Responsible travellers give back to those people who help them on their travels, but it doesn’t have to cost anything. It takes just a little time to put them on the map with our blogs and social media apps like Geotourist.
The familiar Facebook message pops up on my screen., “ I miss you Mom.” Another one soon follows, “ Hi Liz, how are you?.” Then there is the weekly email received from a Pastor in a remote village of Nagaland, “ Hello where are you now? We are praying for your safe travels.”
Some days, it is a test of my patience to reply to the many greetings I receive on social media. But then I remember.
A feeling of discomfort, even guilt overcomes me as I remember.
The sun is setting quickly on the highlands of Nagaland as we ride the muddy, potholed road still a tantalising 20 kms, another hour, from our destination. Within the clouds, we make the ‘sensible’ decision to descend into the valley below, where we can just glimpse a small village. Local spear-carrying men stare at us uncomprehendingly when we ask for a guesthouse. We ask the question despite knowing there is little little reason for tourists to venture here.
Soon a crowd gathers.
Finally, an English-speaking woman steps forward to say we can stay with the Pastor.
Following her, we are lead to the large church perched high on a hill and we lug our gear through the mud towards the Pastor’s house wondering what situation we have got ourselves into.
Stepping inside, we are instantly warmed by the open fire and the welcoming smiles of the Pastor and his young family. We have walked into the Gingerbread house of the fairytales.
In this forgotten corner of India, where the roads are barely passable, strangers give us a warm place to sleep and a banquet of fresh food; respite from the incessant rain.
The next morning, the locals smile and wave at us. The men with their spears pose happily for our photos.
12 months later and we are still receiving a weekly email from The Pastor.
We have moved on, ridden across many other countries through a kaleidoscope of similar encounters with people from distant corners of the world.
We are drawn to the remote, the isolated, wanting to get to the core of the cultures we encounter. Wanting ‘real’ connections with the people and their landscapes.
For that is why we ride. We are travellers, not tourists. We seek the new frontiers of travel destinations. We have the ultimate means of travel that takes us to places few other travellers have been, to places where ‘outsiders’ are rarely seen, to places where special entry permits are required.
We are the lucky ones. We are the privileged ones.
I have returned from my travels a changed person; new perspectives on the world, new perspectives on religion and new perspectives on my place in the world.
These perspectives emanate from my encounters with strangers. Inevitably, people living in poverty and who live lives without opportunities are the ones who open their hearts and their homes to us travellers.
I have flashbacks of encounters with people from all over the world; a kaleidoscope of faces. A montage of experiences painted with the brush of kindness, hospitality, generosity and an eagerness to give of their time.
I have gained so much and wonder if I have given enough in return.
I feel immense guilt that maybe I am just a ‘poverty tourist’- a white person taking pictures of cute brown kids and leaving nothing behind.
Responsible travel means assessing our impact on the environment, cultures and economies of the places we visit. Sustainable travel aims to maximise the contribution of tourism to the economic prosperity of the host destination.
Independent, long term travellers however, are frugal with their funds. Anything to travel longer. Anything to spend less and grab a bargain. We balk at paying special ‘foreigner’ entry fees to places of interest. Instead, we choose to look from the outside. We camp instead of patronising local guesthouses or hotels.
We love’ freebies’, because that means our travel dollar will stretch for yet another day.
What can we as long-term travellers do to give back to the people who have helped us along our journeys?
Do we remain smug in the belief that we may have been one of the first outside travellers to have connected with villagers in some unheard of part of the world? Do we post pictures of the ‘ unfortunate’ lives of people around the world on our social media sites and watch the ‘likes’ as they come in?
In my conscious effort to travel responsibly, I have given away clothes and gear. I have bought food for my hosts. I have bought phones for individuals and I always, always thank these people profusely.
However, there are faces that come back to me. Faces of people who I know are still denied the basic rights of health, education, shelter and security.
I have returned with a promise to myself.
Perhaps the most powerful way of making a difference in the world is thorough story-telling. Stories evoke emotional and personal responses. It is the most ancient form of education and information sharing.
The rapid proliferation of social media sites and apps employing multi media platforms means that we can all get on board to tell the stories of our travels in a way which can improve opportunities available to all people of the world.
We, the privileged travellers, have the power of the internet and the numerous travel apps available to us to record our trips. Many of us use ioverlander, and
Live trip traveller to record our trips. We post maps, photos and journals. We write blogs of our impressions and experiences. But it is usually about us and our interactions.
It is estimated that by 2020, throughout the world there will be 1.5 million people travelling each year.
Each of us, career travellers, independent travellers, digital nomads need to consider our own personal contribution to sustaining the natural and cultural wonders of the world.
For example, a new innovative app on the market called Geotourist is possibly the app to replace all the other apps we use, including the frustratingly unreliable ‘points of interest’ on our open source GPS devices. This app could be the new, digitized, multi-media Lonely Planet.
The power of this app lies in being able to drop an audio clip whilst on location. It allows us all to be story-tellers and to put on the map: people, places, tours, camp sites and roads to the new frontiers of travel.
Imagine being able to tell the story of the places you visit right on location. Imagine being able to record the voices of the locals you meet, where they can share the highlights of their local area in their own language. Amazingly, the app is available in 21 multiple languages.
In Geotourist, you can create a virtual tour of your travels. Images, maps and audio combine to create your virtual guide book. Fledgling tour groups in developing countries can be “put on the map”. We can fill in the gaps of the giddy and inequitable world of tourism, ensuring those ‘out of the way’ places receive the market share of tourism.
On my travels, I have discovered so many unknown hidden gems. Ancient villages, decaying old forts, significant historical mosques, derelict museums suffering from lack of financial support – too many to even remember.
Too often, I knew I had just ridden past something significant, but it was gone in a flash. Sometimes in the distance, I could see an ancient monument, tantalizing me to detour away from the main road. These relics await the tourist who can put them on the map and draw the next traveller to them. Geotourist can do that. We can do that.
One important aspect about these undiscovered gems is that the locals are incredibly proud of their heritage and ever willing to share their stories. Many times we were told of these secret places and whenever we took the time to find them we were richly rewarded. The locals know their history best and to be able to record their interpretation in situ and send it live around the world can make their place in the world so much more equitable. Geotourist can do that.
It is my mission to create a narrative about my travels; a narrative that encourages other people to find the ‘hidden gems’ of our world. A narrative that, through tourism, can tell the authentic story of the places I visit and the people who are waiting to receive us.
Let us be responsible travellers and share the ‘new frontier’ of travel destinations so that the communities we visit, may share in the global development we are so privileged to be part of.