How to give ethically after a disaster

The travel community is truly one of the most giving I know of. Most people who travel do so because they recognize how much our world has to offer. We want to connect. We want to help. We may not always have lots of money, but we do have very big hearts.


When tragedy strikes, as it most recently has in Nepal, there is a collective itch within the travel community to do something. Sitting by and watching the suffering of others is not an option once you have made friends in countless locations around the globe. While others may feel a slight detachment from tragedy abroad, many travelers can visualize exactly where those tremors hit. We wonder if the hostel owner, the painter down the street, and the cab driver we hired for a day, are alright. We remember watching little girls sip water at Patan Durbar Square and we recall  the warmth of that last handshake we shared with a local who quickly became a friend. It feels personal because we have designed our lives around connecting with people around the world. And now, those people are suffering.

Doing something  is in our nature. However, our experiences also tell us that where there is tragedy there are also unscrupulous people. People who take advantage of desperate situations and do not always operate or funnel help the way they should. So, how do we help in a manner that we are certain is actually beneficial?


1) Do your research. Know the organization you are giving your money to. Know where there money goes and what it does. Know who runs the organization and what there agenda is, if any. Just as you ask questions on your travels, ask questions of those who take your money to help victims. If you’d like to start researching organizations with good reputations, Charity Navigator is a good place to start.

2) Consider your skill set before hopping on a plane. In an emergency, there are bound to be some travelers with open itineraries who have the ability and the means to fly to the disaster area to offer assistance. Before you do that, consider what you can really offer. If you do not have a skill set that lends itself directly to a current need in the area, do not go. More people in a disaster area means a bigger drain on already strapped resources.

3) Think before you donate goods. No one needs old prom dresses or teddy bears with missing legs in a disaster situation. This may sound obvious but when disaster strikes and people just want to help in any way they can, sometimes they don’t think through what they are putting in a bag. Often, shipping donated goods isn’t a good idea anyway. Many things can be bought in country, often for far cheaper. Saving the shipping costs and donating money to an organization that can buy local is often a much better idea.  Doing so will benefit a local economy that will be struggling for a long time to come due to a loss of infrastructure and tourism. Buying local also allows things to be purchased as needed instead of spending time, space, and resources sorting and storing things that may or may not ever be needed.

4) Consider helping local organizations. Organizations like The Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders have undeniable ability to work on a large scale in disaster situations. However, there are many small, local run organizations who were doing good work before distiller struck and they still have people to serve after. Small, local organizations know the area, the culture, and the needs of the populations they serve better than anyone. If you know anyone in the area, ask them to tell you what organizations are in need and worthy of some support as they rebuild. Global Giving has a current fundraising campaign that focusing on identifying and funding local organizations that are in the best position to help Nepal rebuild.


It’s natural to want to help when disaster strikes. It’s also important to make sure we are helping in ethical ways. Our connection to the world is exactly what makes travelers such good helpers and that connection is also what requires us to be thoughtful before we give.

Posted by | Comments (0)  | May 7, 2015
Category: Ethical Travel, Ethics

Vagabonding Field Report: Gili Trawangan, Indonesia

A popular backpackers stop off, Gili Trawangan (Gili T) is part of a very small chain of islands just off of Lombok and near Bali. Many people come here to learn to dive because it’s prices are competetive and the island has a reputation for parties. It’s also unique in that there are no motor vehicles or dogs allowed and the only form of transportation on the island apart from your own two feet is either a bicycle or a horse drawn carriage.


Cost per day:

Prices are higher in Indonesia compared to cheaper countries like Thailand or Vietnam. A large Bintang beer will cost you about 40,000 rs which equals about $4. A cheap meal at a local food stall can run about 20,000 to 30,000 rs and any western style food or foreign dishes will be closer to 60,000 to 100,000 rs. The money saver will be your accommodation. A single night will still be quite high but booking a homestay for an entire month will only cost you between 1,500,000 to 3,000,000 rs. Don’t let the high numbers scare you, that’s only about $150-$300. These accommodations are very simple and wouldn’t be suitable for families but finding a place for more than one month can get you something with more for the same price if you’re willing to get into a six month contract or more. If you’re a certified diver the fun dives on the island are only $35 and an Open Water course will only set you back $395.


