Everyone has a purpose to travel, we love to travel but we were not so mindful when we started
Mankind started with a full-time nomadic lifestyle, then realized agriculture was needed to sustain the population growth and humans became sedentary. Nevertheless, traveling never ceased to exist, maybe the purpose of travel changed, but travel in itself didn’t. Ironically, we (the No Footprint Nomads) have now the same lifestyle we had millions of years ago: we travel full time with no fixed base. Although we don’t travel to find food anymore, we do it to feed our souls. It is this life journey to responsible travel that we will discuss here, so if you are looking for happiness, follow Alain de Button’s insight but add a positive impact to our common future.
“If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest—in all its ardour and paradoxes—than our travels.”
Excerpt From: Alain De Botton. “The Art of Travel.”
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What will be covered in this article:
- Purpose of Travel – Historic view
- Purpose of Travel – Today
- The impact of Travel
- How to be a Responsible Traveler
Looking back at History, responsible travel was never an option
The many reasons humans traveled after sedentarism became the norm
If we fast forward the nomadic societies to the first sedentary settlements, then why did people had the need to move around, why not just stay put and work the land or do what kind of social responsibility one had? The answer is very much related to a struggle our society has faced since it started to live in communities: the difficulty to be completely self-sufficient. Today we call it globalization, the capacity to move goods and people around at the speed of sound, to fill any gaps in our communities. Thousands of years ago, doctors were scarce, religion did not reach every corner and to find needed goods, traders often had to travel to obtain them. Hence, traveling was a perpetual requirement of life in society:
- Trade: either to make more money or to obtain required goods, trade has been at the heart of travel in our society. The famous Silk Road, explored by the Portuguese during the discoveries period and now re-ignited by the Chinese government, is probably one of the oldest and longest trade routes ever created and the reason for much of the traveling of the time
- Medical: health is a good motivator for anyone to cross dangerous rivers and mountains. The medical profession wasn’t so frequent back in the day, so people had to travel to find doctors who could cure. There’s a very interesting movie called The Physician that shows how barbers could also be surgeons during medieval times, a must watch.
- Religious: pilgrimages from the common people or ecclesiastical activities from priests is a reason for traveling since religion exists, which means almost since ever, unfortunately. The Crusades were also responsible for a lot of traveling, and also for the first international bank transfers. The Crusaders needed a way to have access to their wealth in the promised land so the first international bank service was created.
- Government: taxation was manual for thousands of years, the collectors had to travel all around the lands to get the money. There were other activities that official entities had to do like spreading the word for new decrees, and trying to make sure the law was respected across the land.
- Tourism: probably not exactly as we see it today, but most of the tourism back then was from the rural areas to the cities to have access to any kind of entertainment. Gladiators, theatre, and even executions were entertaining activities that frequently attracted people from afar. For the very wealthy people, traveling for pleasure was also an option, but the unknown and lack of information did not make it that frequent. After the Crusades and Marco Polo famous Asian travel accounts, more information was available and people started to feel the urge for traveling, maybe it was then the travel bug disease started to spread relentlessly.
Why do people travel today?
Interesting enough, most of the reasons described above are still happening today with some modernization updates. Doctors are now everywhere, but we now have medical tourism, where people move to warmer climates to optimize the treatment. Even with all the digital globalization, trade is still pretty much done face-to-face, so trade fairs, business meetings, and contract signing still require a lot of traveling around. Pilgrimage has probably increased with the population boom, and the only of the original reasons that have almost ceased to exist is the government taxation.
Nowadays there are millions traveling every single day, and it has become so easy that if you ask many of them why they are traveling, they will have to think for a while before answering the question. How many times have you heard someone saying: “If I won the lottery I’d travel the world!!!”? It is in our subconscious minds that travel is the ultimate activity for a wealthy person, it’s like the society looks at us in a way that we have to travel the world to be accomplished.
At least in Western society, people work their ass out, go on two week holidays in pieces of paradise and when finally retired from the rat race they do month-long trips to see the world from a magnifying lens. Spending most of our lives in the same environment will make us feel uncomfortable when living that comfort zone, and we’ll look at the rest of the world the same way we do it when we go to the zoo: impressed but in small doses.
Instead, if traveling was standard in our society as it used to be, we would all be accustomed to all our differences, we would respect them and our global society would thrive. Don’t even need to list all the advantages of this new society.
So, I believe we can divide the traveling motivations of today into 3 categories: Need, Pleasure, and Education.
- Need – study, medical, work, family, any of those reasons that will force anyone to travel either short or long term: college students traveling to a new college, ex-pats looking for better-paying jobs, family emergencies or medical treatments that have to be done away from home. Not much gratification from this experience, although with time people may end up appreciating the new country they are living in now and never go back to the homeland.
