Most of us travel so that we can see the world, get out of our “box” and explore another culture, or corner of the world. If we wanted everything to stay the same, we would just stay home! It boggles my mind when I see travelers who spend their entire time abroad trying to recreate home and, essentially, avoiding the local interactions they claim to want.
There’s nothing inherently “wrong” with staying at the Hilton, eating at McDonalds or shopping at the Dispensar Familiar (a box store that is owned by Walmart but is masquerading behind a “local” label) but don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re having a local experience, or contributing to the local economy when profits are funneled into big corporations “back home.” There are some simple ways to have a more “authentic” experience wherever you happen to be traveling and to make sure your dollar goes further within the local economy as well. Here are three of mine; perhaps you have some of your own to add:
1. Stay local
Sure, you might book that first night by the airport with your travel miles card, but after that, stay at a family run hotel or guesthouse. Go one step further, and stay somewhere not recommended in the guidebook. Those places are getting a big bump by virtue of their write up in Lonely Planet, but there are likely several other very good places run by families who have generations invested in a particular place that will stretch your buck and add depth to your journey. We’ve found, across the board, that these sorts of places yield “insider” information and recommendations if not personal invitations to explore with new found friends, the proprietors. You’ll also find a very interesting subset of traveler frequenting these places, they’re the people you want to meet, I promise you.
2. Eat where there’s no english menu
That is to say, eat where the local folks are eating. In Merida, Mexico, this might mean walking deep into the mercado, flipping over a five gallon pail and bellying up to the tile bar with the roadwork crew to eat the plata del dia. No need to know what you’re ordering, they only serve on thing per day. I guarantee your money isn’t padding the pocket of the big red clown with preternaturally large feet.
3. Hire a local
It’s possible that the slick looking “Green Travel” agency on the strip in Champasak is genuinely locally owned and operated, but I’m not betting my money on it, based on their advertising. If you have the time and the patience, track down a guy with a boat and book your own ride down the Mekong to the next town. I promise you’re paying extra through the agencies, and that money is probably not being invested the way you wish it was. Look for opportunities to hire local people to teach you things. Hire the Mayan woman who comes knocking to teach you to use a back-strap loom. Hire your cyclo driver in Hue, Vietnam to take you on his motorcycle out into the hills, he’ll bring two of his friends if you have as many people as we do, and it will be a cross-cultural party!
4. Send out your laundry
Okay, here’s a fourth, I couldn’t stop at three: Send out your laundry, and not through your hotel. The laundries that have hotel contracts are doing well, making lots of money. Take a walk, look for the hole in the wall that looks like it’s run by a mother-daughter team and give them your business.
How ‘bout you? What are your best tips for making sure your dollar stretches within a local economy and is spent to the betterment of the community you’re visiting?
Having recently been in Memphis over Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday weekend, I realized once again that few things make you feel connected to history like being near a historic landmark on a significant anniversary. In this case, it’s the thought-provoking National Civil Rights Museum on the birthday of the great icon of the movement.
Ironically, the site is located not at the place of his birth but the place of his assassination. The façade of the Lorraine Motel, where King was murdered by white supremacist James Earl Ray in May of 1968, is all that remains of the low-rent building. Left just as it was at the time of King’s murder, the façade remains eerily frozen in time: a tacky 60’s turquoise-and-yellow sign stands in the parking lot. Nearby, a wreath marks the spot where King’s life was taken as he relaxed on the balcony outside room 306.
It’s not just the site of his death that draws visitors; the museum complex attached to it is the real attraction. Built in two phases over several years, the sprawling, state-of-the-art space—much of it underneath a hill adjacent to the motel’s dingy façade—features listening posts, artifacts, records, and archival films detailing the civil rights activists’ efforts to win equality for all. Aside from the physical relics, a 12,800 square foot expansion project called “Exploring the Legacy” offers compelling insight into King and the movement he led.
