Christine Mackay Interview -
Travel with a purpose

Chris Mackay has been working in environmental education, outdoor recreation, community development, and ecotourism since 1980. 

She co-founded and directed the Bearfoot Backpacker, offering outdoor educational excursions throughout Washington State. Her love of international travel and the natural world, together with her concern about the negative impacts of tourism on culture and the environment, led her to co-found Crooked Trails in 1998.

Chris sees education as the cornerstone of efforts to protect the natural world and at-risk cultures. Her ability to engage and inspire her audience has made her a popular speaker at clubs, international conferences, bookstores, universities, and schools.

Chris acts as a consultant to a wide range of organizations on issues such as community-based tourism, nature education, international study abroad and community service, and wilderness education. 

We are so honored to share the travel wisdom of such an effective altruist like Chris. Be inspired to travel the world with a purpose and check out Crooked Trails.  

Tell us a little about your background, who were you before starting to travel?

I went to India the first time in 1976 and again in 1982 so it’s been quite a bit of travel. Before.. well a typical teenager I suppose. I have always loved the outdoors and camping. My mother and stepfather were quite alternative and raised me with a great deal of respect for different religions and cultures.

What is the purpose of your travels?

That completely depends on where and when I am going. I lead a trip to Mumbai last September to look at the fight against human trafficking. The mission of that journey was very clear. When I went to Oaxaca last Oct/Nov, the purpose was to learn more about what goes into the Day of the Dead; from understanding how pulque and tapache are made, to making an altar with a Zapotec family in the Sierra Norte Mountains.It was a magical journey.

What do you expect when you travel?

To have my world view changed. I always hope to meet folks and share a moment that opens my heart and mind in unexpected ways.

How has your travel purpose changed since you started?

I used to focus more on bigger projects such as building a school or water system. Now I am more interested in issues that affect the people I am visiting. I am also very concerned about the plastic waste issue. That started in late 2012 when the Crooked Trails staff were at a Starbucks in Seattle trying to figure out how to get other operators on board with something we had been doing for 17 years: asking our clients to travel prepared to clean their own water. In 2013 we launched TAP Travelers Against Plastic to encourage the travel industry to rid itself of single-use plastic.

How do you choose your destinations?

Tammy Leland (co-founder) and I have always travelled a great deal on our own. As we spent more time in countries, it was inevitable that we would be invited to begin bringing travelers with us. Every once in a while I pick one; for example Colombia. I have never been there but I started a program I call The World Through Soccer, and the goal is to build a soccer field every year in a different country. Last year was Peru, next year is Kenya. In 2020, I thought Colombia would be great. I have never been there, so I need to get down and check it out. I am looking forward to that.

How have your travels helped to develop your business?

The business has been completely dependent on mine and Tammy’s travels. We wouldn’t have a business had we not been wandering the world on our own and together.

How is to travel with your company?

Our mission is to put people in situations and surroundings where they have the opportunity to go deeper and really meet the locals. We can do that because we are small. If we ran 1000 people a year to one village in Nepal, I honestly believe that would change the village in a way that negates the very thing I am hoping to provide for our travelers. I remember bringing the the family group to Peru to build the soccer field and everyone felt like they had an experience they could only have dreamed of. We spent 4 days living with a Quechua family high in the Andes, away from everything. We spent all our time with them and in the end, everyone felt like family.

In Cuba we arranged for some clients who are musicians to jam with local musicians. In Nepal, I set a group of nine women up with an opportunity to meet the head of Maiti Nepal and donate instruments to their youth orchestra. You can’t do that when you are sending large numbers of people, it isn’t experience anymore, its a tour. Everyone wants that experience and most tour companies say they offer it, but are they? Authenticity is on the line here.

How do you plan the itinerary?

All our itineraries are custom. Generally the first thing we do is have a conversation on the phone with the travelers to discover what it is they are looking for and hoping to experience. That is always the start. To be honest, some folks want a typical tour, and we can do that. And then we have folks who ask me if they can get away from it all. I just finished designing a trip to Vietnam for a group who were quite specific about not going to places that are touristed heavily.

What were the biggest planning challenges? And how did you solve them?

