You all know we like to keep it fun here on the blog, but we also want to make sure we’re giving you the travel tips and resources that will help you most when you’re on the road. Justin and I started UncontainedLife.com because we believe being a mindful traveler leads to better experiences—better for you, for the people you meet, and for the places you visit.
Being mindful means you are aware not only of yourself, but of your environment, and the other people around you. In some ways, then, being a mindful traveler can be seen as something akin to practicing the proverbial “golden rule”: travel unto others as you would have others travel unto you. But what does being a mindful traveler mean, practically?
Here are some tips to help you in being a mindful traveler during your next adventure!
Respect Local Cultures and Customs
—Avoid rude gestures (which, of course vary from culture to culture) and body language which are at odds with local manners and traditions. In Thailand, for example, it is considered a faux pas to point your feet toward a statue of the Buddha or to fail to stand at attention whenever the national anthem plays. Just 5 minutes of research will give you a basic understanding of what kinds of behaviors you ought to avoid while visiting a given destination. And your efforts will be greatly appreciated by the locals you encounter!
—When appropriate, learn local negotiation tactics. If bargaining is a part of the local culture, study up on when and how it is proper to negotiate.
—Dress in accordance with local standards (particularly at religious sites) and otherwise avoid disrupting daily life in the places you visit. If you’re not entirely certain what is considered “acceptable” or “normal” behavior in a given situation, don’t be afraid to ask. Alternately, take a couple of moments to observe what locals are doing before acting yourself.
Engage with the People you Meet
—Do your best to learn some of the local language and be open to opportunities for cross-cultural exchange. Free language-learning programs like Duolingo can make mastering foreign-language basics fun and simple. (And, of course, having a good translation app like iTranslate is a great help as well.)
—Avoid treating locals like they are just there to serve your needs. Even when you are dealing with a member of the “service industry” (a waiter, a tour guide, etc.), ask for help rather than demand it.
—Mindful travelers should recognize that people who are going about their day to day lives are not tourist attractions (I.E. there for visitors’ entertainment). Here’s what we advise when taking photographs of locals in public spaces:
—When you’re in close proximity to someone who you wish to photograph, engage with the person you are photographing. (Smile. Introduce yourself. Ask questions about what they are doing.)
—Treat your subject with respect, and ask permission before snapping away.
—Ask parents’ permission before photographing minors.
—In crowds and when photographing from a distance, do you best to avoid taking and sharing photographs that you’re confident would make your subjects uncomfortable. (Ask yourself if you would want the wide world to see you doing X.)
Protect the Vulnerable
—Be wary when you are invited to tour an orphanage or visit a slum. Sadly, there are many organizations and institutions which profit from the exploitation of poverty. Research any and all organizations you choose to support thoroughly before handing over your money or visiting a vulnerable community.
—Do not give money to beggars—instead, give (money, supplies, or your time) to reputable local organizations which help the poor help themselves.
—Avoid bars and other businesses which make their money from the sexual exploitation of local women. “Bar girls” and other sex workers you’ll encounter in third world countries are frequently forced into sex work by a combination of cultural and economic oppressions which negate the idea that she is acting freely when “choosing” this line of work. (Often, girls who are recruited from country villages come to the city to be “waitresses” are completely unaware what they are signing up for—and by the time they find out, they have incurred “debts,” which they must work off if they want to leave.)
—Avoid zoos and other attractions where the welfare of the animals is not paramount (in SE Asia, for example, beware of Tiger Temples).
—Avoid participating in activities which harm local environments. Bali’s Full-Moon Parties for example, have become infamous for trashing the beaches and adjacent oceans where they are held. Instead, book tours and activities which are eco-friendly and socially responsible.
—Make use of reusable water bottles and utensils to minimize plastic waste.
—Dispose of trash and cigarette butts properly and recycle whenever possible.
—Use public transportation, or, better still, walk or bike around your destination.
—Spend your dollars at locally-owned accommodations, restaurants, and stores. Book locally owned-and-operated tours and activities. Also, spread your spending out, if possible, amongst a variety of these businesses.
—Support local artisans and businesses which give back to their communities (for example, businesses which buy locally-produced food and drink, which support local charities, which hire local staff and pay fair wages.)
—Avoid businesses which make use of child labor. There is, of course, a difference between a child helping his or her parents in a non-strenuous capacity in a family business environment and exploitive child labor. That being said, if a child’s education is being sacrificed in order that they can be put to work, that is a harmful situation. To report an abusive child labor situation, go to www.interpol.org or go to www.thinkchildsafe.org for lists of local hotlines (listed by country).
Ultimately, remember, when you are traveling you are a guest in someone else’s house. Be sensitive and respectful, and you’ll find it’s easy for you to be a good neighbor wherever you go!