Responsible Travelling – Part 1

In a way, this could be titled ethical travelling, but I would like it to cover cultural issues as well as environmental and other ethical concerns. I don’t particularly like proselytising, but I think that we all need to be responsible for our actions: it makes for a happier world for all concerned.

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So, in no particular order…

Trekking

First of all, when arranging a trek, please try and have a look at the ethical policy of your chosen company. Nowadays, many have a policy of ensuring that porters are properly paid and treated, food is sourced wisely and money makes its way back into the local community. The guides / cooks / sherpas or what-have-yous should be trained to ensure that the environment is treated with respect during the trek. Personally, I feel that from a selfish point of view it makes sense to choose a company that follows these guidelines, because I feel that I will be treated better by them, too. It should not be much more expensive, either.

Secondly, it is not all up to them. One of the most important things we can all do is avoid littering villages and countryside as we trek. Apart from the unpleasantness of spectacular scenery ruined by plastic bags and used loo paper, we can hardly criticise local laxness in this area if we are guilty of the same ourselves.

Deforestation is a major problem in the mountains now, which can only get worse with the effects of global warming. Consequently, anything that we can do to minimise the burning of wood is important, so please do not insist on unnecessary fires to sit around or warm up. You should have brought sufficient clothing on the trek for that. And it seems a minor thing, but if a group of trekkers turn up at a tea house and insist on lots of different dishes, then that will involve a lot of extra firewood to cook them. Try and have the same dish, if possible.

Shopping

Ah, yes. Such an important part of our visit, really. The ultra-cheap clothes, the amazing antique statues, the cheap religious paintings…unbelievable bargains, compared to what we would pay in the west…

…and rather a minefield, unfortunately. Those cheap imitation brand names, as we should all know by now, are usually produced in sweatshop conditions, conditions that would often justify being described as ‘slavery’. As well as being, usually, rather inferior quality. Difficult to avoid them all; after all, who is to say we shouldn’t be buying those attractively embroidered ‘I did the Everest Trail 2017’ or suchlike t-shirts for the equivalent of a couple of dollars?

Well, there is a world of difference between the genuine sweatshop (if I can use such a phrase) and the family sitting around their sewing machines under a tarpaulin beside the stall producing their goods. The latter may be working hard for a poor return, but may be infinitely better off than those with no work and certainly better off than the sweatshop labourer who will earn far less, in conditions far worse. Even today, unfortunately, some of them are bonded labourers.

The antiques…if you go to the Kathmandu valley, you will in many places find the remains of religious statues that have been stolen from their sites beside roads or outside temples. These statues usually find their way to the west to ‘collectors’, or may be sold off to tourists who know no better. In many countries you will need an export licence from the authorities to take antiques over 100 years old out of the country simply to attempt to prevent this sort of desecration. Invariably it is possible to buy modern copies of these items – handcrafted and as beautiful as the originals. It is better for everybody if the traveller contents themselves with these, not least because the smuggler can be hit with a hefty fine or prison sentence. It is also worth mentioning that many of the ‘antiques’ are fakes, in any case.

And the religious paintings. Again, in Kathmandu, Thankas, the paintings that hang in temples, are frequently offered for sale. And again, if genuine, should not be sold. They have probably been stolen. Wherever they are offered for sale, however, there will be bright new paintings for sale – equally beautiful, well made and far cheaper. Spend your rupees on them and support the craftsmen that make a living that way.

BIG or small?

Staying with the shop theme, it seems fairly obvious that by buying from the little shop rather than the supermarket you will be far more likely to be putting money back into the local community. All well and good. Inevitably, though, it is never quite as straightforward as that. Moving south across the border to India, we may find that in the market that we are searching for souvenirs, as well as local traders there may be traders from Tibet or Nepal, Kashmiris and dealers from the city. How you wish to spend your money may pose a dilemma that I cannot solve for you. But at least give it some thought!

The same situation can arise with hotels and trekking companies. I feel that in that situation, the small company or hotel is likely to get my rupees, since, unless I know otherwise, they are more likely to put money back into the local community.

Water, water everywhere…

…but most of it comes in plastic bottles which end up littering the environment, or refilled by unscrupulous rascals with what could be contaminated water, to be sold on again. Avoid this if you can (not always possible, I admit) by taking water purifying tablets and using the local water – read the instructions carefully to see exactly what is required – or using the boiled and filtered water available in some places (See info in places such as Lonely Planet guide books). If you buy plastic bottles, scrunch them up before disposal to prevent their re-use.

In some places, such as Ladakh, you can find environmentally minded laundry shops, where the soapy water is disposed of properly, rather than just poured into local streams. May they prosper and multiply!

 

Plastic Bottles of Water

Plastic bottles of water.

We buy plastic bottles of water.

Why the bloody hell, at least in the west, do we buy plastic bottles of water?

And, hang on a minute, before we even start wondering why we pay stupid amounts of money for a commodity that is virtually free, we even pay for those silly little contraptions on the tops of the bottles that you grip with your teeth, pull, and then, if it works, and doesn’t just break off, enables you to squirt the water through this nozzle into your mouth.

All of this just to save you unscrewing the cap and taking it off.

The dreadful labour of having to unscrew the cap.

And taking it off.

Perhaps that is why we buy the bottled water – to save us the bother of turning a tap and holding a glass beneath it to catch the water.

Really?

So why do we do it?

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It costs…well, tap water is all but free. For example, in California tap water costs one tenth of a cent per gallon.

In the UK my local water company charges £1.248 per cubic meter, which is 220 gallons, for water. This makes it just over half a penny a gallon.

Bottled water? On sale in my local supermarket for £1.50 for 3 litres. On special offer. There are approximately 4.5 litres in a gallon, so this costs out at £2.75 per gallon, which is approximately 550 times more expensive than tap water. Or, if you like, you are paying under half a penny for the water, and almost the entire £2.75 for the plastic bottles.

Feel good about that?

Me neither.

Perhaps the bottled water is far superior to the tap water?

Nope. Sorry about that, it’s not.

First of all, approximately half of it comes from the tap in any case. Yup, that’s right. The company that flogs it to you gets it from out of the tap.

And as for the rest, tap water is subject to more stringent quality and health standards than bottled water is, in any case. In tests on water in the USA last year, tap water came out better.

So are the huge, multinational soft drinks companies who manufacture these things doing it for our benefit?

You bet they’re not. They’re doing it because they can see an easy and gigantic profit.

We could do worse than talk to our old friend, Mr Satan Moneyglutton, the anonymous CEO of a major soft drinks company, at this point.

‘I honestly don’t know what you’re whingeing about. You want convenience, don’t you? What could be more convenient than pouring all of your money into our coffers?

‘Tap water is so yesterday. It’s inconvenient. We have declared war on tap water. When we’re done, tap water will be relegated to irrigation and washing dishes.

‘And we are working hard to persuade restaurants not to give tap water to diners, but force them instead to purchase our bottled drinks.

‘It is helpful, of course, that most towns and cities seem to have stopped building and maintaining public water fountains, thereby forcing the thirsty citizen to purchase a canned or bottled drink.

‘Furthermore, with the spread of those nasty windfarms and tidal power generators, the future for oil as a source of power is, sadly, looking a wee bit unhealthy.

‘Clearly, there’s no point in leaving the oil in the ground where it’s of no use to anyone, so it makes sense to step up the manufacture of plastics which, incidentally, will make me even richer.’

So, there you go.

‘Nice bottle of water, sir? Only £1. And would you like a plastic bag full of air with that? Only £1.50.’

Don’t laugh – it’ll happen soon, I’m certain.