The Original Sin of Travellers

I enjoy traveling.  But the more I travel, the more I realise the multiple counts of crimes I committed to nature and to the local communities along the trail I trod upon. There might be ways to reduce the damage I cause, but there is no way to prevent it as long as I still travel.  For this, I plead guilty.

First and foremost, carbon footprint. While one can choose not to fly if there are other transport options on land or by sea wherever available, crossing the Pacific or the Atlantic on a yacht or traversing from Paris to Istanbul by the Orient Express does not seem to be a journey most people ordinarily can afford to do, both in terms of time and money.  Once I took a self-assessment quiz on the carbon footprint emission I was responsible for and found that for all the measures I endeavoured to do at home, I could be crowned an environmentally-friendly champion.  But when it comes to the last question: ‘how many times do you travel by plane every year?’, my carbon footprint score made me one of the worst destroyers of our planet.

Sadly, it is not just carbon footprint alone. Traveling means being always on-the-go seeking out local experiences. It means sometimes you have to run and have no time to sit down for a proper meal.  It also means you would love to sample some of the best local delicacies, most likely found in the street-side food stalls.  At home, it is easy to keep the use of disposable utensils to a minimum, or not at all.  You flash out your container, and the restaurant does as you ask them to do. Voilà! It is not the same case when you are out and about in a foreign country with language and cultural barriers.  You have a whole set of reusable utensils in your backpack ready for a take-away mission. But when you take a box out and ask to have the food put in your own container, it is not as easy a task as it looks. It might be a request they have never handled and do not know what to do, it might be a disruption of their ‘assembly line’ of food prep, or it might simply be that they do not see a reason to take the trouble at all.  You struggle with body gesture or the few words you can manage to deploy to make the people understand, but you fail in many cases.  One hot summer in Vietnam, I drank one after another iced coffee in the many local coffee shops.  Not a single time did I succeed in stopping the waiter stick a straw in the drink.  Either I sounded out too late, or it was one weird request they were not able to decipher.  After a few times my guilt culminated to the extent that I decided to resort to hot coffee instead, no matter how suffocating the temperature was.

Then it was the heritage, the community and the lives of the local people. With a habit of revisiting places I have fallen in love with, I have numerous experiences of getting heartbroken seeing the downfall of one preloved place after another. It is best exemplified by my fellow traveler’s saying ‘Each man kills the thing he loves.’  It becomes more and more apparent to me that love is a curse when it comes to traveling.  I remember the ‘end-of-the-world’ feeling on the day when I heard the news that Cuba would be open for American tourists for the first time after decades of embargo.  I knew then it would be another paradise lost.  I envisioned seeing signs of McDonald’s and Starbucks on the façades of the stylish old colonial mansions in my beloved Havana. My personal history repeated itself in other small towns and communities in which I dreamed of living as a resident one day, such as Hoi An, such as Penang.  There is no more last paradise on Earth, because there is none left.

For many years I cannot reconcile the dilemma of tourism development and heritage preservation in local communities. In many places where the local people are struggling to improve their standard of living, tourism development is certainly the way out.  Take Danang, Vietnam for example, the traditional fishing industry was almost over ever since tourism started to thrive in the young city.  ‘How can you ask the young people to risk their lives earning so little through fishing?  We have typhoons in summer. In the past, dozens of lives were lost every year in the sea.  It is so much easier to work in a hotel or in a restaurant.’, one local lady told me.  ‘But of course, everything becomes much more expensive now that we have so many visitors with deep pockets. But life is still so much better.’, she added.  A few years ago when I first visited Danang, I still saw basket boats lying out on the famous My Khe Beach in the early morning when the fishermen came back with their catch and sold their fish.  In my latest visit, all that I could see was a long stretch of lounge chairs and umbrellas.  The seafood in Danang restaurants are not fresh catch but from fish farms, one restaurant owner admitted. On the road from Danang to Hoi An, paddy fields give way to construction sites for even more luxury hotels and beach resorts. You can’t blame the locals, for sure.  But you can’t blame the tourists either, can you?

Many years ago in an unplanned trip to Lugu Lake, Yunnan, where it was known as the last matriarchal society in China, I was so repelled and disgusted by the hotel signs that emphasized the traditional rituals of courtship between unmarried young men and women of the Mosuo tribe meeting at night.  The implications of casual sex and vulgarity whetted the appetite of tourists with twisted curiosity, but they made me sick.  I wanted to leave the place at once in spite of the dream-like scenery of the lake, which looked more or less faked and unreal against the cruel reality.

Curiosity killed the cat.  It also killed many traditions and heritage.  Optimists would argue that in many cultures, traditions and heritage are preserved thanks to the curiosity of tourists.  These intangible assets would not stand the test of time and would become worthless in the digital era. What I saw in many of these cases, though, is a preservation of the form but not of the soul.  I try to avoid shows and performances by members of tribal groups and local communities when I travel.  But as a solo traveler who sometimes cannot arrange transport to go to places on my own, shows and performances are part and partial to the package if I resort to local tours.  I saw lots of poker-faced performers in tribal music and dance shows.  Even when I met with happy faces, I was doubtful if there was any genuine pride and happiness behind the friendly smiles. In a recent trip to Cam Thanh Island near Hoi An, Vietnam, I was arranged to take a traditional basket boat trip along the tributaries from a fishing village, now turned into an ‘eco-tourism village’.  The itinerary was standard.  I was first installed in a basket boat, then was given a traditional Vietnamese conical hat, after which a bamboo-weaved cicada was put in my ring finger.  I was like a baby being fed with canned food.  Slowly the boat lady paddled along the calm river lined with water coconut trees.  Occasionally I heard birds singing and the water current spreading out around me.  It was all peaceful and consoling. Then I began to hear loud Korean pop music vibrating in the air from a distance. Before I realised what was happening, my tiny round basket was already floating towards the direction.  Beyond a wall of coconut trees, I saw before my eyes a distasteful scene that was so out-of- place with the natural surroundings – a group of middle-aged Korean tourists took a bigger boat as their dance floor and were making clumsy dance moves in the middle of the lake.  But that was not the end of it. My boat was soon gathered with scores of other basket boats. A squeaking amplifier suddenly started with the same ‘Gangnam-style’ music from among one of the boats, and a local guy popped up with exaggerated acrobatic moves following the beat by rounding and circling his basket boat with his paddle.  At this juncture I was elbowed by my boat lady – I was instructed to take photos and I was supposed to feel amazed.  I did not move at first, but I got elbowed again.  So I dutifully clapped hands.  As the performance went on in the same repetitive way, I could see the bored faces of the audiences after a few pictures and some giggling.  But the basket-boat-turned circus continued to run its show for another great five minutes until a few Koreans from the audience finally picked out a dollar-note from their wallets and handed their tips from the paddle to the performer.  We were let go.

With the flourishing economy, the dropping air fare and the relaxation of traveling restrictions, most notably in Asian countries such as China and Korea, together with the accessibility of internet and social media which make the sharing of travel information so much easier, the urge of discovering and exploiting new travel destinations will just grow even stronger. Many travel destinations are already infested with tourists, and are flooded to the rim. People get weary of the places, and they start looking for more exotic destinations less extensively explored. In no time there will be no parts unknown in the whole globe.

And I’m one of the culprits.

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