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The Dark Side of Traveling

Traveling has been such a huge part of my life and my identity as a “multi-lingual international man,” that you might be surprised to read my article today on how I am entirely rethinking traveling and the way I’m planning to travel in the future.

The first big trip I took was maybe the most adventurous one. In 1998, I was 20 years old and had a burning desire to be part of the raw food movement. I had managed to save enough money to last me a few months. Flights were expensive, and I could not afford to spend $600 or $700 to fly there. Greyhound had a special where you could go anywhere within the contiguous United States for $80, one-way. So I chose that option, which involved a three day trip with seven layovers from Montreal to San Diego.

Once in California, I hitchhiked and cruised from one acquaintance to the next, in the true backpacking tradition, until I found a strange living arrangement in a rough part of town called City Heights, where helicopters would survey the mainly Mexican enclave at night, for reasons still unknown to me. Dogs would bark incessantly, and shady business would be conducted on the edges of canyons, but the place was an oasis of peace — a garden in the city, built on the slope of a ravine and filled with fruit trees, water fountains and Buddha statues. Morton, the owner, let me pitch my tent and use the facilities for $35 a week, which was probably the lowest rent one could get in San Diego.

Eating on the cheap in California

After a few years of wandering, I came back to Montreal, and my career in the raw food and vegan movement led me to many places: multiple speaking engagements in London, and the opportunity to go back to Europe many times. In a fury of intense self-study, I learned Spanish, Portuguese and German and was invited to give talks in all those languages in many countries. I don’t count the number of times I flew to Portland for the summer raw food festival, or to other cities in North America and Europe.

In my 30s I moved to Costa Rica and spent a couple of years in total there. I went on a world-trip with my ex-wife, visiting over 25 countries in the space of nine months. I’m not including other trips to Thailand, Bali, French Polynesia that I took on my own before getting married. I also lived in Vancouver, BC for a year and a half, before moving back to Montreal.

After my divorce, I told my friends “Enough of traveling! I’m staying put for a while.” They didn’t believe me, and they were right. It didn’t take long before I found excuses to travel to Europe again, and revisit Hawaii and my beloved Polynesia. New business opportunities also made me fly all over North America, and quite often to San Francisco, where I used to keep the transit card that I purchased there because I knew I would be back soon.

But recently, something has changed. Little by little, my attitude towards traveling changed.

It started by watching the degradation of magical places all around the world, like Venice in Italy, and Bali, and to some extent, Hawaii. As more and more people are traveling, these places and many others have trespassed beyond their safe limit at handling that traffic. Protest movements are emerging in cities overrun by tourists around the world, where the residents discover that tourism has disfigured their neighborhood and made living unaffordable.

The “sharing economy” of companies like Airbnb and Uber promised us the wiser use of our resources. We drank the cool-aid until we realized that all of these corporations wanted was to chase profits at the expense of local economies. , in particular, has turned entire neighborhoods into “Disneyland” tourism hotspots where apartments that previously rented to locals are being turned into short-time rentals that drive up the prices for apartments in the city, making it unaffordable for locals. Some people call it a “selling out of our cities.”

Then, there was summer 2018: the summer of all summers. Montreal was under a seemingly permanent heat wave, such as I have never experienced in my life. While vacationers in some spots have gone wild with this fantastic weather, a closer look reveals the nature of the calamity. While Germany faced the worst droughts in its history and the rest of Europe experienced one heat wave after the next, in areas North where they had never registered such weather events. Japan recorded a temperature never seen since record-keeping began over 150 years ago. Sweden, Finland, and Norway also set new records. Fires raged in California and BC, while in Algeria the highest temperature ever recorded in Africa was reached (124 Fahrenheit or 51.3 Celcius). In Japan, over 22,000 people were hospitalized due to the heat, and 65 died. (Tokyo registered temperatures over 40 Celsius for the first time.)

Although I flirted briefly with climate change denialism about 12 years ago, I eventually came back to my senses and realized that this is something real that will affect me in my lifetime. But the gravity of the situation escaped me as I did not spend too much time looking into it.  I made up for lost time by catching up on the research.

