“Gringo Trails”: What Are Travelers Doing To The Places They Visit?

“Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.” –- Agent Smith, “The Matrix

Agent Smith could have been talking about the “morning after” footage in “Gringo Trails,” a new documentary by Pegi Vail and Melvin Estrella. The camera wanders down Thailand’s Haad Rin Beach after the Full Moon Party. The beach is littered with trash — water bottles, clothing, plastic bags -– and crashing partiers. Garbage sloshes up on the sand in the gentle surf. This beautiful stretch of sand, once completely unknown to travelers, is now punctuated with rubbish. The film illustrates some hard truths about mass travel, but I found it especially painful to watch this segment. It was embarrassing to the see the awful disregard for this once beautiful place. And it was sad, a weighty head-shaking sadness that left me questioning the results of my own backpacker traveling days. Was I this unaware? Did I spread the virus?
“Gringo Trails” looks at the impact backpackers have on places like Haad Rin. How were these places “discovered,” and how did they change as a result? What effect does the influx of tourists — the kind who insist they are not tourists — have on the environment and on the people? Are these travelers even aware that they leave their fingerprints all over the economy, the culture and the ecosystem of the places they visit?

Vail and Estrella aren’t issuing a blanket indictment of backpacker travel — Vail was a backpacker herself in the early 1980s. Her message is more educational. “When this type of travel started, we were completely unaware of the implications. But now, 20, 30 years later, we know. We know what happens, and we can share this information so it doesn’t happen in other places.”

The movie opens with the story of Yossi Ginsberg, an Israeli backpacker who was lost in the jungle near the village of Rurrenabaque, Bolivia. In 1985, Ginsberg wrote a book about his misadventures and how he was rescued. Rurrenabaque had been a small hub for adventure travelers, but Ginsberg’s book launched an influx of Israelis seeking their own version of that adventure.

The travelers in “Gringo Trails” seem to think of Ginsberg’s story as an amusement park ride, as something they should be able to access. An Israeli girl says, “Everybody wants to experience the life of the jungle . . . to have a little touch like in the book.” “I’m Indiana Jones,” says a Swedish backpacker from the seat of a crowded motor canoe. Ginsberg was lost. His life was in danger; he was lucky to be saved. And now travelers — inspired by his story — can pretend they are having a facsimile of his experience. With meals and camping and guides included.

The movie takes us to a number of different destinations, showing the change that backpackers bring when they open new regions to increasingly organized tourism. We see the archetypal travelers we’ve met in our own adventures: the traveler vs. tourist snobs, the beach hippies, the partiers. There are stories from Pico Iyer, Rolf Potts, Holly Morris and Prince Sangay Wangchuk about the tension between travelers’ values and the native values of the places we visit. Vail and Estrella take us around the world and show us, in archival footage shot over many years, exactly what we’ve done to the planet by being everywhere on it.

“The idea of adventure, to be in the jungle and surviving is an idea that spans a lot of different cultures, but most people don’t take it to the extreme,” says Vail. “They like the idea that they’re having this adventure, that they’re somehow surviving in the jungle . . . but I don’t think they think it through. They don’t really want to have that experience. People conflate the images. . . . it’s the completion of all these stories in the media that affect what our destination perspectives are and what we’re looking for.”

There’s a painful tension between the desire to have a great adventure — to share that adventure — and to protect a place as it is when we find it. In “Gringo Trails,” Costas Christ, editor-at-large for National Geographic Traveler magazine and an early advocate of ecotourism, tells the story of “finding” Haad Rin in 1979. He admonished some fellow travelers, Germans, “Whatever you do, don’t tell people about this place.” In 2013, an estimated 30,000 people attended the Full Moon Party on Haad Rin Beach. Christ’s Germans may not have told, but the story got out.

In “Gringo Trails,” Vail travels around the world to show how travelers are affected by the romance of packaged travel stories in the media as well as through word of mouth. Adventure becomes a commodity. “It’s good value,” says Lina Brocchieri about her excursion to untouristed and exotic Timbuktu. She’s presumably speaking of the cocktail party caché she gains in mentioning her travels to this place so weighted with the extraordinary. But the reality of her experience is sobering and enlightening. Her presence makes no sense to the locals, and she begins to wonder why she is there.

“Romanticization is writ large . . . versus the reality of how people are living, the poverty,” says Vail, speaking of our preconceived notions as travelers. “I was hoping the film would have people think before they go.”

The film offers up some suggestions but no easy solutions to the change we invoke by merely being present in these faraway places. Ecotourism. Government regulation. A discussion of Bhutan’s visa program shows how the country has chosen to restrict travel to protect its cultural heritage. Ultimately, though, the responsibility lies with us as travelers. Our “high-value” experiences cost us money, but what’s the expense to the places we choose to visit? How do we reconcile our romantic images of the world with the truth of what our presence in those places means?