Posted by | Comments (1)  | May 6, 2015
Category: Asia, General, Vagabonding Field Reports

There is no conflict between tourism and traveling

“Disdaining tourists is the last permitted snobbery, a coded way of distancing oneself from the uncultured classes. And it drives me beyond bonkers to incoherence — so I shall try to settle down. Examined calmly, there is no conflict between tourism and traveling. Just as one may eat one day at McDonald’s and the next beneath Michelin stars, so one may both romp about the beaches of Lloret de Mar and trek through the Sarawak rainforest (or visit the Hermitage Museum). These experiences are not mutually exclusive. But the shudders remain, and the scorn pours forth, resolving into phrases such as “tourist trap”, “tourist tat” and, daftest of all, “touristy”, as if the term itself signified a conspiracy against good taste. As if we weren’t all tourists most of the time.”
–Anthony Peregrine, Are you a tourist or a traveller? Telegraph, August 3, 2012

Posted by | Comments (0)  | May 4, 2015
Category: Travel Quote of the Day

The art of body language is an essential travel skill

“Learn to watch faces and expressions. Language is not all it’s cracked up to be. Often you go wrong when you are struggling with dimly remembered foreign words and neglect the person or context. You’ll need a bit of Russian, a bit of French, and a bit of Spanish, at least, to do the world. Sometimes it’s better if you just use the international hand-to-mouth for food, or go into the kitchen to point.”
–Mike Spencer Bown, What I’ve Learned: The World’s Most Traveled Man, Esquire, October 25, 2013

Posted by | Comments (0)  | April 27, 2015
Category: Travel Quote of the Day

Balancing desire and ethics when traveling

There is something magical about riding an elephant. Their huge, lumbering bodies swaying slowly along while you sit atop, taking in the view. It’s an experience that is never forgotten.

Or at least that’s what I’ve been told.

Despite my intense desire to know what it feels like to ride atop one of the world’s most majestic creatures, I’ve never taken the opportunity. My knowledge of how these creatures are broken so that they can give rides to tourists keeps me from doing it. In short, my ethics “get in the way” in this case.

This isn’t the only scenario where personal ethics dictate what choices I make while traveling. No matter how many times I watch locals throw plastic bottles out train windows, I just can’t bring myself to follow suit. My understanding of the lives of street kids keeps me from handing out small change when they beg but that same knowledge keeps me from pretending they don’t exist as many vacationers try to do. I steer clear of organizations that mainly employ mission workers and short term, “savior” volunteers- my personal ethics keep me from pushing religion or “saving” anyone.

Ethical means not always doing everything you want. It means examining options thoroughly and being aware of where harm could be done, even if an opportunity might make you feel good in the moment. Ethical travel means constantly striving for balance between desire and doing the right thing (a subjective term, I know). I often find myself trying to balance the desire to see it all with my need to leave a positive mark on the world I explore.

The balancing act is not always easy. The first time I was offered a ride on an elephant was in a narrow alleyway in India. My friends and I had to squeeze against a wall for fear of getting trampled. When we were offered a ride, I almost jumped out of my skin with excitement. Here I was, my first time in Asia, my second time traveling with a passport, and I was going to have the best story to tell! I begged my friends to take a ride with me. They were better traveled than I and stuck firmly to, “no”. As the elephant lumbered away, they told me to look a little more closely at the animal. He was clearly underfed and had visible scars. I was horrified that I had almost allowed my own desire for a cool experience to blind me to the very obvious signs of abuse in front of me. It was a big learning experience for me and I am very grateful that I was kept from making a poor choice, and even more grateful that it forced me to pay more attention.

