The outdoors is for everyone
‘I like seeing people’s faces light up when they are doing something they didn’t think they could do because I was the same.’
My name is Adya, I’m originally from Newcastle and I live in The Wirral. I’ve lived in many places over the years. My parents were first-generation immigrants from South Asia. I’m talking to Tales to Inspire because of my journey into the outdoors at a late age.
Growing up I didn’t partake in outdoor activities; I began when my friend forced me to try kayaking while I was in Sweden. I’ve now become a kayaking coach and go five to six times weekly! I also do canoeing and paddle boarding because it’s fun to try lots of things (and be bad at some things too).
I am nothing like I was as a child. I was introverted and copied my family in doing more indoor activities. I tried surfing while doing my PhD, but it was difficult, I felt unfit and the board was heavy… I never missed it because I didn’t know what I was missing. The South Asian representation is just not there for being outdoors, it becomes generational and cyclical. I realised I can do it as an adult and I’m not half bad.
About three-quarters of my family are doctors so that was my natural dream. I thought I’d get married at 25 and be a doctor because that’s what society tells you is normal for people like me. I turned 25, did not get married and I did not become a doctor either. It was OK to change the narrative that was written for me. I pursued an academic career doing a genetics PhD. My family thought I was a little crazy and maybe in retrospect, I was. There was no one guiding me, and I didn’t feel like I fitted in while I was doing it.
There is no way research and kayaking are compatible. My research life was 24/7 – I used to work weekends. There wasn’t time for kayaking, but I realised that my love for kayaking was more of a part of me. Eventually, I quit academia and got a stable 9-5 working in academic publishing. I had weekends and evenings to switch my brain off and go out on the water, relax, and connect with nature and myself.
My PhD on rare diseases raised awareness and tried to find answers for patients. There’s a lack of conversation about how much commitment we should be giving to things we are passionate about and how much we should be paid. Also, the structure of the career is highly competitive and doesn’t allow you to progress like a normal job. There are a lot fewer women of colour in higher-up positions; I think the last count is around 50 Black Women professors out of 26 or 27 thousand. You see, the odds aren’t in our favour. So, I was faced with the question: shall I keep going until the system spits me out or quit now and do something more meaningful with my life? Which was where I was in 2016 when I changed careers. However, it’s the same outdoors, people say, “Oh you’re passionate about this, why don’t you just do it for free?”. In some instances, many of us are happy to put in gratis efforts and in other instances, it starts to feel more exploitative. We still need sustenance, and we need to live our lives.
In 2016, I didn’t realise my life was changing. I took a job at an academic publisher, as a scientific editor, using my knowledge to publish research. I was doing a lot of sea kayaking by that point so every weekend I’d go to the south from Cambridge, to go kayaking. I got into it at that time. I did a lot of expeditions to Greece and learnt about multi-day travel and camping. I’d never done wild camping and I was nearly 30! I met my husband at this time, and we were long-distance. I did my first coaching training in London because I wanted to help people in our kayak club. I was encouraged to, so I did. In the middle of November, I did the training, jumping into the freezing cold water and doing rescues.
Nobody asked me to help around the club. My husband had an opportunity to move to Liverpool so instead of delving into why I was being excluded, we just moved. The Liverpool club was a lot better. I was excluded partly from the London club because they saw me as a beginner but also kayaking as a sport is highly gendered and very racialised; once I got involved in a women’s only initiative and realised everyone else had a very different experience to mine. I saw it wasn’t just a women’s issue, it was something else… I never really knew because I didn’t ask, and they wouldn’t tell me.
My advice for someone wanting to try something new like this is to join a local canoe club or kayak club, usually lovely places to paddle with people, sometimes they can feel uncomfortable for newcomers, not unwelcoming but homogenous. If you are lucky, you’ll find a club which welcomes you, if you’re unlucky, you’ll find a club that’s not as welcoming but still not horrible. The chances of you having a bad experience are low.
Now, I am a kayak, canoe and stand-up paddleboarding coach (the latter I got most recently because I feel it’s easiest to capitalise on its popularity to get people more involved.) In April I launched ‘People of Colour Paddle’ . I decided it was my responsibility to get more people to try it. I take people out to give them that first experience. It’s quite a big undertaking and I have very little organisational support; I’m doing it mostly based on my charm and network! A lot of people don’t want to hold these sessions for us to be honest because I am trying to organise lower-cost sessions to reduce any barriers to the sport.
Still, every weekend, I am in a different city doing this. The Instagram for this is @peopleofcolourpaddle which is more like a mailing list at this point. I don’t have a website for this organisation yet. I usually put out calls when I’m in the area and I say I’ve arranged a session, charging a low fee to manage the no-show aspect. If I can get funding/ organisational support for this my involvement may become a bit less because now I am doing everything. If I had support, it would make my life a lot easier but until then it’s every weekend or so.
There are a lot of opinions about how much I should charge for it, comments around financial obligations and spending my own money, which makes it difficult to speak about. I am privileged enough right now to be able to do small things for the community and I love to do it. If there was one rule, I could change for the world it would be Kayaks for everyone!
This blog was written by Ava Goldson based on the interview with Tales to Inspire.