My final piece on intentional living – travel.
Intentional travel is something of a careful blend of fun experiences, thoughtful money-spending and mindful values during a time you’re supposed to be relaxing and enjoying a break from everyday life. Can you really stay true your way of life when you are miles from home? I have learned the hard way that it’s indeed a very delicate balance.
I set off on a year-long overland holiday last year with a plan to publicly blog about how to travel sustainably. It had been suggested to me that to travel so extensively, it was best to have some ideas about what I was looking to get out of the trip, and that turned into a quest for sustainable travel. In short, I quickly found myself questioning what’s possible and how much value I’m bringing to myself and my destinations when I can’t get the balance right.
Here’s my report card of how things went.
Low waste consumption
DREAMS: Part of my trip involved a 350km walk from Calais to Amsterdam in Europe’s north west. I planned to camp to save money on accommodation, and buy local produce to eat along the way. Therefore, I dutifully took my reusable produce bags and pocket-sized shopping bag by Apple Green Duck to hold my purchases and avoid nasty plastics and waste during each shop. Being vegetarian, meat wasn’t an issue, and I was intending to eat lots of yummy fruit and veg along the walk. I also took a nifty narrow, long straw holder bag by Shar Handmade Embellishments that held my utensils, and had my own collapsible plate, bowl and cup from Sea 2 Summit.
REALITY: Markets rarely fell upon my walking route and I didn’t exactly have a lot of space to buy large amounts of food from them anyway. Shopping had to be every couple of days. European supermarkets like Aldi were exactly the kinds of stores people complain about for their excess plastic wrapping. I remember being forlorn because I couldn’t buy one single tomato that wasn’t wrapped in plastic. My solution quickly became, buy what I needed, then in camp, discard all the plastic and keep all the veg in one produce bag, and all my fruit in another. As the walk ended and seasons changed, I found myself buying more hot chocolates. I sure wished my collapsible cup had a lid, or that I had a keep cup, because I also got frustrated creating more waste using disposable cups. A soup thermos or sealed container for meals would have also been more practical for leftovers and take-away meals.
WINS: My little dual-ended spork. I kept it in my bum-bag with my phone, wallet and a clean hanky that I used to wipe it after use. I rejected plastic cutlery every chance I got. I loved my beeswax wraps to cover half chopped veg between uses, but didn’t really use them after camping stopped. I had two different sized Camelbak Chute Magnetic water bottles, 1 litre and 750ml, and I filled them in the morning and had enough to last me all day, which is just as well, because refill stations in Europe were hard to find. In Africa, I travelled by truck, so I would buy 5L filtered water bottles to leave on the truck and refilled my Camelbaks each morning or as needed. I also had several reusable sandwich bags and zippered lined bags by Shar Handmade Embellishments. These were fantastic for any and every kind of storage, and the button closing loop handles on the zip bags were great for hanging from shower hooks and towel rails when using toiletries in camp and hostel bathrooms. I probably carried more luggage than I needed, but these little extras were fantastic in helping me save extra money and spare waste.
Supporting local businesses
DREAMS: I would give my money to local businesses like cafes, artisans and craftspeople instead of large chain businesses. I would feel rewarded that my money was going to parents who could use the money on their kids getting their ballet classes or football gear. I wouldn’t buy more than I need. I would highlight hidden travel gems and help villages and towns thrive by spending money in their local economy.
REALITY: Here is a goal that could have been more specific. In Europe it seemed to be big supermarket chains or Sunday market stalls, which I happened upon maybe twice. Similarly, hostel and hotel chains were hard to avoid. It was easier to enjoy an ice cream from a locally owned place, but it wasn’t like I was sitting down for coffee and cake in each town I passed. Likewise, as a minimalist, I actually didn’t want to accumulate more souvenirs like handmade crafts, nor did I have the space in my pack. I remember feeling particularly frustrated in Ireland that I wasn’t buying homemade brownies from the lady set up on the roadside because I’m Coeliac and follow a gluten free diet. And frustrated that I was not buying from anyone else operating the plethora of roadside stalls either.
WINS: I tried to buy one thing from each country and usually it was a fridge magnet or very small item I am likely to use at home, like my Dutch foldaway shopping bag adorned with Delft tulip art, or my Irish scarf made of local sheep’s wool. In Morocco, I travelled on tour with Intrepid Travel. Their foundation supports local artisans and so we stopped along the way to allow opportunities to buy from them, things like hand-painted ceramics and handwoven pashminas. They also encouraged low-waste, which was a win for me for shared values. In Africa with Tucan Travel, we were offered similar opportunities (they weren’t as mindful about the waste though). Food vendors were the main opportunity for me to support local. There were some great finds too, like this venture in the Hague called In Stock, which turned rescued food waste into new and exciting meals.
