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Did travel teach us to be better, responsible people?

Or, what we think responsible travel is and why travelling around the world has made us better people (we think!). Also, why we think it’s important to become better, more responsible people of this planet.

Every piece we read about responsible travel, we feel a brooding sense of urgency, to do whatever it takes to protect what we have – ecologically, socially, culturally. Travel has made us aware of this urgency.

When you travel to the magnificent, unbelievable wonders in the far corners of the earth, you get a strong sense of possession

Travel has helped made us see nature in its grand glory.

Perito Moreno glacier, El Calafate, Patagonia

I can never forget the moment we first laid eyes on Perito Moreno, the only growing glacier in the world. Of the size larger than the city of Buenos Aires it stands sprawled across Lago Argentino.

And because it’s forever growing, parts of the glacier sometimes hit a landmass, causing huge blocks of ice to come crashing into the lake waters. It causes ripples bigger than the ocean waves.

The thundering sound is louder than the loudest firecrackers you’ve ever heard. We were so mesmerised by the sight, we realised we were staring wide mouthed at it only when our jaws started to hurt.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

In the Salar de Uyuni tour, we saw wonders which seemed surreal – the green lake and the red lake, giant rocks sculpted by the blowing winds and of course the world’s flattest place – the salt flats of Uyuni.

The muddy waters of the Amazon surrounded by the Amazon rain forest

We spent 10 days over the meandering golden snake – the Amazon river flowing through the rainforest, seeing the life it supported and the earth it protected as it flowed through different countries.

Iguaçu Falls, Brazil

We saw the Iguazu waterfalls, its Devil’s throat amassing gallons of water every second. And when the sun came out a beautiful rainbow appeared over the waterfall as if greeting us warmly.

When you’re seeing these magnificent, unbelievable wonders in the far corners of the earth, you get a strong sense of possession. You aren’t thinking the salt flats belong to Bolivia or Perito Moreno to Argentina.

You are thinking how lucky you are that this-this wonder in front of your eyes is on your planet, on mother earth. You can’t help thinking how privileged you are to be able to see it. It is all yours, all ours and you want to do all you can to protect it, keep it safe and intact.

Travel has taught us to connect with others with whom we have nothing in common

Zebras helping at the zebra crossing in Sucre, Bolivia

We were at a place in Sucre, the capital of Bolivia. We were almost 2 months into our travels in South America and it was in Bolivia that we faced our first major language crisis. Almost no one spoke English, and all we knew of Spanish were the bare basics. We knew chicken was Pollo and entered an eatery that sold only chicken. A girl came to take our order and we said very knowingly, “Pollo, por favor”. Chicken, please. She started asking some questions which obviously we didn’t understand. We repeated, “Pollo, solo Pollo”. Only chicken.

She then pointed to her legs, breasts and made flying actions – she wanted to know what part of the chicken would we prefer. We all burst out laughing, we showed her to get a leg piece and enjoyed our meal.

Cab drivers in Rio de Janeiro have given us perfect directions without a spoken word, insisting they help us because we were new in their city.

Local man from the village Tarabuco, Sucre, Bolivia

An old man in Tarabuco, a village so remote that even Spanish isn’t that common – people still speak their native Quechua language saw us taking photos and playing with some kids in the village. He tapped on our shoulder and directed us to follow him.

Local man from the village Tarabuco, Sucre, Bolivia

Soon, we entered his home. He changed his regular hat into a ceremonial one and then pointed to our camera. He wanted us to take his picture.

Tarabuco, Sucre, Bolivia

Taking his cue, everyone in the family started posing for pictures. When they heard we were from India, they all were all fascinated at having met someone from so far. They all wanted me to pose in their family portrait. One they would never see again. But that family and us will always have that one shared moment.

Understanding one another doesn’t need too much of verbal, written or digital communication. All it needs is genuine interest.