I realized that (wait for it my dear reader, it’s quite banal but the fact that we’ve overheard it doesn’t make it any less true) unless something profound changes in our way of life, we’re heading towards a catastrophe of unfathomable scope. Climate “change” should be more aptly renamed “climate catastrophe,” because the word “change” implies a sort of gradual transformation of our environment we would probably adapt to.

The facts are more sobering. Some scientists, like Adam Frank, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester, boil down the possible trajectories to three possible outcomes: 1) A mass extinction of about 70% of the human population followed by a climate stabilization. 2) Total collapse and extinction. 3) Human society dramatically changes its structure and manages to protect the biosphere. That would mean the complete elimination of fossil fuels and the entire human species switching to a plant-based diet, among other things. Knowing how human nature is and what structures of power are in place, the first two scenarios seem more likely.

The Uncomfortable Truth About Air Travel

While we’re doing our fair bit to fight climate change by adopting a plant-based diet (the most significant contributor of CO2 is animal agriculture), we must also look at a massive source of pollution and carbon emission: personal transportation and air travel. I live in the relatively bike-friendly city of Montreal, and over the years, my car use has dropped to the strict minimum. I enjoy biking everywhere almost year round, genuinely experiencing the city from a different perspective and getting a lot of exercise in the process.

But the truth is that I erase all of this healthy living lifestyle the moment I get on an airplane and fly across the country or the Atlantic. Flying emits, of course, massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. But there are also other indirect ways in which flying affects our climate: water vapors, nitrous gases, soot, sulfates, and fine particles, each of which contributes in their way to the problem. Scientists estimate that when you take all of these effects into account, air travel accounts for almost 9% of our contribution to climate change (the estimates vary between 4 and 9%). That will only grow as more people regularly fly.

Even if you are a climate skeptic and, like 36% of Americans (a rapidly sinking number), don’t believe human-made climate change is a reality, the fact is that reality is catching up with all of us. We don’t have to believe in lightning to be struck by it if we go out in the middle of a thunderstorm. Strangely enough, we trust science for the devices that we’re using right now for our highly digitalized world — a new phenomenon —  but we don’t believe the scientific consensus of a fact that has been known since 1902.

But climate aside, if we sit down and look at the facts, we can probably all agree that the way we travel is incredibly wasteful and has many downsides, which will only worsen as more and more people jet-set around the globe.

One commentator has likened the tourism industry to a “high-speed train, crammed with passengers with cheap tickets, racing toward a cliff edge.”

The Mind-Broadening Effects of Traveling

“It’s hard for me to see anything to envy in most people who travel. Because deep down that is what they are doing. Fleeing themselves and the lives they’ve created. Or worse, they’re telling themselves that they’re after self-discovery, exploration or perspective when really they are running towards distraction and self-indulgence.” Ryan Holiday, “How To Travel — Some Contrarian Advice

We want to believe that traveling the world is necessary to “broaden your mind and perspective.”It’s not been my experience that traveling, in general, opens our mind to understand the way the world works and makes us a better person. In my experience, most trips have only one thing in common: they provide short-term stimulation and excitement, and satisfy a sort of preordained fantasy fueled in part by Hollywood and cultural clichés, and in part by our aspirations and imagination — but very little by a genuine desire to understand the world.

I’m grateful to have had the chance to see beautiful places, like the Greek Islands or French Polynesia. But traveling is not the main thing that helped me better grasp the world in which we’re living and the challenges we face. If anything, it blinded me to the reality of what’s happening.

When we travel, we often have a one-sided view of the world. We see the reality that we want to see; we live the dream that we want to live. We often express this in stereotypes of what we’re supposed to do on a trip to experience the best that a country has to offer: eating gelato in Italy, going to the Louvre museum while in Paris, or going on a snorkeling tour while in Hawaii.

But does doing any of those things make tourists more aware? I have been with scuba divers who, straight after a dive where they watched some of the beautiful and endangered ecosystems of coral reefs on the planet, order the very same fish at a restaurant the evening after the dive. But you can’t blame them. Just seeing how beautiful coral reefs are doesn’t make you understand the ecological threats that they face and make you take steps to protect them. Only education on that topic does that, and this does not come from organized tours.

