Sustainability is an increasingly hot topic at the moment, but it can have different meanings in its interpretation. For me, it was a term to which I used to associate the environmental aspect, but throughout my travels, I quickly realised that it is present not only in the nature of the environment but also in human and social nature.
Travelling is one of the most efficient ways to enrich our knowledge, no doubts about that. But how can we also magnify our contribution to the planet, and to societies, by the means of simply travelling? Starting with carbon footprint, humanitarian aid and financial contributions, the impact of the traveller on the destinations can – and should – leave a positive impact. In all my The Wanderlust travels (Mongolia, Transiberian Route, and Nepal) we visit vulnerable cultures in some of the most remote places on earth. I feel very privileged to be able to provide other travellers with the opportunity to experience independent cultures and nearly immaculate landscapes. But until then, here are some of my tips for those who have not yet had the opportunity to put these issues into practice!
When we are put out of our comfort zone, we learn to value the things that we would usually take for granted. I’m not referring to a comfortable mattress or hot water taps on wash basins – things like drinking water, or even “just” mineral water, that we take for granted, are not available everywhere. When water is distilled, purified or simply boiled, it becomes drinkable – safe for consumption – but loses its minerals that are so important to our health, and especially for the traveller’s health. Things such as sodium (important in regulating the plasma volume, conducting nerve impulses and muscle contraction), chloride (important for blood and preventing it from becoming too alkaline) and potassium (the main functions of which are reflected in neuromuscular activities). Of course, we are talking about small amounts, but in the long term, the body notices these absences and manifests its needs. Only after travelling for a long time without access to mineral water, I have gained a whole new respect for the water I drink every day. I am fortunate to live in Portugal, a country that has plenty of water sources, some of the best in the world, easily accessible and for a small cost.
But what about when we travel to places like Mongolia, where much of the country is deserted, and most of its population has a nomadic lifestyle, where we do not have access to any mineral or bottled water? Most of the drinking water here is obtained from natural resources, such as springs and rivers, but should always be purified, as they contain microorganisms that our bodies are not familiar with. This is the treatment that demineralizes the water.
Rationing water, however, also gives us a new view of its value: learning how to manage our daily life with a limited amount of water, rather than simply opening a tap and pouring in the amount we (think) we need, without the real perception of how much water is actually being poured. An open faucet for only 5 minutes spouts, on average, 60 litres of water. When in Mongolia, I have come to learn on how to manage 50 litres of water a day, for four people – not only for drinking purposes but also for cooking and our basic daily hygiene. It makes you wonder, right? Of course, the amounts here sound a bit extreme and even exaggerated, because it’s a smaller amount than we actually needed… but the truth is that it already happening in some cities, like Cape Town, in South Africa, where the daily limit is already those exact 50 litres per day.
Those who travel for pleasure, are privileged people. One of the many questions I’m asked when travelling, is “why do I travel”? What am I doing there? In many parts of the world, one does not travel for pleasure, only out of necessity. Like the refugees, the great exoduses resulting from political or environmental conflicts. They travel for lack of local resources, they travel for work. But few are those who travel for pleasure. How lucky are we?
So, when travelling, why invest financially in the big international chains, when we can help sustain the local economy? Why go to McDonald’s in Beijing, when I can eat at the local market? Why sleep at the Hilton, when we can stay in a good local hotel, with similar conditions but overflowing with culture, investing in this local economy?
This is probably one of the sustainability solutions with the biggest impact in short term. Often these choices for the local businesses also help me to learn and understand better these destinations, their social structures and habits.
In many of my travels I have done (and still do) volunteer works whenever possible, as well as other cultural experiences, such as participating in local festivals and/or celebrations, and I try to provide the same opportunities to those who accompany me. Instead of taking part in exclusive expeditions, we embrace celebrations with local families. We develop a new respect for those who welcome us, understanding their culture, promoting our dedication and in return, we get the gratitude of those who welcome us, for the interest shown by the sincereness of our visit.
In Mongolia we participate in some of these celebrations, and even though we mostly never understand a word of their language, and without them understanding none of our words, there is something magical, a universal language that begins with a smile and unfolds with the true human spirit – there are things that need no translation. One hour of this experience exchange is worth more than many books read in a library. And sometimes, this understanding of a new culture will also help us become better people in our essence.
In Nepal, we have participated in small humanitarian projects that have been working in the field providing support since the 2015 earthquake. A financial contribution (with a percentage of the value of our travel) and a direct participation in the project. Here, we become the face of the financial contributions, humanizing the numbers.
Cultural appreciation is also about respecting and adopting local habits. The most obvious example seems to me the way we present ourselves, on how we dress. In many cultures, our micro-shorts are not welcome. In temples, it is usually not allowed to show anything above the knee, nor shoulders, and sometimes it may be necessary to cover our head. If this is a sustainability issue? Yes. Sustainability is also about respect – when we disrespect a culture, we disrespect its essence, and without essence, there is no longer the privilege of knowledge.
Traveller’s carbon footprint
This is a global factor, not a local one. It is our small gestures that reflect on a larger scale, contributions that seem insignificant on the big picture, but when adopted by many, translate into a huge draught for the planet.
This is also one of the reasons we chose to travel in local transport rather than renting private vehicles or tours. We encourage the purchase of brands who also have a reduced carbon footprint, that do not test on animals and choose recycled materials. We encourage the use of a reusable water bottle instead of plastic bottles, and non-chemical hygiene products that are not harmful to the environment.
This is even more valuable when we travel to destinations without plumbing (like Siberia or Mongolia, for instance), where I know that my use of shampoos and chemical-free lotions will flow into local rivers and lakes, or as in the case of the Trans-Mongolian, which are dumped directly into the railway line, will not be as detrimental to local wildlife – I refer to bacteria and fish, insects and birds, wildlife and flora in general.
Great attitudes require small decisions. And one by one, we will be able to make this a better planet, so that we can travel it for many good years to come.
I hope this little article inspires you to be a more conscious traveller, and that you can travel with me and The Wanderlust to some of the most remote destinations on the planet!