How To Be An Ethical Traveler

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Original Air Date: 
May 25, 2019

Before the pandemic upended all world travel, we aired a show about what it means to be an ethical traveler. Between masks and vaccinations, COVID-19 has added even more to the ethical baggage we carry with us when we travel. But part of recovering from the pandemic involves getting back out there and seeing the world.

So before you take your next trip abroad, we thought we would revisit some thoughts and advice in that episode. Safe journeys.

This show was produced in partnership with AFAR Magazine, whose May/June 2019 issue on ethical traveling inspired this episode.

A cruise ship in Norway

Journalist Elizabeth Becker, the author of "Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism," breaks down how we got to this moment in global tourism, and how we might nudge nations, companies and ourselves to become more responsible travelers.

maps and guides
Sonic Sidebar

Dave Eggers – the writer and founder of McSweeney’s – has been all over the world. Along the way, he developed his own personal code of travel ethics.

Illustration By George Wylesol (AFAR Magazine)

Unless you walk or bike to your next vacation destination, you’ll probably have to burn some fossil fuels to get there. Blogger Kathryn Kellogg is a guru of zero-waste living. She has a few tips on how to reduce your impact on the environment when you travel. 

Helping hands while traveling. Illustration By George Wylesol (AFAR Magazine)

What’s the most uncomfortable you’ve ever been on a trip? Anu Taranath is a social justice facilitator and teacher, used to having difficult conversations about race, identity and privilege. She says those are issues that come up all the time when Americans travel abroad.

Traveling in Canada

One of the most famous world travelers of any age was Barry Lopez, the explorer and writer who passed away in 2020. We wanted to remember him by re-visiting Steve Paulson's interview with Lopez about his memoir – called "Horizon."


Show Details 📻
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:15):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps. Overtourism is ruining some of our favorite places on earth. So what does that mean for your next trip?

Elizabeth Becker (00:36):

Last summer, I was invited to the Arctic Circle of Norway. One of the least inhabited places on earth.

Anne Strainchamps (00:46):

This is journalist Elizabeth Becker.

Elizabeth Becker (00:51):

In the Lofoten Islands, there's a village called Uttakleiv, with a beach so outstanding that National Geographic, called it one of the most romantic in the world.

Elizabeth Becker (01:09):

The people of this little village of Uttakleiv, population 13, are now being invaded by 250,000 tourists on that little beach, every year. This has turned into a stampede, the litter. The litter on this one island is 8,000 tons a weekend.

Elizabeth Becker (01:50):

When someone gets ill, this little island has to transport them by helicopter to a clinic and pay the bills. They have to pay for their own porta potties that people would ignore.

Elizabeth Becker (02:07):

All of the money being made on tourism, none of it goes to the community, but the community has to pick up the pieces. This beautiful, gorgeous remote island beach was a stunner and it just brought home to me. We, human beings have to realize we can't just go wherever we want, and pay no attention to the consequences.

Anne Strainchamps (02:41):

Boy, that's a hard thing to hear. I mean, I love traveling and you probably do too. When we track to a beach in Norway, or to the canals in Venice or to the Grand Canyon, we do it out of love. Right? But we're loving, some of these places to death. And now the locals are turning out to protest with signs that say, "Tourists, go home." Should we?

Anne Strainchamps (03:11):

Elizabeth Becker wrote the first book on overtourism six years ago. And since then she says, "It's only gotten worse." Charles Monroe-Kane wants to know, what happened?

Elizabeth Becker (03:26):

What happened was, globalization at the turn of this century, for the very first time, probably in history, meant all of the borders for the countries of the world were open to travel, so everybody could travel everywhere.

Elizabeth Becker (03:40):

Secondly, you could actually get places. You could travel halfway across the globe now with no stops, just direct. With globalization came rapid growth of a middle class around the globe, particularly in China, which now is the number one source of tourists and it's only going to get larger. Put that all together and you have a huge explosion of travel and tourism.

Charles Monroe-Kane (04:06):

Yikes. I hear you describe that, I'm like, "Oh my God." And then I'm thinking of another thing. There's the house I live in Madison, and the house across the street from me, the woman comes over and knocks on my door and says, "Hey, I'm moving, but I'm not going to sell the house. I'm turning into an Airbnb." What is Airbnb's role in this growth of tourism?

Elizabeth Becker (04:25):

Airbnb is a disruptor. For instance, I'm going to take Venice, which became overcrowded before Airbnb happened. Venice, once you give your city over to the tourism industry, rather than protecting your locals from it, rents go up, real estate goes up, the locals can't afford to rent or buy, they leave. Without all the locals the greengrocers disappears. The butcher disappears.

Charles Monroe-Kane (04:53):

Right. Right.

Elizabeth Becker (04:54):

The clinic and the school. So Venice, which had a population close to 200,000, say in 1960 is now at less than 60,000.

Charles Monroe-Kane (05:05):

Are you serious?

Elizabeth Becker (05:06):

If you don't watch it, you'll find yourself in the situation of Barcelona, which is one of those cities that does have those, signs. And the one I saw when I did my report on it was, why call it tourist season if we can't kill them?