- Pleasure – this encompasses almost any lust traveling out there: kids looking for endless parties, visiting new cities because they are new to them, exploring an exotic or extreme activity like a safari or a week on the Phi Phi islands, or just spending some extra savings because they couldn’t find a better way to spend the money and travel is considered a good investment
- Education – not the MBA or college travelers, who move to a new location to pursue formal studies, those have a clear necessity so I place them in the first category. Here, I place the travelers that look at the world as a full-time university, who consider the planet a continuous classroom and are willing to take as many classes as they can. People like Ana (post soon) who wanted to explore permaculture and traveled all SEAsia volunteering in farms. Or Caliche (post soon) who wants to start an eco-tourism company in Colombia and also traveled in SEAsia visiting eco-activities. Or just people that travel with an open heart and mind and look at everything around them as chances to learn and grow.
Do you want some more examples for traveling with the purpose of learning? Just watch:
- Food Trip – want to try African food? Travel and learn
- Learn a language – best school in the world is immersion
- Sport/Skill – go where they do it better
- History – get a museum’s subscription
- Heritage – trace your ancestors and find your beginnings
- Religion – travel to see the references for your organized beliefs
- Spirituality – go on retreats
- Stars – go to the Atacama desert and get lost with our galaxy
For the love of travel, what have these eight years done to us?
Like we stated in the beginning when we started to travel we had a completely different purpose in mind from the one we have today. In the past, it was mainly pleasuring with a little spice of education. Today, things have changed so much for us that we don’t even recognize ourselves from that time.
It all started with an unfulfilled lifestyle, I did have a nice career to pursue and was doing the right steps: good income, house, and prospects. But for some reason, which I still don’t know how to explain, something was missing, it’s as if I knew I had a better mission but I had plenty of time to get there so I wasn’t worried. I was living my life partly blindfolded but felt it was just temporary.
After studying in Sweden for almost two years and then returning home, I was sure that staying in Portugal would not be enough to find that thing that was missing, so after some years struggling for fulfillment, traveling the world became the priority. And so I went.
After years of craziness, culture exposure and reality checks, I suddenly found what I was looking for all along: not the how, but the what. My life purpose would be fulfilled by helping other entrepreneurs to achieve success with their positive impact companies. How to get there I’m still working on, but I know I will.
It’s all starting with this website, and to be able to do it we have to learn. And how we decided to do that? By traveling to the capital of the world of digital nomads where we could learn with all these people already doing the same, so we moved to Chiang Mai. Our education journey is endless, but we try to give it a real focus.
The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away. Pablo Picasso
How do you change by being on the road?
Losing the last bus of the day, finding the only toilet available and realizing there’s no toilet paper, being refused to open a bank account or any legal document, not being able to withdraw any money, and so on. How many situations will you face that can have some consequences to your life and comfort until you start to develop the wonderful skill of savvy adaptation? Not many, trust me, you will not withstand many paperless toilets until you start to remember to be prepared next time you are on the move. It happens, you adjust, learn and move on, as simple as that.
Sense of Humour
Very much connected with the last point, you start to relativize everything, a sense of Mai Pen Rai (the most famous Thai expression that means never mind) you apply to anything that happens that would before make you go mad. Your sense of humor skyrockets when on the road for many months. You laugh when a boat owner keeps your money and leaves you stranded, you smile when you realize you messed up the traveling dates and you make jokes about the day the police stopped you for their due bribe. Life is too short, right? Don’t be too serious because there’s no time for that.
Do you see all pictures we post online? 1% of the time, and always happy. The other 99%? The dark side of travel, unhappiness mixed with anxiety and disbelief. Some problems with anyone back home, some new crazy problems from being on the road, and all the time to solve it. Then the 1% comes and your life is perfect again. Like the Ice Man’s Ice Bath technique, it thickens your skin, it will make you stronger and resilient. And yes, resiliency is number one skill for success. (just read the book Grit)
It is like you learn how to meditate instantaneously, whenever you need to do it. Your thick skin, together with a strong sense of humor will lead you to the art of being eternally patient. You quickly learn things always take more time than are supposed to, or so you expect. Plans do not go according to the plan, and that’s just all right. You will wait for the right moment for things to happen, you will realize time is always on your side, and that deadlines are not good for your health. Just relax, and enjoy the view while you wait.