On my first visit to the museum a few years ago, Memphis sweltered under a boiling summer sun and only a handful of visitors were present. This time, as I enjoyed a friend’s wedding weekend on the anniversary of MLK’s birth, the chilly winter day saw hundreds coming to show respect for King and, more importantly, to show their children the museum dedicated to the civil rights struggle. I imagine how strange it must be for a child to learn that, just a few decades ago, a large movement of brave activists had to fight bullets, bombs, and hate to win liberties now taken for granted. The fact that this birthday celebration coincided with the second inaugural of the nation’s first black president only underscored how far the movement has come, though more work remains.
Driving through town I catch a fleeting glimpse of the site. The commotion of my friend’s wedding weekend is temporarily forgotten as the instantly recognizable motel sign catches my eye. I feel a sudden, poignant tug at my emotions as I glance to the Lorraine’s aging façade. There, just outside room 306, a small wreath lies on the cold concrete of a motel balcony, a silent testament to a profound truth: Lives can be taken, but words and ideals that speak to the better angels of our nature can change the world. And that’s worth celebrating.
Friends seem disappointed when I admit to skipping out on Thailand’s famed Tiger parks, or interactive zoos where tourists can safely cuddle up to entire tiger families. The photos are pretty cute, and there were plenty of times when I was certainly tempted. Now back in the US, I’ve become determined to uncover the truth about Tiger Temple, Tiger Kingdom, and all of the other hotspots for tiger-petting that I missed. What’s the catch? How are these trainers keeping the usually dangerous animals docile, unfazed by swarms of tourists creeping close for the perfect photo op? Are tigers truly safer in captivity, away from dangers of deforestation and poaching, or is this another case of animal exploitation for tourist dollars?
Having visited Argentina’s Zoo Lujan petting zoo in 2007, I can tell you that posing with a tiger is truly a thrill. I was giggling away with my camera, and I admit that the photos from that day at the “zoo” are some of my most unique. They certainly evoked the most questions. Of course I second guessed the sincerity of the zoo’s mission statement, especially when the teenage zookeepers insisted that the tigers (many of them full grown males) were not drugged, but “raised with love.”
One of Thailand’s parks in particular has caught the attention of conscious travelers hoping to play with tigers and also help them. Animal conservation groups and concerned travelers, on the other hand, are trying to bring down Tiger Temple for good.
Just outside of Bangkok, Tiger Temple is the oldest Buddhist school and forest temple in Western Thailand. It’s a sanctuary that began caring for tiger cubs whose mothers had been killed, and they begin taming the animals starting at just three weeks. Their tiger population continued to grow through rescue missions and on-site breeding and now there are over 90. The entrance fee is about $20, and for $30 you can take a photo with one.
The park’s mission is to raise enough tigers to eventually begin releasing them into Thailand’s forests, and to also educate people on deforestation and poaching, but many animal activists groups and confused visitors find this suspicious. Care for the Wild International claims that the Tiger Temple is involved with animal trafficking, and other critics suggest that sedatives and abuse are to blame for the their suspiciously calm temperaments. The monks in charge continue to insist that the animals are safer there; that Tiger Temple is a sanctuary that keeps them healthy and safe.
A trip to Thailand’s zoos, parks, and interactive animal attractions are tempting, but don’t forget to do your research. Have any of you visited Tiger parks in Thailand? Do you have a different opinion?
Here are some fabulous resources to check out before signing up for an animal tour in Thailand, or anywhere else in the world!
“Spirit,” wrote the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, “is not in the I but between I and you.” He wrote this in a 1923 essay translated into English as I and Thou. Here’s another line from the essay: “Egos appear by setting themselves apart from other egos. Persons appear by entering into relation to other persons.”
Buber’s way of looking at our existence is, for me, helpful to consider, and it has ramifications for how we approach travel and what we emphasize in it. His essay also touches on the difference between “experience” and “participation,” the former for him being something within an individual and the latter something between individuals. I suspect you can find Buber’s influence on my own terminology in an interview at Travel Blissful a couple years ago. After sharing some particularly meaningful travel memories, I said:
It is the men, women, and children in the places we visit, not inanimate things, that allow us to relate to (and not just experience) the world. I don’t at all want to knock experience — I love it! — but it’s important to be aware that traveling in the name of “having experiences” isn’t the same as traveling to participate in the world. The one is rather self-referential; the other is more interested in being a part of a community, even if only in a very modest way.
