Monday, June 04, 2007

Loathsome travelers and tiresome wild elephants and a weary laundress

Summer vacation planning season is in full swing.
I am told about various itineraries by jolly customers who visit my workplace. Also getting filled in on summer travel plans from neighbors, friends and colleagues.

Overhearing enthusiastic exchanges between others as I walk through parking lots or into the grocery store...

And at the hairdresser? That is the worst. It is pure hell. Poor hair stylists, they really catch an earful of this nonsense, all day long, every day.

Some of the chatty travel-planners are overflowing with anticipatory excitement, others just sound aggressively boastful.

No matter what their attitude, I am not sharing the excitement.

The travel industry is booming. Yet lately any kind of travel seems both decadent and frivolous. Nobody else seems at all doubtful about whatever they are plotting. Except me. What about you?

The Laundress is not making exotic travel plans because she is already lost. Trying to sort out truth from hype about travel issues is confusing.

What do you think about social and environmental issues concerning travel? Have you modified or changed vacation patterns from previous years because of ethical and environmental issues?

Do you leave tips for hotel maids?

What kind of travel is acceptable and ethical, given the state of the world and the state of the tourism industry?

How do you identify "ethical" travel? How do you recognize greenwashing of travel issues?

Greenwashing of food has been well-covered in the media. The rules for ethical eating seem simple enough: try to buy locally grown foodstuffs, buy least-processed products that you can use, preferably in recycled and recyclable packaging. Best of all is unpackaged.

Vegan is the better choice, followed by vegetarianism. Organic greatly preferred. If you must eat flesh, be sure it is humanely raised and cage-free (although "cage-free" has become hugely controversial, due to rumored abuses that shelter under that term!)

Slow Food seems to be a good path to follow. The Small Planet Institute has been and continues to be a trailblazer. Always consult your Seafood Wallet Card.

Do suburban laundresses actually follow any of these guidelines? Well, this one tries to, but... Nah, no paragon of virtuous non-consumption here. I do diligently and religiously obey my seafood wallet card though!

Do the principles for ethical eating apply to travel too? Stay close to home, travel in the most environmentally-responsible way that one can manage and afford? How do the lifestyles of suburban Laundresses and their families -- and yours -- fit into all of this?

To set the record straight: The Laundress is not a sophisticated traveler.

My childhood travel consisted of long annual road trips, in rusty station wagons. My family would drive from the Midwest to New York, to visit grandparents. We always took our dog. Slept on air mattresses in the car. Had a cooler packed with apples, Wonder Bread and Smucker's Goober Grape (a special luxury food only allowed during vacation!) Good times.

My favorite, best-ever travel memory involved taking an Amtrak to Cleveland in 1983. No shit. Yep, my vacationing pinnacle. It was the trip, not the visit that I really enjoyed.

But I currently live in a neighborhood of tourism elitists. Luxury travelers and holiday one-upmanship abound.

Children (and their parents) around here go to Norway and Iceland for the summer for enriching travel experiences. Neighborhood kids and parents have been on safaris in Kenya and Tanzania. Retirees show off photos of their holidays doing polar bear observation in Churchill, Manitoba and bird watching in Antarctica. Meet "fascinating natives" in remote areas of distant countries. A couple down the street flies to NYC every other weekend for a little R&R, catch a show, eat a nice meal. Others go to London for a concert, to Paris to see an art exhibit. Culture is anywhere but here.

Sideline conversation among parents during elementary school soccer games: whether Carnival or Princess offers a better "deal" on their cruise package.

This is bothersome. These are people who have not visited most neighborhoods in our metropolitan area. They have seen wild polar bears and hippos and puffins.

But they do not know what a rose-breasted grosbeak looks like, even though they can hear them singing in their own front yard. They are worried about coyotes, scared of foxes and annoyed by woodchucks and raccoons. Some even find our fascinating and handsome opossums repulsive. Can't tell a mallard from a merganser--they are both just "ducks". Rarely to talk to anyone outside of the same socio-economic class in everyday life. Don't attend excellent local theater or visit funky rural art galleries. I think this is seriously messed up!

The Laundress and Mr. Laundress are as guilty as the rest. We hauled our children on overseas vacations. Highlights included meeting a really nice poodle in a park and discovering some lizards on a rock. We could have achieved these pinnacles of experience at home, if we had tried.

We are all trying to repress the MANY low parts. Like visiting the Musée Océanographique de Monaco (ooh, so eco, was going to get in touch with my Cousteau fantasies) with crying, tired children and getting nipped by a hostile French bulldog sitting by an equally cranky old man in the museum cafeteria. Educational? Multi-cultural?

Kids like to stay close to home. Believe me, there is a whole lot we all could learn in our own backyards!

I have an acquaintance who is very amusing and friendly. A guy I like. He is funny and kind. Lived for years in Eastern Europe, speaks several languages: a worldly sort of fellow. He visited Thailand for about the tenth time, a couple years back. Came home seriously vexed. He said the whole country of Thailand is overrun with "tourists" (not "travelers", such as himself?). He was riding an elephant through a jungle and ran into several people he knew from our local (Midwestern) civic club, on an ecotourism elephant trek. In a Thai jungle. They were all riding on elephants.

Yep, you too can go on an informative Phuket Eco-Adventure tour. On an elephant. With your kids and family. The kids will probably whine. One or two adults will no doubt find the elephants smelly and the drinking water dicy. Toilet facilities may be unpleasant, or worse yet, uncomfortable. One or more of the elephant handlers/tour guides may be a real card. Yep, just about anything may happen in the wild and wacky world of international, multicultural travel. You might even have a chance to actually talk with the people who own the home next door to you!