6th sense for opportunities
Everyone knows that opportunities don’t fall down from the sky, you have actually to be out and search for them to show up. When traveling, this couldn’t be truer and demanding at the same time. As quickly as an eye-drop on a sign or a fast chat with someone in the toilet cue and an infinite number of changes can happen. Why so demanding on the road? Because the window of opportunity is short, people are also on the move and so do the opportunities. That group that is doing exactly what you wanted to do but had no support, or that house with the lake view you would never find by yourself. You will learn how to sniff these opportunities like a dog finds food, and you will grab it faster than snake bites, it’s yours.
This is one of the arguments against the myth that traveling is bad for the environment. If you look at the direct carbon footprint in itself it may be right, it would be much better to stay on your couch without leaving your house. However your world references will completely change when you travel, you will meet people from all over the world with many different problems from back home. You will soon realize the impact of your actions in Western society when you travel to the developing world. You will see so many different solutions to problems you are aware that your mind will explode. You will probably want to save the world by the fifth month on the road. Your new self and world awareness will hugely compensate any carbon impact you may have above your daily comute.
Responsible travel – be mindful of what you do
No matter the motivation that drives you to travel, doing it mindfully should be your approach to do it. It actually should be to anything you do in your life, but let’s talk only about responsible travel.
What does it mean to be responsible?
If we look at the Cambridge dictionary for a reference then as good judgment (skipping duty and blame) it means: having good judgment and the ability to act correctly and make decisions on your own. Responsible travel is to act correctly while you are on the road, as simple as that, right? Not exactly, now we need to know that does it mean to act correctly.
As far as we understand it, responsible travel encompasses so many other concepts (look at it like an umbrella) like eco-tourism, ethical travel, social impact travel, etc. So for us, and it seems like a consensual approach, being responsible while you travel is to try to minimize the impact on the social, economic and environmental aspects of where you are. It’s like zero waste mentality, you will never reach zero unless you cease to exist, but you mindfully mitigate what you can.
Looking at an attempt to define it (Cape Town Declaration in 2002):
- Minimises negative economic, environmental and social impacts.
- Generates greater economic benefits for local people and enhances the wellbeing of host communities, improves working conditions and access to the industry.
- Involves local people in decisions that affect their lives and life changes.
- Makes positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage, to the maintenance of the world’s diversity.
- Provides enjoyable experiences for tourists through more meaningful connections with local people, and a greater understanding of local cultural, social and environmental issues.
- Provides access for physically challenged people.
- Is culturally sensitive engenders respect between tourists and hosts, and builds local pride and confidence.
A good example would be what’s happening in Thailand with the elephants. Before, there was no concern how the elephants were treated and what you could do with them, now you find everywhere advertisement for ethical elephant activities where riding, for example, is not allowed.
Like this, there are many activities, tours, and courses that are now advertised under the responsible flag, either because they help local cooperatives, or because they promote gentler tourism that tries not to damage so much the original cultures. With this commercial surge also comes the greenwashing, so beware when everything is organic. One needs always to be critical to what is advertised, and double check as much as you can.
Our best tips to plan your responsible travels
Where should you go, choosing your destination
The first decision anyone makes about their travels is where to travel in the first place. Although it may sound difficult to make this first decision in a responsible way, some countries give you more tips than others. Places like Costa Rica that are world leaders in what Eco-Tourism is concerned, the same going to Namibia in Africa. Traveling to those countries you will have an extra insurance that you may be inflicting less harm to the planet, although you always need to be aware of greenwashing.
To have a broad idea of which countries are being responsible so traveling to them would probably be positive is to use studies like the Global Green Economy Index (2018 is coming out soon). There you will see North European countries leading the way with no surprise but some other countries like Zambia, Ethiopia and Colombia ranking really well. Unfortunately, Asia does not look good in this regard, and after living for a while in Thailand we can already see why.
When considering traveling to a place and stay for a longer period why don’t you look at the good signs of a green city? Lots of green areas, walking, and bicycle friendly, farmer markets, good transportation system, close to nature, green fairs and activities, etc. With this criteria, lots of big cities like Tokyo, and Cape Town come up, as Portland and Melbourne and of course Berlin. The star city in most reports is Copenhagen, thanks to their green forward-thinking mayor, we would definitively consider spending Summers over there.
How to get there, looking at transportation
There is a myth, or let’s call it a depends-on-myth about traveling by plane and its impact on the environment. By default everyone considers flying always the worse option, but is it the case? I’m not dwelling on details with this here, planning to write extensively about it in another article, but I’ll leave you two sources to read about this. (source 1 and source 2)
The bottom line is that it depends, if it is a short haul 200 miles flight (like London to Paris or New York to DC) then flying would be a catastrophe to the environment. But as soon as you stretch the leg, and get to medium haul flights closer to 1000 miles then a filled air flight would beat cars by far.
