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 Off on Balancing desire and ethics when traveling  | April 23, 2015
Category: Ethical Travel, Ethics

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