There seems to be a trend in certain circles towards introspection in travel, towards soul-searching, towards self-discovery as the ultimate goal. People travel to attain mindfulness, to "live in the moment", to see themselves for who they really are.
And that's great and all. But to me there's something more important than looking in when you travel, and that's looking out.
Mindfulness is a great thing if it means you're considering the places and the people around you, if you're seeking to learn from the world about the world, if you're paying attention to your surroundings.
My advice: forget the soul-searching. Forget the introspection. Be mindful of this.
Your effect on local people
Do locals actually want you in this place you've just turned up? Are you louder than everyone else? Are you drunker than everyone else? Are you dressed in a way that's completely different to all of the locals? Every traveller should be thinking about the effect that their presence has on local people and local communities. If you're bugging people, you should be aware of it. And do something about it.
Your effect on tourist attractions
Don't kid yourself into thinking that you're a traveller, not a tourist, and that you're doing this thing right and not harming the world in the way all the other clueless idiots are. If you're at Angkor Wat, you're damaging Angkor Wat. If you're part of the crowd at the Colosseum, then you're just part of the crowd at the Colosseum. One more body on the ground. That doesn't mean you shouldn't go to these places (though there are plenty of excellent alternatives). It just means being aware of the way you act and the effect it will have if millions of other people do the same.
Your effect on cities and places
Where are you staying on this trip? In a hotel or an apartment? Which part of the city? What's that area known for? Your presence – and the presence of other visitors like you – will have an effect on the place you're staying. Maybe it will inject much-needed money into the community. Maybe it will help to bridge a cultural divide. Maybe it will drive rents up and force the people who are the fabric of the community out to somewhere else. These things are worth considering.
How much money you're spending
Everyone wants the "local price". It's a point of pride for a lot of travellers to be able to haggle local vendors down to an approximate version of what everyone else is paying. But do you really need to do that? Or could you part with a few extra dollars every now and then? Could you put your pride to one side for a while and just pay whatever you personally can afford and would be happy to part with, instead of what everyone else is paying?
Where your money is going
It's hard to understate how important it is to think about where your money is going when you travel. You're spending a lot – but who gets it? Does it go to local operators in the country you're visiting? Does it go to local vendors? Does it finish up in the economy of the place you're in? Or does it all go to a large foreign company – a cruise line, a tour company, a travel agency? The latter is not helpful at all to the people whose homes you're visiting and whose country and culture you're altering.
How much you're flying
It's so easy to find yourself flying an insane amount. Airfares are cheap these days, particularly with budget carriers. Getting around the world is easy. And so you book in a two- or three-week trip and suddenly discover you've got six or seven flights to catch, zipping around from place to place. That's too much. Flying is terrible for the environment. If you want to be mindful, be mindful of how much environmental damage you're doing.
If your help is really needed
So you want to volunteer when you're overseas? That's great. But ask yourself: do you really have skills that are required in the place you're going? Are you performing a task that no local could possibly do? Are you experienced in the field you've just put your hand up for? Is the company you're planning to volunteer with a non-profit organisation that's transparent about the use of your money? All of these things matter. Sometimes it's just better to give money to the right people, even though you won't get the buzz of directly assisting.
What do you think travellers should be mindful of when they're away? Do you think about these things when you travel?
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