The Traveler’s Dilemma

When I tell people I’m an avid traveler, I say so with both pride and shame. Pride: because world travelers tend to be among the most environmentally conscious, culturally sensitive, socially progressive people you’ll ever meet. Shame: because, as a traveler, I cause more damage to the environment, and more disruption in the lives others, than people who stay home.

When I trekked the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal’s Himalayas, the owners of the teahouses sometimes cut down more of the forests than they should to fuel the cook-fires that fed us trekkers. Every time I’ve returned to Bucerias, Mexico, to avoid the crowds and commercialism of Puerto Vallarta, I’ve joined those guilty of turning a once-quiet town into a burgeoning development, polluted by constant construction. If we move on to the next unspoiled Mexican town, will we then be the leading edge of the next wave to turn colorful local culture into crass capitalist homogeneity?

Every time I’ve returned to Bucerias, Mexico I’ve joined those guilty of turning a once-quiet town into a burgeoning development.

I do try to keep my tourism low-impact. Consider this comment from Tuk, my guide for a trek in the hills near Pai, Thailand.

“On my trek, you must agree not to buy souvenirs from the tribes,” Tuk said. “Do not give candy or money to the children. This encourages the farmers to abandon their fields and their way of life. Instead they think they can make money as a tourist attraction, but this does not always make a good life for them, and much is lost. We have seen this happen in Thailand.”

But low-impact tourism still has an impact. Consider my reaction:

To us, the biggest selling point is that we’re visiting hill tribes who seldom receive foreigners: the Lisu, Karen and Lahu. They’re not yet jaded by the tourist dollar. The irony, that we’re seeking to make contact with this unspoiled culture by using our own tourist dollars, is not lost on me. Aren’t we the beginning of the process that will ultimately erode their culture as well? Do we really think Tuk’s policy can hold it back? How long can these people hide?

It’s easy to romanticize the life of the poor farmer or hunter, to idealize his connection to the land and his community, to bemoan the urbanite’s lack of harmony with the earth and his neighbors. But can we blame the poor farmer or hunter if he discovers the possibility of an easier life—with clean water and grocery stores, TVs and computers—and decides to take his chances on seeking a route to that life?

The irony, that we’re seeking to make contact with this woman’s unspoiled Lisu culture by using our own tourist dollars, is not lost on me.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m neither ready to stop traveling, nor to ask that of you. Traveling can benefit the traveler. Everyone can use a getaway to recharge their batteries and remind them of what’s really important: our relationships with other people, with the world, with ourselves—and with our God, if we believe in one. For me, travel has been a path toward independence, and away from co-dependency. My life has become more harmonious, thanks to the chance to view that life through the prism of a wider world.

Everyone can use a getaway to remind them of what’s really important: our relationships with other people, with the world, with ourselves.

Traveling can also benefit those we visit. It creates jobs and encourages spending in regions that often need the boost. It fosters understanding between people of different cultures who might otherwise be tempted by easy stereotypes. It allows us to witness social injustice and environmental damage firsthand and spread the word to others. An elderly man I met in Spain said he thought it would be a better world if everyone spent time visiting another culture. “If everyone did this, maybe we would all understand each other more, and not fight so much.”

Traveling can also benefit those we visit. It creates jobs and encourages spending in regions that often need the boost.

Still, with all the talk of climate change, I often think about the thousands of airliners filling our skies with greenhouse gasses every day. With all the talk of the war on terror, I often think about America’s relationships abroad. So, I try to do what little I can to mitigate my negative impact as a traveler. I’ll admit it’s not much…

When I’m home: I usually ride my bike for errands and appointments that are under 10 miles round-trip, so long as it’s daytime and the weather is above freezing with no precipitation. I sponsor a child in Thailand. I avoid chemical cleaning products. I take short showers. I try to use both sides of a sheet of paper. I turn lights off when I leave a room. I recycle. I try to remember to use my shopping tote instead of plastic bags.

When I visit other countries: I try to buy souvenirs directly from those who make them. I try to avoid souvenirs made of non-renewable resources. (Sadly, I got so excited about some beautiful hardwood carvings in Africa a few years back, that I neglected to consider this.) I walk a lot. I learn at least a few phrases of the local language, and take time to talk to local people, instead of sticking to sights and tour groups.

When I visit other countries, like Peru, I take time to talk to local people, instead of sticking to sights and tour groups.

