Travel for the Common Good: The thoughts of six seasoned travelers.
On a recent trip I met Rick who owns a group of funeral homes in Montreal. (Stick with me here.) He writes regular missives to his team and I’ve managed to get on the distribution list. Here is a snippet from one of them.
“… that Thanksgiving my grandfather and I were sitting in front of his fireplace watching the fire. He said, “Rick, look at this.” He took the fire tongs and pulled one of the small logs out of the fire and laid it on the hearth by itself. He then said, “Watch that log. It can’t burn by itself.” And just like he said, within a moment that single log stopped burning, started to smoke, and cooled quickly.
He went on to say, “Families are the same way. Together, we can make a raging fire. Alone, our flame dies…”
What a beautiful metaphor for how life is better if we support one another.
This email inspired my theme for the 2011 New Year’s post. I have asked some serious travelers to comment on how we can support individuals, communities, peace, the environment… the common good, as we travel. I confess, I have yet to turn my travels in this direction so I was excited to hear what they had to say.
Here you go…
If you travel with open eyes, it can be a heartbreaking experience. All that time I spent crying my way across Cambodia… it’s no wonder I wanted Passports with Purpose to build a school there in 2009. We created PwP as an outlet for travelers, moved by what they’d seen in the world, to help make change. But as much as my heart is fully committed to PwP, I don’t think that large scale projects are necessary to have travel be an experience for good.
Small things make a huge difference. Sharing stories about your home life with people who live in the place you’re visiting can change the way your home country is perceived. Talking with locals on the bus can lead to a new understanding about your destination. Slowing down enough to say please and thank you, a clumsy mouthful in a language not your own, can crack the façade between you and the waiter in a place as touristy as a Venice piazza café.
Tiny acts of ambassadorship change the way people see us as travelers and open our hosts to sharing more about their homes. The simplest action can make the world a more understanding place.
By some estimates 1 out of every 8 people on this planet works in the travel industry. So whenever we stay in a hotel, board a train or head to a museum, to give just a few examples, we are helping someone (and perhaps several someones) put food on their table. We help even more when we choose to support local concerns, those businesses in which a larger share of the profits go to the people we actually meet as we travel: mom-and-pop guesthouses (rather than large, multi-national chain hotels), neighborhood restaurants, local walking tour companies, say, or rickshaw taxis.
Since we must remember the needs of coming generations, we are honor-bound to travel as greenly as possible, using public transportation when we can instead of renting a car, trying to minimize the amount we fly and using ground transport more often, treading gently and cleaning up after ourselves when we visit the world’s great nature areas.
And finally, we must remember that all travelers are ambassadors, representing their country to the world and, as importantly, bringing back vivid, personal impressions from the outside to share, so that our family, friends and neighbors can be better informed when they go into the voting booth or donate money to candidates. As members of democracies, we want our leaders to reflect the lessons we learn from travel: that we are part of a global community, that though we have differences (sometimes very beautiful ones) at basis we are brothers and that it is our job to protect and preserve this planet for our children and grandchildren.
Travel for the common good is a noble but challenging ideal. Much of my travel is solitary by design: I take long walks in disorienting cities, wander to places I previously only knew from Geography class, and often feel frustrated when things don’t pan out as I expect. What individual good, let alone common good, can come of such experiences?
Yet as challenging as it is, travel also has the potential to create connection and opportunity. The dividing line between the rich and poor world (developed/developing, etc.) is fading fast, yet in many places, the poorest of the poor still lack basic necessities like clean water and universal primary education. Others of us have all these things and more, but we fail to take advantage of our unique freedom. The more we can bring colliding worlds together, in a mutually respectable way that focuses on creating opportunities, the more potential travel has for achieving a common good.
Travel gives us so much, that it’s easy to forget that we leave a bit of ourselves with those we meet, even if only for a few minutes. There are literally thousands of places around the world that could use our help to serve their communities. But, there are also smaller gestures that we can do while we travel to have a positive impact or build a cultural bridge. Here are three.
- Donate your discarded clothing items. If you’re a long-term traveler, you know that you leave a trail of clothing behind as you go as your needs change. Assuming it’s still in good shape, find someone or an organization that can use them.
