When is it okay to wear the local garb?

What are the ethics of dressing appropriately according to the country that you’re visiting? (Whether it’s covering your shoulders or head when entering a mosque or not wearing culturally appropriative accessories or styles — like Native American headdresses or getting dreadlocks in Jamaica.)

Dress Appropriately, People

I reeeeallly tried to put off answering this question, DAP, because I’ve never felt fully comfortable with the concept of cultural appropriation, and I think there are sometimes people are a little too quick to pull the cultural appropriation card. I’ll get to that. Let’s start with the easy stuff, though.

You should always try to wear the appropriate garb at religious ceremonies.

If you’re going to a local church, mosque, or temple, you should always make yourself aware of and conform to the institution’s dress code. This is simply a sign of respect. I grew up in the Catholic Church, and there wasn’t a strict dress code, but I know plenty of people who would’ve been annoyed if a newcomer came in wearing a t-shirt and short shorts. I personally would’ve enjoyed it, young heathen that I was, because I liked watching people in our Parish squirm, but there’s a big difference between rebelling from the outside and rebelling from the inside.

Unless you’re trying to make an open display of disrespect for some political reason (which, you know... don't do), conform to the local dress code (and check out my article on the ethics of being a feminist and wearing head coverings).

Okay, now into the harder stuff.

When am I being culturally appropriative?

There are times when wearing the local garb is culturally appropriative, which is a tricky concept that can be confused with cultural exchange.

The best breakdown of the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation I’ve read is by Jarune Uwujaren over at Everyday Feminism. If you want to better understand the issue, give that a read. In short though, cultural appropriation is when one culture adopts an element of another culture. This in itself sounds harmless — and it often is — but it gets tricky when the culture doing the borrowing dominates the culture being borrowed from, because you as the borrower might not understand the full history and implications of the thing you’re borrowing.

The Native American headdress provides a good example: in Native American Plains cultures, headdresses can’t be worn by just anyone. You could equate it to holding a qualified position like Doctor or military General: it’s something that must be earned.

The thing to remember is that the culture you are visiting may have been oppressed by a western culture, and they may have a long, painful history behind them. In the case of the Plains nations, it’s a history of brutal repression, cultural destruction, and genocide. For you to come in, play with their sacred symbols without having any knowledge of their meaning, and then toss them aside as you would any other costume, could be reasonably seen as insensitive.

Most cases aren’t this cut-and-dry, though, and a lot of what makes up modern Western culture could be considered cultural appropriation, from “ethnic” foods, to world music, to spiritual practices. Western culture brutally dominated India for centuries, for example. Is practicing yoga culturally appropriative? The short answer is yes. But that doesn’t mean you can’t practice itRather than refusing to ever participate in cultural appropriation (Goodbye, Taco Tuesday! Goodbye Stir Fryday!) you can simply educate yourself on the roots of the things you’re appropriating, and show them some amount of respect. You are already in a position of privilege. You can’t escape that. It’s okay. Just be willing to accept criticism and to listen and learn.

Just be respectful.

When I was in India, I went to a Hindu religious celebration with some of my classmates. We were invited to wear traditional garb, and the women had bindis put on their heads and were given henna tattoos. We ate with our hands, and we watched a ceremonial dance.

There was nothing wrong with this, because we were invited to participate by the Indian families that were hosting us. And that’s perhaps the main lesson I want to impart here: don’t let a fear of cultural appropriation keep you from cultural exchange. Participate in whatever you’re invited to participate in, and try and learn about it.

Culture can’t easily be siloed, and what feels like personal expression to you might feel like a misappropriation to someone else. My suggestion is to express yourself however you wish, but be respectful, sensitive, and curious when borrowing from other cultures (In regards to dreadlocks, I’d say don’t get dreadlocks, but that’s mostly because white people look terrible in them. There are arguments that they’re culturally appropriative, but dreadlocks have been around for millennia across many cultures, and not just in African and Caribbean cultures — they have a history in Asia and even Europe as well). If someone calls you out for cultural appropriation, don’t get defensive — talk to them. Try to learn what they mean. And then continue from there.

“Shut that kid up!”: How should you treat traveling parents?

Last week, I took a fourteen-hour train down to Charleston for the weekend. About five minutes after I took my seat, a woman sat in the seat across from me, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw her lay a portable seat on the floor as she put her luggage overhead.  From inside the seat, a cute, chubby 6-month-old smiled back at me.

Fuck, I thought. Then, at the next stop, another baby got on.

Fucccccckkkkkk, I thought.

If you’ve traveled, you know why I was pissed: Babies cry. Over a fourteen hour trip, it would be unreasonable to expect the baby not to cry. And for people such as myself, who were hoping that the trip would involve 8 hours or so of sleep, the presence of babies was upsetting. It would mean a slightly less restful sleep, and train sleeps are already not great.

“Who brings a fucking baby on a fourteen hour train trip?” I texted my wife.

This isn’t an unusual sentiment: according to a poll by FiveThirtyEight, 83% of airline passengers think it’s rude to knowingly bring unruly kids onto a plane. It’s the highest ranked item on their poll, ahead of the dreaded seat recline, ahead of waking someone up to get out of your seat, and ahead of being chatty with a seatmate.

People such as myself, the kidless, are not patient with the kidful. It struck me, while I was feeling sorry for myself, that maybe parents — even parents with grumpy kids — have a right to get from Point A to Point B. And that maybe that right superseded my right to travel in total silence.

So I talked to a few traveling moms about what the kidless need to know about the kidful.

Kids aren’t little adults. They’re kids.

My older sister Laura has a 5-year-old named Alejandro, or Ali, as we call him. Laura, like myself is a traveler, and usually travels to El Salvador (the country where she met my brother-in-law, and the country where Ali was born) once a year. This, she says, can be stressful, especially when your kid starts behaving like a kid. If Ali starts acting up, though, many people (read: not parents) will be openly annoyed. Which she says is the first problem:

“People who don’t have kids don’t have much of an understanding of what it’s like. They’ll say ‘Oh when I’m a parent, my kid won’t talk to me that way.’ Your kid will talk to you that way sometimes, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent… you can’t expect a kid to behave like an adult.”

And the fact that he’s a kid shouldn’t mean he’s homebound:

“I like to take him places, but he’s going to act different when he’s there because he’s a kid.”

She said, “It’s embarrassing for a parent when your kid throws a tantrum,” and adds that showing sympathy for the parent can mean a lot, because sometimes parenting supersedes the desire to make everyone around her feel at peace:

“Sometimes, I’ll give him a screen. But I don’t necessarily want him to be on a screen the whole time. So having an expectation that they’re going to be zoned out and quiet and behaving isn’t reasonable.”

Chelle King agrees. Chelle travels regularly with her 3-year-old Clara, and has been in a similar situation:

“Clara had an awful, awful flight to Seattle once, partially because of some flight delays. I made the mistake of telling her she was finished watching movies and stood my ground, even as the nightmare swirled around me. I knew that it was going to be miserable for everyone, but I had already stepped in it. She finally passed out and someone in a nearby row bought me a glass of wine. I nearly cried I was so grateful, both for the wine and knowing that there was at least one person on the flight who didn’t think I was Satan.”

She adds:

“As a parent, I try really hard to avoid waking the monster, but sometimes it doesn’t work.”

How to treat parents traveling with kids

Cathy Brown is the most badass travel mom I know — she’s a fellow writer over at the Matador Network, and she’s a single mom of three. She travels with her kids a lot (her daughter Stella is already an excellent travel writer herself), and has some advice for how the kidless should treat the kidful:

“I’d say that when it comes to being on a plane or in a restaurant with someone who has a kid in the middle of a meltdown, don’t be so quick to get pissed off. Don’t take it personally, like the parent is just doing WHATEVER they can to ruin your vacation.  That moment sucks for the parent even more than it sucks for you, because they know damn well how annoying their kid is being.  A kind look or some kind words can put the parent at ease, which will ultimately help the kid calm down.”

