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Traveling “Green”: Hard Truths About Ecotourism and Being Carbon-Conscious

How I learned that on my sailing voyage we would leave the diesel engine on full time....and other nasty surprises

Train travel is an often overlooked, but wonderful way to travel. Photo: Michael Lepetit

Train travel is an often overlooked, but wonderful way to travel. Photo: Michael Lepetit

The average round trip flight from New York to London generates about 986 kg (2,173.76 lbs.) of CO2 per passenger; almost as much as some people use in an entire year. As an avid traveler, it forces me to face a truth that I had frequently hidden from: that despite all the ecotourism one can do, it cannot offset the damage done by merely getting to and from your long-distance destination.

Last month, the world watched as sixteen-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg embarked on a two- week trip at sea.  Her destination: New York City, where she delivered a fiery speech during the Climate Action Summit.  Her two-week trans-Atlantic journey rested on a 60 foot, zero emissions sailboat which used solar panels and water turbines to generate electricity, and held herself, a two-man crew, a cameraman, and her father.  While a successful two-week trip at sea is still a dream of mine, it isn’t always so practical.  And while many were eager to point that out, that wasn’t really the point of the trip.  As an avid traveler, it forced me to face a truth that I had frequently hidden from: that despite all the ecotourism one can do, it cannot offset the damage done by merely getting to and from your long-distance destination.

The average round trip flight from New York to London generates about 986 kg (2,173.76 lbs.) of CO2 per passenger, while a round trip flight from Rome to London generates 234 kgs (515.88 lbs.) of CO2 per passenger; almost as much as some people use in an entire year.  And this is just to get there.  With car rentals or domestic flights within a country, travelers only add to their carbon footprint.  It is often the case that people fly to and from their point of departure of a cruise, which actually produces more CO2 than an average long-haul flight.

Greta Thunberg arriving in New York (from twitter Greta Thunberg)

A few years ago, I took a trip to Greece, and facing the truth of my carbon footprint at that time, is hard.  To get there I had a layover in Frankfurt.  I also flew to and from Rhodes, took a ferry to three islands, and flew back to Athens at the end of my trip.  Even my ‘greener’ trips can point to how much CO2 travelers generate.  During my trip to Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks this summer I slept in a tent, but all around me were camper vans which ran generators throughout the day.  We spent a large portion of our days driving to our locations, and often our car ran idle as we waited for the bison to mosey off the road.  Not to mention that I flew to and from Bozeman, Montana.

I’m not quite ready to cast off traveling just yet though (Greta’s mother, however, did give up an international opera career after she promised her daughter that she wouldn’t fly anymore).  But as travelers we can begin to plan our trips around greener solutions.  In my earlier days of travel, I took trains everywhere, and it was wonderful.  In college I took a train with my best friend from Berlin to Budapest in what was one of the most fun experiences I have ever had.  The trains were packed with other travelers, each bursting with stories and tips.

In Vietnam I shared a train car with five women who fed me and taught me some words in Vietnamese.  By the end of the trip I was like a member of their family.  In Morocco I sat next to a seasoned, 85-year-old traveler from Alabama as I watched the country fly by.  In Peru I took a scenic train through the mountains to get back from Aguas Calientes, (the jumping off point to Machu Picchu) to Cuzco.  Sri Lanka had by far the most scenic train ride.  The train was old and you could let your feet dangle out of the door while watching everything from tea crops to azure waters whiz by.

While trains are a good option, they aren’t always the best.  That train in Sri Lanka, for instance, was built just after World War II, and was hardly as fuel efficient as, say, a modern bus might be.  If you’ve been to South East Asia, chances are that you’ve taken a bus, which generally seems to be the most fuel efficient way to travel according to the International Council on Clean Transportation .  Most of these buses are updated and comfortable.  In Thailand, my wife and I took an overnight bus which served us snacks, had individual television screens, and fully reclining seats (it was also very cheap).