Charles Monroe-Kane (05:24):

That's a hell of a sign, man.

Elizabeth Becker (05:26):

Because... This is graffiti actually.

Charles Monroe-Kane (05:27):

Yeah. I love it.

Elizabeth Becker (05:28):

The mayor is a first major politician, I think in Europe who won her election on trying to control tourism. But she's having a hard time, because mayors have just so much power.

Charles Monroe-Kane (05:39):


Elizabeth Becker (05:40):

She closes down an illegal Airbnb every single day and she's barely doing the surface.

Charles Monroe-Kane (05:46):

It begs a question. What would you do? If you're the prime minister of Holland, you want tourists to come, they want to come see the Van Gogh Museum, they want to be in a canal. How do you control that? You can't just be at the gate being like, "Nope. Yes. Nope." I mean, how do you do that?

Elizabeth Becker (06:01):

First of all, I like people to think, again, this is an industry. So what do you ask of an industry? You say to the industry, "Okay. Yeah. Come into our community, be a good citizen, follow our rules. And then we want to make sure that your industry is integrated into our community, and that you are actually benefiting us, that we're actually making money from you and you're following our rules." And then if you have to do so, make some new rules, have some new regulations.

Elizabeth Becker (06:29):

And this is the mystique of tourism. It's far more emotional. When you're talking about a new pipeline across Canada, then you know what the issues are and you know who's on each side. With tourism, there are too many points.

Elizabeth Becker (06:45):

There is the tourists themselves who say, "Oh, you're being elitist snobs. If you're not letting us all in, you only want the rich people." And then there's industry saying, "We are responsible for X number of jobs and X number of money coming into your community." And that's when the community has to say, "Whoa, let's check this out." And whenever they do that, they discover, "Uh-huh that's not the case."

Charles Monroe-Kane (07:07):

Flush that out. I mean, that's the assumption. Right? The assumption is, "Hey, you come into my city, you're giving me local jobs." So that's not true?

Elizabeth Becker (07:14):

Tourist jobs. Yes. It's the biggest employer in the world. But the vast majority is the lowest paying on the scale, and the big jobs and the big money don't stay in the most local communities. They're the international chains. They're the international luxury shops. It's a really multifaceted industry, that you have to watch.

Charles Monroe-Kane (07:34):

My family live in Alaska and they despise, despise the cruise ships. There seems to be no regulation on them at all.

Elizabeth Becker (07:41):

That's the most controversial chapter in my book. Alaska, they play hide and seek with dumping.

Charles Monroe-Kane (07:48):

Right. That's the big issue. Yeah.

Elizabeth Becker (07:50):

What happens when those crowds get out in a place like Alaska? That's, what's called drive by tourism. Thousands, thousands, and thousands will just descend on some place like locust.

Elizabeth Becker (08:02):

If you noticed in your home state, when the cruise ships come, all of a sudden the docks have strange shops on them like Diamonds International and all these things that have nothing to do with Alaska.

Charles Monroe-Kane (08:14):

You're right. Mm-hmm.

Elizabeth Becker (08:15):

And that's because they're all tied in with the cruise industry. So you not only get the cruise ships, with the environmental issues, but also cruise ships that bring with them a separate economy that does not, enrich your economy.

Charles Monroe-Kane (08:27):

Mm-hmm. I went to college for a while in Costa Rica.

Elizabeth Becker (08:30):


Charles Monroe-Kane (08:31):

I lived in the north on the Pacific Ocean, but only a few hours from the Cloud Forest of Monteverde. And this was 25 years ago. And it seemed like they were doing everything right at the time. It seemed like it was working, the things were controlled.

Charles Monroe-Kane (08:42):

And I think a lot of people say, that's where ecotourism came from. Can you talk about Costa Rica because, is my perception wrong? Or are they still friendly with the ecology and doing this right?

Elizabeth Becker (08:52):

Oh, they're great. They are great. There's some built-in institutional guarantees that no other country I know of has. First, they don't have armed forces.

Charles Monroe-Kane (09:03):


Elizabeth Becker (09:04):

Instead, they have made it one of the strongest countries for preserving wilderness. They're great biologists. They're great zoologist. And they had preserved what is called, one of the best natural powerhouses in the Western Hemisphere with X number of butterflies and birds and mammals.

Elizabeth Becker (09:25):

It's a preserve all the way up and down. And they knew back then, that the only way they could support this would be if they had, smart ecotourism. So yes, they are the home of ecotourism. And Bob's your uncle, it works.

Charles Monroe-Kane (09:38):

And I wonder, for my kids, I've been all over the world. You've been all over the world. I've done some good traveling and living in a bunch of different countries from Bulgaria to China. Is it over? Are they going to be able to have those authentic, educated, traveling experiences that you and I had? Or is it just changed? Because there's so many people.

Elizabeth Becker (09:56):

The word educated, I think is critical there because you spent time places, you got to know a place. You didn't go for three days and two nights.

Charles Monroe-Kane (10:06):

I fell in love in some of those places, different times.