Moving forward, I try to keep my eyes open. I ask more questions, think more critically about what is being presented on the surface. But I still fumble. There was the orphanage I visited before I had considered the negative effects of the revolving door of foreigners on the children. The volunteer opportunity that seemed perfect at first but was run by a man who had little respect for the locals and even less respect for local laws about “dating” underage girls. The fancy restaurant I allowed myself to be dragged to that had a reputation for treating local workers horribly.

The balance is not always easy, but it is always worth the effort.

Despite my fumbles, I think that I am fairly aware of where my money is spent and who I associate myself with. Many travelers are. Many travelers do it even better than I do. The lingering challenge for me, and I think many travelers, is finding a way to “see it all” without letting that desire override ethical choices. Then again, maybe the biggest lesson of travel is that you can’t ever, truly “see it all”. Perhaps that realization might pull everything back into focus and keep us from making questionable choices in our quest to really dig deeply into our world.

Ethical travel cannot just be a catch phrase that gets pulled out when other people do something really wrong. The small choices are where we decide if we are going to put our money where our mouths are… literally.

How do you balance ethics with the desire to see as much of the world as you can? Have you given up certain opportunities in deference to your ethics?

Posted by | Comments (0)  | April 23, 2015
Category: Ethical Travel, Ethics

On the road, disorientation is as important as discovery

“Any budding academic can tell you that deliberately placing oneself in a position of not-knowing, and to then go about finding out what you don’t know, can be a fulfilling pursuit, and the disorientation itself, the early stages of figuring out what you didn’t know that you wanted to know, was as exciting as the eventual discoveries. This was one of the reasons I traveled.”
–Alden Jones, The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia (2013)

Posted by | Comments (0)  | April 20, 2015
Category: Travel Quote of the Day

You have now entered the Tourist Zone

sadhuA few years ago, after finishing a journey in the Indian Himalayas, I traveled to the desert state of Rajasthan and visited the Hindu holy-town of Pushkar. A scenic outpost of 13,000 residents, Pushkar was famous for its Brahma Temple, its serene lake, and its annual Camel Fair. Several travelers had recommended it to me as a mellow place to relax for a few days.

From the moment I arrived in Pushkar, however, something seemed strange about the little holy-town. As I walked along the shores of Pushkar Lake, a number of long-bearded, monk-like sadhus approached me and suggested I take their photo for the bargain price of 15 rupees; Brahmin priests kept hustling up and offering to take me through a puja ceremony for just 50 rupees. Having spent the previous two weeks in the sleepy villages of far-northern India, this lakeside hustle made me feel like I was in some bizarre new universe. Prior to Pushkar, no Indian had ever implied that there was a cash value to puja (a Hindu ablution ritual), and most of the sadhus I’d seen were more interested in piety and asceticism than photo opportunities.

The more I wandered the streets of Pushkar, the more I discovered this off-kilter synthesis of culture and commerce. In the bazaar, teenage Rajasthani girls relentlessly offered to dye my hands with henna (a ritual typically reserved for Hindu brides), and cheap paper flyers touted competing yoga academies. Perplexed, I retreated to a lakeside restaurant for a cup of tea. When the host offered me food, I asked him what kind of dishes he offered — thinking he might specialize in tandoori or thali or biryani.

“Oh, we serve Indian food,” he said. “But we also have Mexican food, Chinese food, Italian food, Greek food, and Israeli food.”

“But which food is your specialty?” I asked.

“We specialize in all those foods,” he replied with a cheerful wobble of the head. “Plus we have vegetarian hamburgers and banana pancakes. But we’re out of granola right now.”

Peering around at the other diners in the restaurant, I finally figured out what was going on: Pushkar was a Tourist Zone.

On the surface, of course, Pushkar didn’t seem much like a Tourist Zone: There were no glitzy hotels, no air-conditioned knickknack boutiques, no busloads of sunburned Germans and chubby Texans. Moreover, had you surveyed Pushkar’s visitors, you would have mainly found independent travelers — young wanderers from Europe and North America and Israel, who shunned guided tours and took a genuine interest in Hindu culture.

