Can we travel sustainably?

In short: I don’t think so. Even if we explored our home country by bike or foot, lived in a tent and off locally grown vegetables – we would still be leaving traces.
But we can make it more sustainable.
I follow a vegan diet, buy my food at the farmer’s market and the bulk store, all organic. I try to produce as little waste as I can, I switch off the lights when I leave the room and unplug electronic devices, I go to university by bike and buy my clothes from fair and sustainable companies – and still: If everyone lived like I do, we would need 2.5 earths. Because I travel. By plane.
Transportation, meat production and the clothing industry are the biggest factors in climate change.
But what if you’re like me and think that to know what Nepal is like, you have to there? That Thai food can only be tasted in Thailand? And that Baltic music must be listened to in the Baltics? What if you’re one of these people who think, like me, that some things can only be learned abroad, some experiences can only be gained in other countries and that nowhere can we learn as much (about the world and ourselves) as when we’re travelling?
Then we can try to do as little harm as possible.

"Take only memories, leave only footprints" is still valid, everywhere. So let’s take a look at what we can do. When I talk about sustainability, I mean harming the world as little as possible; that includes our entire environment: nature, animals, people.

1.       Transportation

Of course, travelling long distances by bus or train always has a better CO2 footprint than taking the plane. I would never take a plane from Munich to Vienna. But if it “has to be” a plane (I’m flying a lot this year and feel increasingly bad about it), at least there are some projects to compensate your carbon footprint, like You can donate a sum to the organization that supports environmental projects.
And when you’re at your destination, use public transport! It’s cheaper, more authentic, and better for the environment than a taxi or rental car.

2.       Waste.

I will never forget and always, everywhere, recognize the smell of burning plastic. In Nepal, they would burn the trash of the day every evening in front of the house. Who would not be scared by the thought of those toxins released into the air we breathe? Especially in developing countries, the disposal of trash (plastic!) is still a big problem, while at the same time, the awareness that it kills wildlife and will still be plastic in 400 years is just not there. So how do I avoid the plastic waste?
Basically, the same rules apply as at home: I bring my own bags to the market to buy vegetables. Containers for take away food. Always have your own refillable bottle with you and find out where you can get drinking water: is tap water safe? Perfect! Are there refill stations? Can you use a filter or ask for water in restaurants? I also always carry cutlery with me – mine is made from bamboo, so it weights almost nothing and is awesome if I get street food. And as in Thailand literally no drink comes without a plastic straw, I also now have a reusable straw with me at all times – sometimes they don’t understand my “mai aow lod” – “no straw” and then I can just show them.
bought mangoes in a cloth
At home, I always have a coffee-to-go cup in my bag, but in Thailand, it turned out too small for the drinks I get. One of the vets in my first placement gave me an insulated big ice tea mug with a lid that has a hole for the straw. It’s an awesome thing and will keep my tea next winter warm for as many hours as I have those ice cubes now!
The reusable unbreakable cup doesn’t only come in handy when you’re in a hurry or at the airport. You can also use it on board! Many stewardesses are actually happy when you give them your own cup for your beverage.
And, by the way, you can take your reusable water bottle through the security check empty, and refill it on the other side, so it’s no problem taking it in your carry-on!
Your “reusable stuff” doesn’t have to be as fancy as mine. You can use the plastic stuff that you couldn’t avoid on day one, of course! Plastic cutlery and bottles are stronger than you think, and I always wash cups and plastic bags and use them again. Not too long, though, they will start leaking toxins into your food…
And if you’re a girl, think about switching from tampons to a menstrual cup, it won’t only reduce your waste massively, but also save you money!

