Coming from a long line of Russian naturalists and explorers, it’s not surprising that I should have ended up making my livelihood by traveling to the world’s kamchatki, as Russians call faraway places– remote, inaccessible corners of the planet like the Amazon, Madagascar, and Tibet– and writing about them. Had I been born a hundred years ago, into the generation of Joseph Conrad, I might have slaked my wanderlust as a merchant seaman, but my vehicle for the last forty years has been glossy magazines, and there is no shortage of incredible stories out there, once you get off the modern grid and start poking around in the back country, to furnish them with.
I learned at an early age to travel light, because my dad was a mountain climber. In the late fifties and early sixties he took my brother and me up some serious routes in theAlpsand the Tetons. We had to carry our own gear, so naturally we kept it to a minimum.
For several years after a nine-month stint in the Amazon rain forest in l975-6, I schlepped my gear in a canvas duffel bag, using the strap as a tumpline, the way the Indians I had been with did. The duffel bag, which I spent two months in the Congo rain forest in l982, running around with pygmies, contained a hammock, a mosquito net, a poncho to put over them in case it rained in the night, and my extra clothes. If you’re traveling deep into a rainforest, there are two crucial things to have with you : a bottle of rubbing alcohol, which cleanses insect bites and reduces the urge to scratch them, and a cocktail of the antibiotics kotexin and doxycycline, or their equivalents, in case you come down with resistant malaria in the middle of nowhere. They make the difference between a sweaty night and dying. I took a sidebag with secret compartments that no security check or customs search ever discovered (it and the duffel bag both from Eastern Mountain Sports) for my valuables, passport, notebooks, small cheap camera and tape recorder, field guides to the bird and mammals, background material on the country or biome I was going to be casing out. I tried very hard not to look like a tourist (although of course that is what I was) and to blend in with the locals, to live and move with them, at their level. This is not easy in Africa, where you arrive in a village and are swarmed by kids screaming mzungu, mzungu, white guy, white guy. I avoided the luxury tourist compounds. You seen one you seen ‘em all. The whole point of traveling is to experience a different part of the world, new landscapes and ways of looking at things, to put yourself in the path of the unpredictable and the unexpected, not to have your path smoothed and everything carefully prepared for your arrival. On all of my trips it’s been the chance encounters, the things I didn’t plan for, that were most informative, sometimes even transformative. To expand your understanding of what is really gone on, of what we are doing here, the first thing you have to do, like young Prince Siddartha 3500 years ago, is get out of the palace.
When I first started going toNew Delhi, in 1990, I stayed at the Oberoi, one of the most exquisitely palatial hotels on earth. But after a dozen visits, I discovered a small, cozy hostelry in Pajar Gang, the seething quarter near the railroad station, called Lal’s Haveli. A room there with a ceiling fan, air-conditioning, hot shower and t.v. with remote is $10 a night, and you’re in the thick ofIndia. Breakfast is on the roof. You can watch the sun come up and the city come to life and have deep discussions with your fellow guests, a Nepali horse trader perhaps, or a textile importer fromNigeria. There’s an Internet café in the alley and a great south Indian restaurant across the street. What more could you want ?
In the eighties, having moved up in the magazine world, I started writing stories that entailed meeting the presidents of the countries whose indigenous forest people I had been hanging out with (most of them didn’t even know they had a president). Government ministers in Africa andSouth Americaare sharp dressers, so I had to look the part, and to carry my dark suits and cap-toed oxfords and dress shirts, I switched to a suitcase. I schlepped the same black hardshell Delco around for fifteen years or so until it was all scratched up and plastered with stickers and remnants of tape. The more beat-up it got, the less I had to worry about anybody making off with it. I also took along a small cheap guitar to break the ice and jam with the locals and to pass the inevitable down time like sitting on a platform inLahorefor four hours waiting for the train to come. The Delco inspired the lead song of soon-to-be-released cd, “Suitcase on the Loose.”
The arrival of fast-drying, wrinkle-proof threads, made of nylon, polypropylene, capylene, and other synthetics, which I didn’t become hip to until this millennium but which have been around for twenty years, caused a major downsizing of my travel kit. It was no longer necessary to schlep a suitcase, even if you were going to meet the president. I outfitted myself at Tilley’s with a wardrobe of their stylish “endurables” that covers me for pretty much every sartorial situation I’m going to run into. One is a suit and nice shirt, the other a safari jacket with unzippable sleaves and a million pockets, cum long pants with unzippable legs. Whichever outfit ever I’m not wearing fits into a small bicyclists’ backpack, so I can carry it on, as well as my diminutive six-string Yamaha Guitalele, which I switched to after 9/1l and the check-in agents started to insist that I check my guitar. Layered with long-johns and a sweater, the expedition outfit is good up to 18,000 feet, as I discovered in the Peruvian Andes last September. So I have the art of traveling light down pretty well, just as my dad did by the time he was my age, having started with fifty-pound packs. In his latter years, he was taking off for the Pamirs or the Caucasus with a pack no bigger than mine. The more you travel, the less, you realize, you have to take.