Reading and educating myself, as well as trying out new things have taught me more than traveling ever did. Learning about a country and truly understanding it requires two things: reading the local newspapers over a long period, and reading great books about the country, its history, and its challenges. If you also relocate to a city for a few months and be part of an active project there, you might even expand your cultural perspective. But foremost is education.

Henry David Thoreau wrote that “one can travel as much – and develop as much as a human being – in one’s own locality as in the far-flung and exotic corners of the globe.”

So while I don’t see traveling as a mind-expanding vehicle of modern enlightenment, some trips are more conducive to personal discovery than others. When you leave for an extended period on a limited budget, take the time to reach your destination and have no return date in mind: this kind of trip may broaden your mind. But this kind of trip can also be done without ever stepping on an airplane, as I did myself on my first adventure to California on a bus.

Longer trips with a purpose may facilitate this process, but one must be ripe for it. When I traveled the world for nine months, I experienced a level of stimulation and exhilaration that’s hard to describe. Many people get hooked on that feeling and experience a shattering “post-trip depression” that can last for months or even years, which is what leads them to travel again.

But again, we’re not traveling because they want to expand their consciousness. We’re traveling because of the rush of endorphin that this type of traveling provides. A feeling which is, unfortunately, short-lived.

Slow Travel Vs. Short Vacations

The product is this facade of “culture” presented to you, the list of “top things to do” that you’ve read in the guidebooks.

Most of the ill effects of traveling come from the way we travel: one or two weeks involving flying and driving as the primary forms of transportation. These are called “trips” even though the travel time itself is very short. And when we repeat many such short trips throughout the year, the environmental impact is great. We may not like to hear it, but when we travel that way, we are “mass tourists.”

A trip that makes you rethink your life and your values will typically be a long one, where you take time to get to your destination and take even more time to explore it, to blend with the crowd, to speak the language and to understand the culture, and contribute something to it. Perhaps you will only stay in one city for several weeks or months, instead of packing multiple destinations into a 9-day trip.

Such a long trip every two, three or four years would bring much more in value than several short trips packed in a year. And it would solve many of the problems associated with mass tourism. When you spend a more extended period traveling, you have time to build relationships, help people and learn the language.

Under most other circumstances, you’re a consumer. The product is this facade of “culture” presented to you, the list of “top things to do” that you’ve read in the guidebooks (a Luau in Hawaii or sitting in a café in the Champs-Elysées of Paris), and the curated photos that you’ll take back home or post on Instagram. But to the locals who smile and call you “my friend,” you’re just another tourist. Thousands like you will come tomorrow. And in places like Venice, where mass tourism has ruined things for the locals, you may even be resented.

Fewer Destinations, No Marathon

I admit it; when I planned my trip around the world, it was a splurge. In my mind, I had all of these pictures of places and countries from the Geo magazine I read as a kid (a French “National Geographic “), and my list of countries was a bucket list of those places. We managed to spend a month in Australia, but never made it to the North or even the interior, as I was scheduled to speak in many cities. From most countries in Europe, I only have single memories, as we only stayed a few days in most. We spent three weeks in Greece, and in the end, I wished we’d stayed there for months instead of spreading ourselves too thin in Europe. We visited Egypt, the Seychelles, Singapore, the Philippines, and Hong Kong, but only long enough to have a superficial impression of those places. In Thailand, I was busy writing a book. Even though we spent six weeks there, most of this time was spent in a hotel room finishing up a book. And from New Zealand we made our way back to North America via the South Pacific, visiting Fiji, the Cook Islands, and French Polynesia along the way. Again, those destinations warranted much more time to be fully explored.

Perhaps it’s greed or overexcitement or the fear of missing out that makes us try to see so much in so little time. With hindsight, I can recognize that this way of traveling is a mistake.