Laura agrees: “I appreciate when people are thoughtful and sympathetic, and not mean and judgmental.” She also notes that not all places are as judgmental about noisy kids as others: people on a bus in El Salvador will generally try to be helpful with a noisy kid, while people in the US are going to be a bit more likely to grumble. So not getting a silent plane ride may be a quintessential “First World Problem.”

This doesn’t mean, she says, that parents are off the hook for disciplining their kids. “If a kid does something rude or in your face, you have a right to expect a parent to say something.”

Chelle says to just be cool*:

“The immediate look from single (especially business) travelers in the security line that says ‘oh, no, look at these assholes with kids’ is a little annoying, but we’re super fast, so it’s also totally unwarranted.”

In short: You aren’t entitled to a family-free flight, and certainly not to a family-free airport.

**Literally a day after I talked to her, Chelle sent me a message: “It finally happened! Some young guy in security actually asked if he could ‘cut’ in front of me. I was flummoxed and said yes. Also, he only had a backpack, so I figured he had his shit together. Nope. This guy in such a mad hurry didn’t know where his phone was allowed to go, or how to unpack and of his stuff. (And there was a lot.) In the end, even though he went in front of us, we breezed past him while he was fumbling with his shoes. He was a dick! Your readers should not be like that guy!”

How to help people with kids

On the flip side of that coin, if you want to try and help or talk to a kid, Laura cautions against crossing any lines inadvertently:

“If you’re engaging a child, it’s respectful to ask a parent before offering anything to the kid.”

This isn’t to say, though, that helping is discouraged. Laura remembers being caught in the airport alone with Ali. She had to carry all the luggage, so she couldn’t carry him, and he started falling to pieces. “Especially when you’re traveling alone, it’s harder, and it’s scarier.” She says she didn’t expect anyone to help that time, but would have been incredibly grateful if help had been offered.

Cathy’s kids are older than Laura’s and Chelle’s, and she says it’s important to recognize the differences in age:

“My kids hate it when they are treated like 2 year olds. A hotel or a restaurant always wants to offer them some gender specific toy or activity that is geared for someone much younger. The intention is good, the offer is nice, but it annoys my teenagers to be treated like babies.  Ask if they prefer the kids menu or the regular menu.  Ask if they prefer the Barbie toothpaste and bubble bath or the regular.”

In short, don’t treat kids like they’re stupid (or toddlers, if they aren’t toddlers), and don’t be totally impatient with parents. A little kindness goes a long way. It’s likely you don’t have a full idea of what’s going on with the parent or with the kid, so instead of being cruel, maybe put in some noise-canceling headphones and deal with it.

Cathy also pushed back on the idea that traveling with kids is terrible:

“Traveling with kids, for me, is awesome.  My kids are my favorite travel partners by far.  They are spontaneous, engaged, and they keep it real.  They are curious, ask questions, and don’t get uptight when things go awry. To  them, everything is just part of the adventure.”

Finally, some advice from a kid.

I’m giving the final word to Cathy’s daughter Stella:

“Stella’s advice was for other people to not make a massive deal about a kid traveling.  Don’t baby them — she can’t stand when people treat her like she’s incapable of finding her gate at the airport, etc.  She says there’s a difference between being helpful and acting like a kid can’t do something just because they happen to be away from home.

“She also says people should always offer up the window seat to a kid if the poor kid seems like he/she really wanted one and didn’t get one.”

Seriously, guys. You aren’t going to use the window as much as a kid would anyway.

Featured photo by Eduardo Merille

How can I be a good traveler?

So obviously the blog is called “Don’t Be a Dick” so it is going to have an avoidance or prevention focus as compared with an approach or promotion focus, but reading about all the things not to do can be overwhelming. Can you write a post focusing on concrete actions we can take to be a good citizen traveler, not just how to avoid being a shitty one?

More than “Not A Dick”

That’s fair, MoNAD. This blog is going to, generally speaking, focus on the “don’t’s” of travel over the “do’s.” This may sound like I’m laying down a lot of prohibitions, but the real reason for it is that there’s actually a pretty low bar to being a good traveler. As long as you’re thoughtful and respectful, you’re basically good to go.

I currently live in a town on the Jersey Shore. Our economy is primarily driven by tourism. Residents of the Shore have a few negative words for our tourist visitors: “Benny’s,” meaning someone from Bayonne Elizabeth, Newark or New York, and “Shoobies,” meaning people who wear their shoes on the beach (don't wear shoes on the beach) Bennies and Shoobies are the type of people you see on the show Jersey Shore, and they are terrible. They come into town, they get hammered, they get into fights, they puke on people’s lawns, they leave their garbage everywhere, and they make our favorite bars insufferable for the entire summer. This is a common bumper sticker/piece of graffiti:


That said, tourism is the primary driver of our local economy, so it’s a love-hate relationship. But here’s the thing: I don’t know who everyone in town is. There’s no clear-cut way of identifying a local vs. a Benny, as long as you’re not wearing shoes on the beach, and as long as you’re not shouting “GYM TAN LAUNDRY!” before projectile vomiting onto a child on the boardwalk.

The truth is, plenty of tourists are delightful. They’re excited to be here, they’re curious about life here, and they don’t leave their cigarette butts on the beach. The overarching rule is really very simple: just don’t be a dick. 

That said, I will try and provide more concrete suggestions. I have one really effective metaphor that I try (and sometimes fail) to apply when I visit places.

Tip 1: Behave like a guest, not like a customer.

My biggest recommendation is to treat your visit like a visit to a friends house, not like a stay at a hotel. At a friends house, you would clean up after yourself, you would try to be quiet at normal sleeping hours, and if you went out partying, you would try your best not to vomit on their belongings. You would also engage with your host. You would talk to her, you’d ask her about herself, and you’d share about yourself. You wouldn’t criticize her way of doing things, you’d only ask about it to try and understand her way better.

Thinking of yourself as a customer when you visit a town, city, or country, creates a whole new dynamic. It creates a mindset where you think of the people living there as your employees, as people whose services you have purchased. You have not. They have their own lives, and those lives don’t revolve around you.

This metaphor goes surprisingly far, and it allows for faux pas and occasional misunderstandings without you having to be too hard on yourself. As long as your interactions are based in mutual respect, you can be forgiven for any mistakes.

Tip 2: Support the local businesses.

This is one of the easiest ways to do more good than harm: skip chain stores and restaurants in favor of local joints; go to B&B’s/AirBnB’s/local hotels instead of Hilton’s or Ramada’s; and stop at local bodegas and shops if you’re looking for a souvenir. Not only will this help the local economy, but it will also add a more distinct personality to your experience.

This is especially important when you go to a resort in a developing nation — resorts are typically owned internationally, and a lot of the money you spend at them doesn’t stay in the country. Even if you dodecide to go to an all-inclusive resort owned by an international chain, try and pop out occasionally to spend some time and money in smaller local places.

Tip 3: Do some advance research before going outdoors.

The place you can do the most unintentional harm is in your interactions with the local ecosystem. So if you’re planning a trek, a hike, a swim, or anything of the outdoor variety, just do a bit of research ahead of time to make sure nothing you are doing is bad for the local environment (You should research all of the excursions you plan on doing ahead of time anyway. I mention environmental excursions here specifically because they’re the place where it’s easiest to do unintended harm.).

Some other solid outdoor-travel tips:

  • If you’re planning on swimming in the ocean, buy the right sunscreen. Some sunscreens contain chemicals like oxybenzone, which is a chemical that can disrupt the growth of coral and do serious harm to the local coastal ecosystems. The Environmental Working Group offers a guide to safer sunscreens, as well as a list of approved sunscreens.
  • Choose an “ecolodge” that prioritizes sustainability instead of a regular hotel.
  • Follow the “take only pictures, leave only footprints” rule while trekking.
  • Bring a reusable water bottle.
  • Don’t leave the trail.

