Traveling to new lands is an exciting experience. When you first arrive, you are overwhelmed by new smells, languages, sights, and culture. The sensory experience can be both stimulating and overwhelming. With the desire to take it all in at once, it is easy to let the mindful practices that you integrate into your home life find their way to the backburner.
However, it is as important as ever to be aware of how your actions, purchasing power, and presence as a foreigner impact the lands that you visit. Whether you are visiting a country for a few days or you have a long-term work assignment, you need to prepare to be mindful and respectful wherever your travels take you.
Heart and Hearth
Choosing where you are going to stay can be both stressful and something to look forward to. Different hostels, hotels, and resorts all have something different to offer to enhance your international experience. The companies and organizations you choose to support by choosing to stay with them show support for what they stand for.
Choose to stay at a socially responsible resort or with locals, as opposed to an international hotel chain that has high-pollution rates and doesn’t pay its employees a fair, livable wage. Look for social enterprises established by ex-patriots that are using the cash flow of tourism to positively create change in the country you have chosen to explore.
You Are What You Eat
Each country takes pride in the delicacies that they offer their guests. For example in Peru, it is a grilled guinea pig served whole for your dining pleasure, meant to be shared with your dining companion. The guinea pigs are raised in a similar fashion to chickens in the United States. This may still be unsettling for some to eat, while others remain unbothered by the meat on their plates — and while you may feel hesitant to try something so outside your normal day-to-day cuisine, remember that while you’re not obligated to try anything you’re not comfortable eating, you should always show respect when offered cultural dishes.
As another example, if you are planning a trip to China, you may be tempted to try their world-renowned shark fin soup, but it might be in your best interest to refrain. The soup is made from the fins of sharks that are caught only for their edible flesh. After the fin meat is harvested, the shark is thrown back into the water to die. The life of that shark serves no other purpose to the fisherman who harvest their fins than the market value they can receive for their meat.
Though it’s important to be respectful of local dishes special to different cultures, it’s best to research how these dishes are being sourced, whether it be meat or vegetable based. While it might not be your place to make comments to the locals, it is your right to choose whether or not you partake in local dishes based on your own personal ethics. Just remember — be respectful, even if you disagree!
Watch Your Tongue
Learning words and phrases in a new country can serve many purposes. First off, the locals appreciate seeing foreigners at least try to greet them in their native tongue and not be expected to speak English. Secondly, it can allow you to order your meals without simply pointing to a photo. Most importantly, it can also to help you connect with those who know the land the best — the locals.
In the documentary, 180 Degrees South, Jeff Johnson sets a great example of how foreigners can and perhaps should engage with the locals in Patagonia, Chile. He is there on a surfing expedition and goes out surfing with the people who call Patagonia home. He initiates conversations about local issues surrounding commerce and international companies’ use of their land, coastlines, and resources.
Instead of showing up to the beach and treading all over the land and water they hold so dear, he attempted to meet them at their level and to learn more about what is taking place behind the scenes. Attempt to do the same when engaging in activities that are on the land or water. Learn more local issues and about how you can help to protect the places that you have traveled so far to see from potential harm.
Foreigner Faux Pas
As a traveler, it is easy for us to fail in practicing mindfulness in all foreign engagements. The following are some actions that you can take to better serve yourself and others while abroad:
- Refuse plasticware and wooden chopsticks by carrying your own set.
- Do not feed or attempt to save stray animals.
- Avoid purchasing animal products such as crocodile skin or preserved insects, unless you know where it was sourced.
- Purchase textiles from artists directly to avoid funding goods produced by child labor.
- Bring your own shopping bag and avoid plastic at all costs.
- Stick with local agencies for bookings rather than large corporations to give back to the local economy.
There is so much to experience when traveling abroad, but attempt to do it with the same amount of intention as you would in your daily practices of ethical sustainability. Keep your eyes off your phone, sit and observe, take in the sights and sounds, and when in doubt practice leave no trace principles — taking nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints.