When it comes to the things we carry with us—and the impact we have on the places we visit—less is more.
Descending from a long line of Russian naturalists and explorers, it’s not surprising that I’ve ended up making my living by traveling to the world’s kamchatki, as Russians call faraway places—remote, inaccessible corners of the planet like the Amazon, Madagascar, and Tibet—and writing about them. I learned at an early age to travel light: my dad was a mountain climber, and in the late fifties and early sixties, he took my brother and me up some serious routes in the Alps and the Tetons. We had to carry our own equipment, so naturally we kept it to a minimum. Traveling light—literally and figuratively—is a habit that has served me well over the years.
During a nine-month stint in the Amazon rain forest in 1975–76, I lugged my gear in a canvas duffel bag, using the strap as a tumpline the way the Indians did. The bag, which also accompanied me to the Congo rain forest in 1982, where I spent two months running around with Pygmies, contained a hammock, a mosquito net, a poncho to put over them in case it rained in the night, and my extra clothes. If you’re traveling deep into a rain forest, there are two crucial things to have with you: a bottle of rubbing alcohol, which cleanses insect bites and reduces the urge to scratch them, and some powerful antibiotics in case you come down with a bad infection in the middle of nowhere. They can make the difference between a sweaty night and dying.
I took a sidebag with secret compartments that no security check or customs search ever discovered (it and the duffel bag are both from Eastern Mountain Sports) for my valuables, passport, notebooks, small cheap camera and tape recorder, field guides to the birds and mammals, and background material on the country I was going to be casing. I tried hard not to look like a tourist (although of course that is what I was) and to blend in with the locals, to live and move with them. This is not easy in Africa, where you arrive in a village and are swarmed by kids screaming "Mzungu, mzungu!" ("White guy, white guy!").
On all of my trips it’s been the chance encounters, the experiences I didn’t plan for, that were most informative, sometimes even transformative. When I first started going to New Delhi, in 1990, I stayed at the Oberoi, one of the most exquisitely palatial hotels on earth. But after a dozen visits, I discovered a small, cozy hostelry in Pajar Ganj, the seething quarter near the railroad station, called Lal’s Haveli. A room there with a ceiling fan, air-conditioning, hot shower, and TV with remote is $10 a night, and you’re in the thick of India. Breakfast was on the roof. I’d watch the sun come up and the city come to life and have long discussions with my fellow guests, a Nepali horse trader, perhaps, or a textile importer from Nigeria.
In the eighties, I started writing stories that entailed meeting the presidents of the countries whose indigenous forest people I had been hanging out with (most of them didn’t even know they had a president). Government ministers in Africa and South America are sharp dressers, so I had to look the part; to carry my dark suits and dress shirts and cap-toed oxfords, I switched to a suitcase. I schlepped the same black hard-shell Delco around for 15 years or so, until it was all scratched up and plastered with stickers and remnants of tape. The more beat-up it got, the less I had to worry about anybody making off with it. I also took along a small, cheap guitar to break the ice and jam with the locals and to pass the inevitable downtime—like sitting on a platform in Lahore for four hours waiting for the train to come.
The arrival in the nineties of fast-drying, wrinkle-proof clothing, made of nylon, polypropylene, capilene, and other synthetics, caused a major downsizing of my travel kit. It was no longer necessary to bring a suitcase, even if I was going to meet the president. I bought a suit and shirt, as well as a safari jacket with sleeves that unzipped and a million pockets, and long pants with zippable legs. Whichever outfit I’m not wearing fits into a small bicyclists’ backpack, so I can carry it on the plane, along with my diminutive six-string Yamaha Guitalele, which I switched to after 9/11, when the gate agents started to insist that I check my guitar. Layered with long johns and a sweater, this expedition outfit is good up to 18,000 feet, as I discovered in the Peruvian Andes last September. So I have the art of traveling light down pretty well, just as my dad did by the time he was my age. He’d started with 50-pound packs, but in his later years was taking off for the Pamirs or the Caucasus with a pack no bigger than mine. The more you travel, the less, you realize, you have to take.
But traveling light doesn’t mean just reducing your baggage. It means reducing your footprint or, rather, footprints: your carbon footprint, your ecological footprint, your footprint on the local culture. Most of your carbon footprint comes from the planes you take. A gallon of combusted airplane fuel produces up to 100 times more greenhouse gases than a gallon of gasoline. You can take consolation from the fact that if all of the passengers on the plane drove to the destination in their cars, their collective footprint would be greater, but still, airplanes account for something like 5 percent of the total anthropogenic (human) contribution to the rising temperatures that are wreaking havoc on the planet’s ecology and weather systems.
Driving is not an option, of course, if you are crossing an ocean, which I’ve done hundreds of times. I would never have gotten to all those amazing places if it weren’t for the airplane. I met my wife of the past 17 years on the October 11, 1987, Air Ethiopia flight from Entebbe to Rome. We had both changed our flights at the last minute, and if I hadn’t been kicked out of my seat by the Ugandan minister of youth, culture, and sports and plunked myself down beside her, our three boys would not have come into this world. Our family’s destiny is entwined with the passenger airplane, going back to the 1920’s, when my father was the business manager of fellow émigré Igor Sikorsky’s aircraft company, which was developing what became the Pan American Clipper Ship.
There may not be much you can do about the airplane-emissions component of your footprint in motion, but once you arrive, there are plenty of ways to make yourself a more responsible traveler. With the advent of ecotourism, numerous companies and operators are now sensitive to their environments, and they are the ones you should be booking. Are the local people getting anything out of my visit?Is it helping to preserve or to erode the local ecosystem and culture?These are the questions I think we should be asking.
In the late seventies, I was hired as the expedition leader of the first adventure cruise up the Amazon. We would take off into the side channels of the main river in Zodiac rafts. One morning we came upon some Tikuna Indians who had had little contact with the outside world and who sold us an extraordinary picture of forest animals, painted on an 8-by-10-inch canvas of bark cloth. Fifteen years later, at the gift shop in Harvard’s Peabody Museum, I found a stack of "Tikuna bark-cloth paintings." Their work had become worthless, kitschy tourist crap. Tourism can turn traditional cultures into ersatz replicas of themselves—look at the way the Hopi’s sacred kachina dolls are now sold as souvenirs.
But of course, tourism can also do good. The Amazon Rainforest Conservation Center, in the Peruvian Amazon, is completely staffed by local Indians. Jack’s Camp in Botswana offers "dignified tourism" among the Bushmen. The Masai of Shompole Group Ranch, in Kenya, are partners in the conservation business with the white Kenyan who built a luxurious eco-lodge in the hills above them, which they own 30 percent of and staff. They don’t kill the lions anymore, because they know that a live lion is worth $20,000 in tourist dollars, and the money flowing into the community has brought running water to every hut while helping them to maintain their culture.
For the traveler who can’t be bothered with all these niggling little green do’s and don’ts, I offer the following South American folktale (which I got from Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Prize–winning founder of Kenya’s Greenbelt Movement and a powerful and courageous woman): There is a terrible forest fire. All the animals are fleeing the conflagration except Hummingbird, who is flying back and forth, scooping up little slivers of water from a spring and dumping them on the flames. "What do you think you’re doing, stupid little bird?" the other animals ask derisively, and Hummingbird says, "I’m doing what I can."
That’s what we all have to do at this critical juncture. The way you travel, as an individual, absolutely does matter, especially when you multiply your footprint by the 1.1 billion others who are expected to be in circulation by 2010. So let’s all tread as lightly as we possibly can.
Alex Shoumatoff is a Travel + Leisure contributing editor.