Adventure travelers and backpackers are often the front line. We crack these places open to the rest of the world. At our worst, we are looking for easy social mores, cheap booze, accessible drugs and a line on our résumés. How strange that we should fall into the role of de facto ambassadors for these places. But at our best, that’s what we are — ambassadors. “Gringo Trails” leaves the traveler shouldering the weight of that responsibility. How are we going to interpret the stories we hear, and what stories are we going to tell?

“I like seeing the changes,” says Vail, “in how people apply what they have learned. You can do something. Instead of just traveling through and gaining experiential capital, we can give back. It’s middle-class, upper-middle-class, travelers, if they say they’re on a budget or not. So there’s disparity between classes and cultures. Now, I think a lot of people are coming back are doing something.”

“It’s a fine line between the joy and the incredible experience of travel with the reality of local lives. I hope we can enjoy the film, think about why we love to travel and also, think responsibility. The hope is that it’s opening a conversation. This is a tremendously important topic. And it’s urgent, given that we’re all over the place in the world.”

“Gringo Trails” premieres on October 19, at 8:30 p.m. in the American Museum of Natural History during the Margaret Mead Film Festival. There’s a screening at North America’s largest environment film festival, the Planet In Focus Environmental Film Festival in Toronto November 21-24. Additional screening dates will be available on the Gringo Trails website.

Not Quite Legal Souvenirs

Food seized at Washington Dulles
USDA /Ken Hammond

Somewhere in a small town in an unnamed country is the complete skull of a crocodile and a small box of teeth that belong to that skull. The crocodile, who wasn’t using her teeth anymore, was not supposed to make this trip but did so anyway, without a passport, packed in the insulation of T-shirts stained with the red dust of the Australian Outback. The person who checked this partial crocodile knew there’d be some risk of having the bones and teeth seized at the border. Plus, hey, it was free, scooped up at a swampy turn out somewhere. No money changed hands in the acquisition of the croc skull.

What was to lose? Seizure at the border, a protestation of ignorance and slap on the wrist. “Sir, you can not import animal bones without proper documentation.” “I had NO idea, I am sorry, yes, of course, take it.”

It’s a risk. And make no mistake. You may very well be breaking the law. Travelers take it on because what’s the worst that can happen? Well, a lot. Best case? You’ll have your goods seized or maybe get tagged with an expensive fine. Consider yourself lucky if that’s the case.

Here are a handful of questionable souvenirs that seasoned anonymous travelers decided they’d try to get through customs.

Three kilos of flour: “…for culinary purity. When my friend asked me to bring corn flour, I didn’t think much about it, and then suddenly I found myself with two big bags of white powder in my checked luggage. Not only was I bringing in an unlabeled agricultural product, but it resembled something else entirely.”

The USDA allows you to bring in baking mixes and the like, but requirements are that it’s commercially packaged and properly labeled. Certainly, flour won’t set off the drug sniffer dogs, but explaining those bags of white powder isn’t something you want to find yourself doing in any airport.

Ten pounds of cheese: Cheese is tricky. Hard cheese is okay, soft cheese isn’t, and the USDA guidelines on what a hard cheese is or isn’t aren’t exactly clear – they say “like Parmesan or cheddar.” Brie is probably out, as is Camembert, but what about a blue cheese? Unlcear. Good luck.

Italian olives: “They are officially not okay to bring back, but I found some that were vacuum packed and decided to give it a go. I listed foodstuff on my customs form, and when the officer asked what kind I started off with all the things that I knew it was okay to bring back (wine, hard cheese, olive oil, etc.). By the time I mentioned the olives he had already tuned me out.”

It’s fresh fruit and veg where the trouble lies, packaged, processed products are less likely to raise eyebrows. But if you don’t declare your fruit or veg, it could potentially set you back a $300 fine, plus, oops, there go your olives.

Various kinds of meat: “I packed the salami wrapped in socks and tucked inside my shoes, and sailed past saying not one word.” Meat products are strictly regulated, with a mind towards preventing the spread of disease. Multiple travelers fessed up to squirreling all kinds of fancy product past the border, not just salami, but pate, rillette, prosciutto and more.

Bones, bones, more bones: “A llama vertebrae.” (Taste in souvenirs does vary.) The crocodile skull. A handful of seashells. Ivory and tortoise shells are especially tricky and require special documentation to prove their antiquity. This stuff is all governed by Fish and Wildlife in the US and, in some cases, can only come in through certain airports. To complicate things, there are additional guidelines for “Individuals Wishing to Import Non-Human Primate Trophies, Skins or Skulls” meaning should do your homework before tossing that monkey brain bucket into your bag.