DREAMS: Avoid plane and car travel as much as possible. Use trains, buses and trucks to cross as much territory as possible. In cities, towns and villages, walk or bike, avoid public transport. Stop to smell the roses type travel – enjoy sights from the windows rather than from above.
REALITY: I took two planes to reach London, which was my starting point. I then cheated and took a plane to Ireland. Long story. My theory was, having visited many places before, that even large, widespread cities like the capitals of Europe, had small city centres dating back to their historic roots, and so walking to many major attractions would be pretty easy and short distances from each other. Also, it would save money in each city, which would leave more money for more travel.
WINS: This was probably my best decision and easiest reality. Budapest was probably the first place I took a tram, so avoiding public transport by walking in cities was incredibly easy. I travelled across Africa by truck in an organised tour. In Europe, I literally went from Ireland to Serbia before I had to take a plane because by that point I really needed money and took a job for a while. From Ireland to England I took a ferry. I rode buses and trains across Wales and England. Took a ferry to France. Walked to Amsterdam, for this I bought ‘Clem’ for my gear, my smart little ‘fietskar’ which is a children’s bicycle trailer/stroller convertible. It was my partner and literally held me up at the end of 8-hour walks, day after day. I ferried back to the UK to leave my camping gear with friends then returned to the Netherlands and took train upon train across Germany, Austria, Hungary and then Serbia. Returning to tour Wales later, in late autumn, I drove around by car simply because they lacked the public transport to do so. But otherwise, I loved the hours sat idly, the break from reality, and how many little details I noticed. I would do that again in a heartbeat. Australia overland next?
As much as I loved my trip, I definitely aimed too high and for such a seasoned traveller, made a lot of mistakes. Backpacking, I felt like Reese Witherspoon at the start of the movie Wild. That scene where she tried to put on the backpack was definitely me, just with different gear. The trip was also too long and varied and required specific packing for each part, which contributed to the 38kg backpack weight I struggled to carry. After 3 months of training.
The experience of the walk was a trip of a lifetime, and the days spent noticing every detail of the beaches, trails, villages and water systems of northwest Europe is beyond compare. The slowness of ferry and train travel is perfect for minimalists as well. But, for the money I had to invest in camping gear and in buying Clem (which I later sold), it would have been better spent meeting other sustainability goals, like staying in bed and breakfasts and eating in local restaurants which would have introduced me to more locals and supported local economies as I’d hoped. It also would have been far less lonely. Camping, a new hobby, was not targeted at walkers. Most sites were off the highways, miles from my trails, so options were limited. It was also hours of daily work added to long walking days, and what with sleeping and cooking gear, added enough weight to require Clem. Having Clem then meant in Netherlands, a country with wall-to-wall cities, I couldn’t camp or hostel, so my spending rose dramatically on wheelchair friendly hotel rooms I could just push Clem straight into each night. Belgium however, had been just the perfect experience, canal-side walking and beautiful campsites.
Morocco with Intrepid Travel was spot-on for shared values, and I’ll definitely be looking at other places I can go with them, for that balance of free time, memorable experiences (Sahara desert camping anyone?) and supporting locals and responsible travel.
Intentional travel starts with being clear about what you want out of your trip. Resort break sunbathing or skiing? City hopping? Adventure hikes? Meeting locals? Seeing as many sights as you can? Be clear. But, be flexible for this to change. Where I’ve travelled in the past, by circumstance there’s always been one thing left to go back to see or do. This time, once on the road, I changed my vision and decided to see every drop of each country so that I need never return there unless I wanted. Originally, I thought I would also be a digital nomad, blogging, planning a business, and working remotely as well. Quickly that was unrealistic, because I was already spending long periods in each country. The goal to be thorough was better for me, and sustainable travel something to strive for second.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about future travel, and what sustainable and intentional travel means to me moving forward. From now on, I’ll base myself in Australia. I’ll take short trips, less than a month. I’ll stay in bed and breakfasts and eat in local restaurants. I might even make room in my luggage for a craft souvenir or two. Camp with my car and tent in Australia only. Wherever possible, I’ll still strive for overland.
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