The main takeaway here is that being a good traveler is actually pretty intuitive. Just be cool. Don’t be a dick.

Featured photo Cinty Ionescu

Should you recline your seat on the airplane?

One of the more trendy controversies in the travel world is the fight over whether you should recline your seat on an airplane. An article in Slate (which was, in proper Slate fashion, hyperbolically titled “The Recline and Fall of Western Civilization”) decried seat-recliners as “evil,” and went on to say, “People who recline middle seats are history’s greatest monsters.” People who recline have also been referred to as “psychopaths,” and one particularly irritating company created something called the “Knee Defender,” a device that you can insert into the seat in front of you which makes it impossible for the person in front of you to lean their chair back. Knee defenders have been known to start fights on airplanes.

I personally find this all to be a little overblown, but as this is a site on ethical travel, I feel the need to address it.

What should I do regarding reclining seats?

Full disclosure: I am 6’3”, 225 lbs, and I have always applied a Golden Rule standard to airline travel. I find flying miserable, and don’t want to make it more miserable for anyone. That said, when the person in front of me reclines, it doesn’t bother me at all. My long legs aren’t more cramped, and I generally don’t feel I was using the four inches or so that I lost near their head. If I do feel cramped, I’ll lean back myself, but mostly, I just accept that life is suffering — especially life on an airplane — and that what really matters is how we respond to that suffering.

Which is why I was surprised to find out that this was a thing. I’m theoretically one of the most wronged people when it comes to reclining seats, but it never bothered me. That’s the difficulty of the Golden Rule: some people have higher standards for what they’d want done unto them than I do. (There is, by the way, one argument in favor of reclining your seats that I think is atrocious: “I bought the seat, so I can do what I want with it.” Purchasing a product does not give you any moral right to put someone else into intense discomfort. That’s actually psychopathic.)

And this is fair: The polling geniuses over at FiveThirtyEight did a poll on what people think of seat reclining, and they found that 41% of flyers think reclining is rude. The rest don’t mind. Far more people (73%) thought it was rude to wake someone up to go for a walk around the cabin — which, by the way, strikes me as even more justifiable than the recline, as not moving in an airplane can lead to sometimes-deadly deep vein thrombosis. The highest number of people (82%) said it was rude to “knowingly bring unruly children” onto the plane. Which strikes me as most justifiable — what, unruly kids shouldn’t be allowed to move from point A to point B?

This proves, if anything, that people on airplanes are just furious all the time, and are desperately seeking something to hate. So the Golden Rule doesn’t work here, because you don’t know the mind of the person behind you — they may just be a slow-cooking pot of rage.

I think the answer is simple. The nicest thing to do if you want to recline is to simply ask the person behind you if they’d mind. Lean back slowly so you don’t fuck up their laptop or jolt any liquid on their tray into their lap. All of the taller people that I spoke to said they usually don’t mind if someone leans back (tall people have already accepted discomfort on airplanes), with the understanding that they will be leaning back as well. One mother I spoke to, however, says this: “On little planes with sub-two hour travel times, [reclining your seat is] unnecessary and extra cramped. Add a kid in a carseat and it’s just a no-go. My baby carseat wouldn’t allow for the seat in front to recline; the toddler seat does, but barely.” So maybe be cool to traveling moms and don’t lean back.

If you don’t like it when someone in front of you reclines, just ask them politely if they wouldn’t. Some people may refuse. That’s okay. Comfort yourself with the fact that at least they are slightly more comfortable, and that they are just as human as you. And you don’t know what their deal is: they may have back problems. Their discomfort from not reclining may outweigh your discomfort when they do.

I think there’s something we should note here, though:

The seat recliners are not the problem.

Some have rightfully pointed out that this shouldn’t be a passenger-versus-passenger issue, but rather a passenger-versus-airline issue. It’s actually kind of a perfect microcosm for modern America: set up the system so that it’s a little bit uncomfortable for everyone, and when one person tries to make things better for themselves at the expense of someone else (whether it’s through a criminal act or through a selfish vote), a conflict arises not between the participants and the system, but between the participants itself, when at its core, the system is to blame. The airlines could easily provide more seat space, or simply make more comfortable seats.

But it would be too simplistic to say that airlines are evil companies that are trying to distract us from their flaws by making us fight amongst ourselves. Airlines are notoriously difficult to make profitable, so it makes sense to cut costs and increase profits wherever possible (It would also make sense to acknowledge that airlines are public services that should maybe be publicly subsidized, but let’s not get into that). And adding a few extra seats to every plane makes a big difference.

It’s also worthwhile to note that our discomfort is the environment’s gain: as I noted a few weeks ago in my article on low-carbon emissions travel, the more seats the airlines cram onto planes, the more ways a flight splits its carbon emissions. Fewer flights means less emissions, less emissions means a lower chance of truly horrific climate catastrophe over the next couple hundred years.

All of which is to say that airline discomfort may be a good thing. It gives you an excuse to travel by train. Train seats have lower emissions than airline seats, and they’re also significantly more comfortable — a person who leans back on a train doesn’t invade the space of the passenger behind them at all. Also, you can bring your own food and booze onto Amtrak, which is neat.

My call is this: lean or don’t lean, just be courteous and ask the people around you. If they’re mean to you, just let it slide. Don’t assume they’re evil assholes. Just assume they fucking hate airplanes.

Featured photo by Ronald Sarayudej

Is voluntourism worthwhile?

Is it worth it to volunteer where there isn’t a sustainable social, political, or environmental impact? I think of those stories of Habitat for Humanity where volunteers think they build a house during the day only to have their crappy work torn down and redone later.

Wants To Fix The World

Thank you, so much, WTFTW, for giving my first one-word answer to a question of the week:


Okay, now to go into a bit more detail: The voluntourism impulse is an awesome one. It means that people don’t just want to take from the places they visit, but to give back as well. It’s akin to helping with the dishes when you’ve eaten dinner at a friend’s house. It’s all that’s right about humankind.

Which is why it’s really depressing that it’s usually a waste of time.

The story I believe you’re referring to is from this excellent article by Pippa Biddle, which is worth giving a read. She talks about a voluntourism trip she took in high school to Tanzania, which cost $3000 a pop:

“Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure. It is likely that this was a daily ritual. Us mixing cement and laying bricks for 6+ hours, them undoing our work after the sun set, re-laying the bricks, and then acting as if nothing had happened so that the cycle could continue.”

What Biddle concludes is that the problem wasn’t that a library wasn’t needed, it was that she simply wasn’t the one to do it. This is the case with many voluntourism trips: they exist more to give the volunteers the endorphin rush humans get when doing something nice for someone else than they do to actually help. The presence of unskilled volunteers may, in some cases, actually be more of a hindrance than a help.

But sometimes voluntourism is more insidious. The popularity of supporting Cambodian orphanages among western tourists has actually fueled a market for orphans. There are the reports of voluntourists actually taking jobs from better-qualified locals. And for many locals, voluntourism looks more like an expiation of colonial guilt than a good-hearted act of service. In his book Travel as a Political Act, travel industry titan Rick Steves points out the name that Salvadorans have for Americans who come to visit and express solidarity, only to return home a few days later feeling self-satisfied: “round-trip revolutionaries.”

Just this week, Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodriguez, founder of Latina Rebels, made an extremely strong case against voluntourism. Rodriguez was born in poverty in Nicaragua, and vividly remembers the many visiting westerners. She remembers them as good people, but:

They really wanted us to like them, because they loved us — indiscriminately. It was the sort of love where they did not get our mailing addresses or phone numbers, because it was not about becoming lifelong friends. They loved being around me, it was something about my poverty, brownness, and how they felt like they were saving me. They loved that feeling.

