Friday, January 22, 2016

Being a Responsible Traveler.

As responsible travelers, we DO NOT want to contribute to this!
Polluted Beach on the Red Sea in Sharm el-Naga, Port Safaga, Egypt.
Photo by Vberger.  (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.)
They say that travel transforms you and I am living proof of that.  Over the past 10 years of globetrotting, my mind has broadened to accept new ideas and opinions, my heart has grown bigger yet more humble and my awareness of how our modern life is having a negative impact on our planet has grown.

I rarely get on a soapbox to expound on anything but after giving it quite a bit of thought, I decided to open on my approach to traveling....which I dare say, is different from most people I know.

My perspective on travel changed years back and what I have found is that the way I travel now is richer and far more rewarding than I could have ever possibly imagined.

It was my trip to Peru that changed my outlook on travel.  Before then, I was happy to travel in what I call *the tourist bubble* - staying in tourist hotels, eating tourist food, being shuttled around in tourist vans....even shopping for kitschy tourist souvenirs.  Peru was a watershed trip for me on so many different fronts.  The biggest wake up call came when I realized that I had been to see the country....saw Machu Picchu (yay??) but I returned knowing very little about the country and the people.  How could I spend two weeks in a country and return barely less ignorant than when I left home?  This just didn't sit well with me so I knew I needed to adjust my mindset.  Change is not easy and most certainly, my next trip to Egypt and Jordan continued to open my eyes to the fact that for me, the way I was traveling was not satisfying. It was with the next trip, to India, Nepal and Tibet, that things began to take a turn for me.  I started to switch my focus from what to see to learning about history and culture.  In turn, that completely changed how I plan my trips and how I travel.

At its heart, my trips are indeed focused on getting closer to the people, history and cultures of a place.  I start with pre-trip reading - I have to educate myself about a country before planning can even begin.  This in turn helps me to find experiences that enable me to better discover a country through connecting with local people.  The moment I leave my house, I shed my *American tourist skin* and when I arrive, I delve right into the local scene.  I am outside the *tourist bubble*.  So, at the end of the day, I still see the same tourist sights as every other visitor but I also return home with a deeper understanding and appreciation of a country and its people.


Equally important, travel has also become very much about giving back to the country while minimizing the negative impact, especially on the environment.  I never gave it a second's worth of thought about the impact, of my visit, on a country's environment.  The reality is that there is impact and it was the vivid memories of seeing heaps of trash piled up along roadsides in Peru, Egypt and especially India that made me look at things in a different way.  In these places, public ground is trash ground and the worse thing to add to the heap is plastic trash.  How could I, someone who conscientiously recycles at home, not even think twice about tossing out a plastic bottle when I travel?  The answer was that I couldn't so something had to change.

With each trip I go on, I am a much more aware and mindful traveler.

For years, I felt like the odd duck out when it came to traveling, especially when I compared myself to my friends and family who seemed to me to travel in what I would describe as a more *conventional* way.   It wasn't until someone coined the term *responsible travel* that I finally found kindred souls.   When I heard Justin Francis, the co-founder of Responsible Travel, describe what he sees as responsible travel, every word hit a chord with me.  After that, I had to learn more about what I could do to be a responsible traveler and with every trip I go on, I try to improve my ways and means.


The tenets of responsible travel are pretty simple and fall into three main aspects with the goal of maximizing the benefits as much as possible and minimizing the negative impacts as much as possible.


Bro and I at breakfast with the owners of the Klaara Mani Guesthouse
in Pärnu County, Estonia.  They didn't speak much English but we enjoyed each 
other's company so much that we drove off 2 hours later than planned!
Financial.  The tourism industry is an important part of the economy in many of the countries I've traveled to - especially the developing countries.  So, it's important to maximize the financial benefits of tourism so that more of the dollars that you spend on your trip goes back into local hands.  My contribution is to stay in locally owned and operated hotels (preferably small), guesthouses and apartments.  There is truly nothing more enjoyable than spending time with the owner of a guesthouse - they are typically hospitable beyond anything that you would expect from a chain hotel.  Plus, I am spoiled by not having to deal with check in and check out times!

