Hands-free trekking umbrella

What the…?

This post is my solution to using an umbrella hands-free. Sometimes when hiking, or walking with trekking poles, it can be useful to use an umbrella. Now, before I get shouted down by the ultra-lightweight hikers, it is, of course, a personal choice. The problem with an umbrella –aside from weight – is that it requires a means of support, usually a hand, but this is incompatible with using trekking poles, or indeed dealing with using a camera, a phone, or just about anything else.

 

umbrella mount

 

Why use a trekking umbrella?

So why use one at all? Walking the Camino in 2016, I found I was walking sometimes in warm weather, sometimes in rain. In terms of heat, I was walking West in the mornings, and hence the sun was almost always at my back. Despite a hat, and the shade of the backpack, I found I was getting a sunburnt neck, and there were times when it would just have been nice to have a shady tree to walk under. There are not many of those on the rolling plains of the Meseta in Spain, so some form of shade is a good idea. It was too hot for a hood, and it was nice just to be able to take advantage of whatever light breeze might be available.

I did carry a lightweight umbrella last time, but had no way of attaching it to my pack, so it was always a choice between using the poles or using the umbrella – so it got very little use.

As I prepare for my next Camino, I thought I’d sort this issue – and researched hands-free umbrellas for trekking. I wound up buying the ‘Dainty’ model of the Euroschirm trekking umbrella [this is not an affiliate link, and my opinions are my honest response] – it was the lightest one (195g/7oz) that folded down to the smallest package. And it was reflective silver, and UV treated so it can be used equally as a sunshade or against the rain.

Alas, it didn’t have any mounting system, so it was time to devise my own.

How to attach it

My backpack has two loops on each of the front straps – designed to run the hydration tube down either side. The umbrella did not have a loop of any kind, so I drilled a small hole in the plastic handle to take a keyring ring from a $2 shop and threaded the keyring loop through so it was permanently on the umbrella. I then bought a set of four velcro cable ties – called ‘One-wrap’ from Officeworks – $7.30 (NOTE: this is also not an affiliate link – just there to show what I used). The reason I chose these is that they can thread back through themselves, so I could attach it to the backpack loops making them always available for attaching the umbrella. The free end of the velcro is then wound around the umbrella and attached to itself. When you undo it, the velcro remains on the pack and the umbrella can be easily put away for another time.

I threaded one velcro loop on one pack loop and another on the other pack loop on the shoulder strap. I then used these to secure the keyring ring to the lower one and the upper one around the shaft of the umbrella. This gives a secure hands-free mount which can be used on either strap depending on which side the sun is shining. It works like this:

umbrella mount

This system will work with any manual or automatic umbrella and does not require any specialist fasteners (or a specialised umbrella).

Conclusion

The result is I can have my own personal shady tree equivalent regardless of the presence of any shade. And the umbrella has the added bonus of keeping the rain off the top of the backpack too, so is suitable for light rain. Does it work? I took a daypack with me sketching on a clear mid-summer day in Australia with a temperature approaching 40C/104F and deliberately sat out in the full sun while I sketched for an hour and a half. The umbrella performed brilliantly and kept me cool enough to focus on my sketching, rather than on the way the bitumen was melting. With the UV protection and the silver reflective covering, it was like sitting under a shady tree. It felt several degrees cooler than the ambient temperature. From this test, I have decided the umbrella is well worth its 190g/7oz weight and will be coming with me on my next Camino.

Just a small aspect of my Camino preparations for our 2018 walk across Spain.

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Travel sensationally!

Have you noticed that when you eat certain foods, taste certain wines, smell certain smells, you are instantly taken back to your memories of a place, perhaps distant in space or time from now? For example, I recently baked.a tarta de Santiago – an almond cake common in Galicia in northern Spain. The sense of taste took me straight back there. It was one of the great tastes of the Camino de Santiago.

