Thoughts on Sustainable Travel

After a couple of years on the periphery of the travel industry, last October’s second annual Travel + Social Good Summit inspired me to jump back in with both feet. As an indie solo traveler for most of my life, my instinct has always been to avoid the consumption-orientation of a lot of tourism. But the couple-hundred travel professionals at the Summit showed a level of enthusiastic  participation normally absent from regular, marketing-heavy travel events.

I had found my people.

Since then I’ve become a co-founder, with a small gaggle of others, of the New York chapter of Travel + Social Good – one of about a half-dozen other charter chapters worldwide. Our mission is “Building a community and sharing stories to inspire change in the way we travel.” In short, our goal is deliberately yet infuriatingly (at least for me) vague. But the idea is to attack the problem from both sides, targeting travel professionals but also using media to change travelers themselves.

(Though really, on this second point, we’re just riding the wave of what Millennials appear to want, and also what their Gen-X elders once wanted. At least we said we did….and I think we still do. But perhaps I’m an outlier, speaking only for myself. )

Anyway. Specifically, our chapter wants to take advantage of our location in the US media hub to try to steer the conversation in media away from their standard service pieces (10 best beaches in Bonaire!) toward a more authentic narrative, including stories of social good in travel. We’re going to do this not by starting a new media company (AFAR and others have already done so) but to sort of pitch and publicize stories that groove on what we’re saying.

So what the hell do we mean by social good?

Personally, I think “social good” in travel has some distinct but overlapping facets:

  1. Offerings that are an extension of a traveler’s personal social responsibility already practiced in everyday life. This means eco-friendly options for hotels and tours (e.g. bike instead of bus, hanging towels instead of getting new ones every day, etc.), filtering local water instead of buying bottles, and other eco-sustainable choices.
  1. Sustainable offerings specifically related to travel: Destinations that practice sustainable tourism development (e.g. Costa Rica); encouraging travelers to eat & stay at locally-owned establishments; tour operators that respect/support rather than exploit/destroy local culture, custom, and wildlife; giving travelers the chance to buy carbon offsets for flights; and so on.
  1. Teach tourists how to be a “good” traveler (the don’t-be-an-asshole rule): Asking before taking photos of people, respecting local customs and mores (e.g. covering shoulders and/or hair in certain Muslim countries/districts); being open to trying new food, drinks and experiences; learning a word or two in the local language; not handing out candy/other stuff directly to kids – but most importantly, actively and opening engaging with the local population as humans.
  1. Actively engaging in some specific “for good” activity: e.g. donating supplies to a local school, volun-tourism (if a particular program has been proven effective/useful – I tend to be deeply skeptical), taking part in beach cleanups and similar activities…
  1. On the provider side, “social good” encompasses not only the operators used as examples above but also local governments and tourism development operations, which can be done in a sustainable manner…or not. Connected to this is the notion that a local government can choose to exploit resources not for tourism, but for other economic benefit (e.g. dynamite fishing or trawling vs. snorkel/scuba tours, cutting down forests vs. nature tours or birdwatching, etc.).

Tying all this together is the idea of tourism diplomacy: the nature of exchange between responsible travelers and people at their destination. If travel is done “well,” then both sides come away with an authentic, personal understanding (both positive and negative) of each other. Based on my personal experiences, a lot of good for the global society can come from these ad-hoc exchanges.

A Brief, Wondrous Time Shared with Wes Nations

I met Wes Nations on a cramped, dusty bus in northwestern Vietnam, somewhere between Sapa and Dien Bien Phu. That was the time he saved me from peeing my pants.

We foreigners had been packed into the back of the bus, with luggage and linebacker-sized sacks of rice separating us from the Vietnamese riders (and the door) up front. Out the window an endless, muddy construction zone rolled by, like the backdrop to an old cartoon. It was the Vietnamese wild west: hastily-built replacement villages for those doomed to be flooded when the Ron River was diverted. Half-built shacks with tin roofs and tarp walls and bricks piled high in the yard. Chickens chasing under laundry hung across dank puddles. Kamaz earth-movers temporarily blocking the road. Our bus bucking like a bronco.

Ten hot, slow hours later, I was desperate for a wee. The bus stopped briefly in a small town to let off some passengers, so I asked the driver if I could hop out for a minute and find a place to squat. He waved his hand as if to shoo a fly, avoided eye contact, and shook his head. “No time!”

“I’ll just be a minute,” I pleaded.

“No time.”

Whether it was my furrowed brow, the fear of sitting in a hot bus next to a woman wearing urine-soaked trousers, or just innate Southern gentlemanliness, Wes stepped in and convinced the driver to let me go. I don’t remember now what he said, but I was struck with his simple, no-nonsense reasoning. The gist was: Dude, don’t be a jerk. Just let the woman go pee. It was very Jedi-mind-trick.