You will rarely, if ever, find me staying at any chain hotel!  I also try as best I can to eat only in small local eateries so that money goes back into the hands of the not so wealthy.  I also only hire local guides and drivers - avoiding large foreign owned tour companies as best I can.  My favorite sites for finding local guides are ToursByLocals, Viator, and believe it or not, Facebook!  Yes, Facebook is a good travel resource as locals who can neither afford to or have the skills to have a website can easily create a Facebook profile and advertise their services.  Just Google "Facebook (name of place) guide" e.g. "facebook azerbaijan guide" will retrieve a list of guides.  It will not be a complete list of available local guides but it's still a resource.

In cases where I rent a car, I only rent cars from local car rental agencies - definitely not Hertz, Budget or Avis.  I have been asked on numerous occasions by my American friends about my experiences renting cars and I can tell you it's been outstanding.  We rented in Riga to drive around the Baltics, Athens airport, Santorini and Cappadocia.  In all those 4 instances, except for Athens, the car was delivered to us.  In the case of Santorini, we didn't even have to return the car!  We were headed back to Athens by ferry and following the instructions from the rental agency, we just parked the car in a particular spot and left the key under the floor mat.  How much more convenient can you get? My favorite website for car rentals is Economy Car Rentals - they are to car rental agencies as Kayak is to airlines.  Not only are the daily rental fees lower but they offer a lot of benefits for free, e.g., CDW, extra driver, GPS that you typically get charged for.

Environmental.  This is a big one for me.  I contribute in two ways.  First, I reduce my carbon footprint by taking longer duration trips to spread out the environmental impact of the flight itself.  As a general rule, my trips are at least 3 weeks long; 4-6 weeks is ideal and I typically combine countries.  Hence, Sri Lanka and Singapore (2012),  Lativa, Estonia, Lithunia (2013); Greece and Turkey (2014); the five *Stans* in Central Asia (2015) and for this year, Thailand and Myanmar, the three Caucasus nations and Korea and Hong Kong.  The only exception to this rule is if the trip is in North America or the Caribbean as flights are much shorter in duration than going *overseas* - hence, two weeks in Guatemala was acceptable.

Being entertained by some very friendly school children on the bus from the town of
Pisac to the town of Urubamba in the Sacred Valley of Peru.
The second way I reduce my carbon footprint by relying on public transportation whenever possible.  That means, buses, trains, trams, subway, ferries, boats....whatever means other than a private car.  I have had some truly memorable and wonderful experiences traveling with locals!

If it has to be a private car, we use the smallest one possible without having to sacrifice on too much comfort.

The last way I contribute to the environmental aspect of responsible travel is to actually minimize something negative and that is reduce consumption of electricity and water and reduce plastic trash.  Reducing usage of electricity also reduces the carbon footprint.  If you want to learn more about carbon footprint, timeforchange.org provides an easy to understand breakdown.

Water and electricity are typically expensive commodities in developing countries - I am very conscious about not overusing either. I don't do it my own home; I will not do it any one else's.....even if I am paying to stay there.

Trash.  Sadly, I've come to realize that it's acceptable in many cultures to simply toss your trash on to the ground.  Public ground is trash ground.  I remember the shock I felt when I stepped foot on the large sandy area surrounding the Great Pyramids at Giza in Egypt.  The sand was completely peppered with trash!  Even when I see others toss their trash out, I still cannot do it.

In days gone by, trash could easily be burned and the ashes would simply be nutrients for the soil.  But nowadays, we have plastic and Styrofoam and it's dangerous to burn either as the fumes are toxic.

One of my biggest peeves is plastic trash!  As I take a great deal of time and effort to recycle plastic and paper at home and so I try my best to do the same when I travel overseas.  It begins with the realization that while we have recycling facilities in the US, these often don't exist in other countries.   As a result, trash piles up everywhere and plastic trash is particularly damaging on the environment simply because it does not degrade over time.  Not only does it pollute our land, it also pollutes our waters!  Developing countries with large populations like China, India, and Brazil are really facing difficult challenges with trash and whatever you can do to not contribute to it, the better for us all.