Tarta de Santiago

Papua New Guinea smells strongly of vanilla – it permeates all the food and of course their famous coffee, but it is also on the air too.

When we travel, at least part of why we travel is to experience new places, new sights, new sounds, new tastes. Indeed, one reason that travel is so exhausting is that we are literally on sensory overload. So much is new to us: the rhythms and sounds of a new language, the smell of dust and spices and markets, the sights of ancient buildings, the touch of a Roman wall or the feel of the cobblestones beneath our feet. These are all part of the sensations of travel.

Aristotle told us we have five senses. But the reality is that we have many more. As British philosopher Barry Smith has pointed out, science has long moved on from Aristotle’s five elements that make up the material world, yet we still cling to his categorisation of five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.

School of Athens

Today, scientists believe we have between 21 and 33 senses and possibly more. Part of that is a more nuanced version of our five senses, but there are a few surprises. It turns out that our body is full of sensors each designed to keep us healthy, away from predators and poisons, and able to appreciate our environment in extraordinary ways. And most of these senses also help to enrich our experience of new places.

Ecstasy of Saint Theresa

For example, I often wondered why I would get misdirected in Australia where I have lived most of my life, yet in London which I barely knew, I always knew my orientation in the city. The answer appears to lie in magnetism. Well, it turns out that we have magnetoreceptors – an ability to sense the Earth’s magnetic field, in the way that birds have an innate sense of direction. And these sensors seem to be related to the iron in our nose – we literally follow our nose! Our sense is much weaker than that of birds, but is well documented. And yes I was born in the UK, but came to Australia as a child. How is your sense of direction affected by travel?

We also have a sense of time – not only are we aware of our circadian rhythms (which get disrupted by jet-lag) but we also have a surprisingly accurate sense of time and duration.

Clock in Paris

And of course, our senses work together to build layers of experience. I have spoken elsewhere of recording the sounds of a place – whether the dawn chorus of birds, or a hubbub of a street with the sound of street sellers. One thing I love to do, is to sit in a foreign cafe and listen to the rhythm and cadence of the local language – especially where I am unfamiliar with the language. It is like the music of a country.

I have heard the mellifluence of Korean, the staccato syllables of Indonesian, the soft gentle sound of Khmer, the distinctive French, the expressive Italians and so on. Try closing your eyes and just listen to the sounds of language without trying to understand what they are saying, just the flow of speech.   

Food stand in Kuching, Malaysia

 

Then there are practical things, such as we wouldn’t get far without a sense of balance, and we would have a hard time drinking coffee or eating sushi without our proprioception – the sense of knowing where your limbs are – to guide the cup to our lips.

Our sense of temperature will tell us to dress warmer or cooler and this is an aspect of where we are and how we experience a place. It also helps to signal to our body that we need to regulate our temperature in some way, and to stay hydrated in warm or dry places.

Our taste is probably around 80 percent smell, and the rest is divided among senses for sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami (the taste that responds to the amino acid glutamate, found in meats). So they work in combination to give us the rich world of flavours wherever we travel.

Laksa

Sight appears to be two senses – cones for colour and rods for brightness – again these work in concert to bring to life the colours and visual textures of our travels.

Being aware of how we sense a place, also helps to stitch that place into our idea of who we are as well as who we are becoming. As Barry Smith points out:

“Once you have a multi sensory view of perception, you have a better chance of explaining how you are in touch with the world and how we know about ourselves.” – https://aeon.co/videos/aristotle-was-wrong-and-so-are-we-there-are-far-more-than-five-senses

Each place has its own pace, its own feel, its own light. So here’s an exercise for you – can you describe a place in one sentence or paragraph, using a more nuanced description of how your senses responded to it? Don’t you just love the gravity in Paris?