The most important thing you can do when it comes to your carbon footprint, however, is research.  Look into the options and try to figure out which is your best, cleanest mode of transportation and try to spend as much time as you can on foot.  Spend days in a city center, or take a nice long, rewarding trek.  Also, as travelers we should all stay abreast and keep pressure on the greener solutions that some airlines are currently working on, like better fuels and more recyclable materials on flights.

Finally, there is always traveling by sailboat, which I tried years ago. Picture me, naive and 21-years-old standing by myself at an airport in Sarasota.  My backpack burst at the seams and had dangling from it never-before-used flippers, goggles, and a snorkel.  It was late December, and it was hot.  I was to meet a man I met on a sailing forum.  Together, along with one other crew member, we were to sail from Sarasota Bay to Honduras, where we would meet some old friends of his.  Oh, I should also mention that I had never sailed before.  The idea was that I would be a free crew member and he would teach me how to sail.

My bag was heavy, and even though the airport hummed with air conditioning, I dripped with sweat as I looked first right, and then left down an empty airport for someone to pick me up (the boat’s captain, Greg, knew I was coming, but had never told me how to get to him from the airport — details you learn to sort out as you get older, I suppose).  Eventually a man walked up to me, looked me in the eyes, shook my hand heartily, and said, “You lookin’ for a flotilla?”  He was not, in fact, the captain, but he was a friend and he was going to take me to the boat.

When we arrived at the bay I eagerly hopped aboard our vessel.  She was a little over 40 feet, made of steel, and a beauty.  Well, at least that’s what I told myself.  The first two specs were true, but not so much the last one.  For one, the first thing I noticed about it were the streaks of rust that trickled down its side.  Inside, the boat was a disaster.  The vent from the head had fallen off, so the cabin reeked of sewage.  Not only did the engine not work, but it had been disassembled and laid out on what was to be my berth.   At night, Greg pushed the engine pieces off and I slept on top of rust flakes and motor oil.  The other crew member eventually showed up and as it turned out, he had an anger problem.

Over the course of the next few days I settled in.  I learned how to repair a diesel engine, got acquainted with Greg, our seasoned captain, and his service dog, Jenny. By the end of the week we were ready to hoist the sails and I was giddy with excitement. As I said, I was naive.

When the day finally came, we turned on the engine and left the great state of Florida behind us.  As we left the bay I stood on the deck, let the wind cut through my hair and took a deep breath of cool ocean air.  It was then that I noticed that Greg was not following the buoys.  When I pointed this out to him, he said it was fine.  What did I know?  I didn’t even know what a jib was.

A few seconds later, we were stuck.  The boat had run aground.  Under Greg’s command the other crew member and I stood on each side of the boat rocking it with all our might to try to move the boat as Greg pushed the throttle to full speed.  Suddenly, with a loud bang the engine threw a rod and clouded us in black smoke.  After a quick tow back to the harbor (we were not even a nautical mile away) our dreams of Honduras were over.  The other crew member, not surprisingly, yelled at us and darted away never to be seen again.  I stuck around with Greg for another day.  Despite his irresponsibility, I liked him.  He was peaceful and kind.  That night, as we sat on the boat talking, a dolphin jumped out of the water near us and he said he took that as a sign that it was good that we were not at sea.  That was just before he said, “tomorrow, let’s open the sails, make sure they aren’t torn.”

We were supposed to be at sea by then. One thing that did strike me, however, was that for a boat powered by wind we were certainly bringing a lot of diesel fuel.  At the time I supposed it made sense that at some point during our trip we would need to use our engine, but Greg explained that we would probably leave the motor running the entire trip, even when the sails were up.  While I could live with a rusty boat that smelled like sewage and potentially had a sail full of holes, a twitchy crew member, and a captain who refused to obey basic harbor buoys, using so much gasoline when we had better, cleaner options just seemed wasteful.

A sailing trip to Honduras isn’t in the cards for all of us (it’ll happen for me someday) and we might not be able to afford a private two week trip at sea, but being a carbon conscious traveler may help maintain the beautiful landscapes we are all hoping to see on our next trip.



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