Sunday, May 11, 2014

This Week: Gringo Trails (the film)

Watch the thought-provoking documentary film Gringo Trails

Back in 2000, I took my first trip to Maui, Hawaii. It was a dream trip. We snorkeled, drove the Hana Highway, and ate more seafood in one week than I had I my entire life.  However, on the last day of our stay, we met a couple on their honeymoon. They told us about an amazing experience they had that morning. They rode a bike the down Haleakala volcano. Quite animated, the wife told us how they got up at 2 AM for the drive to the mountain, how they watched the sun rise at the top of the volcano and the beautiful scenery of Maui as they lazily coasted down the mountain. The ride finished at a beautiful beach. I was in awe. I decided if I ever returned to Maui, I would have that experience for myself.

Obligatory cheesy photos taken by our guide.
Ours was among four bikes tours using this roadside turnout. 
In 2013, I got that chance. It was my turn to get up at two in the morning and was picked up by a large van filled with eight other people. We saw an amazing sun rise over the rim of the crater; something we will always remember. The rest of the tour, however, we would like to forget.  There were at least a dozen other tours with eight to ten people also heading down the mountain and there was only one road. Our instructor made us hurry so we’d be the first ones down the hill. I found out why about half way down. We stopped at a park building for a bathroom break and to remove our jackets as the air temperature rose. When we emerged from the building, the parking area was surrounded by bikes, trucks and trailers and a line of people waiting to use the facilities. Then on the ride itself, we had to straddle a fine line between coasting down the hill safely, but not going too slowly because our guide didn’t want us to impede local traffic. We were told the locals who lived on the mountain did not like the continuous lines of bikers riding down the same road they used to get work in the morning. On top of the bike tours, there were many people who rented bikes on their own and road recklessly down the mountain without a guide at breakneck speeds passing those of us in the tours. After the ride was over and we were heading back to the hotel, our guide admitted that these bike tours were a source of contention in the community. It’s a popular activity that draws a large number of tourists so it is a big revenue producer for the island. However, with only one road to ride down, that road is getting increasingly congested with both cars and bikes. There are those who want the activity banned and those who make a living off of it. On our way up the volcano before the ride we received a heavy-handed lecture from our guide about safety. However, our safety wasn’t really his first concern. His concern was if anyone died, the state would step in and shut it down and he would be out of job. And the beautiful scenery the wife mentioned back in 2000? Well, our guide told us not to look at it because if we didn’t pay attention to the road we would crash. It was not my finest travel moment.

I was reminded of this misadventure after watching an incredible film about tourism gone wrong. GringoTrails by Pegi Vail and Melvin Estrella is a new documentary that looks at the travel industry, specifically the backpacking travel industry, and its effects on natural habitats and the native people who live there. It is an eye-opening and thought provoking film.

In one of the film’s most compelling stories, there once was a beach on an island near Thailand that was pristine; A paradise with a mile-long beach, a bay with sky blue water, lush vegetation and not a high rise in sight. Fisherman and their families lived here, just as they had for decades. Then in the late 1970s an American backpacker arrived and stayed for several weeks. He also took some photos. Then he told some other backpacking friends about this amazing beach. So those backpackers went to visit and they told some more backpackers who then told some more and so on. Then in 1984 the man who originally photographed this amazing beach was reading the New York Times and on the back page was photo of that very same beach. Only the photo wasn’t like the ones he took. This photo showed the beach packed with hundreds of people.Flash ahead another 30 years as backpackers arrive on this island in droves. Then mainland Thais arrived to sell things to the foreigners, things like hotel rooms, trinkets, alcohol, drugs and sex. On New Year’s Eve 2010 some 50,000 people packed its shores to party like it was 1999. The scene the next day was of plastic and glass bottles smothering the beach as the tide rolled in while people were passed out on the sand.

The back packer who “discovered” Haad Rin Beach on Koh Phangan island in Thailand was Costas Christ, now Editor at Large for National Geographic Traveler. It was not his intention to overrun that beach with drunk, littering backpackers on a hedonistic New Year’s Eve. Nor was it Yossi Ghinsberg’s intention to send hundreds, even thousands, of backpackers to the jungles of Bolivia when he wrote and published a book about his survival in the Amazon after being swept away from his friends by a flood in 1981. His book, Back from Tuichi, which is a tale of life and death, has since become a Bible for those who wish to follow in his footsteps.
The film looks at how backpackers travel, where they travel and what happens when so many show up in the same place. This look at the downside of backpacking culture is what makes this film especially intriguing. As a travel writer myself, I have read, seen and heard the arguments made by those who lament the luxury travel set as mega-hotels, destination restaurants and golf courses rise up in various unspoiled settings. Never had it occurred to me that those who travel with only a backpack would do so much damage to the places they visit. However, a Bolivian resident in the film makes the point that backpackers can be the worst kind of tourists when it comes to setting up infrastructure, mostly because they are the first to arrive in places that don’t have any tourism infrastructure to begin with. They don’t require luxuries or even everyday comforts which makes it easier to build places for them to stay and eat, infrastructure without codes, environmental standards or any control for growth.

Why does this happen? One of my dearest friends has an environmental studies degree and spent many years working for the National Park Service in the forests surrounding Vail, Colorado. She makes the point that when people go camping [or traveling], they are going to [camp] where it’s easiest for them to do so. People need water so they camp near a river or stream; they need a flat spot for their tent; they collect rocks for a fire pit. The next person who happens that way sees an inviting spot and decides to camp there too; and the next; and the next; and so on.

In a way, this happens with back packing. Back packers in particular have a desire to find a place that no one else has been too, a place where they can raise eyebrows at home with the mere mention of a city (Timbuktu is an example in the film).  A small group of backpackers find such a place and perhaps encounter friendly locals. They tell their friends back home or fellow backpackers they meet on the road. Usually those stories become embellished (who among us hasn’t done that?) and then others want to go. The backpacking community (just like the cruising community or the bird watching community, or the wine lovers looking for that elusive bottle) probably read the same blogs and the same guide books so even more people learn about a place. Eventually it becomes so crowded the location reaches tipping point. But can we return from that tipping point?

The answer is no…and yes. My friend told me that the Park Service actually sections off areas of parks and declares them “sacrificial,” so people are allowed to camp in a specific area and the park service keeps people confined to that spot (through natural barriers, fences and signs), allowing campers to degrade that spot and then close it down for rebuilding the next season. In the film, there is the example of Bhutan. The country, famous for its “Gross National Happiness” measurement, imposes a charge to visitors of $200-250 a day per person (This fee does include accommodations and transfers, but can be complicated. Visit the Bhutan Tourism Council to learn more.). The policy is called “High Value, Low Impact.” This produces a different type of traveler, one who has to really want to be there because it takes extra money to do so. Is that fair? Or is that the price paid to keep us from destroying the places we love?

“No matter how small, every person leaves a footprint wherever they go,” my friend reminded me.

Those of us who travel, whether we backpack or not, need to remember that we are the visitors and that the places we visit do not belong to us. We are only there temporarily, whether it’s for three days or three months, whether it's 30 miles away or 3000. We need to remember that there are people who live there who will continue to need a place to live and work long after we’re gone.  I encourage everyone who has the chance to see this film, which is currently being shown at universities around the world. Follow Gringo Trails on Facebook and Twitter to find cities where screenings will occur or find screenings online. General release will be later this year. My viewing of this film was made possible by

This sunrise was worth getting up at 2 AM, but the tour that followed was not.