- Don’t fight the cultural tide. There are different cultural norms wherever you go. Take the time to learn what they are to show your respect. Remember, you’re the visitor and tomorrow their lives (and way of life) will go on the way it was before.
- Get out of the hostel. I’m still struck by how many people travel and never really meet people beyond those in their travel pack. Find a festival, event, restaurant, something that will give you a chance to interact with the locals. You never know who you’ll befriend.
I’m in awe of people like Pam Mandel, Beth Whitman, Debbie Dubrow and Michelle Duffy who organize the hugely successful Passports With Purpose, along with an army of helpers.
I’m also amazed by Nancy Shretter, founder and managing editor of Family Travel Network, (Twitter: @kidtravel) who put together the Cruise4Haiti program, bringing much needed supplies to that devastated country, with the help of Royal Caribbean, Airline Ambassadors International, American Airlines, and others:
And there’s the one-woman international photography project, Carolyn Lane, whose shoestring non-profit, Dog Meets World, aims to put a photo portrait in the hands of every disadvantaged child on the planet:
But you don’t have to be a major philanthropist to travel for the common good. Here are some tips from my colleague Jonathan Tourtellot, who founded National Geographic’s Center for Sustainable Destinations. And, before you go:
- Read as much as you can about the place – its history, culture, and customs. And not just guidebooks: a good novel, like one in National Geographic’s Ultimate Travel Library, can help you dig deeper into your destination:
- Learn a few words of the language and don’t be afraid to use them – the results can be very satisfying, and sometimes hilarious.
- Make a connection—does one of your friends have a friend or relative in the place? Say hello online and try to meet up when you’re there – it will enrich your experience.
Before I went to Taiwan a few years ago, my husband urged me to contact the Taiwanese mother of a girl on our daughter’s softball team to see if she had any relatives I could meet there. She put me in touch with her best friend from high school who lives in Taipei. I had only one day in the city, but I treasured my time with Su-fang, who took me to her outdoor tai-chi class, took me to a fabulous little dumpling place for breakfast, took me for a ride on the MRT, brought me to her apartment to meet her neighbors at an origami session, explained what was going on at Longshan Temple, took me to the night market and out for seafood with her family, followed by a reflexology massage with her favorite masseuse. With that one contact I was able to tap into the amazing friendliness of the Taiwanese people, and was able to reciprocate a few years later when Su-fang and her husband came to visit me in Washington. All that richness of experience I would surely have missed if I hadn’t made that one phone call. And surely making friends is a way to travel for the common good.
JD Andrews publishes EarthXplorer and is known on Twitter as @earthXplorer
One thing that is important to me as a world traveler is sharing information and supporting other travelers by making suggestions and offering advice on places I have visited. I love to share my perspective through travel tips, must-see lists, and lessons-learned in order help make other’s travel experience easier and more enjoyable. I like to think of this free-flowing information exchange as “the traveler’s code,” something I have benefitted from as both an informed traveler (as an outlet for my own travel knowledge) and as someone struggling to navigate a new city or other travel destination.
I just returned from an amazing trip to Peru where I had a unique opportunity to see how travel companies are supporting local communities. Gap Adventures collaborates with the Planeterra organization to support various charitable projects around the globe. One project near Cusco focuses on supporting and promoting the traditional weaving arts in the small town of Ccaccacollo, where most of the men work as Porters for tourists hiking the Inca Trail. The Women’s Weaving Co-op encourages the women of Ccaccacollo to continue spinning, dying, and weaving wool from Llamas and Alpacas as they have done for many generations – completely by hand using only natural materials and dyes. Gap Adventures offers tours to Ccaccacollo, where the women weavers have an opportunity to sell their exquisite woven crafts and earn additional income to support their families and the community.
This is yet another example of how many inspiring and positive things are going on in our world and how travel can open our eyes to the beauty and diversity across the globe in terms of culture, language, food, history and beliefs. What a gift it is to be able to constantly learn from one another.
My sincere thanks to all the contributors on this post. I have found the range of thoughts and answers fascinating and helpful. I hope you did as well.
Please add your thoughts to the comments below.