I think group travel is challenging because it’s hard to marry all the various levels of expectations and abilities. We had a group trekking in Bhutan last fall, half of which were very fit and ready for the challenge and the other half who were struggling. Its best to split the group in cases such as those. This happened recently in Nepal. One of the group was not doing well and having a hard time keeping up with the main group. We had two guides and sent the slower person back down to Namche Bazaar where he quite happily hung out, hiked the lower areas and totally enjoyed himself. It’s all about meeting the needs of the clients on the ground in real time. Stuff happens in the field and you have to have good guides who can deal with it.

Tell us the highlights of your experiences? What has been the most impactful experience you’ve been involved so far in your travels?

One of my favorite stories is about a time my group and I were in Umasbamba Peru. The community is very poor. The poverty was palpable and so as we were walking around I asked the village leader what their most pressing problem was. He was quick to reply that it was nutrition. So we started brainstorming and decided that we could bring cows to the village to provide milk. I remember asking him how many families were in the village. He said there were 30. So I asked if he needed 30 cows and he said that one cow could provide enough milk for 5 families. So all we needed to change the life of the villagers was 6 cows! I called the project Seis Vacas para Peru on the spot. My group pitched and pledged to pay for two cows right there. When I got home I quickly raised the funds for the remaining 4 cows, sent down the money and they had the cows within 2 months. Now the herd has grown to some 50 cows and all have milk. I love it when the solution to a pressing problem is so simple and that travelers can make that positive impact. Everyone felt great about that. It’s about asking questions.

How have you changed?

This kind of travel has made me a better person. I am more thoughtful and caring than I was in my earlier years. Perhaps that just comes with age. I can’t travel now and not look around and wonder what I can do to assist. I remember being on Safari in South Africa once and get the whole group to agree to build a home for a Zulu woman we met. I just can’t help myself.

Was your purpose acheived?

Yes totally. I do feel that I have worked to change the way people travel and I know from the comments our travelers share that this kind of travel has changed them as well. I just had a blog post come in this week from a woman who took her three sons to Nepal. She was blown away by what she learned and experienced there. Her piece was heartfelt and it made me feel really good about what we do.

How do you see the future of travel?

I think the future of travel is a mixed bag. Some of it will continue to be horrible, destructive and soul-less. I fear with the masses of travelers coming out of India’s and China’s burgeoning middle class, that the impact on popular destinations will be crushing. I spoke to one Kenyan that said in his experience with the Chinese that are coming, is that they do not care at all about his culture. He felt that they simply want to run from one trophy photo to the next and then leave. Europeans and Americans are traveling at ever greater rates as well. The travel industry is exploding. However, I also see huge efforts in the industry which are addressing the destructive side of travel. Whether it be the inclusion of indigenous rights and knowledge or efforts at reducing energy use, there are more and more operators recognizing that we need to do things differently. I think we are all going to have to face the fact that travel is not sustainable and it never will be. So how do we do it better? I feel the hypocrisy all the time. I worry about the impacts of climate change, cultural appropriation, displacement of locals and the deterioration of traditions. The more we travel the more that happens. The other big change we will see in travel is the control of the entrance to the real hot spots.

How do you see your travels?

I tend to go back to the countries we work in again and again. So personally, I would like to branch out and see some parts of the world I have never been to like Mongolia or Eastern Europe. I also see myself leading a few more group trips focused on issues. I just designed an interactive and meaningful trip to Kenya in March of 2020 for International Women’s Day. We will go to a Samburu village where only women live, meet with local Maasai women and bear witness to their stories as well as donate money to their causes. It’s going to be about respect and listening and sharing and of course, seeing animals. You can’t go to Kenya and not go on safari. I am super excited about that one.

Tell us why do you think others should travel with a purpose? What advice would you offer them to get them started?

My advice is that no matter where you go look for a way to add meaning to your travels. It’s simple; start by asking yourself what is most important to you? It could be areas of justice, animal welfare, education, agriculture etc. Then do a little research and find an NGO doing work in the country you are going to on the subject you are interested in. Then ask to meet them, volunteer for a day or just donate. They will open doors for you about something you really care about. Make it personal.

Have a look at our next inspiration interview series:

Journal of Nomads Interview - Slow travel for cultural immersion

Journal of Nomads Interview - Slow travel for cultural immersion

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