“Go ahead, darlin’,” Wes said, turning to me. “I’ll watch your bags.”

My memory insists that he nodded and tipped his cowboy hat at me. Except there was no hat.

I got to know Wes Nations while riding motorbikes together around central Laos. I was to rendezvous with him and Stu, an Aussie Wes had met along the way, in the sleepy village of Tadlo. When I arrived, I found them on the little balcony that their rooms shared, with their feet up on the railing, drinking beer and watching a wide, gentle waterfall slide into a lazy river.


Wes and his Macbook on the veranda in Tadlo.

The next day we set out for Sekong, a small town up on the plateau. Wes and Stu were experienced riders, and I was nervous about being a burden. I needn’t have worried. We took things low and slow.

Wes was good-natured, patient and self-deprecating without being obsequious. He was about 6 foot 1, 40-ish, bald on top with very close-cropped grey stubble in a half-ring in back. Then there was the light grey soul patch, which not very many people could pull off as naturally.  He was a photographer and travel blogger with a great talent for telling stories – he called them “lies” – and capturing moments beautifully on camera. He had that slow, thoughtful calm of certain American Southerners – an ideal disposition for traveling in Laos, whose unofficial official quote is “Please Don’t Rush.”


Wes toppin’ up at the the petrol station.

Stu was a slightly grizzled Australian on his way home after spending 8 years working and traveling around Africa. He was shorter and more muscular than Wes, with a thick pile of straight grey hair that was receding slightly at the forehead. His demeanor was slightly intimidating in the way of cowboys and old-timers with experience etched into their faces. It took about a day, but once Stu realized that I wasn’t going to be a squealing, high-maintenance pain in the ass, we both relaxed and got on great.

For 5 days we three rode over red earth, under blue skies, and through the relentless green hills of the Bolaven Plateau, avoiding ruts in the dirt road and waving at energetic children shouting “sabaidee!”  The inconsequential but colorful events of those days – when we took a wrong turn, got caught in the rain (twice), danced to karaoke in an ill-camouflaged brothel, saw a half-dozen or so remote waterfalls, had my flip-flops stolen, nearly broke a leg riding down a near-perpendicular hill of scree, searched for The Ancient Stone, found and stole back my flip-flops, ate one of the top-5 meals of my life (for about $2 per person), rode to a town called “Buffalo Shit,” laughed about the proprietor of one of the hotels offering them (not me) “massages,” and…well, it was five days filled with the sort of moments that are typical while backpacking, while slow-traveling, while doing something as simple as riding bikes between tiny, remote villages.


“Mysterious Nature’s Heritages”, including the Ancient Stone.

These moments seem more vibrant, more critical, more important than most of the others during my 17 months on the road. Perhaps it’s because many of those months were spent traveling alone, and moments shared are somehow seared more deeply into memory.

But I think that these moments are more meaningful because they were shared with Wes and Stu. Their travel mojo meshed well with my own: There was something unassuming in the way we all traveled – drama-free, yet still adventurous and worthy of late-night storytelling.

It’s a testament to Wes, who was the magnet that brought the three of us together in that time and place.

And now he’s gone.

Some evil, lightning-fast disease struck its target with terrible efficiency, and carried away that Southern gentleman before I even knew he was sick. He’s just…gone.

I can’t ask him to help me remember our travels more clearly. We can’t trade lies and laugh. I’m left with my personal version of the story, unembellished by his wry grin, and duller for it.


Wes in the mist.

Coming Home (pt 2)

Home. Andrassy 19. My last flat in Budapest. Searching for the familiar old creaky door – I hope I can sneak in – I find in its place a glossy black replica, thrown wide open, flanked by potted lollipop topiary and a doorman in a dark suit and earwig. György Gattyán, who made millions on a popular porn website called LiveJasmin, has transformed my building into an impossibly posh clothing store – Giorgio Armani, Bottega Veneta, Valentino and Oscar de la Renta. He named it, quite cheekily, Il Bacio di Style (the Kiss of Style). At least it’s not il Eiaculazione di Style.

I pass through the perfumed air pumped onto the street and cross the threshold. I am sweaty and red-faced and wearing shorts and Tevas. I expect to be escorted out immediately, but the muscle only nods.

What was once dark and soot-covered is now brightly lit and painted a creamy white. All the cracks in the stucco have been smoothed over. In the courtyard two impeccably dressed attendants sit behind a glass case filled with designer sunglasses. The walls emit soothing Euro-style easy listening.

I take the elevator to the fourth floor, where I once lived. Inside the car, there’s a small flatscreen display and more perfumed air. The doors glide open and I step out. My neighbor’s flat – the one facing Andrassy – now sells men’s apparel. Two murmuring young attendants in dark suits smile and nod “hallo” to me. I remedy my slaw jaw and nod back, passing through backlit displays of crisp suits towards my front door.