Elizabeth Becker (10:08):

Yeah. So there you are. That's, I think you can always do that. If you live somewhere, that's a wonderful experience. Obviously everybody can't do that. So see, I think there are a couple of rules. One, don't take as many trips, at all.

Charles Monroe-Kane (10:23):


Elizabeth Becker (10:24):

And when you take a trip, make it longer and don't go a lot of places.

Charles Monroe-Kane (10:29):


Elizabeth Becker (10:30):

If you can stay in one place for a couple of weeks, much, much better, three weeks even better. Store up all your little vacation days. Get to know the locals. Don't try to see everything. Behave more like the locals. And you're probably going to have a great experience.

Charles Monroe-Kane (10:47):


Elizabeth Becker (10:48):

It's not going to be the same though.

Charles Monroe-Kane (10:49):


Elizabeth Becker (10:50):

It's never going to be the same.

Anne Strainchamps (10:56):

Elizabeth Becker is a former war correspondent and foreign editor. Her book on global tourism is called Overbooked. Charles Monroe-Kane spent a decade living in Prague and he's still trying to figure out how to see it without the crowds.

Anne Strainchamps (11:18):

So if you don't want to give up your dream of exploring the world, but you want to do it more responsibly, what does that look like? Well, Dave Eggers, the writer and founder of McSweeney's has been all over the world. And along the way, he's developed his own personal code of travel ethics.

Dave Eggers (11:39):

I, did not have a passport until I was 26, I never left the country until that point, so I was really in a bubble within a bubble. I feel most at home I think, when I'm in new places and being guided by a local guide, that usually is inexperienced at being a guide but somebody who's a friend of a friend who I meet and shows me their country and I try not to assume anything.

Dave Eggers (12:25):

I try not to ever, assume the truth of a travel book or a guide book or any kind of received wisdom, because I've almost never found any of that to be true. No offense to travel book writers, but in terms of customs and what you're going to encounter on what the people are like or supposedly like, any of these assumptions, I think are sort of inherently toxic and wrong.

Dave Eggers (13:00):

If you're open to the sort of infinite complexity of the people that you're going to encounter in any part of the world, and that every one of them defies every expectation, that has ever been attributed to them, that's what you got to start with. And if you start with that, travel is just a profound experience every single day. So that process of discovery, is so life-affirming.

Dave Eggers (13:31):

I'm trying to put a book of travel, essays and experiences together, and I, and some of it goes toward or it might be held together by some kind of code of ethics. But I think it starts with humility, and it starts with tossing out everything you think you know, and being a complete open book and with 99% listening and 1% talking. And if you start with those precepts, then I think you can get along pretty well.

Dave Eggers (14:17):

In no cases, do I ever seek to sort of write a definitive book about a country that I'm not from? I was in Gaza a couple years ago and I went in saying, "Listen, I want you to tell me what people should know about Gaza. I'm going to describe what I see, but I want you to tell me, what I should know." And so my guides, I let them show me what needed to be shown, what they wanted to show me, what I needed to see.

Dave Eggers (14:50):

Once you give yourself up to, localize and you combine it with your perspective and what your audience might need to know and... Then I think you can really get somewhere. I think that alchemy between the two, is essential. It's one of the elements of a mosaic, to understand the world.

Anne Strainchamps (15:23):

That's writer and publisher, Dave Eggers. Okay. So we're going to travel off the beaten path. We're going to eat, sleep, read, and buy local. Now we just have to figure out, how to get there. Can ethical travelers take planes? We'll find out. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (15:51):

Unless you walk or bike to your next vacation destination, you're probably going to have to burn some fossil fuels to get there. How do you feel about that? Here in Madison, Angelo Bautista has been worrying about his carbon footprint so he reached out to the guru of zero waste living, blogger, Kathryn Kellogg.

Angelo Bautista (16:11):

Can you tell me how you got into this zero waste lifestyle?

Kathryn Kellogg (16:15):

Sure. So it's a little bit of a long story. I started going zero waste without really knowing what I was doing. I had a breast cancer scare when I was 20 and it really flipped my entire world upside down and I started making a lot of changes for my personal health.

Kathryn Kellogg (16:29):

And a lot of the products we use in our day to day life, like our cleaning products, our beauty products, all of these things contain endocrine disruptors, plastic too, most notably BPA. And so I started trying to phase these things out of my life.

Kathryn Kellogg (16:41):

And when I moved out to California, the litter problem here is tragic. I mean there's litter and trash everywhere. And for the first time, for me, it connected that the changes I was making for my personal health, weren't only better for me, but also better for the health of the planet.

Angelo Bautista (16:57):

Did going zero waste mean giving up on long distance travel?

Kathryn Kellogg (17:01):

So I haven't completely given up on travel, but however, I am incredibly, incredibly mindful when I do travel. I haven't been overseas since 2012. I also don't particularly like being on a plane so that's a really good excuse too. It helps me justify my hermit lifestyle.

Angelo Bautista (17:18):

Oh, that's good. Thinking about becoming more eco-friendly, I kind of have to confess that I fly a lot. I have a boyfriend who lives in Florida and I fly out to see him, almost every month. And we've been long distance for almost four years now. So if you want to do the math on that round trip, once a month for four years kind of adds up to a lot. So how can I be less wasteful with flying?