Still, despite the earnestness of its travelers, Pushkar was very much a Tourist Zone — place that had subtly shifted to cater to the needs of its visitors. Only instead of churning out the standard tourist products (postcards, audio tours, spa treatments), Pushkar had developed a makeshift economy in Hindu “authenticity” (exotically dressed sadhus, quick-fix puja rituals, high-turnover yoga ashrams). After several years of popularity on the backpacker circuit, the residents of Pushkar hadn’t gotten greedy; they’d merely become adept at packaging all of the Indian symbols and rituals that indie travelers found whimsically attractive (as well as a few choice Western amenities, like familiar-sounding food and Internet cafés).

As is the case with so many other traveler haunts around the world, the authentic culture of Pushkar had become difficult to discern from the culture that had been spontaneously adjusted to feed visitors’ notions of “authenticity”. And, in this way, it had become a Tourist Zone.

As independent travelers, of course, we like to assume that we’re above the workings of Tourist Zones. But, as the example of Pushkar illustrates, we have a way of creating our own, more organic tourist areas, whether we intend to or not. Look closely, and you’ll notice that some of the most colorful indie-traveler hangouts in the world — Panahajachel in Guatemala, Dali in China, Dahab in Egypt — have as much in common with each other as they do their host-cultures. Granted, these places retain their own geographical and cultural distinction, but each location shares a laid-back predilection for catering to the aesthetic and recreational needs of Western budget travelers.

Thus, keeping in mind that much of our time as travelers involves moving in and out of Tourist Zones, here are a few tips for making sense of things:

1) Learn to identify Tourist Zones

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a Tourist Zone, but it helps to know when you’re in one, as it will affect how you relate to people. Tourist Zones include airports, hotels, bus and train stations, major city centers, historical venues, pilgrimage sites, nature parks, national monuments, and anyplace where travelers congregate in large numbers — including sleepy backpacker hangouts.

2) Mind your manners

Though interaction with locals in Tourist Zones can often be impersonal and transaction-based, be sure to abide by the simple rules of courtesy. Even when dealing with pushy vendors and aggressive touts, a firm, courteous “no thanks” is always better than an angry rebuff.

3) Tourist Zones serve an economic purpose for the people who live there

In Tourist Zones, many locals will use friendship as a front to tout hotels or sell souvenirs. And, as annoying as this can be, remember that most locals will take a genuine interest in you, even as they try to sell you things. In this way, many of your interactions as you travel will be with folks who are offering a service — cab drivers, guesthouse clerks, shopkeepers. Thus, be aware that you occupy an economic dynamic wherever you go — and that there is no particular virtue in compulsively avoiding expenses (especially when many of those expenses are of direct benefit to local families).

4) Dare to travel outside of Tourist Zones

Invariably, the easiest way to get out of Tourist Zones and into a more authentic setting is to visit villages and neighborhoods that aren’t in any guidebooks or travel websites — places where other travelers never think to go. Normal safety precautions are in order, of course, but half the charm in travel is finding places where granola, pizza, and veggie burgers aren’t on the menu.

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on May 22, 2006. All rights reserved.]

Posted by | Comments (2)  | April 18, 2015
Category: Asia, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice

Vagabonding Case Study: Tracey Mansted

Tracey Mansted unnamed

Age: Tracey – 50
Mike (husband – 47)
Imogen (10)
Indira (9)

Hometown: Rainforest near Byron Bay, NSW Australia

Quote: Albert Einstein said “If at first an idea does not sound absurd, there is no hope for it”  – which I think equally applies to thinking and learning about new things as well as to taking huge leaps of faith like traveling long term with your kids. As a family we like the idea of “feel the fear and do it anyway”.


Posted by | Comments (0)  | April 17, 2015
Category: Vagabonding Case Studies