Antiquities of any kind: “I snitched a tiny black and white marble mosaic tile from a heap that looked destined for Ostia Antica’s dump. I feel guilty, but 30 years on still love cradling in my palm something an ancient Roman once touched. It’s like holding hands across time.” Stolen cultural artifacts – that’s a big one.

There’s a useful page of information on the US Customs and Border Patrol site, including a Know Before You Go sheet that will send you into a rabbit warren of other places. What about that machete – is it legal? Probably, but you won’t get it past security in your carry-on. Plus, security, that’s a whole different can of worms.

Worms, by the way, will never make it past customs. Don’t even try.

Gadling Gear Lust: Field Candy Tents

Our battered Coleman tent has been through years of service and cost something like $80 at an end-of-season sale at the local Target. It’s a workhorse and held up on gravel and snow and kept the campers inside it dry in pelting rain, letting in nothing more than a little damp on the corners and collecting a little condensation on the liner. But for all its practicality, there is one thing it is not: pretty. It is an olive green and tan little dome that looks like every other olive green and tan or red and tan or blue and tan little dome lined up on the grass in the tent meadow at any campground.

Enter the Field Candy tent. I can’t speak to the efficacy of these gorgeous little temporary shelters, but I also can’t decide which one I want the most. The one with the cow on it? The one that looks like a battered old suitcase? Yeah. That one. No, wait. I like the one that looks like a slice of watermelon because to see that when you pull up in your Subaru full of camping gear would crack you right up.

Field Candy

The Field Candy tent has all the stuff you’d expect from a decent camping tent – shock corded poles, a waterproof fly, and the easy clip up assembly. As a camper in wet climates, I’m suspicious of the cotton inner tent because it seems like something that would take a while to dry should it get wet. It’s got the bucket style ground sheet – you have to have that! – and a bunch of other features that look well thought out. This is no $80 clearance Coleman, some of them are over $700, so I’d expect performance as well as style.

But on the surface, it’s all about appearances. I want one. Maybe the one that looks like a circus tent. Or, no. The sandwich. Yeah, that one. No. Wait…

Follies And Fixes In Long-Haul Travel

TheeErin via Flickr (Creative Commons)

It was not yet 6 a.m., but I had a bad feeling about how the day was going to go. The stone faced desk clerk had no interest in checking me in here in Vienna, not to mention through to my final destination, Seattle.

“No. Different booking.”

“But it’s with the same airlines…”

“Different booking. No.”

“So I’ll have to…”

“You’ll need to collect your bag in Amsterdam, and then check in again when you get there. Take your bag to the departures desk.”

“I don’t understand. These flights are on the same airlines. Can you check me in, at least, so I can drop my bag…”

“No. Different booking.”

I gave up. Priority club, my ass.I accepted the boarding pass for my flight from Vienna to Amsterdam and headed through security. I told myself to chill, my stop was six hours and I had a lounge pass tucked into my wallet. I’d recheck in Amsterdam and then spend the morning napping in the KLM lounge.

At the check-in desk in Amsterdam, I asked the clerk what the problem was, why I couldn’t check in, why I couldn’t get my bag through.

“It’s terrible,” she said, “but they’re responsible for your luggage. If they lose it, they have to pay to have it shipped. They don’t want to do that.”

“But it’s with the same airline, both of my flights are KLM/Delta.”

“I know,” she admitted. “It makes no sense.” She shook her head.

I felt somewhat placated. It wasn’t a huge annoyance, but I wanted someone to agree that it was ridiculous. Off I went to clear security again and to breathe the rarified air of the frequent flier lounge.

“No. This pass is no good here.”

“But it says on the website that …”

“Yes, but not for day passes. We don’t take the day pass here. Delta doesn’t pay for the use of the lounge, so we don’t take their passes.”

I thought I’d understood the rules; I’d read them before buying my pass. I couldn’t bring a guest, but I only wanted to bring… myself. Obviously I had not studied the small print with enough detail. And I’d made the mistake of asking the KLM Twitter account, not the Delta Twitter account, about access. What I don’t understand about airline partnerships could fill a book.

“You can buy a pass for 45 Euros.”

I’d spent 50 dollars to buy the lounge pass. It’s not so much money, but I was getting crankier and crankier. I was trying not to get angry. I was tired. I’d been up since 4:30 that morning. I knew I’d be tired; I rarely sleep well before a long flight.

“But you’re partners,” I said. “You give me partner status everywhere else.”

“Let me see what I can do,” said the desk clerk, who then called a supervisor, a cool woman in uniform who offered to sell me a pass for 45 Euros. I looked at the KLM agent, angry at her and at myself for not making sure I’d understood the small print.

I told myself to chill. Again. Schiphol is a nice airport. There are worse places to spend a few hours drinking coffee and people watching and dozing in lounge chairs. There’s good food, and Wi-Fi that’s not great, but is fast enough for complaining on Twitter about how you’re angry at your airlines.

