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Leave the Familiar Behind: On Hammers, Hikes, and Horny Toads
For most people, the point of traveling involves leaving the familiar. Whether that translates to an azure coastline lined by tingly warm white sand topped with pin-striped parasols, the cryptic illegibles of a hectic foreign city, or the scrapings of howler monkeys echoing under a verdant canopy, what's special about the place is that it's not home -- to you, anyway. But leaving home doesn't have to mean leaving yourself behind: Take your mind and conscience with you, let them inform your trip, and you'll get a lot more out of your vacation.
"Take your mind and conscience with you, let them inform your trip, and you'll get a lot more out of your vacation."
Several years ago, I spent part of one summer in rural Slovakia with about eight people from other countries through an organization that put together cheap trips for those willing to wield a hammer for a few hours a day. We slept in sleeping bags on a castle floor and ate food cooked by the villagers, and our two weeks there cost $200 altogether. Frankly, not that much work got done on the castle, but we became chummy with the villagers, most of whom had never met a non-Slovakian, and put the equivalent of half the country's GDP in the local jukebox. I'm not the Mother Teresa type, but I remember that trip with far more fondness than the few days I once spent in Cancun, which, well, I think I'd rather not remember.
Much is made of the supposed distinction between tourists and travelers, the former disdainfully caricatured as an obnoxious tribe of photo-snapping boors leaving trails of chewing-gum wrappers and crumpled receipts in their wake; the latter lauded as intrepid hero-figures barreling into the unknown with little else than a fanny pack and a battered Lonely Planet guide. Let's question that dichotomy, though. Who ultimately benefits the community they're visiting -- the "traveler" who spends his entire time in hostels discussing the best ways to get from Temple X to Beach Y on the ultimate cheap, or the "tourist" who buys up a suitcase-load of tacky but locally made souvenirs for her grandkids back in Omaha?
Given the resources available, it shouldn't be hard to figure out how to tailor your vacation so that it satisfies both your ego and your id. Let's look at the options.
All you want from your two weeks is a beach chair and a daiquiri with a little pink umbrella? Pick a hotel that donates a percentage of its proceeds to local schools or hospitals: You can be socially accountable without sacrificing any of your typical holiday indulgences. While according to Kevin Doyle, a writer for Conde Nast Traveler, giving back to the community is not yet part of the corporate culture at most large international hotel companies (with notable exceptions like Best Western, which raised millions after the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina), some foreign hotel companies and locally owned luxury hotels are catching on to the trend.
Looking to get a little more involved? Join a volunteer program like Earthwatch or Habitat, which operate both domestically and internationally, and sweat out your sins. Maybe you're leery of organized groups and would rather go it on your own. If so, "travel with a purpose" can certainly be loosely defined. Just picking your own distinctive "purpose" -- following Lewis & Clark's peripaties across the Great Plains, say, or tracking down the best pho in lower Vietnam -- is sure to get you more in touch with local customs and attitudes than following the busloads to the Pyramids or Tour Eiffel.
One summer I went to the Sonoran desert to volunteer for a biologist who was researching the habits and habitat of freaky little reptiles locally called "Texas horny toads." My particular job involved sitting in front of ant holes to observe ant activity before, during, and after sunrise. If I hadn't actually done this, it would sound to me more like penance than vacation, but much to my surprise, I watched a number of stunning sunrises, fell in love with a beautiful and unfamiliar ecosystem, and filled a notebook with poetry, meditative journal entries, and sketches of, among other things, ant activity. I came home far more refreshed than I would have from a package tour of European cities ("if it's Tuesday, it must be Belgium").
"Take only pictures, leave only footprints" seems a travel dictum that might benefit from revision. Not that the message isn't valid, but today, infrastructure exists that can benefit communities more than the echo of a camera snap and the imprint of a Nike sole on the savanna, and being a responsible traveler-tourist means making use of it, whether that's relying on an organization or just yourself. All "travel with a purpose" means is putting conscience and thought into your actions and movements abroad. Keep national parks and beaches clean; spend your money where it'll stay local; respect the people, things, and thoughts you meet. Who knows -- maybe after exercising these abilities on vacation, you'll bring the idea of living "purposefully" home, where it's no less needed.
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