Traveling Green in ‘Brown’ Countries
I remember arriving in San Salvador, El Salvador about five years ago. Our bus pulled into town just before the sun set itself. I looked around at the busy streets and my eyes were drawn to the streets meridians. Although it’s spine may have been made of steel and cement its body was composed of nothing but garbage. It was, it seemed, a two-foot high barrier of plastic bags, paper wrappers, and god knows what else. I remember feeling overwhelmed, helpless, and more than a little bit annoyed. As a born and raised Canadian I take pride in the cleanliness of my natural environment, and I wondered how people could dislike their own enough to trash it. It all got me thinking, what can I do to help stop this trend. Here are my tips for traveling green while in less “green” countries:
1) Don’t be silent
I had just been picked up on the side of the highway by a loaded bus in the middle of the Honduran country side. Just as I began to think to myself “oh no, I am going to be standing the whole trip and miss out
on the great scenery” the driver and his bus captain managed to wrangle me up a seat behind them with a perfect 270 degree view. I watched intently out of the window as the bus sped by cacti and some interesting geomorphology. But as we continued I started to notice garbage more than anything. It was just strewn out randomly across the country-side. I looked out in confusion and wondered how so much garbage got to such a lightly inhabited place. As we sped across the flats of the semi-arid landscape by driver finished his drink and sandwich, opened the window and just dropped the plastic remains out of the window. I remember thinking to myself, how can you have so little care for your environment to be able to do that. And then thinking, how come no one has said anything. No one aside from me even seemed the least bit concerned.
I didn’t say anything on that day, and I always regret not saying something. I used my lack of linguistic prowess at the time as an excuse. But in reality it was just my lack of confidence that kept me silent. This past year I ran into the same situation and spoke up. The response I got was, “well if I throw it away myself I will be putting someone else out of a job.” But after a couple minutes of explanation and conversation I think we came to the conclusion that the driver would never do it again. I told him “your country is beautiful, if you throw garbage all over it will lose its beauty, and your bus will be empty of tourists who come to visit it, and you will be out of a job. So keep throwing garbage out the window and you might go from being a tour bus driver to a road side garbage collector.”
2) Use Green Tour agents
In the tourism industry there are hundreds if not thousands of operators both local and global. You have the opportunity, if not the right, to find a company that does things the right way. It has become a bit of a cliché to say that your company is green, but very few
do something to back up their talk. Before choosing a tour agent ask them what they are doing to be greener; many will stubble for answers. There are many, however, that have a proven track record for doing things the right way. Gecko’s Adventures for example, is famous for traveling green. They have always maintained ways to travel responsibly which includes a respect for the environment in which it travels. Locally you can do a little bit of research before booking a tour. Ask at the hostels from people who have gone on the tours, and even the hostel reservations desk can usually provide good information. In Peru, SAS travel does work in preservation and cleaning up local trails such as the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. They also are know for helping out locals in need, in times such as the recent flooding and mudslides.
3) You might not be able to recycle, but you can re-use
I remember the look I got for the hotel receptionist recently when I handed her a pile of used paper and receipts and asked her “do you recycle?” It was almost as if the word recycle didn’t even exist in her language. She reached out to take the pages from me, told me that she would throw them in the garbage bin, but I thought to myself “wait, I can probably use the back sides of these to jot notes on;” and I did. It’s something little but it saved me from buying a new notebook that day, and it saved the landfill from a stack of about 20 pages. There are hundreds of other ways to re-use, and all it takes is the smallest amount of creativity.
4) Don’t be lazy
I recently had the remains from an ice cream wrapper in my hands as I walked around a part of La Paz, Bolivia. I walked, and walked, and walked looking for a garbage bin to dispose of the waste. It took me about 20 minutes before finally finding a bin over-stuffed with garbage to the point that it was scattered all over the road. So, I took my wrapper and hauled it with me the other 20 minutes back to the hotel. At any point on the way I could have easily just dumped the wrapper on the road amongst the other wrappers, and no one would have batted an eye-lid. It’s the little things like this that seem so insignificant, but if everyone was traveling green like this it would go a long way.
5) Avoid pollutant traffic
Public transportation is preached to us in the so-called “developed” world as a means of traveling green, but the truth is that in many of the under-developed countries of the world the public buses spew layers of smoke and pollutants into the air. Although it’s easy and cheap to jump on one of these buses they pollute like no other vehicles in the world. Also, when you jump in a taxi, you should be conscious of its make, model, and age. This might seem snobby, and maybe even border on offensive and hierarchical, but some of taxis that circle the roads of the developing world cause irreprehensible damage to the local
air. Usually if you call for a taxi via a legitimate taxi agent you will get a well maintained car.
I remember driving around the streets of Cairo, Egypt and thinking that the city had two major problems (air pollution and traffic jams) that could both be solved with one solution: take all the un-fit cars off the road. I don’t just mean old cars, but cars without mirrors, or windows, or lights, etc. But then again, who are we to say that someone does not have the right to their own form of transport.
6) Pick up a piece of garbage each day
Traveling green also means doing the little things so this one is really taking it back to our roots, but in reality it makes sense. But if you are in a National Park, or even the dirty streets of San Salvador, and you see a piece of paper floating by, step on it with your foot and pick it up. Put it in your pocket and take it with you, even if it takes 4 hours to find a proper garbage bin.