Guess Who Has The Most Intimidating Border Control Officials?

Border Control
Flickr, US Army

Do you ever feel nervous going through border control in a new country? How about when you return home? A study by IXP visas polled 1,000 travelers who had been to at least ten foreign countries; over 60% said they felt intimidated by border officials at some time, with the most intimidating vote going to American border control. The reasons sited for the nerves included “obvious weaponry on display,” a “lack of humor,” and a general “intimidating demeanor.”

The countries with the most intimidating border officials:

  1. USA: 22% (of respondents called border control officers intimidating)
  2. UAE: 12%
  3. Mexico: 9%
  4. Canada: 8%
  5. South Korea: 6%
  6. UK: 5%
  7. Israel: 5%
  8. Pakistan: 4%
  9. Venezuela: 4%
  10. Cuba: 3%

Have you felt intimidated entering (or re-entering) the U.S.? Which country has you most nervous at immigration?

“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.

How To Get Souvenirs From A Place You’ve Never Been

A Box From Tehran souvenirs
ABoxFrom.com

Planning a trip to Tehran anytime soon? You probably aren’t, due to heavy restrictions on travel to Iran, but you can get a taste of Persian culture with a trip to your mailbox. ABoxFrom.com is a service that compiles a box of souvenirs from far-flung places (the previous box was from Seoul, South Korea) and mails them to you in beautifully-decorated boxes.

The Tehran box is 40 Euro, including tea, a paper map and a handmade basket. They may seem like ordinary objects, but each item was carefully chosen with the help of locals, and for its importance in the country’s culture and history, nostalgic and new.

Dubai To Build World’s Largest Lagoon For $7 Billion

dubai
Flickr/travelourplanet.com

Dubai has a lot of big things. At 688 feet, the Dubai Eye will be the tallest Ferris wheel in the world and part of the $1.5 billion Bluewaters Island entertainment project. At almost 12 million square feet, the Dubai Mall sits in the shadow of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. Now, a multi-national company plans to build the world’s largest man-made lagoon to the tune of $7 billion.

The yet to be named project will be nearly four times bigger than the current largest lagoon and have swimming, water sports and other water based leisure activities. If all goes as planned, developer Crystal Lagoons Corp that holds patented technology for building giant crystalline lagoons, hopes that their project will quickly become a popular warm weather destination.

“Caribbean landscapes are no longer exclusive to tropical destinations,” said Crystal Lagoons CEO Kevin P. Morgan in an Economic Times report.

Crystal Lagoons has bigger plans, too. “Based on our track record in the Middle East, we have proven that our technology can add value to a top destination, making beachfront real estate a reality anywhere in the world,” said Morgan.

The Way Of Kindness

India Buddhist Festival
AP

In his preface to a collection of stories called “The Kindness of Strangers,” His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote, “Kindness and compassion are among the principal values that make our lives meaningful… At any given moment there must be hundreds of millions of acts of kindness taking place around the world.”

That theme infuses the five travelers’ tales Aol Travel is highlighting this week, all portraying acts of unexpected kindness in a globe-embracing spectrum of settings, from Syria and Liberia to India, Greece and Russia. These acts are not dramatic or headline commanding, but small, everyday kindnesses.

Read all these stories at Aol Travel.