How To Travel The World (And Not Be A Douchebag)
I love to travel, but I am not a perfect traveller. My exploits have taken me to six different continents (awesome!), yet I have produced a size-12 carbon footprint (not-so-awesome!). Like many curious Westerners, I love to have meaningful connections with people who are different than myself, however I’ve also been known to opt for an air-conditioned Starbucks over an authentic teahouse. Here’s how I reconcile these contradictions: rather than shooting for “perfect,” my approach is to limit the amount of damage I inflict on the communities and landscapes that I visit.
There’s an old traveller’s motto that states, “Take only picture and leave only footprints.” But these days even a footprint is starting to be dangerous. So how exactly can we be imperfect travellers yet not horrible global citizens?
Here are some guidelines that I apply to myself.
Forget first-class flights. Flying is a high-emission activity, but your seat in business or first-class is several times as damaging as seats in economy. Up to six times higher. All the additional space for high-paying travellers means airlines use more fuel to move them, and this is exacerbated if the expensive seats are left empty. If you insist on first class, then read the next point (and afford to take action).
Carbon offset your journey. There are organizations out there that offer emission-offsetting initiatives — essentially they fund projects that remove, prevent or limit more dangerous emissions. “Offsetting” has existed for years, and yet it still has not become a regular practice for most travellers. Why? Well, my theory is that we’re all too stingy. But if you’re planning a trip and wish to limit your douchebag quotient, why don’t you ask for some “offsetting” credit as a gift for your birthday or for Christmas/Hanukah/Kwanza/Solstice?
Don’t buy sex. Sex tourism is a multibillion-dollar industry. In an ideal world, sex workers — women and transfolk in particular — would be fully empowered to do whatever they wish with their bodies without in the involvement of other agencies (read: pimps and police). Unfortunately we don’t live in that world. Money spent on purchased sex is likely promoting a system dense in inequality and subjugation.
Don’t buy drugs. Westerners go to Goa to drop acid on the beach or northern Laos for the affordable opium. Drugs are the very reason some backpackers head off to developing countries — the highs are cheap and omnipresent. Multiply that by thousands of travellers and the social and economic landscape of a community changes. Buying illegal drugs creates an illegal market and the byproducts of illegal markets are organized crime, violence and exploitation. To put that in layman’s terms: You’re fucking over the places you visit.
Say “yes” to what people offer for free. Okay, saying “yes” all the time is foolish — you have to keep your wits about you. But if someone offers you a meal or a bed, sometimes the most honorable thing you can do is accept the gift. This might even mean stretching your value system or comfort zone. Yes vegetarians, you might need to try that grilled duck. Yes princesses, this might mean sleeping on the floor of a hut. Saying “yes” to the unknown (and perhaps uncomfortable) is the essence of travel.
Go ahead and volunteer — but realize you’re not doing much. Chances are your three-week stint in a Ghana orphanage is more about fulfilling your own agenda then “saving the children.” Unless you have a year (or more) to give to a social-based development project, it’s doubtful that you’ll have long-term influence. This doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t participate in short-term volunteer projects. But go forth with realistic expectations. And a clear understanding about who’s really benefiting.
Don’t convert anyone to your religion. It’s called “neocolonialism.” The world has suffered enough. Don’t do it.
Don’t ruin the ruins (or sacred sites). For many decades, Western adventurers arrived to Ayers Rock in the heart of Australia with an eagerness to climb. It was, after all, the best place to watch the sunrise! However, the rock — known more respectfully as “Uluru” — is a sacred location to the Anangu people, whose land was once forcibly stolen. These days, traditional custodians and caretakers manage the site. The visitors’ guide says “the climb is not prohibited, but we prefer that, as a guest on Anangu land, you will choose to respect our law and culture by not climbing.” The decisions you make in relation to sacred sites are directly correlated to your level of douchebaggery.
Did I miss anything? Be sure to add your own guidelines in the comments.