Travelling broadens our horizon, they say. It opens our minds. When we travel, we get away from everything we’re used to, and we get exposed to a lot of things we are not used to. We see different landscapes and animals we’d never seen before. We learn about another culture, their history, language, traditions, foods.
If we’re really inquisitive, we talk with the locals and ask them a million questions.
Living on a tiny tropical island for 13 years, I’m considered a “local” by most visitors.
I get asked a million questions. Of course it is fun to tell all the colourful stories about island life—the stuff that will make people think I’m living the dream.
But I am happier when they ask the less frivolous questions, like where our water comes from, how waste water is managed, electricity generated. What do we do with our trash?
The answers to these questions, when asked in any remote destination and especially in developing countries, indeed stretch our horizon a bit further:
Here on the island, water gets pumped straight out of the ground into our pipes, without any chemical treatment. This means that whatever is in the soil, also is in our water: minerals, chemicals, bacteria from faecal matter. Sewage goes (mostly) into septic tanks, but grey water (from kitchens, laundry and showers) runs back into the ground.
It’s obvious that we have to avoid contaminating our soil in every possible way.
Being surrounded by sea, an island’s aquifer is in constant danger of getting salinised when too much fresh water is pumped out over longer periods of time. For that reason we all have to be conservative with water.
Electricity is generated by a big diesel generator, 17 hours a day roaring and belching fumes. Some hotels will run their individual generators during the remaining hours, to keep their guests and fridges cool.
With the increase of tourism causing the local population to grow as well, there is an equal increase in the demand for electricity. Every few years the power-plant is being replaced by a bigger one. By being conscious of our electricity use we can help to reduce the noise and air-pollution coming from that monstrous generator that powers the whole community.
Trash is not even collected, let alone processed. We’re all responsible for our own trash. Most local people (including most of our hotel and restaurant owners) will burn or bury their trash, some throw it in the sea. Some of the really uneducated people (remember this is a developing country) will just chuck it in the bush somewhere.
One way or the other, trash is contaminating our soil, threatening the quality of our water, littering our beautiful beaches, endangering our marine life.
On top of that, the sea spits out a load of trash with every tide coming in, stuff that may come floating all the way from the other side of the globe.
All this makes trash our biggest and most prominent problem.
Most visitors cannot relate with any of these circumstances at first, because at home this is all managed by our municipality or a corporation. We pay a fee and they take care of our trash, our sewage, our electricity. All quite invisible, far removed from our homes. Out of sight, out of mind. At home we don’t give these questions much thought.
Here, in this remote place, we can daily experience a harsh confrontation with the reality of the impact we have on our environment.
Once the inquisitive tourists wrap their mind around the vastness of the problem, their next questions usually are about how they can help to reduce their eco-footprint on the island. Those questions make me most happy. That’s when I might be talking for another 15 minutes, at least.
Here’s a list of the tips I usually give on how they can contribute to a better environment during their (next) stay on the island. Traveling on they can do the same things everywhere else.
What to bring:
> Natural, organic and biodegradable shampoo, conditioner and body wash, bug repellent and sun block help reduce contamination of the soil, the aquifer and the ocean. Especially sun blocks can be very harmful for coral reefs.
> Bringing our to-go-cup, refillable water bottle, reusable straws and take out containers can visibly help reduce the amount of trash at our destination. Let’s not forget our lightweight shopping bag in that little pouch, because there’s always a local store that tickles our curiosity, and most likely we will end up buying something.
> Small solar chargers for our gadgets and batteries are available in all shapes and sizes. Investing in one for our trip takes some pressure off the local power supply.
What to do (or not to do) when at our destination:
> Shortening our showers, flushing only when really necessary, never leaving a tap running for longer than necessary can make a huge difference in the amount of water we use on a daily basis.
> Being mindful of the things we buy and consume at our destination can also make a huge difference in the amount of trash that we generate during our vacation: choosing drinks that come in a glass bottle or aluminium can reduce the amount of plastic trash. Even better: get a fresh one, made with local ingredients! The same goes for our snacks: instead of plastic and foil-wrapped processed stuff, try all the locally made treats, usually sold by kids walking around with a basket (we may have to gently refuse that little plastic bag they will offer us).