She continues:

I do not have fond memories of the Beckys and Chads who came to my country and took pictures with me so that they could hang the photos in their dorm rooms and go on with their lives.

Those same Beckys did not stand up against Trump’s xenophobic agenda. The Chads stayed silent during that Cinco de Mayo party that their roommates hosted, perpetuating problematic stereotypes about ALL Latinxs. The Beckys know that NAFTA and CAFTA rulings keep kids like me in poverty, but still shop at stores known for using slave labor and sweatshops.

Those Chads and Beckys have never done anything for me.

As a white person from America, this can sound harsh. (It may also paint white voluntourists with too broad a brush — I have no doubt that some Chads and Beckys have spoken out against Trump, NAFTA, and CAFTA, but that’s kind of beside the point — the statement is, as the philosopher Ken Wilber says, “true but partial,” and the truth deserves as much attention as the nuance it misses.) But it’s worth noting that, especially in Central and South American countries, our country has played a pretty significant role in supporting horrible, genocidal dictatorships in the name of protecting “American business interests.” These dictatorships have frequently taken the place of legitimate left-leaning democracies.

It doesn’t matter if you agree with this assessment of the history of US colonialism in the western hemisphere or not: it’s a fairly widely-held perception in the rest of the Americas (and in parts of the Middle East as well). And in that view of the world, an American paying thousands of dollars to come down for a weekend so he can build a library, feel good about himself, and then return to his affluence, seems like an inadequate form of repentance.

So… should you participate in voluntourism at all?

My suggestion is a gentle no, with a set of clarifications:

  1.  If you have a set of skills that could be effectively utilized in your destination, absolutely go. Have a medical degree? Join Doctors Without Borders and go do some good. Can you do some consulting work with local NGOs, or provide training that may be desperately needed? Please, go.
  2. “Voluntourism” and “volunteering” are not the same thing. If you’re really committing to a project — and not just rolling a pre-packaged project into a vacation — then what I’m saying doesn’t apply. Looking at you, JETs, TEFLs, and Peace Corpsers.

Personally, I think the better thing to do when going abroad is to simply listen to the stories, the history, and the culture of the people that you’re visiting. You should not assume to have answers to a society’s problems after a weekend visit. You don’t. Instead, listen, read, and learn. If you want to help as efficiently and effectively as possible, donate money to people who are already in place to help, and then work on making yoursociety a better place. A more humane America would help make a more humane world.

Still want to try voluntourism?

If you do want to participate in voluntourism, my Matador colleague Richard Stupart put together an excellent guide to finding the most ethical voluntourism projects possible (and, I should note, there are good projects. It’s not all cynicism and neocolonialism). Feel free to add other good ethical voluntourism resources in the comments.

Should I give to beggars while traveling?

We in the United States — especially those of us who live in cities — are to some extent comfortable with the existence of homelessness and beggars. We see them every day, and we either do our best to consciously ignore them, or we give them a token dollar or two. We may feel sad when we see them, we may feel impotent, we may think of them as drug addicts or as mentally ill, and we may shake a psychic fist at “the system” that allows them to slip through the cracks, but we don’t usually lose much sleep over their existence.

That gets a lot harder when you go abroad. For one thing, while there are certainly plenty of mentally ill and drug-addled beggars in the rest of the world, they find themselves among more people who are transparently not mentally ill or drug-addled. Mothers with children. Young kids. People who are just openly hungry.

I remember the first time I came into contact with this type of poverty. It wiped me out. It was jarring, and it was deeply upsetting. On one occasion, a tiny girl in Chennai came up to me was hugging my leg, begging me for something in a language I couldn’t understand. I assumed she wanted money, so I ignored her. What she wanted, it turned out, was the bottle of clean water in my hand. As we drove away, I saw kids drinking water out of what appeared to be a raw sewage pit. You have trouble thinking of yourself as a good person after an experience like that.

But begging is tricky. So let’s break down the conventional wisdom and look at whether or not you should give to beggars.

Whom are you helping?

It’s worth noting a few things about giving. First, the person that you’re helping most may be you yourself. studies by the National Institute of Health have shown that we experience more pleasure when we give our money away than we do by spending it on ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s worth noting that there may be a selfish motive to altruism. The results of giving money directly away are less unequivocally good for the beggar you are giving money to.

An article in the Atlantic put it this way:

“The homeless often need something more than money. They need money and direction. For most homeless people, direction means a job and a roof. A 1999 study from HUD polled homeless people about what they needed most: 42% said help finding a job; 38% said finding housing; 30% said paying rent or utilities; 13% said training or medical care.” [their emphasis]

The same article notes that, because beggars make very little money begging (so-called “career panhandlers” can make between $600 and $1500 a month, but it’s worth noting this is still not much money), they are often pressed to spend the money they earn immediately, which means they might not be spending it particularly well. So what will they spend it on? Food, probably. But here’s what you’re most worried about:

Is your money being spent on alcohol or drugs?

It could be. You should be aware that, whenever you give cash to someone in the street, you’re doing it unconditionally. You could be giving a drug addict the money they need to buy the hit that kills them. Or you could be giving them money to spend on booze instead of on their kids.

But this risk is usually overstated. One survey found that 94% of panhandlers use money to buy food, while only 44% of them use the money to buy drugs. HUD (the Department of Housing and Urban Development) has found that six out of ten homeless people admit to problems with alcohol or drugs. That number might sound high — and there’s a possibility for respondents to lie on that survey — but it does leave plenty of room for homeless people who don’t have drug or alcohol problems, who may have found themselves in a bad situation through no fault of their own, and whom you may be mentally painting as a drug addict regardless.

It’s safe to say, then, that you don’t know the whole backstory of the beggar you’re talking to. You don’t know what their life is like, or what they’ve gone through. But it’s also safe to say that your money may not go very far, and that it may do more harm than good.

But what about while I’m abroad?

It’s worth mentioning that all of the stats I’ve given so far have only been for the United States. It might be tempting to think of our homeless as people who aren’t deserving — this is the land of opportunity, after all — and that the poor abroad maybe have done less to deserve their poverty.

No one deserves poverty, but let’s look a little deeper into that impulse: should you give to, say, kids or mothers who are begging in poorer countries?

Unfortunately, no.

The reason is “organized begging,” which is particularly bad in India, but can be found virtually everywhere, including in Europe. Organized begging is an endeavor usually run by criminal syndicates or local mafias that frequently dips its toes into human trafficking. Thugs kidnap or forcibly recruit kids, send them to touristy or rich places to beg, and then take all of their money. Deformed kids make more money, so the thugs will often physically harm, scar, or even amputate the limbs of the children to elicit more sympathy from the givers. The thugs will also get kids addicted to drugs to keep them from running away, or will starve them to make them more gaunt.

This is what you risk supporting if you give money to child beggars abroad, especially in extremely poor countries. A possible way to circumvent this problem may seem to be to give children food, water, or other physical objects besides money. Food and water may be a little more justifiable, but the Consortium of Street Children found that children who were given milk powder while begging in Brazil then traded that powder for crack. This is an extreme example, of course, but keep in mind when you’re giving that most poor countries have a much stronger barter economy than the west, and that whatever you give can be traded.

It’s worth noting that not every beggar will be part of a criminal organization, but you do run the risk of contributing to that criminal organization when you give to beggars. There are definitely better ways of helping.

Should you give money at all?

Giving money to panhandlers, beggars, or the homeless is never a clearcut thing, but your impulse to give is still a good one. Here are some alternatives.

I personally subscribe to a theory of philanthropy called “effective altruism.” It’s a movement led by people like utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer who argue that, if we believe all lives are of equal value, then when we make decisions about giving, the decisions should be geared towards helping as many people as we possibly can. This means that, instead of giving money to say, for example, the Harvard Endowment (which is incredibly rich already and truly doesn’t need your money), you should give money to the most needy, and to the people who you can help most cheaply. 

