What years of living out of a suitcase taught me about sustainable travel
Be mindful of your carbon footprint, carry your own toiletries, and definitely don’t Godzilla-climb monuments for the perfect #instapic
It was a dark, cold morning in Spain and I was looking at my suitcase spinning madly on a carousel, with its handle in my hand. The brand new bag had crumbled over the course of two connecting flights. Lugging that bulky sarcophagus through railway stations with no friendly coolis on call made one thing clear to this travel writer: I couldn’t continue jet-setting like Kim Kardashian West unless I had the brawny biceps of Dara Singh.
For someone who hits the immigration queue about 12 times a year, travel still knots me up in anxiety, days before I board a long-haul flight. One look at the state of airports (in the West) and serpentine immigration queues (in the East) makes me long for Aladdin’s magic flying carpet. The discounted vacation package has democratised travel, but also made it chaotic. According to the UNWTO, international tourist arrivals (overnight visitors) reached 1.4 billion in 2018. There are even traffic jams to scale the summit of Mount Everest. While vacations may have begun as a break from routine, people and chaos, the world getting smaller has made travelling that much harder — both for us and the planet,
If your conscious lifestyle is guilting the joy out of your wanderlust, here are a few suggestions that will help you get better at sustainable travel. And not be the tourist that everyone hates.
1. Travel light: I have a huge canvas Delsey suitcase, with a super-light frame and zippers that cannot be broken into. Several brands such as Patagonia, Samsonite Eco-Nu, the Burlap People, Hadaki and others make earth-friendly and light options. Travel with separates that you can mix and match, and carry some resort jewellery to perk up outfits, along with basic make-up. A failsafe formula: keep one formal outfit, a pair of jeans, swimwear and a few tops. Depending on the weather, you can add shorts or trousers, or sweaters. Arrange everything in neat travel bags (I have a nested set of 6 from a wholesale market), with the clothes either rolled up like jalebis or laid out flat.
2. Avoid the crowds: Steer clear of peak summer travel unless you have kids and that’s the only time you can. Resources in destinations are stretched, and unrestricted tourism can be downright dangerous for the residents – pretty much leading to unsustainable travel. Who can forget Shimla’s terrifying water shortage last year? I find autumn and spring the most beautiful seasons to travel, though, with global warming, spring comes in later and winter earlier. Do a thorough check of whether a destination can handle the tourist surge before you book, as you don’t want to add to the locals’ burden and have a miserable holiday yourself. In India, the four-decade-old Ibex Expeditions lead by the irrepressible Mandip Singh Soin has been organising responsible tours within the country while Greener Pastures supports the environment and community-based tourism projects in the northeast.
3. Travel with a weatherproof wardrobe: Global weather patterns are unpredictable. While the climate is pretty uniform in India (if it’s hot, it’s guaranteed to remain hot or reach boiling point), but for the rest of the world, you need to plan your travel with a weather app. Once in the heat of summer in Europe, having checked in to a charming boutique hotel, I realised that it was nearly 40 degrees C outside and a ghastly 50 C inside my tiny room. Most village hotels are often not equipped with air conditioning. I was lucky to nab a table fan for my room, under the nose of other steaming tourists. I now travel with certain essentials to ensure I’m not scrounging around at a 7/11 at midnight for some cheap, disposable gear. I always pack in a floppy hat or a baseball cap, an umbrella, a small fan, a windcheater, a scarf, and sunnies.
4. Caption with care: One of my favourites, now-shuttered Instagram accounts was @JoshuaTreeHatesYou. It posted, named and shamed ridiculous celebs and other odd influenzas cavorting on the spiky trees in California’s Joshua Tree National Park. For that perfect picture, let’s not shimmy on endangered trees, do yoga poses on ruins and dangle off dangerous cliffs. A respectful caption about the history, of say the Sun Temple in Konark scores over the vague ‘Adventure may hurt you, but monotony will kill you’ quote while striking a yoga pose against the setting sun.
5. Buy local: I used to be a cutesy souvenir junkie, but then buying hundreds of fridge magnets in Europe that are actually made in China doesn’t really go with the sustainable travel ethic. Visit local markets and look for artworks and crafts made by artisans, perhaps something with utility value. My recent finds include lacquer wear spoons in Kutch, a beautiful handmade painting of Balarama, Subhadra, and Jagannath from Bhubaneshwar, a delicate harp pendant from Dublin and a lovely crochet TV cover from Budapest. You could also buy herbs and condiments which are safe to carry, or spend on a fabulous experience, like truffle hunting in Italy or foraging in Switzerland.
6. Carry your zero-waste kitchenette with you: Cutlery, napkin, water bottle; bananas, nuts and theplas… all of the above have helped me survive my travel without being deleterious to the environment. Especially when you think of those chip packets which contain six slivers floating in a whole lot of air. Sustainable travel includes ditching all kinds of straws, whether plastic, paper or metal. We’re old enough to sip from glasses and bottles. Bare Necessities has an entire range of cutlery, straws, and other zero-waste products to carry with you.
7. Voluntourism is the new vacation: Whether you’ve signed up for a course on permaculture in Kodaikanal at Roundstone Farms or Karuna Dham, reforestation in Auroville at Sadhana Forest or learning yoga in Mysore at The Shala, learning a new skill lets you sink your teeth and toes into a way of living that many urban dwellers are unable to experience. If you don’t have too much time to commit, a beach clean-up such as the Mahim Beach Clean-up or a heritage walk with companies such as Calcutta Walks or Heritage Walks Calcutta gives you a glimpse into other cultures. It’s easy to attach a lofty meaning to an experience like this, but if the earth teaches you something, it is humility.
8. Offset your carbon and plastic consumption: As much we would love to travel carbon-free and not use any plastic, sometimes you just have to. Rather than beating yourself up with guilt, there are various companies that let you offset the impact of your travel. Companies such as Terrapass help you offset the miles you’ve clocked while travelling the globe. rePurpose helps you go plastic neutral, by ethically recycling each kilo of your plastic consumption by removing ocean-bound or landfill-bound plastic, tackling the mostly ignored multilayer plastic (think chips packets) and Styrofoam.
9. Go paperless: Everything should be paperless, including your ticket, insurance, hotel reservations, books and even cups. That also means you need to guard your phone/ tab/ laptop with your life, and don’t forget a battery pack. Also, if you have picked up newspapers and magazines at the airport, don’t discard them in the bin. They come in handy for packing and you can always give them to the kabbadiwala when you return.
10. Carry your own toiletries: I know the great pleasure that comes from raiding hotel toiletries, but face it, unless you’ve checked into a palatial retreat, the quality of your bathroom staples is far superior to what’s in those itty-bitty plastic bottles. You get the silicon squeezies all over, fill them up and travel with them wherever you go. Use products sensibly — you don’t want to be slathering on a chemical-laden waterproof sunscreen when you’re going snorkelling in a sensitive coral reef zone. Today there are dozens of coral-friendly options, such as All Good, Alba Botanica and Baby Bum.
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11. Support responsible travel companies and accommodation: Green practices are being adopted by many hotels, travel operators and airlines in a bid to encourage sustainable travel. It’s important for a business to be run ethically, its employees and the local community treated well, and the environment looked after. Beware of greenwashing. If you want bells and whistles, there are several resort chains such as Soneva, ITC Hotels and CGH Earth that uphold the green badge, but also choose B&B and homestays such as ecobnb.com and homestays and eco-camping options at Glamping Hub which are the most sustainable options and support local economies. It is difficult for airlines to go completely green, but some that are keeping their carbon footprint low are TUI Airways, United Airlines, and Cathay Pacific.