This is my final post for vagablogging, and I wanted to leave you with these tidbits from the mind of Buber. I also wanted to leave you with one final photograph. I took it in Cairo, about an hour after Mubarak’s resignation was announced and a mass of Egyptians had taken to the streets in celebration. In the photo a little girl’s parents are holding her hands as they walk away from Tahrir Square, into a suddenly wide-open, unknown, and hazard-filled future. In looking at her face I’m reminded of why I have no interest in travel narratives in which someone is trudging through the world to conquer it or to rack up isolated experiences to cart back home like trophies. I’m drawn instead to stories in which someone is connecting to other people, carrying an interest in their wellbeing and our shared future, and can articulate that. The issues of today — and children like this smiling Egyptian girl — desperately need people, including travelers, who want to be constructive participants in relationships and history.
In the year ahead I’ll continue working on my photography, and maybe even edit some more of a book manuscript I hope to one day publish (here’s an excerpt). Blog-wise, in the near future I plan to resume regular postings at joelcarillet.com/photoblog, and I’d love to have you check in on me there from time to time. I will be in Southeast Asia most of the fall.
All the very best, everyone.
Part of the totality of a place is its politics, and in long-term travel you’ll likely pass through a variety of political landscapes that affect the lives of the people who call a place home. The Egyptian man above, for example, challenged the legitimacy of his President’s 30-year-old rule and on February 2 of this year had a flying rock rip loose part of his lip. (Interestingly, if you were to walk about 60 seconds to either his right or left, you’d find several travel agencies offering deals on Nile cruises, desert excursions, and Sinai beach resorts; they were, however, closed this particularly day, and most travelers were packed into the Cairo airport trying to get out of the country.)
Political situations are worth paying attention to, but not only in order to gauge the stability or safety of a potential travel destination. Understanding the basics of Thai politics, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the Colombian civil war will go a long way in helping you understand a country and will help you make the most of a visit there. Sometimes, of course, we go to a place knowing next to nothing but, once there, experience something that alters the course of our lives. A powerful example of this is the life of Sean Carosso, who while traveling in Africa in 2007 wrote the following in his journal:
I yelled at thieving monkeys and saw Nelson Mandela yell from stage. Cried in refugee camps and laughed during moonlight dances. Saw a baby born and parents buried. Went south to scream from the bottom of the world and made my way north to see Ugandan children become visible. Slept in mansions and huts, ate porridge and gazelle, swam with otters, fended off pickpockets and rarely showered, stopped, or stood still.
For two months, there was death and destruction,
failure and fear, adventure.wonder.motion.
But all around was a pervasive hope moving steadily
toward what could only be described as progress
Stories of change everywhere to be found. Until I walked into the chaos of Congo.
The so-called Democratic Republic of Congo, home to one of history’s deadliest wars.
Strange circumstances led me to her doorstop, but there I stood ready to see
what she might show my western eyes.
The following is what they saw.
You can read the rest of his entry and learn about the organization that emerged at www.fallingwhistles.com/story. It’s a powerful site.
The U.S. State Department’s Background Notes is one source for a quick political overview of a country. Idealist.org is a popular site for checking out volunteer opportunities, including ones that might intersect with political issues. For example, Bustan Qaraaqa is listed there; it’s a community permaculture project based just outside the West Bank town of Bethlehem.
The photo above, which shows a gravestone belonging to one of the nearly 7,000 Allied POWs buried at the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in Thailand, illustrates the difficulty we have in making sense of tragedy.
Last week two talented photojournalists, Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington, were killed in the Libyan city of Misrata. In the past several days articles and tributes have painted a picture of men, one from England and the other from North Carolina, who traveled often, traveled relatively light, and traveled for a purpose.
In a New York Times article titled War, in Life and Death, David Carr writes, “Tim and Chris were very different men who died because they had something in common: each thought it important to bear witness, to make images that communicated human suffering and send them out to the world.”
“Many people have died in the recent wars the two men covered,” Carr continues, “and we should not make the journalist’s error of elevating the deaths of Tim and Chris above those of others. But beyond the personal loss for their families and friends, there is a civic loss when good journalists are killed.”