This means, for example, that if you can easily help 10 people in Kenya, or help one person who lives down the street, you should choose the 10 people in Kenya, because you’re making the same difference with an equal amount of money. It’s like a terrible, real-life trolley problem. Effective altruism is most effective when it’s targeting the extreme poor.

(I should mention that there’s one really solid argument against effective altruism: that it doesn’t change the structures of injustice, but merely addresses the symptoms. That’s an argument against the entirety of philanthropy, though, and I personally adopt a strategy of donating equally to political and philanthropic causes. Yes, we may be able to end injustice in the future through political change, but that shouldn’t prevent us from making the world just a slightly nicer place today.

I wrote yesterday (at the Matador Network) about an excellent effective charity fighting extreme poverty called GiveDirectly. What they’ve found is that one of the best ways of getting people out of poverty is to just give them money directly and unconditionally. People generally have a better idea of how to spend their money than aid organizations that have no insight into their lives. And GiveDirectly is pretty efficient in terms of getting the money you donate to the extreme poor: 85%-91% of your money ends in the hands of donors.

That money that doesn’t end in their hands goes towards the selection process, which confirms that the recipients are indeed needy, that they aren’t scamming the system, and also towards studies examining the after-effects of these direct cash transfers. Begging is a self-selecting game: people who choose to beg will do so for different reasons, and may not actually be the neediest people of all. This more evidence-based approach means you’re more likely to get your giving into the right hands.

So my advice is this:

Don’t give money to beggars.


Give it to a charity that helps the extreme poor.

If GiveDirectly is not your thing, there are plenty of other organizations you can give to, including charities that will actually work to serve the homeless and the extreme poor. To help the poor abroad, check out these organizations:

To fight homelessness and poverty in the US, try some of these organizations:

A final note

As I always need to add at the end of these articles, the most effective solution is a permanent, systemic one. Many Americans are fed up with politics, but the fact remains that the most sustainable solutions are usually political ones. If we have systems in place that don’t perpetuate homelessness and extreme poverty, then we’re going to have a lot less of it. Giving to charities is worthwhile, because it does help people in need. But we should also take the long view and work to end the systems that allow homelessness and extreme poverty to exist. Get involved in the fight against poverty, the fight against economic injustice, the fight against the drug war, and the fight against the gutting of public health institutions, and we may see and end to this in our lifetimes or the in the lives of our children.

Featured Photo: John Christian Fjellestad

How much of the local language should you learn when you travel?

How much of the language of a destination do you think is important to have to not be a dick?

Can’t Afford a Russian Dictionary

That’s a good question, CARD. My instinct is to just apply the Golden Rule here, and say, “Learn as much of the language as you’d like a visitor to your country to learn!” but I don’t think that would result in any sort of universal standard: I personally do not care for a minute if someone comes to our country not knowing a word of the language. It makes life trickier for them, but I’m not offended when I hear someone speaking German or French or Mandarin, and if they ask me for directions in the middle of the street, I have the opportunity to play a game of public charades.

But I know plenty of people who would prefer visitors speak to them in the local tongue.

And while I find that attitude irritating, I can’t say it’s totally unfair. When you enter someone else’s home, you implicitly agree to follow their household rules. This may mean participating in a prayer you personally don’t believe in, or this may mean taking off your shoes when you walk in the door. Language is a similar local norm: if you’re visiting, it’s only fair that you communicate on their terms using their language. Trying to speak the local language is, I think, a sign of deference and respect to the culture you’re visiting, and it’s never bad to make that effort. Again, my personal standard is low here: I think the effort alone is enough of a sign of respect to make you “not a dick.” But we can still go a bit further than that.

The obvious things that you should always learn are “Hello,” “goodbye,” “please,” and “thank you.” I think that can work as the lower limit. But I’ve had a number of experiences where that has been insufficient. Now, in the service of lowering your dick quotient, CARD, I shall publicly embarrass myself.

An incredibly embarrassing example

I was traveling with my friends in Paris. We’d taken the chunnel from London the night before, and I’d spent the entire train ride making trips to the commode, as I’d eaten a tainted burrito in London (Important life lesson: Don’t eat "ethnic" foods in a city that contains no one of that ethnicity). When we got to Paris, we settled into our hostel and I set out to find a pharmacist in Montmartre.

I quickly found one, stormed in, and said to the girl behind the counter, “Um, hi! I have… uh…” And then I proceeded to mime my affliction by putting my hands down near my posterior, making wiggly “splatter” motions with my fingers, while making flatulent sounds.

The pharmacist sighed, and said in perfect English, “So you have diarrhea?”

For this reason, I am adding, “Do you speak English?” to the de-dickifying phrases one must learn while traveling.

A less embarrassing example

I’m on the streets of Vienna during the same trip. I’m standing confusedly at the corner of Einbahnstrasse and Einbahnstrasse, trying desperately to find Einbahnstrasse on the map. I’d been walking 30 minutes, had turned dozens of times, and had never left Einbahnstrasse.

“Excuse me,” I said to a friendly-looking old man passing by, “Do you speak English?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Where is Herrengasse?” I asked. “I’ve been trying to find it for quite some time, and I can’t.”

“You are on Herrengasse,” he said.

I looked at the street sign above me. “Isn’t this Einbahnstrasse?”

“Einbahnstrasse means one way street,” he said.

It is also worth your time to learn a little bit of the language used to give and receive directions, especially if you think you’ll be putting yourself in a situation where you might get lost and need to ask for help. If you’re going to expect someone to help you, it’s at least courteous to make it easy for them to do so. At the very least, you should be able to coherently tell a cab driver where you’re staying, in case of an emergency.

Other guidelines

Other guidelines are dependent on your personal needs when you go on the trip. Are you vegetarian, or have diet restrictions of some sort? Learn how to say so in the local language. If you follow the “point at something in the hopes it’s good” method on foreign menus, you are very likely to be surprised, at some point, with food you are not okay with eating (In two separate incidences in Iceland and China, I found out after the fact that I’d eaten whale and dog, respectively. I was not okay with either). If you have allergies or health issues that could potentially put your life into someone else’s hands during your travels, learn how to explain it so that you don’t put them in a terrible position.

Finally, take some time to learn about etiquette before you show up somewhere new. Most people will be quick to forgive a faux pas but why let it happen in the first place? Learn the proper greetings in the country you’re visiting. Learn when to shake hands and when to bow and when to give a kiss on one cheek or give a kiss on two cheeks (there’s a short, basic guide that here. Learn which hand gestures are offensive (I’ve included a handy infographic on that below).

Failing to fully educate yourself before you go does not make you a dick, and some miscommunication is inevitable (and is usually harmless). But you can find out ahead of time what types of miscommunication are likely to be harmful or awkward, and you can prepare yourself accordingly.

Infographic by  JustTheFlight.co.uk

Infographic by JustTheFlight.co.uk

Featured photo: David Goehring

When should I boycott a country?

WHEN I WAS A SOPHOMORE in college, I went on Semester at Sea. It was a 4-month study abroad program that sailed around the world. Shortly after I was accepted into the program, I was sent an email with two pretty big surprises in it: first, Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu would be sailing with us for the entire voyage. Second, as a precondition of Tutu joining us, we would now be skipping our planned stop in Burma and would be going to Malaysia instead.

Tutu had insisted on this change because his friend, Burmese leader (and fellow Nobel Peace Laureate) Aung San Suu Kyi had called for a tourism boycott to Burma. Tutu had cut his teeth in the South African anti-apartheid movement, which conducted a similar international boycott over the course of several decades. The international solidarity, Tutu claimed, was essential for bringing apartheid to an end.

This led to a huge debate on the ship: a lot of people really wanted to go to Burma, and argued that the cultural exchange was valuable and worthwhile. They also argued that we could visit Burma in a way that wouldn’t be supportive of the oppressive military regime that Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy were fighting against. We could, they argued, make sure our money would go to the right places.