Traveling Differently

Flying has become the de-facto, convenient way to travel. Without even taking into considerations the environmental impacts, flying also removes the “traveling” part of traveling. People used to take nine months by sailboat to reach the South Pacific. Not so long ago, the most common way to travel from New York to Paris was by boat — a trip which took a few weeks. And no one complained about the length of the trip — it was just the way to get there. Now, we moan when our flight is delayed by a few hours, or we couldn’t upgrade to business class with our frequent flyer points, and we arrive at our destination a little tired. We want a vacation, but we don’t want to spend any time “traveling” to get there.

How about taking more time instead to reach our destination, and throw in other forms of transportation? What used to make traveling unique is precisely the fact that it took time to get there. When I took three days to get to San Diego from Montreal by bus, I had a lot of time to reflect on my life and what I wanted this adventure to be. At the time, I didn’t even think I was traveling. To me, it was the next phase of my life. I had no idea what was going to happen next.

Nowadays, I don’t think I could repeat the feat of this long non-stop bus ride with several layovers, sometimes in the middle of the night, through North America. But I could take more time to get somewhere. Maybe you’ll have to fly for some of the ways, but take a train for another segment. Stay a week somewhere before leaving with a different means of transportation. Slow travel.

Discovering Your Backyard

I never had to go anywhere to see the most beautiful sunsets. (Taken in Montreal, without filters).

It’s a universally banal realization among travelers that most people would instead explore far-away countries before they’ve even explored their own. We don’t know what’s in our backyard, but yet we want to wander in the neighbor’s garden. The grass is always greener elsewhere.

When I started traveling in Quebec more, I realized how much of a gem it is. We have some of the most spectacular wild nature in the world along with the oldest European settlement in North America (which eventually became Quebec City). There are islands in the St-Laurent that reminded me at times of the South Pacific (I’m thinking of “Ile aux Coudres), and friendly people everywhere. Perhaps we should only say that we’re “well-traveled” when we’ve started by discovering our province or state, or country.

There Are Places We Should Leave Alone

Part of what makes mass tourism so strange and contradictory is the fact that the very pristineness and beauty we seek by traveling to a special place gets disturbed and degraded by our being there. There’s no denying that Venice is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. But now that tourism overran it, that beauty is in danger, and every new tourist stepping in Venice contributes to that degradation.

One solution is to try to find undiscovered places or to travel in the offseason. For example, I’ve always thought that Rome would be beautiful in January. Unfortunately, I’m not the only one who came up with this brilliant realization. Now that travel magazines and blogs cater to our need for authenticity, publications that list those destinations “off the beaten path” abound. It doesn’t take that long for a path to be beaten when the herd of mass tourism marches upon it.

There are some places that we should leave alone. After having logged over 120 dives all over the world, I can tell you the uncomfortable truth about the scuba diving industry that no diver want to hear: the best way to protect the reefs is probably to leave them alone. We have to stop flying halfway around the world to see them (ultimately, the warming and acidification of the oceans, brought about by human-made climate change is what is going to destroy coral reefs in our lifetime). We could say the same about beautiful places around the world that are put under too much pressure by mass tourism.

Thinking Outside the Box for Traveling

It’s true that traveling brings a much-needed influx of capital in places that desperately need it. But too often, this tourism money ends up in very few hands, and the ones who profit the most from it also leave a wake of destruction behind them, through overdevelopment and the overexploitation of natural resources. We can only think of what is happening with coral reefs that are bleached and killed by the masses of snorkeling tourists wearing sunscreen, in places like Hawaii where no regulation has been past to regulate the chemicals used in those products that damage the reefs.

To make traveling sustainable and an extraordinary experience again, we need to think outside the box. Here, everyone can come up with creative ideas. I’m thinking of cycling holidays, bikepacking, camping, volunteering work, learning a language abroad, traveling by sailboat, you name it.

If we have to fly, offsetting the carbon impact of our flight through a reputable organization like Atmosfair is a step in the right direction. (And to pay for its low cost, just cut out one unnecessary tourist activity from your trip!)

How Will I Travel?

These realizations made me rethink my travel “needs” and made me realize that from now on, I wanted to travel differently. I’m not going to stop traveling, but I will make this travel time count. I want to keep flying to a minimum, avoid short vacations that involve flying, explore different options, and stay longer with fewer destinations.

What do you think? 

Frederic Patenaude
Frederic Patenaude
Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.