Bruce Parry's long, late gap year
- 5 January 2011
- From the section Magazine
Gap years for older people are on the rise, with visits to endangered places and cultures increasingly popular, but TV explorer Bruce Parry effectively does for a living what many other adventurous souls only do for leisure.
Bruce Parry has travelled to remote places, tried to live as the locals do, and even ingested indigenous hallucinogens. He has often been seen cross-legged in a hut, eating something unfamiliar, in the TV series Tribe and Amazon.
His latest foray into wilder places is the Arctic, for which he wears polar bear trousers. But for the fact he is doing it professionally, Parry seems like any of the growing number of 40-somethings (and above) eschewing the rat race to travel the world.
He may eat unusual things and have previously undergone rituals such as penis inversion or cattle jumping, but his fundamental experience is not a world away from any other traveller.
"Getting on with people is common sense. It's eye contact, it's often physical contact, it's smiling. It's good manners and respect. I don't think I'm any different to how most people would be if they went travelling," Parry, 41, tells the BBC News Magazine.
"My gap year would have been nothing like as exciting as this because I would have travelled the world with judgements," he explains.
The product of a strict and religious upbringing, followed by six years in the military, Parry today is much changed from his youth.
"When I left school there was no way in a million years I'd have gone near a hallucinogenic. I was a Marine, I'd have called the police if I'd seen anything like that."
Now his judgements are more nuanced.
He places great emphasis on listening - even though he never learns a tribe's language and uses a translator sparingly.
"People can sense when you are listening. Normally we're thinking of our answer before the person has even finished talking, thinking of how to make ourselves sound better.
"Coming from where I come from, we're so convinced that we're right. Only by stopping and listening do you realise that their perspective can be much more wholesome than ours."
But the Arctic is a place where the rights of indigenous people can conflict with the expectations of the wider world. As the "last chance tourists" who increasingly go there to see disappearing habitat will know, this is an area at the sharp end of environmental change.
Its wildlife struggles with habitat loss, and retreating ice caps expose mineral riches ripe for exploitation.
Going to a place like the Arctic to sample traditional lifestyles can prompt some ethical questions.
In Greenland, Parry spends time with indigenous hunters. Their quarry? Seals, polar bears and whales. All animals that set Western conservation alarm bells ringing.
"I don't normally question stuff too much," says Parry. "If I'm in the middle of the jungle with a group of people and they shoot a monkey, that might be a controversial thing to eat, but they're living an incredibly traditional life."
But the Inuit are more integrated.
"They're living a traditional life, but they're accepting fuel and boats and vehicles and heating from the outside world. That comes with opinions about the larger picture of the animals they subsist on."
Parry partakes of seal and of whale, and dresses in cold weather gear fashioned from polar bear skin. For hunting is inescapable in the Arctic - little grows at such high latitudes, so farming is not an option.
"The moral question of what we eat is not about whether it's fluffy or not. Seals are abundant in the Arctic, yet they're flying in pork and beef from the south. That seems really odd."
Parry is far more bullish about the polar bear.
"I'd rather see one in the wild. Quite apart from it being iconic and beautiful and cuddly, it's endangered. Is there a place in the modern world for Arctic hunters to kill polar bears? I don't know, but it's acceptable for the scientific community who look at the bigger picture to have a say in that."
Hunting for TV has put Parry off meat-eating - not off just-shot wild animals, but those reared for their flesh.
"Look at chicken factories. We have a questionable respect for the life of the animals that we put into our mouths, yet these people say a prayer and sing when they kill a whale."
"I'm typecast for ever as the guy that goes hunting. But I'm seriously considering becoming vegetarian. I don't eat much meat. I don't hunt for sport. I grew up hunting, but I've changed. A lot."
And in his relations with the indigenous people he meets, Parry always tries to keep one principle in mind.
"I accept that wherever I go, I'm going to be the laughing stock. They're perfectly adept at their environment, they're in tune with it, and I'm not."