Kathryn Kellogg (17:47):

Yeah. That's a lot of flying, man. And also congrats, four years long distance. That is no easy feat seriously. Bravo.

Angelo Bautista (17:54):

Oh thank you.

Kathryn Kellogg (17:55):

And yeah. So you, okay, let's talk about this. Let's talk about fuel.

Angelo Bautista (18:00):


Kathryn Kellogg (18:01):

A lot of environmentalists will tell you that, nonstop flight is the best flight to have, because you burn the most fuel in take off and in landing.

Kathryn Kellogg (18:10):

But that doesn't really account for the fact that jet fuel weighs a lot. So the sweet spot is actually kind of four hours. And so I'm thinking about where you are to Florida. It sounds like you are hitting that sweet spot of, kind of like the perfect, distance? Is that right? Is it about four hours?

Angelo Bautista (18:24):

Yeah. Actually, yeah. That makes me feel good that I'm living in that sweet spot.

Kathryn Kellogg (18:28):

Yes. Good job. So that is something... So if you are, let's say at five were in California and I wanted to fly to London. For me, the best trip would probably be taking the flight from California to New York, because that's about five hours and then about another five to six hour leg.

Kathryn Kellogg (18:46):

So that way I'd be hitting that sweet spot. So that way the plane doesn't have to be carrying a ton of weight. Whenever we are thinking about weight, of course, that means not checking a bag and trying to keep your suitcase on the lighter side.

Angelo Bautista (18:57):

Does that actually help with fuel efficiency?

Kathryn Kellogg (19:00):

It does, of course one person doing it isn't going to make a huge difference, but if we have more people doing it, that's when all make a bigger difference.

Angelo Bautista (19:06):


Kathryn Kellogg (19:07):

And I think it's also important that we advocate for the airlines doing more, as well. And I'm really, really excited and very hopeful about the future of transportation and seeing what we can, change to make flying something that isn't going to be releasing a ton of emissions because I don't think flying is going anywhere. Right? It's not going anywhere.

Angelo Bautista (19:29):

Right. Right. And I'm thinking the fact that you live a zero waste life, kind of in a way already offsets the kinds of travel that you would be doing. I take a trip every month to see my boyfriend, but I feel better knowing that, I walk to work every day and I rarely ever use my car. Is that the right way to look at it?

Kathryn Kellogg (19:49):

Absolutely. I mean, so articles that come out about me that are published on the web, the comment section is hilarious, but one comment that always sticks out in my mind is the person that says, "Oh, well, Kathryn's doing my part for me so I don't have to."

Kathryn Kellogg (20:02):

And I hate that comment. Out of all the comments that's the one I really dislike, because we can all do things to help improve our own footprint. I don't do anything for anyone else. I'm not making up for you. We all have to do it together.

Angelo Bautista (20:15):

So let's talk about actually going out, traveling, going abroad. On your blog, you write about a zero waste travel kit. So how does one go about building one of those, and making one work for them?

Kathryn Kellogg (20:26):

The items that you might want to consider bringing with you? I typically bring a bamboo fork, a napkin, a straw, and a water bottle. I prefer a double insulated water bottle, which means it keeps hot drinks hot and cold drinks cold.

Kathryn Kellogg (20:44):

So that way, if I'm out and I want to get a coffee or a hot tea, all I have to do is actually just hand them my water bottle, and also I have definitely, definitely used my water bottle as a to-go container.

Kathryn Kellogg (20:55):

I went to an event, it was hosted by Sweetgreen and they had these little tiny, falafel sandwiches that were amazing and I think I shoved 12 in my water bottle to take home. It was perfect, and ate it for lunch the next day.

Angelo Bautista (21:06):

Oh yeah that's awesome. So what are some of the things that, you would tell others to consider when planning a trip and trying to be less wasteful?

Kathryn Kellogg (21:16):

Buying offsets is the first thing we should talk about, since it is so carbon heavy. And offset is basically, you want to support a project that's going to offset the exact same amount of carbon that you released. So if you're responsible for releasing two tons of carbon with your flight, you can purchase an offset, which will take two tons of carbon out of the atmosphere.

Kathryn Kellogg (21:36):

And I also really like, where you can actually go and calculate your carbon footprint for the year, that includes flying. And it'll tell you how much carbon you released, and then you can offset that. And I think that's really, really great and I recommend that everyone do it every year.

Angelo Bautista (21:51):

How does one go about purchasing a carbon offset?

Kathryn Kellogg (21:55):

My personal preference is by planting trees. A tree, once it reaches maturity, which takes 40 years, which is a really long time, it will absorb one ton of carbon. On average, it costs around a dollar to plant a tree. So you can basically offset something for $5, which is insane.

Kathryn Kellogg (22:12):

And one of my favorite things, the Arbor Day Foundation actually has cards and every card that you buy, plants a tree. And so for any holiday, especially a holiday that I might be traveling home to go see my friends or my family back home in Arkansas. I'll actually buy those holiday cards, which I believe a pack, is 20 trees. Okay, great. I offset and everyone has a gift. So this is great.

