I sometimes go on weekend treks in the Sahyadris (the Western Ghats)....short breathers from the chaos of hectic city life. In one such trek, a young couple (in their 20s) while taking a short rest, opened an energy bar and threw the wrapper in the surrounding forest. When reprimanded by the trek guide, the young chap said apologetically, “what to do....it’s become such a habit.”
I will not get into a tirade as to how throwing wrappers around has become a ‘habit’ for educated youths but these very ‘small’ habits can make a huge impact on the places you travel to.
Last year I went to Arunachal in Sept on a volunteering holiday and met some of the friendliest people in India including Tapi Mra (an Everester). The teenage girl who took care of us in a lovely homestay in Tawang told me that it’s difficult to deal with tourists from the plains especially the Bengalis because of their constant cribbing and demands.
In the first instance, you are adding to the pollution and environmental degradation while in the second, you are not only not understanding the local community or culture but also creating a bad impression of yourselves and others who come after you.
The joy of travel is when you see a place or destination from the eyes of the people living there and from accepting what nature has to offer you.
Here are a few things you can do or not do while travelling to make it meaningful for all.
1) Reduce your carbon footprints – Yes, it’s difficult to do so now a days when most of us do not know till the last minute whether we are going for that vacation or not. But guess what, no one is indispensible....hence with careful planning you can prepare for that trip well in advance. Take a train (I can already see the look of horror in the eyes of my well to do friends), a bus or a shared jeep. Not only do you reduce your carbon footprints, but you get to experience so many interesting things. Walk! That’s the best way to see a place too.
2) Try and stay in places which are environmentally aware – There are many places which have destroyed hillsides and forests and called themselves eco-friendly. Avoid such places, however beautiful they are. For example, do not stay in a resort which is in the core area of a National Park and throws parties at night for the guests.
3) Give back to the community – There are many enterprises and organisations which offer homestays. They work with the local communities, give back to them and are environmentally friendly too. This way you can experience the local culture and food first hand. Oh yes, you get luxury homestays too (for those who think that homestays mean sleeping on cots). See links below.
4) Accept a place as it is – Stop demanding. (if you haven’t got something which you were promised, then of course you can). If you are used to certain luxuries of home, then I suggest you stay there. Understand the geography and culture of a particular place before you start yelling for more. Remote places like Arunachal or Ladakh might not be able to cater to your constant need for hot water. Accept it.
5) Go for local cuisine and products – It will help boost the local economy and also help retain the local way of life. And anyway, what’s the fun of having aloo poshto or thepla in the mountains or a desert when you can experience a warm thukpa or a super hot laal maas!
(a traditional Kumaoni hut)
6) Be eco friendly yourself – If you are staying in a hotel for two or three days, then make sure that housekeeping do not change your towels and bed sheets every day. Yes, you like a spic and span place but do you change your towel and bed sheet everyday at home? Also I really do not understand the Bisleri fetish these days in most travellers. Most hotels and even homestays use filter (Aquaguard) which makes water safe for drinking. Yet people will buy bottled water and then throw them out. What I usually do is carry my own bottle and keep refilling them from the hotel filters. And guess what? I am alive and well without any major water related disasters during my travels. (* The water related advice is not for foreign travellers)
7) Be responsible – of your surroundings and other travellers. I cringe when I hear of large groups going to a forest, drinking and creating a ruckus. Stay quiet in places where silence is the best way to be. As a woman I feel uncomfortable when I am with people who drink themselves silly on a holiday. It’s difficult for boys to wean themselves away from the bottle....so if you really have to drink, then do so in private.
8) Volunteer – why not combine giving with a holiday. Of course, you will have to work and stay in really basic places. But on the other hand, you get to see what real India is all about, contribute to the cause you like and travel to places where you will never go otherwise.
9) Get adventurous only if you know what it entails – Trekking, rock climbing, biking etc are all becoming a fad. Many people attempt it without knowing what to except. I have heard of a story where a girl in the group didn’t realise the difficulty of the trek or the lack of amenities and after three to four days she got herself airlifted by spending around Rs. Five lakhs. There are dos and don’ts while going trekking, cycling etc. Understand them well.
10) Leave the world as you saw it – don’t spit, don’t litter (no, not even a wrapper of a chewing gum), don’t fight, don’t shout, don’t crib, don’t cry. Simply travel with your heart.
If you are interested in genuine homestays, check out Rural Tourism Network Enterprise, Culture Aangan, Uttrakhand Tourism, Grassroutes
For a list of places where you can volunteer while on a holiday check 40 places to volunteer. For those interested in wildlife, you can volunteer with Satpuda Foundation
For an adventurous holiday, go with Odati Adventures who have a strict environmental code and a deep love for nature.