When I look back at my four years of constant travel, my most memorable days are the ones I spent in the company of welcoming local hosts, experiencing a way of life very different from mine. Sustainable travel initiatives are cropping up all over the world, from rural Romania to the interiors of Guatemala, offering travellers a chance to immerse in a different culture, while also contributing economically towards the conservation of local traditions and ecologies.
What better way to make our travels a win-win, right?
Let me take you on the journeys that made me re-evaluate my travel choices:
Living off the grid: Galkadawala, Sri Lanka
We looked in awe as our Sri Lankan hostess, Maulie, showed us old photos of Galkadawala; what was once a barren scrubland is now a full-blown forest brimming with life! This small village in the heart of the country’s golden triangle is one among many to be laid to waste over decades of the slash-burn-plant form of cultivation. But perhaps the only one to be single-handedly transformed into a jungle oasis by our hostess — who quit her job in the garment industry in Colombo and bought this piece of barren land in the rural countryside years ago. When I asked her why, she said:
“I wanted to recreate the lost harmony between man and nature.”
And she not only achieved that harmony, but also decided to share it with travellers who want to taste life in a small Sri Lankan village — and hence sustain it financially. With a local architect, she set up the rustic Galkadawala Forest Lodge in the middle of this forest, made entirely with recycled timbre panels and beautifully carved old doors — our home for a few days and a welcome respite from the sweltering heat in the rest of the region, thanks to the forest that keeps temperatures in check.
With Maulie, we joined the village folk for an afternoon bath in the village tank, which is also the backbone of Sri Lanka’s irrigation system; we feasted on curries slow-cooked for hours over an open fire — traditional recipes on the brink of extinction; we lay for hours on our hammocks as butterflies and birds danced above our heads and the breeze lulled us to sleep. Sweet harmony indeed.
Learning Spanish in the home of a Mayan family: San Jose, Guatemala
By the shores of the stunning blue Lake Peten Itza, I swapped life stories with my 20-year-old Spanish teacher who didn’t speak a word of English — just like everyone else in the sleepy village of San Jose in northern Guatemala. Soon, we would say goodbye and I would walk up the hill, to my homestay with a Mayan Itza family; we would hand roll corn tortillas together and fill each other in on our day. I would meet their extended families and friends, learn about the once-worshipped Mayan gods (including Ixcacao, the goddess of chocolate!), see photos of their traditional fiestas, and consider myself very lucky for witnessing a fast disappearing culture and language.
The Mayan Itza people, one of Guatemala’s 22 indigenous Mayan communities, settled on the shores of Peten Itza centuries ago, relying on the rainforest for food and natural medicine. Colonialism and dictatorship evaded the culture deeply, but the village elders came together to form Bio Itza, dedicated to reviving it, bringing tourism to the village and offering alternate livelihood opportunities to the locals. And for travellers like me, who want to experience life as it were in Guatemala, it is the best way to connect with locals away from the tourist belt.
Imagine if the traditional ways of life disappear entirely and leave this a homogenous world; what would a traveller seek then?
Finding an oasis in the desert: Orjan, Jordan
Lush olive groves. Winding green valleys. Wild strawberry trees. Wild geese migration. Fields of pomegranate and fig. These are not images typically associated with the barren, stark, desertscapes of Jordan. But that’s exactly how the village of Orjan, in the Ajloun district of Jordan, welcomed us — thanks to a homestay project initiated in the region a few years ago.
That’s how we met Maysoon, her husband Mohammad and their four children — friendships that blossomed over endless cups of mint tea, picking pomegranate and fig in their fields, hiking through the region’s olive groves, cooking lessons in Maysoon’s kitchen, and feasting family-style on the most delicious mezze I tasted in all of Jordan.
I left convinced that when we choose to support sustainable travel initiatives, we are are doing ourselves the biggest favor — because finding soul connections with locals in a different part of the world is perhaps the most gratifying part of travel.
Truth is, our travel choices determine not only how a place impacts us, but also how we impact a place. Choosing sustainable travel initiatives that involve the local community and take measures to protect the local ecology, heritage and culture ensure that at least part of our carbon footprint is offset, and that we leave a place no different, if not better, than we found it. After all, it is upon us as travellers to protect the places we’ve come to love.