Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.
Wednesday, August 10, 2011 11:50 AM
“Don’t take too many pictures,” my father advised before my first trip to Europe, encouraging me to get out from behind the camera and engage with what was in front of it. The truth is, I had a ten-mile list of things to see and pictures to take on the three-week five-country trip that would exhaust my savings and me—Paris: Eiffel Tower; London: Tower Bridge; Venice: St. Mark’s. Check, check, check.
This kind of breakneck travel is an unfortunate trend, says BootsnAll, a site that bills itself as the one-stop indie travel guide. “So much of modern culture pushes us at a frenetic pace,” they write, and continue:
Americans seem to be the worst of the bunch, with 30% of people not taking their allotted vacation time and 37% not taking more than a week a year. For the rest, a sad 33%, we tend to vacation the same way we live: at warp speed with emphasis on performance and “box checking.” Hence, the proliferation of tours that cram three countries and five cities into two weeks and keep travelers moving on an itinerary that feels like anything but vacation. Sure, they get home with a lot of nice pictures, but have they accumulated much else in terms of experience, depth or personal growth?
BootsnAll—and a blooming slow travel movement—reminds us that traveling is not a contest and gives us several points to consider when embarking on mindful travel: Be present. Realize that true understanding takes time. And go deep instead of wide—rather than filling your vacation with three different cities, pick one and get to know the people and culture as well as the sites, whether they’re a country away or two towns over.
Several years after my first jam-packed venture overseas, I went back to Venice with my partner. It was a misty November and the floating city was mostly devoid of tourists, with tides that flooded the streets until 11 in the morning. We stayed in bed late, frequented the same osteria until the owners knew us, and sunk into the magic of the place.
One night, on a late walk, we stumbled upon a soup supper outside a church and were invited to join in. Chords from a guitar drifted across the cobblestone streets, and an old woman hiked her skirt above her ankles to dance an impromptu solo. While we clapped along with the small crowd, all of us huddling closer to beat the chill, the man tending the pot of soup motioned me over to refill my bowl. That simple, unexpected night remains one of my favorite travel memories. And a picture wouldn’t do it justice.
Image by Frank Kovalchek, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, April 06, 2010 2:52 PM
The word is airports: What comes to mind? The astonishing carbon footprint of a single flight, perhaps? Equipped with a standard guilty-liberal reflex, that’s what pops into my head—so I was sort of thrilled to encounter a little interview in Psychology Today that reminded me of another airport feeling: that of electric, transformative space.
Check it out: Last fall author/philosopher Alain de Botton became Heathrow Airport’s first “writer in residence,” spending a week stationed at a desk in a terminal writing A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary. (From the outset, it was an intriguing exercise: Heathrow paid de Botton the equivalent of an advance, while de Botton retained creative control and the rights to the resulting book.) His chat about the experience with Psychology Today doesn’t appear to be online, so here’s the snippet that tickled me:
What do you see when you live in an airport that you don’t see when you’re rushing to make a plane?
Pure anticipation. People who are rushing to their flights imagine a future without having to live it yet. On the ground, we are more likely to admit that the future will not deliver on its ideal prospects. We may never be has happy as we are in the moments prior to takeoff on a trip.
Of course, anticipation is just that. More food for thought from de Botton:
You’ve written that we travel to find happiness but fail to get there.
In Western culture, there’s a feeling that if you change the décor, or the landscape around you, you will easily be transformed into a calmer, happier person. But that’s a crazy, naïve, childish idea.
One problem with modern travel is that we don’t meet people. People who traveled in premodern times would pitch up in a new town with a recommendation or a letter and find themselves having dinner with six interesting people. Today most of us arrive and go to the Statue of Liberty or a museum. We don’t have any human contact.
Source: Psychology Today
Image by Ana Santos, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, March 09, 2010 5:33 PM
If you want to travel in the developing world yet leave a light footprint, consider pointing yourself to Poland, Suriname, or Chile. These countries are among the surprising selections on “The Developing World’s 10 Best Ethical Destinations” of 2010 named by Ethical Traveler, reports Earth Island Journal. Here’s the full list:
• South Africa
“The ten destinations … offer not only scenic beauty and memorable experiences, but also set a positive example in the areas of environmental protection, social welfare, and human rights,” writes Earth Island Journal.