Angelo Bautista (22:36):

Oh, wow that's so nice.

Kathryn Kellogg (22:37):


Angelo Bautista (22:38):

Oh now that you say it, I'm thinking about all the flights that are taken I probably have a lot of trees to plant.

Kathryn Kellogg (22:43):

Yeah. You got a lot of trees.

Anne Strainchamps (22:50):

You'll find more tips, in Kathryn Kellogg's book, 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste. Angelo Bautista talked with her. What's the most uncomfortable you've ever been on a trip?

Anu Taranath (23:14):

I was with a group, of US educators traveling in Morocco, all of whom were White, except myself and one more colleague.

Anne Strainchamps (23:26):

This is Anu Taranath.

Anu Taranath (23:30):

For many of them, it was the first time they had traveled abroad. This was a few years after 9/11. Traveling in Morocco felt, unfamiliar to my traveling compatriots. Carpet sellers would come up to us, "Want to buy something? Please let me show you my wears." And that's what carpet sellers do around the world.

Anu Taranath (24:05):

We had a couple of people on our trip, turn to some of the carpet vendors and begin shouting, "Leave me alone! Leave me the hell alone!" In such loud American voices. For the many weeks I was there I was finding small, beautiful moments of friendship, with many of these carpet sellers, and to have people in my group suddenly turn on them, that's sad for all of us. Right? Sad for all of us.

Anne Strainchamps (24:51):

That was an eye-opening experience for Anu Taranath, but not totally unexpected. She's a social justice facilitator and teacher, used to having difficult conversations about race, identity, and privilege. And she says, those are issues that come up all the time, when Americans travel abroad. So what does it mean to check your invisible baggage when you're trying to be a global citizen?

Anu Taranath (25:21):

That's a tricky term. I hear it a lot. Global citizenship is this kind of medal that you can place on yourself, or your resume to say, "Oh, I was in Nepal. I was in Kenya. I was in Ghana." But what does that mean? What are we doing with all this travel? Is our world getting smaller? Are we learning from one another? Or are we just deepening our understandings of, "Oh, those poor... Whatever."

Anne Strainchamps (25:49):

Reinforcing our own stereotypes.

Anu Taranath (25:51):


Anne Strainchamps (25:52):

So what is the baggage that you think, we Westerners take with us when we travel abroad? And I guess it's going to be a trunk full. Right? We can start unpacking it.

Anu Taranath (26:03):

It's a ship full. I think the baggage has to do with, what it means to be who we are in a very unequal world. I'm not sure that we know really as a culture or a community, how to talk about this in ways that don't just reproduce the guilt and the shame that we might be feeling for having more than others, or having access to clean bathrooms, wherever we go. What does it mean for me to travel in an unequal world, being on the better side of that equation? How do I do that? Well, how do I do that mindfully?

Anne Strainchamps (26:40):

Let's talk through some of this in terms of a particular trip, something you've taken. There's a story you tell in the book about a trip you took to Morocco. This was kind of a study trip. It was with some colleagues, you had a bunch of different experiences.

Anu Taranath (26:56):

Sure. So my experiences as a traveler, was at the intersection of a lot of different identities. I live in the US, my family is from South Asia. I'm a person of color, in the US. When I am abroad, I am seen as sometimes both an American, but also as somebody that perhaps is more like the people that I am visiting. Then say the White tourist that we usually think of when we think of an American traveling.

Anne Strainchamps (27:25):

Mm-hmm. So just having brown skin as an American, puts you in a different kind of category or means you'll have different experiences.

Anu Taranath (27:33):

Absolutely. Everywhere I am, I'm flummoxed, humbled and really curious about the way that my brownness opens up conversations.

Anne Strainchamps (27:42):

Really it does? What happens?

Anu Taranath (27:44):

All the time, man. Folks, come up to me and say, "Oh, you're sort of like us." I experienced this most recently in Ghana. And I think what people meant was that, you kind of see things, kind of the global south way, right? You're an in between, they were Black and I was brown and we were both from the global south, and that positionality meant something.

Anne Strainchamps (28:08):

Well, it might have been validating too, since being brown in the US often comes with whole, range of ways in which you're marked as other. It might have been nice and validating to be singled out as special.

Anu Taranath (28:21):

Absolutely. I mean, I grew up in a community in which it was a liability, to be brown. My teachers denigrated me implicitly and explicitly throughout my, public school education. And so I grew up thinking that White was better and brown was a second best, if at all.

Anu Taranath (28:44):

And so being elsewhere or even being me now, in these days and thinking brownness means many different things, actually around the world. It's been an exciting and really soulful journey to see the ways that our meanings about each other shift and change. What difference means in different parts of the globe. How identities are politicized.

Anne Strainchamps (29:07):

So while you were getting this attention from folks in Morocco, what was happening with your fellow White travelers, on the same trip?

Anu Taranath (29:18):

They were short circuiting, a little bit. And I think for many of my White colleagues, they had never been explicitly seen as White in the United States. They had perhaps imagined themselves as just regular, just normal, just a person.

