7 Tips for Conscious Travel: Do Good as you Step into the World
In the US, fewer than 50% of citizens hold valid passports, and even fewer actively use them. Taking a step out into the world is life-changing. Whether you're going to take a yoga course, vacationing, or putting on your backpack for an unknown adventure, you are leaving the comforts of your home and community for a new place, people, and culture. In every trip, you discover new things about yourself and the world that surrounds us. Release fear and go - take these steps!
Regardless if you’re a seasoned adventurer or traveling for the first time, we can all bring awareness into those steps in each trip. The importance of the consciousness of your path is two-fold: you want to represent your country and foreigners in general in a respectful light AND you want to show respect to the culture and corner of the world you find yourself in.
It takes more than good intentions to be a positive impact on the places we visit. Showing respect and awareness are basic pillars. So as you take these steps into the world, here are 7 simple guidelines to follow to be a conscious traveller in love and respect for all:
Yes, this seems simple and silly. But even if you come from the biggest city where people do not look at each other, open yourself to the possibility that you’ve come to a part of the world where people still know each other on the street. Smile at others when you walk by, even if it feels strange - you are in their home! Notice how the energy changes when you smile at someone as you pass rather than looking away and down. Bring on that connection and gratitude!
2. Be Aware of Local Dress.
When we travel to other parts of the world, often times the contrast in style and clothing is the most colorful and exciting difference we see. I’m not saying that you need to dress in traditional attire, but at least note the subtleties of the cultural dress. For example, in Guatemala, women wear long dresses because the legs are meant to be covered in respect. This doesn’t mean that you need to only wear long dresses, but you also don’t need to wear that mini skirt - or as has been known to happen - just a bathing suit when walking around an indigenous village.
Choose a skirt that goes down at least to your knees. In Bali, the shoulders and arms are meant to be covered when in a ceremony or celebration, so skipping that tank top won’t hurt! On the other hand, in some places such as Costa Rica, everyone is in a tank top! So be aware of your surroundings. We can show respect for other cultures and traditions by simply honoring these simple guidelines for dressing respectfully.
3. Notice what people have and don’t have around you.
This is rapidly changing. When I first moved to Guatemala 9 years ago, there was no wifi and not even many cell phones in the villages. Cameras were (and still are to some extent) rare for anyone from the village to own. I realized that as someone from the outside, coming in and flashing my new iPhone or fancy camera furthered that divide between those who have and don’t have. Now, in much of the world, it seems that everyone has not just a phone but a smart phone. So I now take my laptop to cafes and use my phone in public places; yet, in some parts of the world, this example can still be true.
Use of technology is a simple example of this guideline, yet it runs much deeper. Our eyes can be opened to new ways of life by noticing how others live. For most of us, that can be most evident in our attachment to material objects. Traveling to the corners of the world where people live differently can be a beautiful lesson in Vairagya - one of the Yamas in the Yoga Sutras that urges non-attachment. Witnessing another way of life reminds us that we don’t need external objects to be truly happy.
4. Understand bargaining and know the local prices.
Bargaining is interesting. When I’ve gone with local women to the market, they just bargain away to get the price they know is fair. That is different than when I see a tourist bargaining with a local producer down to almost nothing. There is a delicate balance here between paying too little and too much. So often, producers end up selling their goods at below their cost of production because they need something, anything for a meal that night. In working with local artisans, I have found that figuring out their production cost is rarely done. When we consider the cost of materials, what it took to get it to the market, and their time involved then this all adds up. Sometimes tourists take bargaining as a game or a challenge, forcing prices so low that the seller actually loses money on the deal. Not to mention the way their humanity and self-worth can be affected by a pushy foreigner.
Paying too much can also have equally harmful outcomes raising the cost of the local good for locals as well. If a producer can sell something to a tourist at 4 times its value, then why would they lower the price so much for someone from their own village? This especially happens in tourist offers: tours, packages, shuttles. Know what is fair in the local context. Paying more or giving out large tips perpetuates the belief that all tourists have all the money and will easily give it, which perpetuates begging and the feeling of those who have and those who don’t. So how do we walk this fine line?
Ask around to different vendors to find the general price for that handmade lace dress you’ve got your eye on. It may be something so unique that it’s worth it - but If everyone is selling a similar dress for the same price then that’s probably fair, so don’t try to pay half.
ather than starting as low as possible for the price you want to pay and demanding that, try asking, “What is the lowest you can go?”. I find this effective and considerate. The price always goes down and you’re not undercutting what is needed by the seller. Likewise be alert for merchants who might be price gouging. Usually guidebooks or the internet can give you a sense of fair prices for transportation or other general services in an area.
5. Support Local Establishments.
In many tourist areas there are expats who own and run businesses. As somewhat of an expat myself (whatever that may mean) I support others’ following their passions around the world; yet, it is also important to be sure that foreign run businesses are not taking opportunities away from the local residents. You are the one that makes that decision with your dollar (or whatever currency it may be).
Although it might seem like a noble thing to tip a local waiter well, it can be even more empowering to eat at locally owned establishments where the money supports local entrepreneurs. This keeps the money in the village, where they will spend it again on local employees and in the local market. Their success encourages others in their community to create their own businesses.
6. Understand what it means to Volunteer.
It is always humbling to realize how many people wish to volunteer their time and energy to help the local community where they are traveling. Sometimes this can be done in a productive and effective way; yet most of the time, volunteering is less than helpful or even harmful for a community. There are hundreds of great articles about volunteerism and its negative effect on the world so I won’t go into detail here.
The best thing you can do if you’re looking to give back is to seek out a trusted organization run by locals and ask them what they need. Remember - just because you walk away feeling good about helping doesn’t mean your passing service will have any effect on the local situation. Most of all, what you think a culture needs may not be what it needs at all. Stay objective and open-minded. Seek guidance from locally run organizations or at least those who have lived and worked in the community for a very long time.
7. Learn to say Hello and Thank You - and use them!
Make an effort to learn just a few words in the local language. Even if it’s just Hello and Thank You, you’re making an effort to open yourself to the other culture. Don’t be shy, sometimes the best connections come from trying to speak and communicate, and then laughing at each other for mispronunciations. Those are true connections that extend beyond words and into hearts.
In every step you take, notice your impact on those around you. Keep your eyes open. Release judgement. Show respect. Dive into the unknown. and HAVE FUN!
Jessi lives and teaches in Guatemala for half of the year. Six years ago, she founded JUSTA, a holistic network that connects indigenous artisans, global designers, and projects that promote self-sustaining development, creative expression, and holistic empowerment within family and community. Learn more about JUSTA here.
Jessi, along with her husband Zach, are also in the process of creating a Holistic Retreat Center, Seven Springs, in her mountain home of East Tennessee. Seven Springs is a place of natural abundance and cultural diversity where people learn how to create holistic sustenance for themselves and their communities. The space seeks to provide an innovative and transformative space for local and global communities to experience high quality holistic education. Retreats offered vary from yoga, massage, natural medicines and foods, creativity, social innovation, team-building, eco-building and permaculture.
Learn more about Jessi and her offerings here.