The full ethical destinations report at the Ethical Traveler website contains a detailed description of methodology and some interesting notes about the countries that won—and those that didn’t:
• Lithuania and Chile are green champions, having scored particularly well in environmental protection.
• The “developing world” part of the criteria means that some countries that were on last year’s list, such as Estonia and Croatia, have basically prospered their way out of eligibility.
• “Notably, not a single Asian country made it to the Top 10. Irresponsible development, human rights abuses, and a lack of strong environmental policy kept them all off the list again this year. Perhaps surprisingly, though, four African countries—three on the mainland, and one island republic—made the final list. We believe this bodes well for the future of these nations and, hopefully, for the African continent.”
• Nicaragua was bounced from the list because of its poorly run 2008 municipal elections and a worsening record on human rights and freedoms of speech and the press. “We remove Nicaragua with regret, as the country has created many initiatives to help local communities benefit from tourism, and is taking strong steps to protect and restore its tropical forests.”
• Bhutan may be the only country in the world to measure success by a Gross National Happiness Index, but still it doesn’t make the cut: “Despite its sublime natural beauty and extraordinary commitment to preserving the environment,” writes Ethical Traveler, “the highly nationalistic kingdom is still plagued by human rights issues.”
Sources: Earth Island Journal, Ethical Traveler
Image by doug88888, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009 10:40 AM
Travel is a pain. Few people would say that packing, schlepping to the airport, stripping down in front of strangers for security, and wedging yourself into a miniscule and uncomfortable airplane seat for hours is exactly the paragon of relaxation. Every day, though, people spend valuable vacation hours traveling.
It might not be fun, but travel contains “the secret tonic of creativity,” according to Jonah Lehrer in The San Francisco Panorama, the newest print journalistic experiment by McSweeney’s (and reprinted on Lehrer’s blog). The distance provided by travel, and the cultural differences that people are forced to encounter, have tangible cognitive benefits. Travelers are often more creative, and putting some distance between you and your problems makes them easier to solve. The research Lehrer cites gives credence to what Thomas Jefferson wrote more than 200 years ago: “Traveling makes men wiser, but less happy.”
Source: The San Francisco Panorama (via Science Blogs)
Image by DMahendra, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, August 07, 2009 4:41 PM
A little more affection for airplanes could fight the fear of flying, Javier Marías writes for Granta. He would feel a lot more at ease if pilots would show the respect for their planes that ship captains once displayed for their vessels. Marías tends to anthropomorphize the planes he rides on, thinking of them as a living entity, capable of its own personality. He writes:
Given how often we travel in planes, the odd thing about our relationship with them—those complex machines endowed with movement to which we surrender ourselves and that transport us through the air—is that it isn’t more ‘personal’, or more ‘animal’, or more ‘sailor-like’, if you prefer.... That’s what I would like to see, less cool efficiency and more affection.
Thursday, August 06, 2009 10:35 AM
It’s a cliché to call any place, “a city of contradictions.” After living in Japan for almost a decade, Pico Iyer realized, “contradiction is in many ways in the eye of the beholder.” He writes for WorldHum that foreigners often interpret contradictions in their superficial readings of situations. For example, Japanese people may be quite comfortable mixing traditional and modern cultures, while Americans think it’s strange to see a Buddhist priest popping a beer and watching television.
“The biggest challenge today is how to make our peace with alienness,” Iyre wrote for Utne Reader back in 2000. It’s helpful for foreigners abroad to remember how strange they must seem to other people. Recognizing the mutual strangeness, and finding comfort in the contradictions, teaches people as much about themselves as it illuminates other cultures. Iyer writes, “The global village has given us the chance to move among the foreign, and so to simplify and clarify ourselves.”
, licensed under
Thursday, July 16, 2009 11:30 AM
“Traveling makes men wiser, but less happy,” according to Thomas Jefferson. In a letter written in 1787, and unearthed for the latest issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, the founding father explains that traveling spreads a person’s affections too thin, causing deep dissatisfaction and idleness. Older, more mature people may be able to handle such a shock to the system, but young people should stay in their home countries where the pursuit of knowledge will be less “obstructed by foreign objects.”
The glare of pomp and pleasure is analogous to the motion of the blood—it absorbs all their affection and attention, they are torn from it as from the only good in this world, and return to their home as to a place of exile and condemnation. Their eyes are forever turned back to the object they have lost, and its recollection poisons the residue of their lives.
