How to Travel if You Care for the Earth

This story was originally published in Conde Nast Traveller. It is republished here as part of News18.com’s partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more 250 media organisations to strengthen coverage of the climate story.


Covering Climate Now on News18.com

I remember going on school trips as a 14-year-old. Backpacks bursting at the seams with clothes, trekking shoes and food provisions. Classmates on either side, excited faces leaning over from the berth above, Uno cards flying everywhere. Tiffin boxes with pooris and pickles to last the 3-day train journey from Bangalore to Delhi and then upwards into the wild, silent, majestic Himalayas. Of the 4 week trip, one week was spent just getting to and from the remote mountains. It was spent drinking as little water as possible so I didn’t have to use the frightening train toilets that threatened to suck a small teenager right on to the tracks. It was spent pitching tents, sipping on rations of hot chocolate powder packed carefully to fuel cold, dark, early mornings and walking for miles as the sun came up and the snowcaps glistened gold.

Travel has very quickly started to look very different. We do not have days to spend on a train to paradise—we prefer weekend getaways to the Maldives and heli-lifts to basecamp. Our love for the incredible beauty of our wild planet is undiminished, but ironically, that very beauty and biodiversity is under threat thanks, in part, to the way we travel. Air travel releases huge amounts of carbon emissions. Add to that the single-use plastic in-flight—disposable cutlery, mini mineral water bottles, socks and headphones wrapped in clear plastic packets—and our love for nature quickly becomes one of the greatest threats to it.

Ten years ago I came to the Andaman Islands—a secret archipelago between India and Indonesia. The beach sands were as white as Himalayan snow, the sea full of colourful corals and fish that shimmered like stars in the inky mountain sky. Something about the vast turquoise sea flanked by dense forests of towering Mahuas changed my life—I would never again be a city dweller. My family’s love for travel took me to a place I never wanted to leave, one dive in the Andaman sea and I became an ocean lover for life.

That was 2009. 2010 was a different story. A warm-water current—the El Niño—swept through the Indian Ocean, leaving in its wake, fields and fields of dead coral. As they are in life, coral reefs dying are a remarkable sight too. In distress, corals turn electric blue, they glow in angst, a call perhaps, for anyone looking. I was looking, as we lost 20% of our live coral cover that had taken thousands of years to form. Over the span of just a few weeks, I saw their light extinguishing. Vibrant reefs with branching, boulder, brain and fan corals became white and then turned into dull green rubble that could no longer shelter the fish divers crossed oceans to see. To me, it was the difference between knowing of someone and knowing someone. I had always known of climate change—finally, crucially, the name had a face. And it wasn’t pretty.

Climate change impacts everyone and every part of our planet, it doesn’t matter whether you live in Europe or Asia, in the city or in a village, in the mountains or on an island. But there are some parts of the world where it impacts is more visual. There are some intervals of time—when we are at peace, observant and childlike again—when our vacationing mind is out of the daily rut that we are able to see our lifestyles and its impact more clearly. When I, as a conservationist, a marine biologist, a scuba instructor, interact with tourists that fly across the world to the Andamans, I try to open their eyes not only to its beautiful forests and mangroves, its reefs and fish, it’s history and rich tribal culture but also to the piles of unrecyclable waste generated by travellers, to the reefs that perish under our carbon footprint, to the vivid night sky that hides behind the screen of bedazzling city lights.

We need to travel to find the Earth of old again. It is difficult to connect with her when she is subsumed under tar roads and concrete buildings, and yes, the very act of travelling to her can hurt her unless we conduct ourselves with care and sensitivity. There is no care and sensitivity in ticking off living parts of our planet as points on a bucket list. Travel must be a labour of love, a long-term relationship where we experience the good and the bad, grapple with the complexities and contradictions, get to know the intimate nuances of the places we visit. We must journey with forethought and the gentlest of touches. We take away the richness and by extension its impact on us if we treat travel as a one-night stand. Convenient. Quick. Thoughtless. Travel far, stay long, breathe the place in. Take away not only memories and mementoes but also lessons and lifestyle changes and that, more than anything else, will offset our trip’s carbon and plastic footprint.