I certainly feel the loss. I’ve been in the habit for some time now of visiting Chris Hondros’ website to check out his images, appreciating what they say about the world, about our neighbors. My favorite (if I can use the word for something so tragic) is the iconic photo of a little girl in Tel Afar, Iraq, terrified, with her parents’ blood splattered on her face and clothes. In 2007, Chris recounted the incident on NPR.
This post is not a call for all travelers to head off for the Tel Afars and Misratas of the world. It is, however, a gentle reminder that travel can be about much more than gear selection and budgets and beach parties. It is also about the question of Why? What might we learn from people like Chris and Tim, who were often asked why they did what they did and could give a profound answer? How can we incorporate that into how we experience the world?
Reflecting in Vanity Fair on his friend Tim’s death, Sebastian Junger says, “That’s also part of what you died for: the decision to live a life that was thrown open to all the beauty and misery and ugliness and joy in the world….What a vision you had, my friend. What a goddamned terrible, beautiful vision of things.”
“Right now Egypt is like having a fast pass at Disney. People should come over.”
These are the words of Rick Zeolla, the general manager of the Cairo Marriott, quoted last week in a New York Times article titled “Tahrir Square, Egypt’s New Tourist Draw.” In that same article, the general manager of the Semiramis InterContinental said that his guest today are asking for rooms with a view of Tahrir Square rather than the Nile. “The early guests we are seeing are more independent, well seasoned and globally focused travelers,” he said.
There is indeed a strong case to be made, on several fronts, that now is the time to visit Egypt. True, lines are currently non-existent at tourist sites. But the stronger argument, I think, is that what is going on now in Egypt — i.e., a transition from autocratic rule to what the majority of Egyptians hope will be democracy — is no less stunning to behold than the gazillion blocks of stone that form the Pyramids of Giza or any number of other ancient monuments in this land. I visited the Pyramids last week and they were nice. But it was even more fascinating to sit in Saad Zaghloul Square in Alexandria, or Tahrir Square in Cairo (above), and watch teenagers, Muslim and Christian together, give railings and curbs a fresh coat of paint. To be sure, they often did a lackluster paint job. But I wasn’t focused on their painting skills. I was focused on the spirit with which they painted and worked together, on the dreams they had for their country and communities.
Seldom will you be encouraged to visit a country to watch people paint curbs and pick up trash. But if you’re a reader wondering where to go in 2011, I’m doing precisely that. Come to Egypt to watch mediocre paint jobs. Come to watch Egyptians, who often meet and coordinate through Facebook pages, as they pick up trash from sidewalks. Talk with them. Watch their faces and laughter and eyes. Listen to what they have to tell you about pride and freedom and service. In saying this, I’m not romanticizing the challenges Egypt faces — they’re pretty darn huge. I’m just saying that something remarkable is happening here, particularly with many young people.
Some travel warnings will encourage you to stay away a while longer, and many brochures will only suggest the ancient monuments. But consider coming anyway, and coming primarily to meet and watch Egypt’s vibrant, beaming youth in the city centers. They’ll tell you Egypt isn’t just ancient ruins; it’s a place still under construction.
For a beautiful video welcoming visitors back to Egypt, check out “From Egypt with Love“.
For more of my images from Egypt in February, including the demonstrations and celebrations, visit my Flickr set called Cairo, Egypt (2011).
Jordan Valley, Israel/Palestine
It’s not everyday that you stand on the side of a highway, a car pulls over, you get in, and moments later the driver says you’re an answer to prayer.
Up until this car stopped, the day had been full of disappointments. I had left Jerusalem that morning and gone to Jericho to meet a friend, but that meeting didn’t materialize. I then walked for an hour and a half with my full packs from the center of Jericho toward the Jordanian border, only to reach the Israeli checkpoint on the edge of town and hear that I couldn’t traverse the next 400 meters to Highway 90 on foot, that I would need to walk about three hours by another route to reach this spot only five minutes in front of me. Finally, at the border crossing, I was told I had arrived five minutes too late; it was closed until tomorrow morning.
And so at 2:30pm I stood on the side of the highway, hoping to hitch a ride 90 minutes to the north to another border crossing that was still open. I had been standing only two minutes when the car stopped.