The Plastic Disclosure Project, a project run by Hong Kong-based advocacy group Ocean Recovery Alliance, estimates that 33 percent of plastic manufactured worldwide is used once, then discarded. To compound matters, 85 percent of the world's plastic is not recycled.

Re-purposing plastic containers in Ethiopia.

In several of the developing countries I've been too, I've noticed that larger plastic items are often collected and re-purposed.  For example, in the Merkato, the main market in Addis Ababa, there was an entire section of the market with vendors collecting and reselling the ubiquitous yellow plastic containers that started out life as containers for cooking oil but get re-purposed mainly as containers for carrying water.  As we traveled through the countryside, we would see these containers everywhere.

Unfortunately, that's just one country doing one little bit.  Alarmingly, so there is so much plastic trash that our oceans are now clogged with it.   One *heap* of ocean trash is so large, it's even been given a name by scientists and environmentalists - the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  Not surprisingly, a good part of that patch is comprised of plastic trash!

If you want a reality check on plastic and its impact on our world, read this Scientific American article or this National Geographic article.
 
My blue water bottle, kettle and cups, collapsible silicon
bowls and cutlery.
So my contribution to minimizing environmental impact begins before I even leave on the trip.  I remove all unnecessary packaging before anything goes into my suitcase.  The packaging is then tossed into my recycling bins.

I also try to minimize the use of plastic bags.  I have fully switched over the recyclable bags at home so I do the same when we travel.  I usually bring along two lightweight tote bags that we take with us when we go to the market.  I will also bring along a couple of plastic grocery bags for holding things like my shoes and dirty clothes.  The bags go with me on the trip and they come back!

Next to plastic bottles, plastic cutlery is another pet peeve of mine.  It's such a waste as it's pretty much only used once!  So, yes, I bring along plastic cutlery often reusing the plastic forks, spoons and knives that come with my airline meal.  Call me weird but some of the stuff is really durable.  The green cutlery in the photo to the left were taken from an EVA Airlines flight in 2012 and the clear plastic ones came from a KLM flight in 2013!

I also bring along a set of collapsible silicon bowls which come in to use when we either don't want to use the bowls provided or we are having a picnic lunch which are many!

Bro putting together our picnic lunch on the patio outside our room at the Acropole Sunrise Guesthouse in Santorini.  Recognize the bowls and clear plastic spoon?

Lastly, and this truly a no-brainer -  I bring along a water bottle

I first started with a very simple thing - I stopped buying small bottles of water.  At a minimum, it's a 2 liter bottle; if not the largest size possible.  Now, I bring along a travel kettle and where bottled water is not easily obtainable, I boil my own!  I quickly discovered that bringing my own water bottle also allows me to indulge in things like freshly squeezed juices from street vendors. Instead of giving me the juice in one of their glasses, which may not be the most sanitary, I have them put the juice in my water bottle.

I know that I alone cannot solve the problem of accumulating plastic trash but I will do whatever little bit I can!  I am determined to remain a responsible traveler.

Cultural.  This one is one of the easiest tenets for me to live buy.  I love nothing more than going off the beaten path, escaping the tourist horde, and connecting with locals.  Yes, I do see all the tourist highlights but I try to do that as quickly as possible to dive into the heart of a country.

Avoid activities aimed primarily at tourists is one of my guiding principles.  It's not always possible to but you'd be surprised how rewarding it can be to not do what every other tourist is doing!

It's also surprising how easy it is to get off the beaten path when you're on the beaten path.  For example, countless visitors to Istanbul go for a boat ride down the Bosphorus.  I did too.  Years ago.   On my most recent trip to Istanbul, I realize you can cruise all the way down the Bosphorus (same round the tourist ferries go) all the way to the Princes Islands which are technically a neighborhood of Istanbul. We went to Büyükada, the largest of the islands.  There were barely any tourists around.