In the end, we didn’t go to Burma. Several years later, Suu Kyi and her NLD lifted their call for a tourism boycott as the country started to transition towards democracy. But since then, I’ve heard a lot of calls for tourism boycotts to certain countries. It’s a question worth examining: when is it right to boycott a country? When is it wrong? When is it just pointless?

When are boycotts pointless?

During the Bush years, I heard conservative friends and family members say more than once, “I’ll never visit France after how they bailed on us in Iraq.” It was usually uttered by people who were using patriotic fervor as an excuse to skip a country they were never planning on going to in the first place, but sometimes, conservatives who might otherwise have enjoyed a trip to Paris decided that they needed to make a moral stand. No France for them. That’d teach France to bail on America, “and after we did so much for them in World War II.”

The correct response to this type of crap is “ugh,” but lefties and liberals shouldn’t get too smug: I’ve heard plenty of my activist friends suggest they were boycotting a country as well, whether it was of Japan (because of their treatment of dolphins and whales), of Thailand (because of their Tiger Temple), or of Russia (because of the Russian government’s oppression of journalists).

Boycotts can be well-meaning and still be useless. The one case in which they are always useless is in the case of the personal boycott. If you are boycotting a country for moral reasons, that’s just fine, but don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re making any sort of difference. Boycotts are an expression of political (and sometimes economic) power. By saying, “I refuse to engage with you,” you are basically saying you don’t think that country is legitimate, and that it does not deserve your support.

The truth is that, unless you are a very high-profile person, a single person boycott of a country is meaningless. It’s just not a large enough expression of power to make a noticeable difference and to affect any change. Had Rosa Parks been the only person to boycott the Montgomery, Alabama bus system, the gesture would have been noble but totally futile. It was when hundreds of people (including high-profile leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.) joined that the boycott really did what it was meant to do. A boycott, to be done effectively, must be done collectively.

When is a travel boycott effective?

I’ve developed three tentative rules to when you should consider a travel boycott.

1. You must have power over whomever you’re boycotting.

You can’t boycott something you don’t have any power over. This is why, for instance, it would be impossible for Americans to arrange a travel boycott of North Korea: we simply don’t go there enough for the withdrawal of our tourist dollars to make any difference (and Americans shouldn't travel to North Korea anyway: they frequently charge American visitors with barely-supported crimes and then hold them as bargaining chips.). It’s only countries that we have a healthy relationship that we can effectively boycott.

A boycott is effectively saying is, “You’re not playing by rules that we accept, so we refuse to play with you.” You can’t threaten to walk off when you weren’t playing in the first place.

2. Money isn’t enough: You must have the ear of the media.

The economic results of boycotts are tough to gauge. The Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel has been going for over 10 years, but hasn’t necessarily resulted any tangible economic loss for Israel (BDS, incidentally, has not targeted travel in their boycott. They’ve focused more broadly on academic boycotts, culture boycotts, divestment, and the boycotting of certain Israeli businesses. I mention them here because it’s the highest-profile active boycott movement). The boycott of South Africa, on the other hand, is widely considered to have been a success in economic terms.

But ultimately, whether the BDS movement or the cultural boycott of South Africa had any real economic effect isn’t the point. The point is in getting enough media coverage to draw attention to the injustice and, presumably, to shame the perpetrators. As I write, this is happening in North Carolina, where a recent anti-LGBTQ law has resulted in New York Governor Andrew Cuomo boycotting travel to the state on official business, in Paypal pulling jobs from the state economy, and in rocker Bruce Springsteen canceling a NC concert (which, for me personally, is literally the worst punishment I could imagine).

Yes, these moves may cost North Carolina money here and there, but more importantly, they build a political and social momentum behind the movements they support. It was not, in the end, economics that ended apartheid. It was external pressure worldwide (pressure which had to come from the grassroots, as leaders like Ronald Reagan supported apartheid), and volatile internal politics which brought about the end of that regime. Boycotts can be a powerful symbol that raise awareness of an issue and turn public opinion. If they succeed in this regard, whether or not they’re effective economically is beside the point.

3. Boycotts have to have an internal element.

Boycotts have more moral clout when they’re done in solidarity with people from within the place you’re boycotting. In other words, if local people say, “don’t boycott us,” then don’t (and it's worth pointing out that the voices of "the people" in any given country are never unanimous -- you must decide who to side with internally). So when the ANC and leaders like Desmond Tutu called for the rest of the world to boycott South Africa, it gave the boycott legitimacy. When Aung San Suu Kyi called for tourists to not visit Burma, it gave the boycott legitimacy. When Palestinians or liberal Israelis support the BDS movement, it gives the movement legitimacy.

Boycotts that are done entirely externally — as in you and your friends unilaterally deciding to boycott France because reasons — aren’t effective, and can be perceived as bullying, because you’re attempting to impose your morality on another country. If you don’t agree with someone’s morals, it’s usually better to talk to them and try and find common ground than it is to simply shut them out. But if you and your allies within that country are within agreement, and your allies think a boycott’s a good idea, then it may be worth giving a try.

So should I participate in travel boycotts?

The answer to this, I’m sorry to say, is annoyingly ambivalent: Sure. If you want. In some rare cases. Boycotts just too rarely achieve that rare combination of effectiveness and legitimacy to be worthwhile. Some excellent ethical travel sites like Responsible Travel don’t advocate travel boycotts except in rare exceptions like Burma. Philosopher Peter Singer told Traveller.com.au of travel boycotts:

“A boycott may be one way of getting some leverage on [political issues] when nothing else seems to work. But I don’t think that there is a general obligation to boycott all countries that are doing something unethical.”

The reason, he said, is because boycotts are only really effective when they’re accompanied by a public campaign. And it’s worth noting that there’s no such thing as a totally ethical country. You should definitely notboycott a country that there’s not already an organized boycott against unless you want to undertake the gigantic effort of organizing the boycott yourself. And in all honesty, there may well be much better ways of pushing your agenda politically than through a boycott: frequently, you may be able to push your government to act instead.

Boycotts really only make sense when they’re an attempt to undermine your government’s action: in South Africa and Israel, the US Government has acted in response to perceived geopolitical interests rather than in response to human rights standards, so those places make sense to organize boycotts around. In North Carolina, Indiana, and other states that have enacted anti-LGBT laws, the boycotts are in response to actions by the government itself. In these cases, participating in boycotts may be the just and right thing to do.

That said, there are totally legitimate arguments for not participating in boycotts, from supporting locals who may be unfairly harmed by a boycott, to simply pursuing other forms of protest and resistance that you believe would be more effective. Paul Simon’s breach of the UN-approved cultural boycott of South Africa during the making of his album Gracelandwas extremely controversial, but in the end, he used the breach to give an international platform to black South African musicians like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Miriam Makeba. While it may not personally have been my choice — and indeed was not the choice of many activist musicians, from Springsteen to Bono to Queen — it is conceivably justifiable.

It’s worth noting, though, that Paul Simon’s breach was at least thought-out and intentional. He didn’t simply ignore the cultural boycott for personal profit: he attempted to make things better for South African musicians. So if there’s a movement that you find yourself aligned with, and they are calling for a travel boycott to a country you want to visit, you certainly may decide to go anyway, but going will only really be justified if you engage in some other political act.

In the end, the only real sin, if you believe something wrong is being done, is silence. If you feel your voice is best heard through a boycott, go for it. If you feel you can speak out in a better way, feel free to do that instead. Just don’t do nothing.

Featured Photo: Pierre (Rennes)

How do I balance being a feminist with respecting other cultures?

Q: When visiting a country that has a culture that represses women, how far do you go in respecting their culture when visiting? Covering my head and shoulders seems okay. But I have a friend whose husband called out a waiter in India for asking him what she wanted to order when she was perfectly capable of answering for herself. That seems awesome to me but may have been offensive to them. Where’s the line?

