4 mins

Want to be a better traveller? Practise at home first

The same goodwill principles you often adopt when overseas are often forgotten when you're in familiar surroundings. It's time to change that...

It all started with their resolutions from 1979 (mt 23)

Belinda and I have been best friends since the first day of secondary school. She said: “You’re wearing odd socks.” I replied: “I have another pair just like it at home.” And there we were, friends for life. 

I was having dinner with her the other night when, with a flourish, she produced an ancient, dog-eared exercise book. On the back inside cover, in heavily underlined green felt-tip capitals, were our 1979 New Year’s resolutions. The words resonated with gravitas, solemn promises to ourselves: like teenage mission statements in the days before such things existed. 

Most of the resolutions were frankly bizarre and we were in fits of giggles reading how we’d (OK, I’d) vowed to: learn the German dictionary, give pocket money to charity and help the nuns in Africa. Apart from being mortified at what a self-important teenager I’d been, what was I thinking? 

I was a 14-year-old punk rocker with a busy schedule of kissing boys and dying my hair pink – when did I think I was going to find the time to learn an entire German dictionary? To be fair, I did give my pocket money to Oxfam for a while, until the Saturday I forgot and... well, that was that.

But isn’t that the nature of resolutions: they’re not an action plan, they’re a statement of intent. I want to be a better person, I want the world to be a better place. However, to achieve something – rather than just throwing aspirations against the wall and hoping one or two of them stick – we need resolutions grounded in everyday life.

For example, I wanted to be a better student, so rather than aspiring to learn a language, why didn’t I just make a homework plan and stick to it? And I wanted to be a good person, so rather than aspiring to help the nuns in Africa, why didn’t I help my poor parents by tidying my room and not picking fights with my little brother? I suspect it’s because I liked the idea of doing the right thing, but wasn’t willing to change my daily life to achieve it.

Finding day-to-day enrichment

To put this in a travel context, why do we put so much emphasis on being a good traveller overseas and so little on how we travel at home? Is it because it’s the easiest, most feel-good option? Let’s face it, we spend only a small percentage of each year abroad, so it’s a much smaller part of our lives to be good in. 

Or is there a more human explanation? When we travel to unfamiliar places and cultures our senses are heightened so we see and feel more. We credit these foreign communities with enriching our lives, so naturally want to do something in return. Meanwhile, back home in the real world, our senses are dulled. Busy and stressed, we’re more likely to associate our neighbours with nicking our parking space than bringing enrichment and culture into our day.

Resolving to be better travellers at home may not have the glamour of saving polar bears, but in the long run it might be a better way to achieve our objectives of saving scarce resources; limiting carbon emissions and generally being active members of a responsible community.

So when we make a point of supporting solar-powered trekking lodges in Nepal, let’s find and support B&Bs using renewable energy sources on walking holidays in Scotland or the Lake District too. When we’re considering a trip picking litter off the banks of the Nile, how about a weekend cleaning up the Thames? 

Taking time out to help build a youth club in Merthyr Tydfil may not have the same allure and cred of helping build a school in Ethiopia, but it’s possibly more important because it helps us care about what’s around us – not just what we see for two weeks of the year. 

Jennifer Cox was the spokesperson for Lonely Planet before writing the travel bestseller Around the World in 80 Dates.

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