On our horse carriage ride around Büyükada; private vehicles and large public vehicles (i.e., buses) are not allowed.

From a planning perspective, focusing on the cultural aspect of travel this is the most difficult responsible traveler tenet to live up to because finding information on off the beaten path things to experience can be really, really challenging.  You're looking to go small and go local and things are often either not advertised on the web or in a language that even challenges Google Translate!

Yet, those small, local experiences have also been the most unique and memorable ones for me.  Like foraging for mushrooms in Latvia with Bro.  After reading that mushroom foraging is deeply woven into the culture of the Baltic nations, I decided we had to go on a mushroom hunt. But, how to make that happen? 

I had engaged a local travel agency to help me arrange for our trip and I asked so I asked agent to find someone to take us around.  It took a while but eventually, we were hooked with a naturalist from the Natural History Museum of Latvia.  At the last minute, we found out the naturalist could to come and instead we were going to be taken around by a colleague of the naturalist.  That turned out to be a tall, lanky and very friendly Latvian named Andris Klepers.  Andris took us to his favorite spot in Guaja National Park and gave us a brief lesson on fungi identification.  Then, we then went off, following Andris as he led us through the forest.  Minute by minute, our basket filled up.  We all enjoyed ourselves so much that we completely lost track of time. What was suppose to be a four hour foraging hike turned out to be an all day affair!


Like many travelers, my early days of trip planning were spent perusing Guide Books (Lonely Planet and Rough Guides were my favorites) and scanning through reviews on TripAdvisor.  With my trip to Mali in 2010, that all changed as neither guidebooks nor TripAdvisor could help me out.  I had to find new resources and that led me down a completely different garden path in terms of trip planning and it is one that I have stayed on ever since.  So, if you really want a cultural experience ditch your guidebooks and get off TripAdvisor!  Guidebooks easily get out of date and very often, only cover the interests that the authors have - they may not be the same as yours.  The one exception as far as Lonely Planet is concerned, their Thorn Tree forum can be extremely informative.

As for TripAdvisor, I use it very sparingly as it generally does not cover small, local accommodations or eateries - good luck trying to find a review on that village guesthouse you have your eyes set on!

Instead, I use Wikipedia, YouTube, and Airbnb, among other resources.

The country's official tourism page, if it has one is the best starting point for planning trips.  From there, Wikipedia is a good first step to learn about a culture - beyond that, I will surf the web for information on cultural arts and events, sporting events, history, geology if pertinent and of course, customs and language.  For me, there's always opportunity to take a cooking class as I do love to whip up a meal.
With my instruction and fellow students at a cooking class in a hutong home in Beijing.
YouTube might sound like an unlikely planning resource to some people but for many locals, creating and managing a website is either do not have access to or the skills to do.  But with so many cellphone cameras in the world, it's easy for them to shoot a video and put their email address in the description field.  I can't tell you how many local people I have connected with via their YouTube channel or even just one video!

I found Aivar Ruukel on YouTube and now, you can also find him on Vimeo.

Aivar is a nature enthusiast who leads walks through Soomaa National Park in Estonia.  A large part of Estonia is covered in bogs (learnt from reading up on the country's geology) that are crisscrossed with streams and rivers. You have to hire him for his services but Aivar will take you on a nature experience through the park.  For the bog walk, you have to don a pair of snowshoes so as not to damage the delicate bog plants - he calls the experience *bog shoeing*.  As with so many people from that part of the world, Aivar was born foraging as so after our walk, we did more mushroom collecting.  We ended our day canoeing with Aivar up and down one of the many streams that run through the park.  Oh what fun we had with Aivar!

Bogshoeing with Bro and Aivar Ruukel in Estonia.

As for accommodations, many countries in the world offer the opportunity to stay in places that will take your travel experience far beyond a typical hotel room.  For example, paradors in Spain, machiyas in Kyoto, farmstays in New Zealand.  As I plan for Korea, I'm also learning about staying in a hanok, a traditional Korean house, rather than a hotel.  Agrotourism is huge in Greece and offers a unique way to experience a stay in Greece.  You will not find most of these places listed on TripAdvisor.  So how do you know they exist and to find them?  Read up on the culture of the country and then search on the web.  Many of these smaller, locally unique accommodations will be listed on cooperative type websites. 

