allows an experience that forces the traveler to be outside of their comfort zone, socially and otherwise. I have long admired individuals who travel without companions. Leaving the familiar behind opens us completely to the new and different.

VM: Women are more outdoorsy than before. It’s great to see them all geared up in fashionable yet comfortable adventure gear. And with the advances in outdoor gear and clothing, now everyone, not only women, are able to travel lighter and some don’t even check bags on the plane. I admire that!

NHA: What are your top tips for female travelers?

VM: Travel light and take an extra bag for your souvenirs. Have a pair of flip flops to give your feet a rest from the hikes. Bring walking shoes that are comfortable and durable.

MLP: You can never go wrong packing Imodium, zinc and vitamin C tablets (and lots of them).

NHA: How does travel help to empower women?

MLP: Travel can teach us how to be tolerant of others, and how to be patient and kind. Travel often involves more misadventures than following through with planned adventures, and those who are willing to ride along with the experience to whatever end can be empowered with a kind of flexibility that many people don’t possess. Travel can be uncomfortable, in the sense that all you’ve known can be questioned; it is the acceptance of such discomfort that can lead to a feeling of personal growth and strength in the face of adversity. Simply, travel can open our eyes to other walks of life. As we experience, we learn and we grow.

VM: I remember the first time I saw a group of European women traveling through South America with only a guidebook. They didn’t speak Spanish and were learning as they went. They were unafraid and had been traveling for months, making connections in different countries along the way. They brought their experiences back to their home country. I think traveling brings people closer together and helps connect us to one another. Women have a power to bring people together; it’s in our nature.

NHA: What makes working with Nat Hab special to you?

MLP: Being an expedition leader for Natural Habitat Adventures has allowed me to travel to many different corners of the world. I have led adventures in sub-Arctic Canada, the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia, China, Greenland, and Antarctica. The guests who travel with Natural Habitat Adventures are just phenomenal – they are on a quest for knowledge about the environs around us, including the flora and fauna, and have a deep desire to see the natural world preserved. Such desire for conservation is inspiring and infectious – I look forward to the connections I will make while leading future adventures and I appreciate the connections I have already made and the knowledge that we have shared. There’s nothing like exploring the natural world with other curious beings.

VM: Nat Hab has a personal connection to every destination they go to. Rather than treating everyone as a group, they focus on the individual traveler. I think that’s the biggest difference between Nat Hab and larger outfitters.

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