When we consider going from Europe to Asia for example, your mind should be in peace as you are most likely choosing the most efficient way of transportation. As long as riding your bicycle for months is not an option, or taking the Oriental express train. And let’s not start the discussion that you should not travel at all, to save the environment. I’ll hit you with my above arguments of travel as an education tool for your mind and soul and how it will make you more aware of the planet itself.
For smaller distances then trains and buses are always the best options, and if you need to go by car then carpooling is the way to go. You can even consider giving a ride to people using apps like Bla Bla Car, that allow you to share costs and be more environmentally friendly.
Bottom line, long distances (above 500 miles) a full flight will probably be a good option for the environment, below that distance then trains or buses are the way to go. If you decide at the end for a car then look for electrical car rentals, some companies now have fleets for that, like Hertz with their Green Traveler Collection. (video below)
Where to stay, looking at green lodging
Looking for a place to stay is where you can probably have more impact on the environment, and if you are a slow traveler then it’s a huge decision to make. If you are staying for many months, why not look for a house with a nice garden where you can even get some food from it? You don’t need to become a gardener, think on herbs and some fruit trees that you can easily get food from. This is also relevant because you should try to stay healthy when traveling.
But before we get to that realm let’s think on shorter stays, and ways to find green options. When we are discussing the shared economy, there is no better place to go than Couchsurfing type options. You will stay at someone’s house at no expense and share the resources with them. I’m not even going to explore the benefits of staying with locals, just looking at the positive impact to share a home.
Now, you don’t want to share, you want a place for yourself, then before heading directly to booking.com or agoda.com let’s discuss other ways of doing it.
First, let’s start with the premium hotels and chains. You should be aware that some of them are making positive efforts to minimize their footprints, and although greenwashing is at large in this industry you do have genuine options. One way to find them is by using official certificate entities like http://www.greenkey.global https://www.gstcouncil.org and search their databases
Besides the hotel chains, you can also look for eco-lodges or eco-villas using search engines like https://www.bookgreener.com and https://www.bookdifferent.com/en/ . Book different website also searches for hotels and has a very particular approach, they developed a mathematical formula to calculate the impact of each lodging offer and give a ranking in carbon kilos which you can see on their listings. It is still too early to be sure of such measurements but we do need to start somewhere. Another amazing selection of eco-lodges compiled by National Geographic is here. https://www.nationalgeographiclodges.com
But If you want to go to the next level of responsible travel and time is on your side then you could look for houses with a low carbon footprint like farmhouses, tiny houses, tree houses or just houses with a nice garden. Airbnb now has search features for all these kind of features in their database, just look for more filters and choose Unique Homes option.
We did that for our trip to Malaysia and found this amazing gem in the heart of Penang Island, called the Vivarium. Lots of plants, eco cleaning products, natural ventilation (no AC needed) and a garden downstairs where we could compost and get some fresh produce. It felt like an extension of our lifestyle but on the road.
What to do, what activities are more responsible
This is the part where it is easier to find earth-friendly options, but also a mined field too so what out to greenwashing. As long as they don’t damage the local ecosystem any outdoor activities like biking, hiking, diving, climbing, bird-watching, you name it are always great things to do. Very good for your health too, we are not made to be indoors all the time and some moderate adrenaline and sun catching vitamin D will do wonders to you.
Research well those activities, to be sure they are not abusing the system, too much of anything good can be damaging too, so have that in mind. Activities with animals are also subject to some abuse, just like the Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand that have been severely criticised for abusing the forcibly domesticated animals.
Consider doing some volunteer activities, or joining a local cause to help improve something of the community. There are many websites to help you with that like workaway.com and idealist.org that can help you find the suitable option for your stay.
Helping local communities by joining responsible tours to ethnical centers, that are created to help the local economy. Local crafts and heritage activities are sometimes the only means of subsistence for smaller populations. If you want to buy souvenirs or any kind of purchase you may feel the need, try to make sure they were locally produced and they will receive their right income. If you find the Fairtrade certification is an extra assurance that you are spending your money on something good.
Responsible Travel is a mindset, not an exact science
Like I said before, zero waste does not mean you produce no waste at all in your life, it means you thrive to do so, in other words, you do the best you can. Responsible travel is the same, you cannot say everything you do will be responsible, will have a positive impact and will not harm anything or anyone. Buy you know you did the best you could, and you are mindful of your decision.
We believe that by slow traveling, and trying to choose places to stay and to do with more sustainability concerns we are already doing much more than unfortunately the majority of travelers. And if we look at the numbers, that 2018 may get a billion of travelers worldwide then we have an idea what kind of impact this is having. Do what you can and share as much as you can for a more mindful travel lifestyle.
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