We can refuse straws, styrofoam take-out containers and plastic forks.
> Being vocal in a gentle way about our environmental choices can help create more awareness amongst the local population. In developing countries it is often the lack of education that lies at the root of the problem.
When we explain in a few simple words why we don’t need the plastic bag (and pull out our own cloth bag), really don’t want the straw, and prefer to refill our water bottle rather than buy another plastic bottle, new ideas and thoughts start to trickle into the community.
Asking local people about their environment, engaging them in a conversation about the problems and telling how we try to contribute, again will open their minds to better options.
We take our knowledge and experience for granted, but not everyone in the world gets 10 years of education, if any at all.
We can all be teachers, we can all lead by example.
> When we leave our hotel room to go explore for the day, taking a moment to make sure that all lights, fans, airco, and chargers are switched off can save a good amount of electricity. When we help to keep the demand for electricity low, that giant generator may not need to be replaced with an even bigger one for another few years.
> Pack in, pack out. Just like hiking in National Parks and nature reserves, taking everything with us that we brought really helps to reduce the trash problem at our destination.
There’s a fair chance that, next time we visit our dream destination a few years from now, we can find the broken flipflop and almost-empty shampoo bottle that we left behind. Better take them home, where there’s a much better way to dispose of them.
And if we are really eco-conscious, we can even hold on to every piece of trash that we generated during our stay, and take that with us too. The wrappers from our snacks, the containers of our drinks, that straw that just happened to take us by surprise.
The above are all simple steps we can take towards a healthier environment, wherever we go.
For those who are willing to take eco-conscious travel to the next level, I’d like to share a personal experience.
Last year, I was exploring a little trail that I hadn’t walked before. Wondering where it could lead, my question was soon answered: a pile of trash. A big pile of used diapers. A ton of them. My jaw dropped.
I realised there and then that disposable diapers are a big problem. Can’t recycle them. Can’t burn them, they’re soaking wet. Can’t bury them, dogs and chickens will dig them up. Oh, and we have a baby-boom going on here, as a bonus. Imagine the amount of diaper trash.
As a simple solution to this problem we’re now asking visitors of whom we know they are coming down, to bring reusable, washable cloth diapers to the island, to help diminish that ever-growing pile of disposable diaper trash. We sell them at cost price to the local families. (The amount of money they save by not having to buy disposables is a tremendous bonus and motivator.)
It turns out that most people are willing to schlepp these diapers down for us, even though they are quite bulky and not lightweight. The fact that they can help the environment at their favourite destination is enough motivation for them to make the effort.
Remote places usually have very limited access to affordable resources that can contribute to a healthier environment. Often one missing bolt or cable can make the difference between using solar power or running a diesel generator. New needles and spools for the sewing machine will allow someone to sew a bunch of shopping bags that will save a ton of plastic trash. And one reusable diaper that can be washed at least 100 times, will literally prevent a mountain of 100 disposable diapers piling up in nature. Imagine what difference half a dozen of them can make!
This brings me to the last eco-travel-tip, for the “greenest” travellers amongst us who want to be of service:
We can contact the owner of our hotel or another local source at our destination, and try to find out what their specific needs are when it comes to “green” stuff, and bring what we can in our luggage. They will probably have a whole list. Consulting them first, we will avoid bringing stuff they have no use for.
If they don’t have a wish-list, think of simple things that local people may want to use:
> lightweight shopping bags and produce bags
> reusable straws
> bamboo tooth brushes
> rechargeable batteries and their chargers, or solar-powered charging-devices to charge phones and cameras.
> a solar lamp or flashlight
> sewing materials
> organic garden seeds
> reusable diapers
These are the only kind of things we can leave behind when we go. It will help make this planet a better place, even in its far corners.
Telling my inquisitive visitors all these things, answering all their questions, I will probably have spend half an hour talking; 30 minutes trying to be of service to our planet.
Because we cannot afford to take a vacation from caring about the environment, ever.
PS. Even if we don’t travel, we can do this, anytime, anywhere!
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