But traveling light doesn’t just mean reducing your baggage, it means reducing your footprint, or rather footprints : your carbon footprint, your ecological footprint, your footprint on the local culture. Most of your carbon footprint comes from the planes you take. A gallon of combusted airplane fuel produces 40 times more greenhouse gases than a gallon of gas. You can take consolation in the fact that if everyone in the plane drove to the destination in their cars, their collective footprint would be greater, but still, airplanes account for something like five percent of the total “anthropogenic” (human) contribution to the rising temperatures that are wreaking havoc with the planet’s ecology and weather systems. Driving is not an option, of course, if you are crossing an ocean, which I’ve done hundreds of times. I would never have gotten to all these amazing places if it wasn’t for the airplane. I met my wife of the last 17 years on the October 11, 1987 AirEthiopiaflight fromEntebbetoRome. We had both changed our flights at the last minute, and had I not been kicked out of my seat by the Ugandan minister of youth, culture, and sports and plunked myself down beside her, our three boys would not have come into this world. Our family’s destiny is entwined with the passenger airplane, going back to the l920s, when my father was the business manager of fellow émigré Igor Sikorsky’s aircraft company, which was developing what became the Pan American Clipper Ship.
There may not be much you can do about the airplane emissions component of your footprint in motion, but once you get there, there are plenty of ways you can make yourself a more responsible traveler. Starting with the things you should be doing at home, like switching off the lights and air conditioning when you’re leaving the room, refusing plastic bags, not ripping off two feet of toilet paper. With the advent of ecotourism, there are loads of companies and operations that do it right now, and they are the ones you should be booking. Are the local people getting anything out of my visit ? Is it helping preserve or erode the local ecosystem and culture ? These are the questions you should be asking. Some cultures, like the Balians and the Bushmen of the Kalahari, handle the presence of tourists better than others, but you have to be really careful. I’ve seen some real horror stories, like a jungle cruise I took in the late seventies to avillage of Boraand Huitoto Indians,not far up the Amazon fromIquitos,Peru. They had been primed with Aguardiente, the local sugarcane fire water, and were so drunk by the time I got there that half the dancers couldn’t stay on their feet. These were the same Indians, I later learned, who had been enslaved and subject to unspeakable cruelties during the rubber boom earlier in the century.
A year later, I was hired as the “expedition leader” of the first adventure cruise up the Amazon. We would take off into the side channels of the main river in zodiac rafts. One morning we came upon some Tikuna Indians who had had little contact with the outside world and sold us an extraordinary tableau of forest animals they had painted on an eight by ten canvas of bark cloth. Fifteen years later, at Harvard’s PeabodyMuseum’s gift shop, I found a stack of “Tikuna bark-cloth paintings.” Their work had become worthless kitschy tourist crap. Tourism turns traditional cultures into ersatz replicas of itself. The classic example is the turning of the Hopi’s sacred kachina dolls into souvenirs.
When I passed through Bandiagara, Mali, the main trading center for the Dogon people, in 2003, well-intentioned tourists were giving young freelance guides their sleeping bags and clothing and had created a culture of dependency, so that young Dogon were living off their handouts rather than participating in their own culture, and the elders were no longer initiating them into manhood because they didn’t think they were worthy of being given the secret traditional information, so there’s another fascinating culture on the way out . In Madagascarin the mid-eighties I went into the rainforest to see a certain species of lemur called the indri with a young guide from the local village who, it quickly became apparent, had a special, deep love of nature that some people seem to be born with—it’s not a common trait in any culture. He had taught himself the names and calls and physiognomies of over a hundred species of bird, and he didn’t even have a pair of binoculars. So when I left, I gave him my little Nikons, which I was very attached to, but I could always buy another pair, and I felt great, thinking I had a positive impact on this lovely young Malagasy’s life. But some years later I read in David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo (in which Quammen recounts his trip to the same forest to see the indri) that he had been killed by jealous people in his village, because the tourists were giving him all this stuff, and they weren’t getting anything.
But tourism doesn’t have to have a negative impact. The Amazon Research andConservationCenter, in the Peruvian Amazon, is completely staffed by local Indians. Jack’s Camp inBotswanaoffers “dignified tourism” among the Bushmen. The Masaai of Shompole Group Ranch inKenyaare partners in the conservation business with the hip white Kenyan who built a luxurious ecolodge in the hills above them, which they own thirty percent of and staff. They don’t kill the lions any more, because they realize a lion is worth $20,000 in tourist dollars alive, and the money flowing into the community has brought running water to every hut and is helping maintain their culture. Everyone is benefiting.
For the tourist who can’t be bothered with all these niggling little green do’s and don’t, I offer the following South American folk tale (which I got from Wangari Maathai, the Nobel prize-winning founder of Kenya’s Greenbelt Movement and a very powerful and courageous woman) : There is a terrible forest fire. All the animals are fleeing the conflagration except Hummingbird, who is flying back and forth, dumping little slivers of water on the flames that it is scooping up in a spring. What do you think you’re doing, stupid little bird ? the other animals ask derisively, and Hummingbird says, I’m doing what I can. That’s what we all have to do at this critical juncture. The way you travel, as an individual, absolutely does matter, especially when you multiply your footprint by the 1.1 billion tourists who are expected to be in circulation by 2010. What might be called “extinction tourism” — taking a last look atTibet, theGreat Barrier Reef, the polar bear—is becoming increasingly popular. Which inescapably puts the tourist in the awkward position of contributing to the extinction with his airplane fuel and presence on the ground. So let’s each of us do our bit and tred as lightly as we possibly can.