Yes Always to Solidarity with Kickass Women in Eastern & Extremist Nations

That’s a really great question, YASKWEEN. I have opinions, but I am also a dude, and as such, am at risk of mansplaining. So it seems worthwhile to ask a few women who either travel or live in more patriarchal cultures what they think before offering up my own dudepinion.

On cultures that repress women:

When we think of the most oppressive society towards women, we probably think of a country like Saudi Arabia. Sydney Meredith, the travel blogger behind Passports & Prose, currently lives in Saudi Arabia told me she doesn’t love equating “repressing women” with “covering your head and shoulders,” as many Muslim women consider it a personal religious choice to wear the hijab, and not something that’s imposed upon them by men. In regards to wearing it as a traveler, she says:

“I remember visiting historic churches in Spain and France during a trip in high school and the women were asked to cover their shoulders. Do I consider Spain and France ‘repressive?’ No. I was just respecting someone’s wishes.”

She also warns against developing a sense of superiority:

“I mean, aren’t women repressed everywhere? …The US is among only 2 other countries in the world who do not pay pregnant women who take time off from work.  We were only allowed to vote just a 100 years ago.”

On “calling people out”:

Traveler Sarah Lewis says it usually comes down to reading the situation, and points out there may be alternatives to “calling out” someone that are more effective.

“I feel like in that one specific situation, I would try not to be rude about it, especially at first, because the waiter was just doing what he considers to be polite in his particular culture in his line of work. As a server in the US, I’ve seen men order for women, so for some people that type of thing is still traditional, even in less conservative countries. If he addressed a man I was with rather than myself, I would probably just answer the questions and not necessarily “correct” him per se. (Similar to how in Japan, the server always talks to the Asian-looking person. You correct them not by calling them out, but by just responding in Japanese, and eventually they realize they can talk to you.)”

What’s important, then, is trying to gauge intent. She adds:

“However, if he continued or was being obviously rude to me, that would be another thing entirely, and I think that’s where the ‘line’ sort of starts. If a person is doing something that, even in his culture, would be rude (such as catcalling or harassment), that would not be tolerated.”

On the balancing idealism with safety and comfort:

My friend Nandika Kumari is an Indian human rights activist, and she says this regarding the clothes issue:

“The class divide in India often means that urban girls/women from the upper classes will usually dress like any other American twenty year old. However, this is a very small number of people. Most women in India will dress as per their cultural traditions (which are often conservative)… The one rule I’ve always followed is to be 100% comfortable with myself. This also means that in a place where I am likely to get stares if I wear shorts, I will make the functional decision to wear something more conservative so I don’t have to get into arguments with creepy men every 10 steps.”

In regards to the what visitors should do, she adds:

“If someone is just on holiday it probably makes sense to dress close to the way most women in the area are dressed simply to reduce chances of harassment (I know how that sounds). A dress code is only likely to be enforced in religious places. Everywhere else, you are free to dress the way you like. If a woman feels comfortable wearing a dress in an Indian market, then please go ahead and do it. The culture of trying to control women’s behaviour doesn’t need encouragement. Seeing a western woman in different clothing may actually do some good.”

She also noted, “This is India, where you won’t get a death threat for pushing cultural boundaries.” This doesn’t hold true for every country, however, and there are other places where pushing the envelope may be a much more dangerous thing to do. Sarah Lewis adds:

“If something isn’t exactly rude in their culture, but I feel uncomfortable with it, I would probably say something, although again, depending on my level of comfort, I would probably in varying degrees attempt to be sensitive to the culture and not aim to immediately embarrass the person (unless I was really in danger or in a bad situation).”

And, of course, some mansplaining.

Okay, so this isn’t technically mansplaining: I don’t really know what it’s like to travel as a woman, and I won’t pretend to. But I have come across similar situations where something happens in a culture I’m visiting that clashes with my own personal values. A quick story:

When I was working a journalism internship at an English-languge newspaper in China, I really wanted our editors to cover issues like human rights. My bosses had to worry about government censors, so they weren’t really on board with taking editorial advice from an uppity 22-year-old foreigner. I pushed them on it, and all it did was alienate me from my bosses, to the point where I wasn’t being given any work. Towards the end of the internship, I was grabbing drinks with a British journalist who’d worked in China for years. I bitched to him about the Chinese journalists, calling them cowards.

“That’s not been my experience of Chinese journalists,” he said. “I’ve found them to be quite brave.”

I asked how. He said, “You’ve been here what, two months? You need to get to know the system better before you can attack it. These journalists are quite subversive, but they have to be more subtle in their attacks than a British or American could be. They don’t seek to topple anything, just to chip away. Keep in mind very few western journalists are actually risking their necks when they go to work every day.”

He went on to tell me how Chinese journalists would frequently undermine government-mandated stories through the subtle use of puns. For example, when the government wanted to show off their expensive new language-teaching program (which was incredible ineffective), the paper’s editors titled the piece, “GOVERNMENT CREATES ARMY OF CUNNING LINGUISTS.” This effective pun-usage has become so pervasive among Chinese dissidents that censors in China have actually banned the use of puns and idioms.

The lesson of that internship for me was that while the causes I was fighting for were just the world over, the tools for fighting for them changed from place to place depending on the context. It’s easy to fall prey to the whole “when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” trap, and for a lot of Westerners, becoming confrontational over small or large injustices is our hammer.

Your impulse to resist misogyny is always a good one, YASKWEEN, but you may simply not have the localized knowledge to resist it effectively. Which is fine. It creates an opportunity to learn and listen. The best thing you can do if you want to support feminists in the area you’re visiting is to ask them how you can best support them. Some may say money. Some may say political support from your government. Some may say “call out the waiter when he ignores you to talk to your husband.” Some may say, “definitely don’t call out the waiter.” The response will change based on the place you’re in and even on whom you’re talking to.

That said, respect cuts both ways. If you are trying to treat another culture with respect, you’re allowed to insist they treat you with respect as well.

Writer’s note: could we all  take a second to appreciate how far I came in a single week with my anonymous questioner acronyms? Last week, I dubbed my questioner “TUTBFTS.” This week, I pulled off motherfucking YASKWEEN. At this exponential rate of improvement, I’ll be a billionaire in a goddamn MONTH.


Featured image by David Sorich.

A basic guide to low carbon emissions travel

THE BIGGEST ETHICAL CONCERN confronting today’s traveler is how to still see the world without leaving environmental destruction in your wake. This is, to be totally honest, a pretty impossible task — to get to most places on a normal schedule, you have to use some sort of carbon-emitting means of locomotion, and that in itself is contributing to man-made climate change. Presumably, you’ve already thought about this, and have decided that the benefit of traveling outweighs the negative impact of the emissions. It’s cool, I’ve done the same thing a bunch of times, and am in no place to judge.

We’ll assume for the moment that you’ve decided you want to travel somewhere, and want to get there as green as you can. Congrats! The fact that you didn’t just go blundering out into the world with no consideration of the environment around you means you’re already less of a dick than most people. Here are the basics.

Zero-Emissions Travel

Photo:  Peter

Photo: Peter

This may seem blindingly obvious, but it’s worth noting that the best way to get from Point A to Point B in terms of low carbon emissions is by going the non-motorized route. There’s no such thing, incidentally, as zero-emissions travel, because you’re a carbon-emitting organism, and as such, nothing you do is zero-emissions. Presumably, you also fart, and farts contain methane, which is also a greenhouse gas. So the best thing you could do for the environment is to… well, not exist. But let’s assume you’ve rejected that option, and want to keep the emissions as close to zero as possible.

