Halve Your Footprint; Double Your Adventure

Written by  Eric Lewis June 24, 2011

A pain-free guide for travel martyrs.

If you have travelled abroad in the past few years, you’ve met the travel martyrs. They are everywhere, and they will regale you with unsolicited tales of their epic selflessness. Like the time they walked barefoot across Thailand to volunteer at an orphanage-cum-tofu farm? (Travel martyrs end declarative sentences with interrogative inflection; it is the way of the enlightened.) Responsible travel, it seems, requires a high-flown combination of self-sacrifice and Dalai-Lamic humility.

But you don’t have to be the Mother Theresa of WWOOFing to have a positive impact on the peoples and places you visit. In fact, I’ll let you in on a secret: ethical travel is more fun than traditional tourism. That’s right, an indulgent vacation doesn’t need to be a guilt trip. As you will see, there are plenty of selfish benefits to practicing what those patchouli-oiled martyrs preach.

All it takes is some familiarity with the Selfish Backpacker’s Commandments for responsible travel, and you too can secure a pain-free journey to travel martyrdom.  (And, we won’t tell if you have a little fun along the way.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s carbon footprint

Mother Earth already has her hands full, what with BP, Chinese industry and bovine flatulence. And buying carbon offsets while you rack up SkyMiles is like paying someone to fast during your pie-eating contest.  But, is asking a traveller to reduce their carbon footprint akin to taking away their passport?

Flying less hardly seems sacrificial if you weigh the harried ordeal of airports against the vibrant adventure of slow travel. By choosing to travel through a smaller area during your trip, you actually experience so much more.

Consider, for example, the Central American “chicken bus.” You’re piled in amidst local commuters, bouncing down dirt roads in a repurposed old school bus, perched on the wheel well, squeezed between an old woman taking live chickens to market and a man holding a baby holding a puppy, doused in the smells, sounds and colours of the region. This is the place you came to see.

A flight, on the other hand, will cost much more and “save” a few hours. For what? Your next wait in an airport terminal? You might as well be at the dentist’s office. As Douglas Adams points out, “It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the phrase ‘as pretty as an airport’.”

Thou shalt forsake the comforting familiarity of the mega-chain

Yes, Club Med Punta Cana has a fancy infinity pool—which is about as Dominican as McDonald’s. And neo-colonial tycoons do not earn a ‘pass’ for having the noblesse oblige to hire local housekeepers. Moreover, big-chain resorts are designed to insulate guests against the very place they’ve come to experience. To summarize: there’s nothing unique about the Hilton in Dhaka.

The best trips are built around experiences you cannot have anywhere else, and the key to quality control is always the same: Go local. Foreign goods and services are not imbued with local pride. It’s that simple. You care more about your hometown than I care about your hometown, and vice versa. 

As Douglas Adams points out, “It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the phrase ‘as pretty as an airport’.”

Thou shalt not bear witness too falsely or too often

Your blog now boasts 2,000 photos from a place most folks have only dreamed of visiting, yet all your memories involve fiddling with your Nikon.

It’s easy to become the unintentionally invasive voyeur, snapping away with the unbridled élan enabled by SanDisk. More rewarding, though, are the connections you would make with a slightly different approach. Stop to ask permission from your intended subjects. Use that language you’ve been practicing, or simply smile, hold up your camera and ask, “OK?”  Afterward, switch to playback mode and share the picture with your new friends. Now each photo has a story.

Even better, try intermittent photo fasting. Leave the camera behind on some days, and amaze yourself with the details you retain when there’s no device to do your remembering for you.

Thou shalt have no other gadgets before thy flip-flops

Fight Club’s Tyler Durden says it best: “The things you own end up owning you.”

Honour thy peace and quiet time

You don’t owe the world your privacy. Think back to the last time you went several days sans email and cell phone. What disaster happened as result? Unless you’re an oncologist, my guess is nothing. 

Thou shalt not make Lonely Planet your idol

Lonely Planet did not invent world travel. The Vikings got around quite well without Frommer’s, and so can you. Guidebooks are handy resources for crucial information, such as the nearest hospital’s location, embassy phone numbers and current drinking laws. But relegate your every decision to the gurus of globetrotting and you may find yourself immersed in the wrong culture: gap-year kids swapping gap-year stories getting gap-year drunk. 

Tourist books do have their place. They provide a jumping-off point and a base of reliable establishments. There is no reason, though, to limit your choices to those on the menu. Consider that guidebook recommendations are subjective—the suggestions of mere mortals like you.

The Vikings got around quite well without Frommer’s, and so can you.

Remember the meaning of adventure, and keep it holy

Be the arbiter of your own adventure. Going off-book is the perfect way to rediscover the vanishing art of chatting up strangers. 

Before our cars had GPS, we occasionally got lost. Yes, sometimes this was not good; sometimes this made us late to a party. But other times, what divine intervention it was! We’d groan and pull into some unknown parking lot and go into some unknown establishment and ask some stranger (yes, we used to talk with strangers) for directions. And the plump woman behind the counter would perk up, because this place was out in the middle of nowhere, and a person out in the middle of nowhere loves company. We’d say we’re looking for Mount Zion Baptist Church, and she’d say there must be a wedding, since it’s Saturday and we’re all dressed up. We’d agree, checking our watch. Then she’d ask who’s the lucky couple, because apparently in this part of Virginia everybody knows everybody. We’d give the names, and she’d smile like a child with a secret, because oh, gracious, if we’d seen the bride back in high school we’d have bet she’d never marry. We’d laugh, starting to forget our hurry, as she’d launch into a story about the bride’s embarrassing brush with local law enforcement, many years back. We’d enjoy her animated lore so much that by the time she’d get around to telling us how to get to the church, we’d be sad to leave. And she’d mention that her name is Rose, and it’s been real nice meeting us.

All this really happened, to me, four years ago. Imagine if GPS had interfered!

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Published in Beyond the Guidebook

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