Gristmill ("a blogful of leafy green commentary") has a post discussing a Forbes magazine article. The post, More from the 'I got mine' school of environmentalism is well-written and provocative -- and the comments on the post fascinating. See what you think!

No big surprise that Forbes ain't exactly environmentally friendly, their reportage is probably the antithesis of green journalism. Hell, they have a regular feature called Travel Envy ('nuf said?) But while visiting Forbes site, another article-- one on luxury wildlife tours-- caught my eye. It contained this delicious statement (italics added by yours truly):

To the supremely well-traveled--people for whom coming face to face with an elephant is no longer a thrill--remote and endangered corners of the world have become increasingly appealing. What’s more, the recent uptick in international travel, and interest in ecologically sustainable tourism, has resulted in a new approach to wilderness touring.
See? It is not just the domesticated, trekking elephants that have become mundane. Sighting a wild elephant is also no longer thrilling, for some jaded world-weary travelers.

The article points out that the Nature Conservancy is now associated with luxury travel service agency, Abercrombie & Kent. Their corporate partnership is proudly launching Great Adventures to Great Places.

Whoops. I almost sent some of my hard-earned dollars to Nature Conservancy. Didn't know they are corporate sell-outs, like the whale-eaters over at Greenpeace (another cherished charity that has fallen from grace?)

Which brings up that recurrent sticky issue for the rudderless Laundress (who has no travel itinerary whatsoever), what IS "green travel"? What is ecotourism aka sustainable travel anyway?

The Guardian has a recent article which brings up the ambiguities and lack of consensus on the terms and definition of ecotourism. The article did not clear up anything for me, just provided lots more food for thought... see what you think, read Shades of green

Another recent post on Gristmill, Is greenwashing good for you? raised a point that I wouldn't have come up on my own:

...We certainly won't combat global warming or other environmental concerns by ramping up our consumption -- green or not green -- or by convincing consumers that buying from "green" companies is all that they need to do to save the world -- the goal of most of these ad campaigns. But another important victory might be won: the hearts and minds of voters.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has information on sustainable tourism, Environmental Impacts of Tourism at the Global Level.

Tourism Concern is a British site committed to ethical travel and to reducing negative social and environmental effects of tourism. The site sponsors campaigns to improve tourism-related problems:

The last thing any of us wants is to have our holiday plans interrupted by the thought that there are serious problems for people living in the destinations we’re going to visit.

The fact is, however, that in far too many places, things are going horribly wrong. Often these things aren’t visible to the traveller, but often they are. When we get harassed by locals in poor countries, it’s usually because they aren’t accessing any real benefit from our holidays. It’s demeaning to them and uncomfortably demanding on us.

By campaigning we raise awareness of the issues and make the case for change.

Well, to my cynical eyes, one generalization that seems safe to make about people is that the more "traveled" someone is, the more closeminded they seem to be... Nope, not broadening or deepening anything, especially not yourself when looking for it in other countries, on foreign lands, while on a two week holiday.

Talk to your neighbors while standing around on your own local streets. Get familiar with the amazing world of nature in your own backyard. Meeting up with neighbors elephant trekking in Thailand (when you aren't Thai and aren't an elephant) is NOT admirable or worldly. Just sad.

Useful ecotourism advice and information is available at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

My plea to everyone: stay home this summer and live in the place where you reside.

Blast away?


Awesome Mom said...

Sorry Laundress but I have to travel to see my extended family who I love very much. Plus my husband and I are planning on a cruise to Mexico this fall. I am not giving that up for anything.

If you read Omnivore's Dilemma he has a very good argument why meat is not all that bad for the environment. If we were all to go vegan then we would have to blanket the fertile land with crops for us humans and that is not really a very efficient or environmentally sound way to grow food.

The Laundress said...

Aw, Awesome, travel to visit family is not something I have any gripes with... my dismay is with people who want to see and touch and consume "exotic" parts of the world for their own satisfaction and without respect for the people and creatures and plants that actually belong there.

Your anti-vegan argument is fun! Actually, I think the fertile lands are going to be blanketed in crops raising corn for biofuels.

A cruise though? Shudder. Of course, as constantly pointed out, not exactly in step with popular fashions...

Awesome Mom said...

Yup which in turn will be sucking up more gas than a car would be.

Cattle and other herbivores are much more efficient at getting energy from plants than we are. That is the harsh reality of an omnivore, we can eat a lot of different things but none of it is as precisely used as it would be if a specialist eater consumed it.

We picked a cruise because we have limited travel time (cant leave the kids with grandma forever) and they are not as expensive as planning the whole thing on your own, driving or flying to wherever and then staying at hotels and buying meals seperatly. I think of it as mass vacation transportation.

I am not so sure you should be so down on travel as it is a great way for us to have more respect for people who live in different situations than us. There is something different about seeing differences with your own eyes. Reading about them does not have the same impact. It is through travel that people connect and maybe we will all come together as a planet to do some good.

The Laundress said...

Poor Awesome,

I am not at all down on travel.

What troubles me is how ubiquitous foreign travel has become as a status symbol -- and the more "exotic", the "better".

Trophy vacations.

Trophy vacations that use lots of energy and other resources, pollute the planet and maybe damage a delicate ecosystem while simultaneously exploiting indigenous peoples = increasingly FREQUENT suburban "bragging rights" travel.

I do NOT think cruise ship vacationers gain any sort of "respect" or understanding for the people who live on the islands and other locales where cruise ships visit. The ships disgorge their masses to ogle and trample. Then dump vast amounts of untreated sewage and float away...

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