Monday, June 29, 2009 5:26 PM
Tourism is this day and age’s dirty word, with rightful concern for the environmental impact of travel looming over alluring vacation plans. In this line of thinking, spiritual journeys pose a special quandary, writes Philip Carr-Gomm for Resurgence.
“Our desire to visit sacred places has resulted in the creation of yet another industry that is pushing us to the brink of environmental collapse,” Carr-Gomm writes. “And yet doesn’t visiting sacred sites help us to appreciate our world? . . . Isn’t pilgrimage often a key component in many religions and an important spiritual practice in itself? . . . How can we honor these concepts and respect the Earth at the same time?”
Carr-Gomm has done serious thinking about the matter. He is the author of Sacred Places, a book detailing 50 spiritual and religious sites around the world. In the book, he endeavors to include both the ups and downs of any particular location. “Like any relationship, our interaction with sacred sites can either be harmful or beneficial, depending on the awareness brought to the relationship,” he writes.
To foster awareness, Carr-Gomm proposes building our relationships with sacred sites at the “soul level.” Visit them when one must, but focus on “building the bond primarily in the soul world and in consciousness.” Make use of Google Earth, virtual museums, and other rich writing and photography on the Internet—the wealth of information that, in part, is responsible for spurring this unprecedented interest in traveling to spiritual sites in the first place.
And if reinterpreting armchair travel isn’t satisfying spiritual hunger, well, Carr-Gomm has another idea: “We can turn our attention to our own landscapes—take care of a local sacred site, clearing it of rubbish and visiting it often.”
Source: Resurgence (article not yet available online)
Tuesday, June 09, 2009 3:51 PM
Anyone can be a bad travel writer. It’s as easy as using clichés, not quoting locals, and writing about your husband Larry as much as possible. David Farley, who’s clearly read a few too many bad travel articles, gives a few tips on World Hum about how to create the worst, most unenlightening, hackneyed travel writing ever. Here’s one of his tips:
Tell, don’t show. Sure, you could write something like, “We traipsed across the chunky cobblestones of the village’s only lane, flanked by half-timbered, thatched-roof houses, and we could smell the morning’s first offerings from the village bakery.” But why, when you could just as easily write, “The village was quaint and charming”?
Source: World Hum
Wednesday, March 18, 2009 10:49 AM
Like the McDonalds of tourism, the proliferation of Lonely Planet has branded and shaped our interaction with the world. In the winter issue of Geist, Stephen Henighan compares international travel before and after the popular guide book series took root. He considers early travel narratives by Harry Franck and A.F. Tschiffely, Americans whose journeys favored rough improvisation over guided plans, relying instead on advice from locals and their own observational knowledge. In contrast, Lonely Planet has effectively homogenized how people think about travel, reducing the experience to a predictable set of outcomes.
“The company’s formula, laying its easy-to-consult categories over each destination like a grid, has not only charted the world: it has changed it,” writes Henighan. “By assuring almost everyone that they can travel to faraway places and find familiar comforts and attitudes, Lonely Planet, along with its competitors, has acted as a catalyst in installing cheap hotels, transportation links and English-speaking personnel in locations where otherwise they might not exist.”
Henighan acknowledges that Lonely Planet has also helped democratize travel through both its mass appeal and its nod to specific groups, such as women, people of color, and the LGBT community. No small feat, considering that experiences like Franck and Tschiffely’s were once limited to a privileged few.
Image by The Wandering Angel, licensed under Creative Commons
Tuesday, June 24, 2008 4:26 PM
"Bush administration officials who pushed torture will need to be careful about their travel plans,” counsels New York attorney and Columbia Law School Professor Scott Horton in “Travel Advisory,” recently posted on the New Republic’s website.
For while it’s unlikely that the U.S. government can muster the political will to prosecute the likes of Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and Donald Rumsfeld for specifically discussing and, at the very least, tacitly approving the use of torture to interrogate suspected terrorists. It’s “reasonably likely” that another western democracy would assemble war crime charges against Bush’s puppetmasters, especially after the president leaves office in January.
According to an investigative magistrate in a NATO nation already assembling evidence against a “small group of Bush administration officials,” it’s unlikely anyone would be extradited on war-related charges.” But, the unnamed source tells Horton, “if one of the targets lands on our territory or on the territory of one of our cooperating jurisdictions, then we’ll be prepared to act."
Click here for Utne’s Special Online Project: Tracking Torture Coverage.
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