Bro and I taking a stroll through one a small village in Sri Lanka.  It's where our local guide, Chanda (in the yellow shirt) lived with his family.  Our driver, Chami, is in orange shirt.  We ended the day with an amazing dinner of Sri Lankan seafood and veggies cooked up by Chandana's wife and mother in-law.

Dinner at a village home table.  The smile says it all.  We gorged!

There are also some very interesting home stays and village stays that are often in conjunction with a volunteer trip.  For example, you can hang out in a lovey village on a volunteer opportunity in the Andaman Islands of Thailand.

Tips and Suggestions.  Aside from all the tips and suggestions, embedded in the paragraphs above, here are a few more....of course, from the viewpoint of a responsible traveler.

Tip.  Travel Off Season.  Not only are airfares  (generally) cheaper but there are fewer crowds.  Your likelihood of interacting with locals is far higher and more fun when they're not distracted by having to deal with tourists.  On the downside, finding accommodations and public transportation can be challenges when you travel off season.

Riding on the back of a tractor driven by my friend Şahin.  We're heading into the White Valley in Cappadocia.  During tourist season,
at the time, he was running his souvenir shop in the small village of Göreme.  This photo was taken in November 2008.  With no tourists
in town, he had time to gather firewood with his cousin Ersin.  I went along for the ride and had a really unforgettable experience!

Suggestion. Take in a local festival.  This is one of my favorite travel approaches.  I absolutely love to travel to a country is when there is a festival going on.  I love the festival atmosphere - people are generally happy to be celebrating an event - not to mention that there are often special events taking place like a parade and special foods.  Taking this perspective led me to Nepal during the Dashain Festival, Guatemala for Semana Santa, Sri Lanka for the Esala Perahera, Israel for Purim, Ethiopia for Epiphany and this year, I will be in Hong Kong for the Mid Autumn Festival.  One of the best online resources on festivals around the world is Fest300, founded by a travel writer named Chip Conley who globetrots to take in festivals.

Esala Perahera (Festival of the Tooth), held annually in Kandy, Sri Lanka.  We got to experience this amazing festival  in 2012.




























Fishing on the shores of Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur in Mongolia.



Suggestion.  Find time to immerse yourself in local culture - stroll through a city park, take in a local art performance, sporting event or even a cooking class.  No better way to take in local life and learning more about the local way of life than by doing what locals do when they want to enjoy some time off!

Suggestion.  Support local artisans.  We all want to bring souvenirs back to remind us of our trip.  The easiest thing to do is to simply go to a souvenir shop and pick up an item.  But, as a responsible travel, I focus on supporting local artisans - this way your money goes right into the pockets of the person creating the work of art rather than the factory mass producing an item.  Wandering around any market, bazaar or even tourist hotspot, you will likely someone who is creating a piece of art that catches your eye.  If you like it, buy their work.  In many countries, especially in village areas, there are also cooperatives that support the creation of handicrafts by villagers.  My souvenir from Peru is a woven textile, purchased from a cooperative store.  80% of the price of the textile goes back to the woman that wove the piece and of course, she signed on a small piece of cloth attached to the back.

Checking out the textiles woven by the women of a local cooperative in the village of San Lorenzo Zinacantán in Mexico.

These are just few of things that I do to be a responsible traveler.  Really, it's not a whole lot of effort required on my part but I have to admit, it does take being resourceful, especially when it comes to finding information.  To some degree, that comes with experience doing trip planning as a responsible traveler.  But the reward to me has been rich travel experiences that I will not soon forget.  The world is truly my oyster!

Am I the perfect responsible traveler?  Far, far, far from!  As there is always room for improvement, I continually strive to make changes to the way I travel to not only do my bit to better the world but to better myself.

My reward for being a responsible traveler.  The experience of being invited, by three lovely young Turkmen girls, to share a meal with their family.