Sunday, May 4, 2008

Traveling Lean and Green

Here are some tips I've learned or developed along the way to travel clean, lean and green, leaving as small a footprint as I can as a tourist, and maybe even helping to spread the word that not all tourists are lazy, self-centered slobs only interested in pleasure and self-gratification no matter what the cost to the local (or global) environment.

Hotels. I'm finding many hotels around the world that offer "green" laundering choices. In many rooms there will be a card or sign that says something like "Every year billions of gallons of water and millions of pounds of bleach and detergents are wasted cleaning hotel sheets and towels, not to mention the energy wasted. To help our environment, re-hanging your towels means you don't wish to have them changed, and if you do, place them on the floor." I look for this type of sign now in every hotel, and always re-hang my towels. I mean, who needs their towels washed after just one use? If there is no such sign, I mention it to the management and remind them that they can save money by such practices, and tell them that hotels all over the world are doing it. I also ask them to please not change the sheets until I check out. Some maids are so used to doing this that they do anyway, in which case I remind the management of my request, and ask them to please abide by it, in the hopes that they will start to get the message.
I also only open one soap. Usually there are two or more little bars of soap, and if you open more than one they might change them for new ones the next day. In one hotel in Thailand new soap and shampoo, which both came in little bottles, arrived like clockwork every day in my bathroom, in spite of the fact that I wasn't even using it! I think this is a waste of soap and energy, and helps pollute the environment. Now I have just taken to ask that NO room service be performed while I visit. That way the maids don't get the chance to be wasteful, and probably appreciate the break. And I don't have to straighten up the room before they come, either!

Eating. Many people may not realize that eating meat makes a HUGE impact on local pollution, wastes lots of energy, and certainly does nothing to stop the global move towards cruel "factory farming". Some might be curious how hard it is to find meatless food while traveling. I have yet to find a restaurant, cafe, pub or any place (except maybe a gyro stand) that doesn't serve plenty of delicious meals I can eat. I love eating at the little outdoor tavernas and such, especially if there's a harbor view. But I also try to avoid the main tourist restaraunts, like the ones right next to the big attractions where hungry tourists normally migrate, or the big chains and ones in large hotels, etc. I try to find a little, out of the way family-run place where the locals eat, the food is better and cheaper, and you're not ignored by some snobby waiter.
I also never, ever go into American fast-food places that are now all over the world. I don't want to support the globablization of KFC, McDonald's, or Starbucks. When exploring the winding, cobblestoned streets of a cute little village in Europe, the last thing I want to see is a Burger King in the town square--which unfortunately I do, all too often. There's no telling how many local places these chains have put out of business, but I'll certainly never help them do it.
I also try to eat locally and seasonally. If someone visiting London for Christmas demands fresh strawberries, for example, she would get them, but they'd either be flown in from South Africa or grown in heated, energy-gobbling hydroponic farms. I've also been asking at tavernas if the tomatoes and such are from that island or area, but often there's a language problem. They often smile and say, "Yes, very fresh!" leaving me to wonder what the real story is.
And I'm starting to see why the travel guru Rick Steves loves picknicking; it's fun to nip into a little mom & pop store and buy some bread and cheese, and maybe some fruit (I also used to get salamis, more's the pity) and walk around munching it or find somewhere to sit and people-watch. It's easier on the budget and fun to try new things to eat. And of course I always try the local beer or wine. Only a moron would go to, say, Prague, and ask for an American beer.

Transportation. One of my friends back home and I were discussing global warming, and he brought up a good point: if I was trying to help prevent climate change, how did I reconcile all the air travel I've been doing this year? I admit there's not much defense-- air travel is one of the biggest causes of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, not even counting the particulates and water vapor released into the upper atmosphere which some scientists think could double the action caused by the CO2 alone. No doubt it's a high-energy, polluting way to travel. I could only tell him that for this trip, the time constraints force me to use some air travel, and that when I can I take trains, buses, ferrys and other public transportation, and only taxis when necessary in a big, strange city (like Tokyo or Istanbul). I've also done a heckuva lot of walking, which not only allows one to really see and experience a new place, but is great exercise too-- I've shed quite a bit of extra "baggage" while traveling.

Also now when you purchase plane tickets you are often given the option of buying "carbon credits", which is supposed to be invested in activities that balance out the CO2 released, such as planting trees, etc. I admit I know little about what is actually involved in this new field, but I buy the credits anyway, which hopefully balances the books better. I know that no credit system can take the carbon out of the air, but maybe it helps.

Spreading the Word. When I go places, I ask questions; not necessarily to get answers, but to make people think. For example, in a cafe, when I'm finished with a bottle of juice, I hand it back to the person behind the counter and ask if they recycle. If they say no, I ask, "Why not?" Or say I'm in a tourist souvenier shop and they're selling skins of their native animals; I might ask them if this is how they want tourists to see what they think of their own wildlife (then I tell them that I'll never shop in their store, and tell them why). If I buy milk in a store or eggs in a restaurant, I might ask if they know anything about how the cows or chickens are treated where they get their produce-- for instance if the cows are treated with BGH and antibiotics, or whether the hens are kept in battery cages. The people are usually baffled, but perhaps if enough customers start asking questions like this, they'll get the message that visitors actually do care about such things.
I've asked bookstores why they had so few educational books and so many romance novels, and pet store owners if they knew how the native birds they sold were trapped or bred. I've written to heads of state and asked why they don't do more to support the care and rehabilitation of their own native wildlife--even the species that they tout as their country's 'symbols', and told them that their lack of interest was noticeable even from an outsider's point of view (I have yet to get an answer from any of them on this one). Along the way I've probably annoyed quite a few people with my hard questions, but it's my little way of showing that some tourists actually care about the environment, even if they're not in their own countries.
Pollution. Finally, I never, ever litter; in fact, sometimes I'll clean up other people's litter, especially if local children are watching, to demonstrate by example that it's ok to care about their environment. And I rarely buy a new bottle of water; most places I've been able to refill my bottle (a used juice bottle from the U.S.) with good water from taps and have had no problems. Only at the Elephant Nature Park were we asked to drink their bottled water; I figured I've saved over a hundred bottles worth of plastic so far on this trip, and the energy to transport the water. Not bad considering I'm on the road and traveling in questionable countries; I wonder how many people from developed countries with modern purification plants can make the same claim.


Bill Chapman said...

Very interesting. A good account. You refered briefly to the language problem. Have you ever considered Esperanto as an ethical and green means of overcoming the language barrier? Ethical because it belongs to no particular nation and green because, among other things, the symbol of the language has traditionally been a green star. Accompanied by a local Esperanto speaker, I have asked about the oprigin of fresh fruit in Bulgaria, discussed recycling in Berlin and Trieste.

You might be surprised to learn that Esperanto has an extensive indigenous culture and an original literature to rival that of many ethnic tongues. Naturally it didn't start out that way, but when you have such a large community speaking a common language for such a long time, it's probably inevitable that culture will emerge. People around the world use Esperanto every day for everything from childrearing to religious worship to technical manuals to travel guides.

Take a look at

Enjoy your travels!

dageekster29 said...

You know many of these big hotel chains here in Fl will do anything to save a buck. But they will still have the maids come in and change the linnen and towels because the guests want it. Orlando is a medium sized town but we have so many hotels due to the themeparks. Cut back on the travel to here and watch the management people start to penny pinch. Well I am glad you expressed what we all need to realize more often.