Nowadays, we are conditioned to think of travel in terms of geography. According to this commonplace view, a journey is primarily a means of changing our physical location. Planes, buses and trains carry us, along with our belongings, to remote parts of the globe, leaving us to engage in various tourist activities. What gets lost along the way, like a piece of misplaced luggage, is what we might call the “spiritual” dimension of travel. A pilgrimage, the precursor of the tourist trip, was first and foremost a spiritual affair. The point of the journey was to enact a transformation of the soul, to change our perception of the world, so we may become better people as a result.
With our environmental situation becoming more precarious each year, I believe that reactivating this “spiritual” dimension of travel is more important than ever. Only by changing the way we think about what it means to go on a journey can we hope to reduce our impact on the surrounding world while we travel. The article you have in front of you is my humble attempt to bring about this change.
To change the way you think, start by changing the way you move. Many tourists fall into the trap of using motorized transport everywhere they go, thus limiting their experience of local nature and culture. Not only that, they are also causing damage to the environment through carbon emissions, leaving locals to deal with the aftermath of their actions.
Fortunately, the situation can be remedied fairly easily, simply by employing more sustainable means of getting around, such as cycling and hiking. Cycling gives you the ability to explore your surroundings at a leisurely pace, while producing zero emission. Walking is equally eco-friendly, with the added benefit of having the time to reflect while you pace along, or simply get immersed in the local scenery.
Interact with the Local Community
Modern technology has made travel more convenient than ever before, but at a significant cost in terms of human sociability. Tourists increasingly travel in insulated groups – it is quite possible to spend a month on the other side of the globe without ever interacting with a member of the local populace. And staying inside your comfort zone at all times makes for an impoverished travel experience.
So the next time you find yourself at an unfamiliar locale, instead of sticking with people that share your mannerisms, try to build some kind of rapport with the natives. If you can make it through the barriers of language and custom, you might find that you have much more in common with the locals, than with the people from your tour group. And getting to know others is a prerequisite to getting to know yourself better.
Go on Self-guided Tours
Products are not the only thing that is getting standardized in our globalized world. It is now becoming more and more common to have entirely prepackaged experiences, and nowhere is this more evident than in tourism. Guided tours resemble Disneyland rides with each passing year, and feel about as authentic as one.
One means of escaping the tourism machine is by becoming your own tour guide. There is enough information available online to create your own tour from scratch, especially if you plan on visiting well-trodden destinations such as the Algarve. You can take a bike ride East to West along the coast, grab a bite at a local restaurant, get to know the natives while on the road, and finally stay the night at one of the many available guesthouses along the way. Or if you want to go the semi-traditional route, you can book a stay in a larger resort, and take yourself out on the road from there. I use Sunway as my agent when traveling to Portugal, and they have not yet failed me.
Buy Local Products
Globalization has made it possible to consume the same kinds of branded products no matter where you are in the world. You can have a Big Mac and drink a bottle of Coke across all longitudes and latitudes, which is great if you have a penchant for a particular snack, but be aware that using products of multi-national corporations is often at odds with supporting the local economy of your destination country.
So instead of going for the proverbial default menu, try to experiment a little with your daily purchases. Many local markets stock items such as seasonal fruit and vegetables, hand-made cosmetic products, and clothes from local materials, potentially at a lower price than their supermarket alternatives. If you want to make your journey especially memorable, try eating only local-sourced produce for the duration of your trip.
Travel is increasingly becoming a standardized leisure activity, to the detriment of both the tourists, as well as the natives. The social element of travel is quickly disappearing, leaving only environmental damage in its wake. To counteract this tendency, a more reflective approach to travel is required, one that is based on remaining in touch with our surroundings, as well as with each other while on the road.