Traveling Green in ‘Brown’ Countries

Traveling Green in ‘Brown’ Countries

Traveling Green, Honduras

Garbage on the Honduran country-side

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

Traveling Green, central america

The arid climate of Central America

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

Traveling Green, ecuador

Green Ecuador

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

Traveling Green, bolivia

Train Cemetery

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

Traveling Green, costa rica

Green Costa Rica

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.

Author: Brendan van Son

Author: I am a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. Over my years as a travel photographer, I have visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than I have any desire to count. If you want to improve your skills, be sure to check out my travel photography channel on Youtube . Also, check out my profile on . to learn a little bit more about me and my work.

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  1. This is a great article, Brandon. I never appreciate how clean home is, but apparently I should. I’ve never been anywhere with as much trash as you’re describing here (except for Cairo, the dirt and trash of which just about blew my mind). The countries I’ve traveled through are always for the most part really clean.

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  2. A list of ice tips. I’ve gotten the same answer from locals “well if I throw it away myself I will be putting someone else out of a job.”

    Good for you for pushing the subject – you’ve inspired me to the next time.

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  3. Great piece. And one I can totally relate to.

    My lady and I spent a week on the beautiful Malaysian island of Pangkor recently. The place was pretty close to paradise. Soft white beaches, untamed jungle, clear lime green sea the whole shebang.

    The only thing spoiling this Utopia? Human detrtitous gathered at the corners of the beaches, and locals casually throwing plastic bottles and food wrappers over their shoulders. I wish I’d had the balls to say something, but that’s not easy when you’re thousands of miles from home and even furrther from your own culture.

    Instead, whilst hanging out on the beach all day, we made a point of picking up any rubbish we found and filling a plastic bag with it. The locals looked at us as if we were mad. Our hotel had no recycling facilities (in fact I’d be surprised if the whole Island did) so it only ended up in the bin, but at least we felt we’d done or bit, and we’d done it in full view of the initial culprits.

    Who knows? Perhaps it made a difference.

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    • Well done… I’m sure it did make a difference! And bit will help!

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  4. Hi Brandon, I believe I have an answer for you regarding how people can just trash their environment without a care in the world. More than one answer, but not a complete answer, of course. Nonetheless, I would like to share with you, just cuz, well, I know the answer. 🙂

    One, is that culturally speaking, the level of education and the resources available for cleanliness in developing nations and the 3rd world just do not exist. Giving people an extra drybag or trash bag from your own supplies will go farther in cleanup efforts then telling people who have no other means to dispose of the their trash then the ocean not to do it. If you think there is a problem, then you need to suggest a solution, and being able to offer trash bags is a start.

    Second, “Green” is a buzzword. It doesn’t mean anything other then the marketing meaning applied to it. For example, SC Johnson started on about how environmentally friendly Windex and other Johnson & Johnson products were when the Green craze started. However, they didn’t change anything about their manufacturing practices, they just found a new way to keep selling their stuff in a time when people are questioning the role of chemicals in our lives.

    Unfortunately, being Green and being environmentally responsible are two different things. Green is something laid only on citizens of western countries; in developing nations, people don’t have the time or resources available to them that we do in North America, Europe, and Oceania, to make everything pretty. The burden of environmental responsibility then, falls on us, and people of these nations shouldn’t be judged for bad habits their governments haven’t taken initiative to correct.

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