Anne Strainchamps (29:34):

Well, that's privilege, isn't it?

Anu Taranath (29:36):

That's how racial privilege works. I'm not sure people knew how to carry that.

Anne Strainchamps (29:40):

What should they have done?

Anu Taranath (29:43):


Anne Strainchamps (29:43):

What is the right way to carry that?

Anu Taranath (29:46):

It would've been wonderful for my colleagues and I to have had some opportunity on that trip to Morocco, to sit together and say, "So, how does, who you are play out here differently, than at home?" Just that very simple question could have opened up, I think a lot of really heartfelt conversation about some of the discomfort that all of us were feeling in different ways. Right? And discomfort, when we don't speak about it, manifests differently and perhaps unproductive ways.

Anne Strainchamps (30:19):

Yeah. It's interesting. We're talking about the risk when traveling of becoming the ugly American, that stereotype. I mean, I know people who are so self-conscious about this, they've joked about pretending to be Canadian when they're traveling.

Anu Taranath (30:33):

Right. Right.

Anne Strainchamps (30:34):

I don't completely understand our fear about it though. Do you? I mean, maybe it's shame? Guilt?

Anu Taranath (30:41):

All of it. Shame, guilt.

Anne Strainchamps (30:44):

And I think I'm bad.

Anu Taranath (30:46):


Anne Strainchamps (30:47):

Bad, because of the inequality here.

Anu Taranath (30:50):

Well, without productive conversation, about what inequality actually means to our lives, not just folks that don't have, but especially with folks that do have. Folks that do have, are usually out of the conversation. Right?

Anne Strainchamps (31:07):


Anu Taranath (31:07):

We talk a lot about what poverty does to poor people. Do we talk about what wealth does to rich people? Do we talk about what White privilege does in an unequal, racially, stratified society?

Anne Strainchamps (31:20):


Anu Taranath (31:20):

What it means to have good intentions in this larger unequal world? It does nothing for global solidarity, for a bunch of privileged people to fall into a guilt trip. Really. It does nothing.

Anne Strainchamps (31:32):

And even if you want to avoid, perpetuating old structures of racism or imperialism or colonialism, it's tricky. I was in Tanzania recently, and I noticed that a fairly standard item on most package tours, was a visit to a Maasai Village.

Anne Strainchamps (31:50):

And it was suggested if you go to a school, you should bring school supplies as a gift. I didn't do any of this. Honestly, because the setup made me uncomfortable. Because I felt villages would sort of be, put on display and then Western tourists would be handing out pencils. The whole thing just seemed patronizing and colonial.

Anne Strainchamps (32:09):

But on the other hand, I know that a lot of the Maasai are getting jobs in tourism, and they may not feel that this is a patronizing visit. They might feel like, "This is our income."

Anu Taranath (32:20):

Complicated. No.

Anne Strainchamps (32:20):


Anu Taranath (32:22):

Yeah. Totally complicated.

Anne Strainchamps (32:26):

And you reminded me of another thing, I've heard especially from White Westerners, traveling almost anywhere in Africa. There's this thing that they often don't really want to tell anybody, but it's that they felt more comfortable with Black Africans than with Black Americans.

Anu Taranath (32:46):

I talk about this in my book too. Yeah.

Anne Strainchamps (32:48):

Why do you think that is?

Anu Taranath (32:51):

You were a temporary visitor with a long colonial history that has allowed a small number of White people to enjoy the benefits of an unequal society. And that legacy is still deeply embedded throughout the post-colonial world.

Anu Taranath (33:12):

And there's something about being a tourist, where you have the economic privilege to float in and out of a community. You get to go see something and then go and rest and retire in your villa or hotel room.

Anu Taranath (33:27):

There's something safer. Right? About small interactions with different kinds of people separated from the kind of racial history of the United States. The racial history of say, South Africa or Namibia is very different than the racial history of the US.

Anne Strainchamps (33:44):

You can feel that it's not, your history.

Anu Taranath (33:46):


Anne Strainchamps (33:47):

You're not complicit.

Anu Taranath (33:49):

And so if I have nothing to do with this, I have less at stake and I can participate with less reservation, less hesitation. I hear this from a lot of young people as well, White students that say in hushed voices, "I felt more comfortable abroad, with people of color than I do in the US. Is that okay?"

Anne Strainchamps (34:14):

How do you tell them, "No, it's not."

Anu Taranath (34:16):

I mean, I do, I say, "No, that's not okay. And why do you think that is? What makes you feel different there, than here? What are the larger histories? How do those ideas play out in your daily life, in wherever you are, in Florida, in Minnesota, in Texas? How do they play out differently when you are in Namibia?" Right? "Or in Zimbabwe?"

Anne Strainchamps (34:40):

Well, I think you're pointing out that the trip doesn't end, when you come home and unpack your suitcase. In the best world, I think these kinds of reckonings that you're talking about, grappling with identity and privilege. All those things ideally would change your life back home.