Last week, I posted a photo of a fisherman repairing his canoe on the shore of Africa’s Lake Malawi. That was Andrew, a married father of three. We had a brief conversation. He said it took him two weeks to carve his dugout from a single log. He heated a pot of tala, or mud-based sealant, over a small fire. Then he used the tala and bits of metal to repair cracks in his canoe. With care, such a boat can last three years.

Andrew said it took him two weeks to carve his dugout canoe from a single log.

As evening gloom gathered over the lake, his friends gathered around the fire to chat. Feeling intrusive, I began to leave, “It was very nice to meet you, but I’m afraid I’m keeping you from your work.”

“No, you are not keeping me from work,” Andrew said. “I am finished. Now we are just waiting for the time.” He gestured to his friends and to the sun. He said he appreciated the chance to talk to a visitor. He explained that most visitors never bothered to talk to people in his village. “I think they do not want to talk to the black people.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I think maybe they are too ambitious. They don’t have time for people like us.”

Andrew explained that most visitors never bothered to talk to people in his village. “I think they do not want to talk to the black people.”

He said it was good to talk to foreigners because he learned a lot. So did I. I hope that his straightforward words, his handmade boat, and his bountiful lake, remain clear in my mind, every time I make a decision that affects the world I live in, and the people who share it.

***

What do you do to mitigate your negative impact and increase your positive impact as a traveler?

10 thoughts on “The Traveler’s Dilemma

  1. Rose Muenker

    Thanks for your insightful, balanced post, Cara! I view being able to travel as a gift. I applaud the initiative you take to interact with local people. Whether abroad or here in the USA, we learn so much about ourselves and the cultures within cultures when we make the effort to connect — even when it’s awkward.

    Reply
  2. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    I appreciate you letting me know that you found it balanced, Rose. I’m in no position to preach, and wouldn’t want to. I just hoped to invite discussion. I think in any endeavor it’s important to be aware of how the things we do affect others. Thanks for taking a moment from your own travel day to pop in.

    Reply
  3. Rebecca Elia

    Cara,

    Thank you for this wonderful post–so many concerns, so insightfully expressed.

    I could write pages, but I’ll stick with one comment. Each year I use one of those energy formulas to figure out how much greenhouse damage I’m personally responsible for. The vast majority of my contribution isn’t the hundreds of gallons of gasoline that go into my car or the gas used to heat my apartment. It’s from the one roundtrip airflight I take from California to Greece.

    So much to think about–it will drive you mad.

    Reply
  4. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    As a friend and I were discussing on Facebook, the worst culprit in climate change is over-population. If we don’t reduce population-growth, reducing carbon footprints is pointless. As Simon put it: “If there were 600 million of us, not 6 billion, the load on the ecosystem would be 10% of what it is now. Similarly, if we reduce our footprints to 1/10th of what they are now, then when the population reaches 60 billion, we’ll be right back where we are now.”

    Reply
  5. Tabitha Dial

    Wow. This is a very insightful post. Your comment about over-population is also eye opening. I have enjoyed many travels and I have chatted a little here and there with people, but I have primarily been shy.

    I think that’s changing right now. There are so many stories to learn and so many hearts to reach, and if you came all that way … why not get to know someone?

    Reply
  6. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    Thanks for bringing up such a good point, Tabitha. I always feel a little nervous about talking to new people, especially in foreign countries. It can be a risk: you could have such opposing views that conversation becomes awkward, you could find you’re talking to a con-artist, or you could get stuck trying to extricate yourself from with a crazy person. But I think if you’re in a location where you feel safe, it’s well worth the risk to reach out and learn.

    A Spaniard once told me, “Cada persona es un mundo.” “Every person is a world.” If so, then it seems there still are new frontiers to explore, everywhere we turn.

    Reply
  7. Tammy Lee Bradley

    Excellent article. I think that each of us should make a list like you did regarding what we do each day to reduce our impact on the environment. I bet we would all find that we could do much more to move towards a “greener” life. I will certainly try to do more after reading this.

    Reply
  8. Cara Lopez Lee

    Thanks for letting me know that this post might have inspired you to live a greener life, Tammy. From your attitude, I’m sure you already do a lot. If everyone did those little things, it would add up.

    However, I believe that, ultimately, the only path to a large-scale turnaround requires our leaders to step up and insist on large-scale changes in energy technology. We can’t keep relying on non-renewable fuels and the ordinary person can’t simply drive less to get us to sustainability. I know I’m sounding an old refrain, but it’s a goodie.

    Reply

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