3.       Food. 

Meat production is one of the biggest “climate killers”, as mentioned above. But in addition to that, animals suffer – and people. If we would give all the crops that we give to animals to grow them into food to the people instead, we could feed all of them. The space for growing enough grains for all humankind is there. This alone should keep you from eating meat. But if it has to be meat, consider chicken instead of beef, it takes only 2kg of crop to make 1kg of chicken meat, a much better outcome than cattle.
I don’t really want to talk about male baby chicken being killed and calves taken away from their mothers here, but being vegetarian just isn’t consequent, if we want to save them, we should be vegan. But this article is about travelling, so I’ll leave it at that.
Only one more thing: Consider the water usage for animal products and what we could do with it if we all ate a plant-based diet!
The best thing to do, of course, is to eat what grows where you are. I love that I can get fresh coconuts and mangoes every day in Thailand!
When you haven’t had the street food, you haven’t been to the country, in my opinion. And if you know exactly what it is, it’s not real street food!
grilled banana with coconut sauce
I try almost everything that people want me to try, as long as it’s (supposedly) vegan. That way, I’ve so far found out that people dye some sort of pancakes green with the pandanus leaves and eat them with cotton candy, that raw mango with chili sauce actually tastes better than it sounds, and that I’m allergic to jackfruit.
The cheapest and best, but definitely most authentic food can always be found in the small restaurants away from tourist attractions. A tiny place full of locals in an ugly street? Go there! Not only will you get the better taste of the country you’re visiting, but also you’re supporting the local economy instead of some big chains.
And don’t be afraid that you’ll get food poisoning! If you’re in a third world country, don’t drink the tap water, refuse ice cubes and peel the fruit. Meat and raw vegetables are more dangerous than cooked veggies. So stick to those. I’m lucky to have a strong stomach and have never had any problems, but one thing is for sure: If you eat, what the locals eat, you’re safe than if you go for Western dishes! The local food is requested more frequently, so it’s fresher, and they know better how to store and cook it – so the quality will always be better!

4.       Water

I’ve talked about drinking water, so let’s talk about what happens to the waste water. Of course, we don’t want to waste water anywhere in the world, so we take quick showers, turn off the tap while brushing our teeth, that old story. Most developing countries don’t have a sewage system like Europe, so all the chemicals and toxins that we pour down the drain will end up in the environment unfiltered. The pipe from the kitchen sink in the house I currently live in in Thailand ends on the other side of the wall – and the water oozes into the ground right there. If you can see what happens to the water like that, it sure makes you think about the things you flush away! I use the same bar of natural soap for my skin, hair and laundry, but if I go to Asia again, I will also bring a more natural dishwashing detergent. All of our products like toothpaste, shampoo, and so on, should have as few chemicals as we can find, and contain no microplastics.
By the way, the pipes in many Southeast Asian countries also can’t deal with toilet paper, let alone other stuff like tampons. You have to put it in a bin. But better, of course, would be to use the provided bidet – it’s not only better for the environment, but also more sanitary!

5.       Culture

We travel because we want to get to know a different culture, right? So now we use the same means of transportation and eat the same food as the locals. Don’t stop there! Engage in conversations, ask questions. Maybe you have the chance to “be more than a tourist”, for example by volunteering (in animal shelters, soup kitchens, construction projects after natural disasters,… just be careful with anything that makes you work with children and wildlife, but this would really be too much for this post now) or a placement or semester abroad? Instead of staying in a hotel, maybe you can find a homestay or use Couchsurfing, to get in contact with the locals.
Respect the culture. Follow the rules. Dress appropriately – in most Asian countries, it means you should at least cover shoulders and knees, when you visit religious buildings, but it would be most polite to wear long skirts or trousers all the time and no tank tops. No-brainers, really. Some things you will find in the travel guides, and some not. For example, here are some things that were new for me when I came to Thailand:
Stand in line they can, the Thai! Not necessarily on escalators, but before entering a skytrain or subway in Bangkok, make sure you queue up where the lines and arrows indicate you to!
You take your shoes off, when you enter a flat or a house, but not only private homes, but also temples, doctor’s offices, some rooms in public buildings, hostels, small stores and pharmacies, even some restaurants. Before you go inside, always check the area around the entrance for shoes – if you see some, take yours off, too. They won’t be stolen, trust me. Often toilets (usually in restaurants) have “their own shoes” that you should change into.
Oh, yes, public toilets: they may or may not have their shoes, but what they almost never have is toilet paper. I’ve mentioned the bidets before, but if you want to stick to the paper, there are three options: bring your own (having some in your daypack is always the safest option), or there is a big roll near the sink, most Thai people take it from there before they enter the stall, and third, for example at big tourist attractions or in bus terminals there is a “service fee” and this includes toilet paper, so basically you buy it upon entering.
Oh, yes, and there is the fact that basically, you can’t walk for more than 500 meters without someone asking you if you want a ride. Even if you can’t really communicate where you or the driver are going. Somebody will always want to drive you.

I could talk for hours about how to reduce waste and save water, about food traditions in other countries… but for today, I’ll leave it at that.

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