Anu Taranath (35:00):

If global citizenship, isn't encouraging us to ask hard questions at home. We're not doing global citizenship well. Global citizenship to me, isn't just about, "When I was abroad, I was able to do this or that. And I interacted with those people that I usually don't."

Anu Taranath (35:18):

Global citizenship is actually, "What does my community look like? How has my community been formed? What does me having what I do, mean to folks that have less? How are we part of a much larger system together and what are ways that we can start to grapple with that in a more honest way? With less guilt, more honesty." That's the hard part I think.

Anne Strainchamps (35:50):

Anu Taranath, teaches at the University of Washington, Seattle, and she's the author of Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World. By the way, we partnered on this episode with AFAR Magazine and they put out their own issue on how to be a more ethical traveler, which includes more from some of our guests, along with advice and links and articles. And you can find out more Coming up, Steve Paulson and Barry Lopez, bond over an ancient technology. Maps.

Steve Paulson (36:37):

There was a period in my own life. I was, I don't know, maybe 10 or 11 when I wallpapered my entire bedroom with National Geographic maps.

Barry Lopez (36:46):

Oh, I did that too.

Steve Paulson (36:47):

You did that too? Oh my God! I taped them to the walls. I even taped them to the ceiling. Of course, they would always fall down.

Barry Lopez (36:53):

Yeah. They'd belly out and fall.

Steve Paulson (36:57):

They felt magical to me in a way that, I don't really understand, even to this day.

Barry Lopez (37:03):

If I went to a gas station in the days when they gave away maps, I would always get a map even if I lived in the place.

Steve Paulson (37:10):

I always took those maps and gas stations too. That's so funny.

Barry Lopez (37:14):

They don't have that anymore.

Steve Paulson (37:15):


Barry Lopez (37:18):

To this day, I get a big National Geographic Atlas and be there for hours. Some small place will cause me to remember some other small place, that I'd been to and I turn to that, the paper and it's crinkling and it's heft that made you feel, this is really substantial. This is the map to the treasure.

Steve Paulson (37:45):


Anne Strainchamps (37:46):

And we'll follow the path, next. Say it's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. One of the most famous world travelers of any age was Barry Lopez. The explorer and writer who passed away in 2020.

Anne Strainchamps (38:16):

Lopez went everywhere from the North to the South Pole, across every continent, through 70 countries. And he's writing so vivid in sensory. You could practically see the Arctic ice fields, smell the walrus and musk ox. We wanted to remember him by revisiting Steve Paulson's interview with Lopez about his memoir called Horizon.

Steve Paulson (38:39):

I have to say this book is so fascinating, for all kinds of reasons. And for one thing, it's an autobiography told through your experiences of travel.

Barry Lopez (38:49):


Steve Paulson (38:49):

Why has travel, been so central to your life?

Barry Lopez (38:53):

I really don't know, Steve. I went back and tried to mine my own history to see if I could find any hints of, why I leave home so often. Asking myself, "What are you running from?" And I remembered being a three year old boy, out in the water of Mamaroneck Sound, which is just an embayment of Long Island Sound and feeling that I, desperately wanted to go further out in the water, but I couldn't swim. And that emotion, that longing, that great yearning to see a world other than my own, it never abated.

Steve Paulson (39:39):

You've traveled to a lot of places where you have had experiences with traditional people in Northern Canada, Africa, Australia. And my sense is that these have often been very profound experiences for you.

Barry Lopez (39:53):

Oh yeah.

Steve Paulson (39:54):

Why have you sought out, these encounters?

Barry Lopez (39:57):

Well, how many times have you met somebody who says one and one equals two? And then how many times have you met a person who said one and one equals three, and they were deeply serious and you sense they were right in their world.

Barry Lopez (40:15):

So if you travel and you encountered different ways of knowing the world, it makes you suspicious of every authoritarian personality, whether they're political or religious or scientific. Who says, "This is the way the world works." I don't believe anyone understands the way the world works.

Barry Lopez (40:35):

And if you immerse yourself in these, sometimes uncomfortable or bewildering circumstances, often enough, it takes some of the arrogance out of you. And once arrogance is diminished in you, you really can learn a lot.

Steve Paulson (40:54):

Well, you have a passage early in the book that gets at, exactly what you've just been talking about. I'd love to have you read that.

Barry Lopez (41:02):

Sure. When in 1979, I encountered a traditional group of people for the first time on their home ground, at a small Nunamiut Eskimo Village called Anaktuvuk Pass, in Alaska's Brooks Range. I had among my first thoughts and obvious question. Why did I know so little about these people?

Barry Lopez (41:33):

I didn't mean knowledge about their material culture, or their hunting techniques, the way they were able to survive in the harsh landscape they'd chosen to live in, but about the way they understood the world.

Barry Lopez (41:50):

What did they find mysterious but still worthy of their full attention? Were the difficulties and paradoxes of leading a just life, the same for them as they were for me? Why was it never mentioned in the good schools I attended that such people saw as deeply into the physical world as the Greek philosophers we were asked to read?

Steve Paulson (42:29):

That passage, raises the question of whether we, living in what you call indoor culture can ever really understand outdoor people, who have entirely different forms of knowledge.