Travel has given us a rare opportunity to form our own perspective

Travel has given us a chance to form our own opinions without having to follow what we read or what others say.

Cholitas carrying their wares up to their houses from the port at Yumani on Isla del Sol, an island on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia

Every picture of the cholos and cholitas in Bolivia and Peru showed crooked brown stained teeth. This happens because they often chew the coca leaves. Coca leaves – the raw material to make cocaine – is legal here and everyone chews it at all times.

Why we wondered when it makes your teeth look like that. Not until we were climbing the 200 steps up high altitude Isla del Sol with these women lugging huge sacks on their backs, did we realise the importance of chewing those coca leaves.

When every breath you take hurts – and you have to do this several times every day to earn a living – it doesn’t matter how your teeth look.

Chatpal, Kashmir, India

Back home, we were trekking up a forest in a village called Chatpal in Kashmir. When we started to feel hungry, our guide brought us to a shop in his village.

“You will get everything here, chips, biscuits, everything”, he said. “Won’t we get apricots or some fruits?”, we asked instead. To which he nodded and asked, “What will one apricot do to fill your stomach? Have chips, it comes from your cities.” We were taken aback at this assumption. We decided it was time to make him aware of the reality. “Chips are unhealthy. It’s good to have fruits and apricots.”

He was stunned, thought for a while and replied, “ You mean, we send you all this healthy stuff to cities and you send us junk instead?” We had to nod and tell him, that’s exactly what happens.

Travel has helped us learn to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes

Before we spent the winter in South America, we didn’t know what “cold” truly meant. We lived in Mumbai, where, we say it’s winter when the mercury hits 18 degrees, 12 degrees is severe winter. One night during the tour of Salar de Uyuni, we spent a night in a remote sanctuary at -20C without any heaters. Though we were laden with 7 layers, the slightest movement would send shivers down our spine.

Now we know what a cold wave does to the people who face it.

Photograph by Chetan Karkhanis

Until we were lost in the forest of Pahalgam at night, when the Amarnath yatra was on – it was only for 10 minutes – we didn’t know what it’s like to be lost in an unknown land with no sign of help.

Earlier, Argentina was just one long country far away. Today, Argentina is where our friends Nico and Laura live. Bolivia is where my Spanish teacher Andrea lives. Machu Picchu is where we climbed up the mountain with our Canadian friend Farzi, discussing the Iranian cafe his grandfather once owned here in Mumbai.

Travel has put us through moments we probably wouldn’t at home. This has helped sensitise us to what’s happening around.

We have learnt to put yourself in the other person’s shoes – simply because we have probably met someone like that other person. Or even lived through, albeit for a while, their life.

Travel has shown us the world beyond what we had known. Thanks to travel, we have experienced life far removed from the kind of life we knew. It has given us an opportunity to act on being more aware and sensitised people of this planet.

What can you do to be more responsible in your travels?

  • Try to make some local friends before you visit. You can do this by joining the city/destination page on social media, groups on websites like Couchsurfing, or even just exchanging emails with the people at the accommodation.
  • Which brings us to the second recommendation – choose a locally run place to stay. They usually operate far more responsibly and economically than the big impersonal chain hotels. You experience the local flavour, help the local economy and often make a new friend from a new place.
  • Make an effort to learn a few words of the local language. Don’t be afraid to start a conversation even though you know only a couple of words in the language. “Having genuine interest” goes a long long way.
  • If you are the kind of person who likes to research a place before travelling, make sure you read from the local media and publications. It might introduce you to a completely new perspective.
  • Another research you can do is about who does good work in the region. Which are the companies that match your travel interest and follow ethical practices? If you are planning to join a tour, can you join such companies?
  • While travelling, we seek answers to
  1. How do the locals of a place live? Why?
  2. How are their food habits, their work, even their culture defined by their geographical location?
  3. What relevance does the history of the place have on their present-day lives?

This usually leads to ways to travel responsibly in that region.

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