The driver was a 20-year-old woman named Tehila, and in the passenger seat was her friend Richi, a young man studying at a yeshiva. They were religious Jews on their way from Jerusalem to a kibbutz in the northern Jordan Valley to celebrate Shabbat. Shortly before seeing me, Richi shared with Tehila the story of a rabbi who, in tears, told God he really wanted to follow his commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” and then was presented with an opportunity to do just that. After the story, Tehila and Richi prayed for the same opportunity. Moments later they saw this guy standing on the edge of the desert highway and came to a stop.
I had planned to go to Jordan this day; instead I accepted Tehila and Richi’s invitation to join them for the Shabbat meal at the kibbutz. I ended up spending the next 36 hours here, embraced by people who would take in a wandering stranger, feed and house him, listen to him and teach him. “We are happy for your accident,” one man said at the kibbutz, referring to my having arrived too late at the border crossing which precipitated the events that led to me eating in his home.
The average reader of this blog, like this writer, is not a religious Jew. But all of us can appreciate the transformative power of love, just as we can actively show such love to others in our own journeys. Thank you, Tehila and Richi, for wanting to love God and your neighbor both. You modeled part of what it means to travel well.
Do you know an organization or a project that uses innovative solutions to protect the environment and strengthen the heritage of local residents in coastal, waterway or island destinations? Ashoka’s Changemakers, National Geographic and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) are looking for them. The 2010 Geotourism Challenge awards $5,000 to the top three entries, and the deadline for the competition is Dec. 1, 2010.
This year’s theme for the Geotourism Challenge—Places on the Edge: Saving Coastal and Freshwater Destinations—places the focus squarely on shoreline destinations around the world. While these places can be breathtakingly beautiful, they’re also fragile and often under intense development pressure that impacts the environment and residents without taking long-term issues into consideration.
The winners will be announced on Feb. 9, 2011. In February 2010, I attended the National Geographic Geotourism Summit shortly after the winners of the 2009 Geotourism Challenge were announced. The three winners and seven runners-up attended the summit, and told inspiring stories about their projects. For a look at the winners, check out this article I wrote about the summit.
Go ahead, help recognize good work by entering an organization you know, or even offer your best idea to help shoreline destinations. Tell us in the comments section if you do!
Qadisha Valley, Lebanon
There are places in this world that urge you to pause, and Lebanon’s Qadisha Valley is one. As the day ends over this historic landscape, you look around and sense that the sun has set here for thousands of years, well before you were born, and will continue to set long after you’re gone.
There are events that urge you to pause too, and the brutal death of a friend’s father, in a land far from where he was born, is one. It was almost five weeks ago that in the process of asking a friend if I could use her apartment in Amman I learned that her dad, Tom Little, was one of ten humanitarian health workers killed in Afghanistan on Aug 6. In the days ahead I would spend parts of each evening online, learning more about him and the other men and women killed. There was this short photo essay about the Little family, for example.
Of particular interest to long-term travelers who have a passion for the world and its people is an essay that appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Written by Jonathan Larson, who was a friend of Dan Terry (Dan was a long-time friend of Tom Little and one of the others killed), it is simply titled “Humanitarian leaves legacy in the hills of Afghanistan.” It looks at Dan’s life and motivation, and makes a nod toward his early vagabonding years, when his love for a people and place was forged. Here’s an excerpt:
He counted among his friends the Taliban commanders of his neighborhood, and insisted after 30 years they were not the nemeses caricatured to us. It was the humanity of each one that he kept reaching for, flint-like in his belief that there was something noble in each neighbor, which made him a willing and joyful debtor to the forgotten poor of Badakhshan, Nuristan (“country of light”), and beyond. He was often heard to say, “in the end we’re all knotted into the same carpet.”
The spiritual equation runs something like this: To whom much is given, much is required. Dan understood that he had been lavishly endowed in faith, in friendship, in family, in opportunity, learning and hope. And it’s as though he’d be damned if that great wealth failed to count for something in the larger scheme of, yes, humble things.
Sunsets in Lebanon and the deaths of people in Afghanistan who actively loved their neighbors—there is much that urges us to take stock of our lives, our motivations, our places in this world.