Barry Lopez (42:42):

They have different forms of knowledge, but they have the same skill set if you will, that we do. One of the most painful things I ever went through was when I was having dinner with a good friend and he said, "You know, I really can't understand how or why you do this. Spend so much time with people who are really not, very sophisticated and certainly not intellectual." I was so stunned by the remark because I considered him a good friend and a sophisticated man. But he wasn't.

Barry Lopez (43:23):

The fact is, if you're in a society, in which the stability of the group is the paramount thing and not the success of the individual, you get a very different idea about how to take care of yourself and others. And for me, that's what's missing now. I would say American culture is neurotically focused, on the individual and people strive to be different or people strive to be interesting. And what is that for?

Steve Paulson (44:00):

Yeah. So I want to come back to some of your own experiences, some of your own encounters, particularly with traditional people. And some of the ethical questions that you have to deal with. I mean, for instance, you've written about how Eskimos are generally not comfortable with you as a White man writing stuff down in your notebook, as you're hanging out with them. Let's say after a hunt.

Barry Lopez (44:24):

Right. Right.

Steve Paulson (44:24):

But you are a writer by profession. This is what you do. So how do you deal with that tension?

Barry Lopez (44:30):

Well, in that instance, I was traveling, we were hunting narwhal in Northern Canada and there were maybe 12 men and a couple of young Inuit boys and myself and another White man. I was his friend and he was my mediator and guide.

Barry Lopez (44:51):

When I'm working, I often keep a little notebook in my shirt pocket so that I can, quickly write down a couple of words that I know will help me recall later, the larger incident. So I was doing that on this trip and my friend Carrie said, "Put that away." As soon as he said it, I realized, "Oh, what was I thinking?"

Barry Lopez (45:18):

And after that, I just made sure that when I was writing notes down, I did it in my tent where no one would see me. They've opened the door very wide for you to be there and you're behaving like a bad guest, if you stand right in front of people and write things down.

Steve Paulson (45:38):

Well, I'm also wondering if maybe there's sometimes when you just feel like, "This is not something I should write about."

Barry Lopez (45:45):

Oh yes-

Steve Paulson (45:47):

This is their business. This is their culture and it's not right for me to take this away and write it in my book.

Barry Lopez (45:53):

Well I always ask permission. I always explain what I'm doing. And as I recount in the book, there was an incident in village Willowra, where I was offered an opportunity to see something truly extraordinary and I chose not to, because I've become so tired of reading about people like me, who invaded every crevice of an indigenous culture in order to what? Very often it was just, to make the person taking notes seem more important than he or she really was.

Steve Paulson (46:28):

I'd like to end with one more reading.

Barry Lopez (46:30):


Steve Paulson (46:31):

If you're willing, again, following up on some of the things that we've been talking about, and this is the one on page 167.

Barry Lopez (46:38):

Sure. When I was young and just beginning to travel with indigenous people, I imagined that they saw more and heard more than I did. That they were overall simply more aware than I was. They were. If my companions and I, for example hiking the taiga, encountered a grizzly bear feeding on a caribou carcass, I would tend to focus almost entirely on the bear.

Barry Lopez (47:25):

My companions would focus on the part of the world of which at that moment, the bear was only a fragment. For me the bear was a noun, for them it was a verb, the gerund bearing. I might not recall something we'd all seen a half hour before, a caribou footprint in soft ground at the edge of a creek, say, but my companions would remember that.

Barry Lopez (48:04):

And a while after our encounter with the bear, say a half mile farther on, they would notice something else, a few grizzly bear, guard hair, snagged in scales of tree bark. The event I was cataloging in my mind as, "Encounter with a tundra grizzly." They were experiencing as an immersion in the current of a river.

Barry Lopez (48:45):

The lesson in those experiences was not just for me to pay closer attention, but to remain in a state of suspended mental analysis, resisting the urge to define or to summarize. On occasion, I would become so wedded to my thoughts, to some cascade of ideas that I actually lost touch with the details that my body was still gathering, from a place.

Barry Lopez (49:19):

The ear heard the song of a vesper sparrow, the mind pleased with itself for identifying those notes as the song of a vesper sparrow was too occupied, with its summary to notice that the ear was still offering. The mind was making no use of the body's ability to be discerning, about sounds. So the mind's knowledge of the place, remains superficial.

Anne Strainchamps (50:01):

That was the late Barry Lopez reading from his memoir called Horizon. And that was Steve Paulson talking with him. And that's it for this hour, we wish you safe, happy and responsible travels. Send us a picture so we can see where you go.

Anne Strainchamps (50:23):

To The Best Of Our Knowledge is produced in Madison, Wisconsin at Wisconsin Public Radio. Angelo Bautista produce this hour, with help from Charles Monroe-Kane, Shannon Henry Kleiber and Mark Riechers.

Anne Strainchamps (50:35):

Joe Hardtke created all of sonic armchair travels, and Steve Paulson is on the road as I speak. I'm Anne Strainchamps. Thanks for spending time with us today.

Last modified: 
January 24, 2023