Your options tend to be slow, labor-intensive, expensive, or some mix of the three, and they’re fairly obvious — in the no-vehicle camp you’ve got walking or running, in the very-small vehicle camp you’ve got cross-country skiing, skating, and skateboarding, and in the larger vehicle camp you have bicycles, recumbent bicycles, tricycles, rickshaw cycles, and velomobiles. You also have water-based and sky-based forms of transportation, such as kayaks, canoes and sailboats for the former, and pedal-powered airplanes and helicopters for the latter.

The drawbacks for these forms of travel are obvious — the quicker ones tend to be pretty expensive, and the slower ones are, well, super slow, and limit your options significantly. There is a movement for this type of travel, though. It’s called slow travel. Slow travel is its own philosophy: not only does it focus on low emissions, but it also aims to reduce the element of rush from the travel experience, while emphasizing enjoyment and connection to locals and patronage of small local hotels and businesses.

Even if you don’t have a lot of time for, say, a slow travel trip around Europe, taking a walk or a bike ride is a pretty great way of seeing the area immediately around you. On top of that, walking has been proven to be good not only for your physical health, but for your emotional and mental health and for spurring creativity. So if you have the time — or have something particularly cool within walking or biking distance — this is absolutely a cool and legit way to travel.

Motorized travel

Okay. You’ve decided to go somewhere, and you’ve decided not to walk. What are your best options for low-emissions? Fortunately, the Union of Concerned Scientists has done some research in this field, and has found that the greenest mode of travel is…

Drum roll…

Photo:  joshr0ckx

Photo: joshr0ckx

Motorcoaches. Yup. Taking a Megabus, Greyhound or BoltBus is the most eco-friendly (and usually the cheapest) way of getting from Point A to Point B.

You might have been expecting something along the lines of a motorcycle or a small car to be the answer here, but the UCS’s reason for saying motorcoaches have the lowest carbon emissions is simple: busses split their emissions among a lot of people. So yes, a bus with 30 people on it will emit a lot more than a car, but it will emit a hell of a lot less than 30 cars.

The best of the rest

After motorcoaches, your options vary depending on how many people you’re traveling with, how far you’re traveling, and what type of vehicle you’re traveling in. Taking a train is usually the best form of travel otherwise, especially if the train is powered by electricity (which is common in some parts of the world, but not in the US outside of the Northeast Corridor).

When you’re driving by car, you cut your emissions every time you add a new person into the vehicle with you. So doing a one man (or woman) road trip is going to have about four times higher emissions than traveling with three other people. Buddy road trips are better anyway. It also helps to plan your trips so that you’re not going to be spending much time in traffic. Idling in traffic is a great way to pump poison in the atmosphere while not getting anywhere.

For cars, it also matters what type of car you use. Obviously, fuel-efficient cars, hybrids, and electric cars are the best, and obviously, gas guzzlers are the worst. Gas guzzlers, however, are not the most fuel-inefficient form of travel in every circumstance. That honor belongs to the first-class flight. The rationale behind this is that first class seats take up space that may otherwise have fit two or three other people. Flights aren’t eco-friendly regardless, but by taking up space that another person could have sat in, you’re effectively doubling your personal emissions.

The Union of Concerned Scientists put together a tremendously useful little chart breaking down what the most efficient mode of travel is based on your circumstances (specifically, based on the distance you are going and the number of people you are traveling with).

This graphic was made by the  UCSUSA .

This graphic was made by the UCSUSA.

You can check out the full report here.

What about motorcycles?

Photo:  Phlubdr

Photo: Phlubdr

UCS didn’t include motorcycles in their analysis because they are a ridiculous way to travel, especially if you have more luggage than a Camelbak1. Your instinct may be that, because motorcycles have more fuel efficiency, that they’re a really great way to get around. While it’s true that they’re more fuel-efficient, Mythbusters proved that they’re not particularly better than cars because they tend to release a lot of other harmful particulates, like the ones that cause smog, hydrocarbons, and carbon monoxide. Mythbuster Adam Savage says: “At best, it’s a wash. Motorcycles are just as bad for the environment as cars. At worst, they’re far worse.”

I personally don’t recommend riding motorcycles because a) they are wildly impractical for hauling luggage, and b) they’re suicide machines. I mean, have you seen the highways lately? They’re totally jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive.

Tips for air travel

Flight isn’t ever the best way to get around, but it’s also not always the worst. Flying economy is, if you’re going long distances by yourself, a better choice than taking a car. And on top of this, there are ways to lower your emissions as much as possible. The UCS suggests doing the following to keep your flight emissions down:

  1. Fly economy. If you have to fly, just suck it up and fly cramped. Your discomfort is good for the environment. If you want to get really serious about it, some airlines offer more economy seats than others on the same type of plane. Use these airlines when you can. Southwest and JetBlue both offer economy-only flights, and these are better to take from an environmental perspective2.
  2. Fly non-stop. You’re adding to your total emissions by zig-zagging. If you have to connect, try and make it as straight a line as possible. Don’t, in other words, go Chicago-Atlanta-New York when you can go Chicago-Cleveland-New York.
  3. Fly at airports that aren’t super congested. Much like driving in traffic, busy airports mean more airlines taxi-ing on the tarmac, which means more idling emissions. Go to less-used airports to limit the congestion.

How about offsets?

No, this is not an offset. Photo:  Ekke

No, this is not an offset. Photo: Ekke

Okay, so you’ve decided to go somewhere, and you’ve decided to go by plane. Is there a way you can maybe counteract some of those carbon emissions?

The short answer is yes: Carbon offsets are basically programs you can invest in that absorb carbon or other greenhouse gases in some way shape or form. Some of the programs are geared towards capturing cow farts. I’m not kidding about that. Others simply plant trees, while others still are basically simple investments in renewable energy (wind and solar) companies. 

The longer answer is more complicated. Lots of environmentalist sites don’t advocate the use of carbon offsets because they see them as a kind of half-assed attempt to make ourselves feel better about our excessive carbon emissions. The truth likely lies somewhere in between: we should try to lower our carbon emissions on an individual and collective level, but carbon offsets are also worthy of our investment.

If you’re looking to offset your flights with a carbon offset, you need to shop around. Not all carbon offsets are created equal. But respected Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki recommends the Gold Standard as having the highest standards for offset quality. Suzuki also put together a guide for buying offsets which is worth checking out.

I also personally like Stand for Trees. They focus on conserving forests and communities that might other be clearcut or destroyed, thus depriving the world of a very natural way of absorbing carbon. They’re also spectacularly easy to use, and are pretty affordable as well.

In order to figure out how much carbon you’re dumping into the atmosphere by traveling, visit this travel carbon calculator, enter in your info, and it will give you a number. You can then buy carbon offsets that are equal or greater to that number and your damage has (theoretically) been offset.

Other solutions

On an individual level, the best thing you can do to lower your total travel emissions is to quite simply travel less, and to only travel by plane when totally necessary. Here are a couple more ideas:

  1. If you own a small business, or have the say over these types of things, try and do videoconferencing instead of actual conferences as much as you possibly can. If you don’t have control over this type of thing, then maybe lobby your bosses for it. Business travel is becoming less essential in the age of the internet, and if you can make cuts, you should make cuts.
  2. Set aside a year or two and spend zero time on a plane. Treat your hometown and the area around it as a tourist destination. Bike around one weekend. Try local restaurants and bars. Visit the touristy things you’ve never visited before. Learn about the history. Treat your home like it’s Paris. Mercifully, for most of the world, air travel is still a luxury, which means that this is something that you, as a flying member of the privileged few, have an opportunity to make a big impact in. You can fly less while traveling the same amount.

It’s worth noting, however, that while individual efforts to lower carbon emissions are worth making, they are ultimately insufficient to adequately address the problem of climate change. The solution to climate change is going to have to be a collective one. If you want to fight climate change, here are some really solid non-profits you can support:

On top of that, if you really care about this issue, get involved! Go protest something! Travel and environmentalism go hand in hand: if you love seeing the world, you should fight to keep it from being destroyed.

Featured  Photo: Everett Taasevigen