Dancer sculpture seen in London

Arles: Then and now – Van Gogh’s Yellow House

In May 1888 Vincent Van Gogh rented four rooms at 2 Place Lamartine, in a town called Arles in the south of France. This would come to be known as the Yellow House. The rooms were on the right wing of the nearest building in the painting. The two ground floor rooms were used for a studio and a kitchen. The upstairs corner room was the guest room for Gauguin, while the one next to it (with one shutter closed) was Van Gogh’s bedroom – the one later painted with the chair and pipe. At a later point, he rented two more rooms upstairs at the back of the house. On 16 September 1888 Vincent wrote to his sister Wilhelmina describing the house, and his contentment at finding a place where he felt he could think and paint:

“My house here is painted the yellow colour of fresh butter outside with raw green shutters; it stands in the full sunlight on a square which has a green garden with plane trees, oleanders and acacias. And it is completely whitewashed inside, and the floor is made of red bricks. And over it the intensely blue sky. There I can live and breathe, think and paint.”
Letter Vincent Van Gogh to his sister Wilhelmina dated 16 Sept 1888 letter W07

Yellow House - Arles

Yellow House – Arles (detail)

The painting was done in September 1888 and was originally called The Street – we were there in October a couple of years ago and found the light similar to that discovered by Van Gogh. I could see why the place attracted him – for the light and the colours – and especially the sky which is emphasised by the brightly painted buildings of the town.

Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo on 28 September, about this painting among others:

“…Also a sketch of a 30 square canvas representing the house and its setting under a sulphur sun under a pure cobalt sky. The theme is a hard one! But that is exactly why I want to conquer it. Because it is fantastic, these yellow houses in the sun and also the incomparable freshness of the blue. All the ground is yellow too. I will soon send you a better drawing of it than this sketch out of my head.

The house on the left is pink with green shutters. It’s the one that is shaded by a tree. This is the restaurant where I go to dine every day. My friend the factor is at the end of the street on the left, between the two bridges of the railroad. The night café that I painted is not in the picture, it is on the left of the restaurant.”

– Letter to Theo (543) dated 28 September 1888

When he wrote the letter, Vincent was 35 years old, and was eagerly awaiting the arrival of Paul Gauguin. Gauguin would live at the house for nine weeks from the end of October 1888. The night cafe is actually across the Place Lamartine, through the Town Gate and up the street on the square where the Roman Forum once stood.

The square is still there – complete with its plane trees and oleanders, but the house was badly damaged when it was accidentally bombed by the Allies on 25 June 1944 as they were targeting the railway bridge across the Rhône during the liberation of Arles – and the house was demolished shortly afterwards. Nevertheless, the four-storey building behind survives to this day, along with the railway bridges in the background. The bridges are easily recognised from Van Gogh’s depiction of them. The nearer bridge (with the steam train depicted in Van Gogh’s painting) is for the local line, while the further bridge (with square supports) is for the Paris and Lyon lines. The street running through beneath the bridges is Rue Montmajour.

Van Gogh’s observation and drafting skills are evident in his painting – the two railway bridges are easily identifiable today, as is the building that stood behind the Yellow House. The inclusion of a train on the bridge also evokes the message of his desire for Gauguin to visit, and to suggest that the railway network kept him connected with his brother Theo, as well as to the rest of the Paris art scene. Trains at that point in history were symbols of modernity and progress, and showed how the world was shrinking and becoming more intertwined. Arles was no longer a distant outpost, but part of a networked France.

Yellow House - Arles

The site of the Yellow House today in Arles

The house was just two minutes’ walk from the site where he painted the ‘Starry Night over the Rhone’. Today, if you turn around from where this photo was taken you will find a modern ‘Monoprix’ supermarket and a roundabout (formerly a park) – so if you are looking for the location, just look for the Monoprix first and it is just across the intersection.

By looking at a place through the eyes of a painter almost 130 years ago, we can see the changes and continuities in the landscape, and gain a sense of the presence of history wherever we travel. And in the process, perhaps we can begin to develop a language of seeing and a way of thinking about the cultures we encounter and how this, in turn, says something to us about our own culture.

The Yellow House painting currently hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.