My apartment now houses a pair of escalators. The “down” escalator starts in my bedroom – where, on their first mission, thieves once stole my beloved but not particularly valuable currency collection – and passes through my living room on its way to the 3rd floor. The “up” escalator starts in my teeny kitchen – where the same thieves, on their second time in my apartment, stole Tupperware, for lack of anything else of value – and crosses through my living room on its way to the top floor, where there is now a chic café/restaurant with views of the Basilica. And that’s it. No longer a place to live or linger, it’s a place from which you must move either up or down.

I return to the wide stairway and start down. After two flights I realize that muscle memory has kicked in. My legs know precisely how many stairs per flight and how high the risers will be. Descending the last flight I pass another patron, on her way up. She’s about 40, maybe 45, but her leathery face betray a tougher life than my own. Her hair is cheap bleached blonde. Tight, short, white cotton dress, with a peephole at the neckline from which protrude freckled, size FFF watermelons. I suspect she is a former, not current, employee.

On my way out, I take a picture of the Pink Panther statue.


The next day’s walking tour of the 6th district finds surprising reminders of things forgotten: metal frames from broken window shades protruding awkwardly from a concrete-block building. Signs advertising Dréher, Borsodi, Soproni. The sharp, spicy aroma of a TV paprika. The 12-foot wide sidewalks on Andrassy, and the 2-foot wide sidewalks along cobbled side streets. The electric hum and rumble of the villamos along the körút.

For the first time in years, I’m gripped by a sudden compulsion to write…and don’t stop!

The crumbling, grey walls are painted with street art, with graffiti. Cafés, photography shops, kerts, and quality – it all add up to a tension and electricity that inspires creativity and seems almost…well, optimistic. My memories of Budapest are of dark cellar sörözö pubs, choked with cigarette smoke, packed with young people hunched over pints of beer. The pints remain, but now they are being drunk at ground level, outside, in “ruin pubs” (aka kerts) that have been tastefully and quirkily decorated to thoroughly out-hipster Brooklyn. By kilometers.

I wander the boiling streets compiling a list of things same and different. Same: air quality. Different: ability to buy “emergency chips & salsa”. Different: little to no dog shit. Same: crumbling walls, soot, graffiti. Different: very cool street art. Same: see-through dresses (though not so many), short skirts, cleavage. Different: an abundance of Thai, Mexican, Indian restaurants. Different: a fair sprinkle of brown-skinned people. Same: strip-tease bars, “szex” shops. Same: acrid cigarette smoke everywhere.

There’s a new modernity, a level of style, that was absent when I lived here: rare or unavailable comforts  like yoga studios, salad bars, well-made clothing. All this has been sprinkled on top of the same old city, fixed into place with a coat of clear varnish.

Behind every window, in every courtyard, lit up along the river at night, live possibilities, stories to be invented and told. Perhaps these ghost-stories are what attracted me to this place so many years ago, and still do.

I find myself checking listings as I pass real estate offices: 24 million HUF for an 80-m2 flat? I quickly convert that to $100k for an 800-ft2 apartment. Not bad, but not exactly cheap. I can swing that if I sell my place in Brooklyn. Would I live in the 7th district, which is the center of all the nightlife but also all the packs of drunk Brits on lads’ weekends? Or else maybe the 6th, or 5th. Certainly not Buda again! Actually what would be nice would be a view of the river. Someplace on the top floor, of course, to avoid stomping neighbors.

The next day I keep walking, in the other direction, down Dohany utca, then on Kossuth to the rakpart along the river. I feel like I’m searching for some lost thing that I can’t define until I find it. Jégbufe, where it takes expert Hungarian and 4 bouts of standing in line in order to get a cake and coffee. The Astoria Café, delicately restored with chandeliers and red velvet, which should feel majestic but somehow remains dusty and lost in time. The way Kossuth ut seems to splinter apart as it approaches the rakpart.

It’s as if I’m exploring a city from a recurring dream, familiar yet foreign. Any moment now, the world will stop spinning for the briefest millisecond, everything will come into focus and I will know, wholly and completely, precisely where I am, my unique place in the universe.

But that never happens. Not really, anyway. Instead I rediscover a regular city, one dancing with the ghosts of memories.

I no longer become teary-eyed at the sight of a zöldség gyümölcs. I just go in and buy strawberries. It is now quite normal for me to see Tamás (or Tamás) for a coffee. The voice on the radio saying things like “következö” no longer elicits shivers. I get csokolom’d, and it’s all good.



Coming Home (pt 1)

It begins at the gate, straining to pick out the familiar combination of ö and ú and cs and zh from the babel in the airport corridors. But this is a Greek airline, flying from Athens. All I hear is ψ and λ and η.