“Get more coffee,” I thought. “You’re just tired. This isn’t a big deal.”

I got coffee and juice and a sandwich on good brown bread with very fresh mozzarella. I opened my laptop and complained. I drank my juice. I drank my coffee. I hammered away on my keyboard, the picture of a crabby, tired traveler on a stopover.

This business with my lounge pass was the last act in a comedy of errors in my travels to Europe and back. Thanks to a cargo problem on my outbound flight two weeks earlier, my connection in Schiphol to Frankfurt was airtight. I was the last passenger to board the plane – my luggage would not make it. I was not particularly worried. I’d seen a series of flights to Frankfurt following mine. Worst case? My bag would show up while I was sleeping. I could chill.

I went to report the missing luggage at the Delta counter in Frankfurt.

“You need KLM,” said the man at the desk.

“But I checked in on Delta… and there’s nobody there.”

“There HAS to be somebody there,” he said, clearly exasperated, and then, walked me back to the KLM desk. There was nobody there. I walked out into arrivals and asked at the information desk, and then, was directed back into the baggage hall.

The clerk had materialized, removed the “Closed” sign, and was taking missing baggage reports from two impatient Israelis who’d boarded just before I did. It was my turn.

“Here’s your claim number and the website where you can find out when your bags will arrive.”

I stowed the printout with my documents and headed to the hotel. It took me 15 minutes to get there. My luggage was reported on the ground and ready for delivery not long after I’d had lunch. At about 12 hours, I asked for help in calling the number given to me by the clerk at the baggage desk.

“Oh, lord, don’t call that number! They’ll charge you by the minute!”

“Wait, I have to pay them to tell me where my stuff is? That’s crazy.”

I checked with customer service online. “Your luggage is on the ground and ready for delivery,” they said.

“Well, I KNOW that,” I replied. “I’ve know that for 24 hours now.” My bag did finally appear, nearly 36 hours after I’d arrived.

“We’re sorry for the delay,” said the note from KLM. “We hope you understand.”

I’d had it with ground services by the time I returned to Schiphol two weeks later. Any one of these events in isolation I’d have written off as bad luck, a bad day, or general travel mishaps. But the aggregation was making me irritable. The Delta KLM partnership began to feel like a an embittered marriage, kept together for the sake of the kids. I imagined them bickering after the little airplanes had gone to bed. “You said you would…”

I gazed past the plastic chairs and iPad-using Germans and families of bleary Americans in sweatshirts, breakfasting in various states of disconnection with their surroundings. Just on the edge there was the pale purple glow of the Yotel, a pod hotel that offers hourly cabins with showers. I looked at my crumpled, useless lounge pass, at my overpriced juice, at my angry typing on the weak Wi-Fi and then, I checked in for three and a half hours of attitude adjustment.

It cost me 46 Euros for the stay. For that, I got a tiny, clean, super efficient cabin with a comfortable single bunk, a shower and toilet, a TV (which I did not turn on), a powerful Wi-Fi connection, unlimited non-alcoholic drinks (which I did not take sufficient advantage of) and some much needed private space in which to reset my state of mind.

It was money well spent. When I checked out of my cabin after a short nap and some silent lethargy, I felt human again.

Airline partner terms are unclear, delays happen, the mystery of why you can check in here and not there – these things are all part of the process. The follies of transit are a critical part of travel and often, they are unavoidable. As a seasoned traveler, it’s rare that I let this stuff get under my skin.

But sometimes, when patience wears thin, you can throw a few bucks at a problem and not make it go away, but at least make it better. Upgrade your seat to Economy Plus, spring for a taxi and get an airport hotel the night before the early flight. Don’t buy the Day Pass, that way lies madness, but get yourself something nice. Travel is totally glam, but sometimes, it’s wearing and takes a toll. Give yourself a break. Book the pod for a few hours and make yourself human again.

Plus, you can use that refreshed energy for complaint letters to the airlines on the long flight home.

#OnTheRoad On Instagram: Destination Austria And Germany

The meadows are green, the tulips are in full flower and it’s a lovely time of year to explore central Europe. While I’ve got the shutter for the Gadling Travel Instagram feed, you’ll see pictures of the Rhine, probably more than a few cows, several plates of pastries (the Austrians are famous for that) and no shortage of gorgeous landscape. You’ll see a lot of small town stuff – I’ll be spending most of my time admiring what’s left of the snow covering the tops of the surrounding alpine peaks, but if time permits, you might see a little Graz and Vienna as well. Austria was my former temporary home during my expat days and while there’s plenty to see, there’s also family to visit.

Springtime along the rivers of Europe. The Rhine, the Moselle, the Enns, the Danube … let’s hope the weather holds and these palace skies stay full of sunshine.