It’s at Ferihegy that I get my first taste: Üdvözöljük! I wander the arrivals hall gathering snippets of conversation, seeking not to overhear or understand but to absorb the music of ë and ői and gy. I examine the faces of the baggage handlers, in their red and green jumpsuits, for telltale signs of Hungarianness. I don’t even know what I’m looking for. Try as I might, I find nothing.


From the back seat of the sweltering taxi into town, I crane my neck and scan for familiar landmarks. The road has changed a bit, and my memory is hazy. Everything looks new, different: large structures of tinted glass, advertising space for rent or lease; a stadium that may have been there before, but must have been renovated. I’m frustrated, seeking the payoff of a burst of familiarity, love.

But this is not my Budapest, this no-man’s land of industrialness surrounding the airport. I ease off looking for specifics, and again listen for the tune. Signs: Csemege. Nonstop. Sörözö. Cukrázda. ABC. Each of these simple words constitutes a new layer of delight. I realize my hands are clasped tightly together and I am grinning hard. Never before have I been so excited about a convenience store. Üllői ut. Müemlék. Szigony utca. The buildings are as grand and soot-grey and crumbly as I remember. The sidewalks are cracked, dimpled by tree roots.

Múzeum. The grand staircase leading to the Hungarian National Museum. I finally know where I am. “I never went to the museums as much as I should have while living here,” says my brain to itself. We’re in heavy traffic. It’s stifling in the back of the cab. I can barely breathe. Károly körút. Deák Tér – jaj! I don’t recognize it. There’s a new greenway dotted with evenly spaced trees that have been manicured to resemble lollipops. The old bus station – long a humongous boarded-up pit of nothingness, is now a green space with cafes and young people lolling. And bike lanes! Are those really bike lanes? My brain reels with the possibilities, still just wisps of thought, of the gritty, edgy Budapest of my memory overlain with modern conveniences like bike lanes and green spaces.

At last, the taxi pulls over and the driver delivers my bag to the curb in front of a building on Andrassy, where I am meeting an old friend. It’s just a few doors down from my last Budapest address. Standing on the wide sidewalk on the grandest boulevard in Budapest, my heart races, swells, leaps into my throat, all at the same time. I want to embrace the buildings, to kiss the pavement, to press my face against a Hungarian structure. Instead I pay the driver, and tip awkwardly – I have forgotten how it’s done; you’re supposed to tell the driver the amount you want to pay (including tip) and he gives you change. I am deliriously flustered. My eyes tickle and well up. I take some deep breaths, a moment to compose myself.

Coming home.

Ode to Eressos

I’m walking along the narrow streets of ‘pano Eressos late one Monday morning. Chatting with cousin Fani, I’m overcome by some strange yet familiar sensations. My throat feels more open, and more air can flow through my trachea. There’s also more room in my chest – room for my lungs to balloon and stretch, as if waking from a long hibernation. 

The muscles around my mouth relax and feel almost buoyant. They draw my cheeks and lips upward, causing the corners of my eyes to crinkle. 

My heart wriggles and then creeps out from its cave along my spine and into the great room of my chest cavity. Its quadrants expand away from each other, like those polymer toys that quintuple in size when placed in water. 

I feel larger yet much lighter, floating across the cobblestone alley.

Oh right. This is joy. 


A thin, sweaty line

The moment I shrugged and got in the taxi, I knew things had turned.

I had been told that the ride from Cancun bus station to the ferry port would cost 40 pesos (about $3.50). When I question the 70 pesos quoted by the taxista, he points across a busy traffic circle to a shared van. Faced with the option of hauling my heavy dive gear and over-packed bag 50 meters to save $3, I choose ease.

Backpacking, especially for an extended period of time, dramatically adjusts internal economics, the value of things. Yes, you absolutely haul your gear 50 meters to save $3, because $3/day saved over one year equals an extra month of travel. These transactions seem insignificant on a daily basis, but will have lasting effects.

But now I’m on vacation. I’m not backpacking. Yes, I’m staying in hostels and eating relatively inexpensive street food. I’m refilling my water bottle for free instead of buying a new one. For the most part, I’m hauling my dive gear instead of taking a taxi. But after three nights in a sweaty corner bunk in a 10-bed dorm, getting eaten alive by mosquitoes and sleeping and average of 3 hours/night, the prospect of hauling my gear that extra 50 meters to save New York City pocket change seems impossible, if not foolish.

I shrug and get into the taxi.

A claustrophobe. Underwater. In a cave.

OK. Technically the part of the cenotes I dove are “caverns,” not caves. All this means is that you can see light/an exit to air. But still, as a human with a fear of getting stuck underwater with no way out, diving through an underwater cave (sorry – cavern) was kinda a big deal. One must be so careful these days.

(“…Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days….”)

So yeah. Today I dove the “Dos Ojos” cenote. And it was amazing. And I didn’t freak out even a little bit. Oh – and I didn’t die by water.