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I really enjoyed this interview with Nuraini. Nurani is a sustainable travel enthusiast and has an impressive passion and amount of knowledge in the sustainable tourism industry. Nurani gives us her best sustainable travel tips, whilst teaching and inspiring us.
If you wish to chat to Nuraini feel free to contact her on our platform, here
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What made you decided to start travelling differently? To get into volunteering and so on?
Maybe it’s cliché, but in all honesty, it was a life crisis. More specifically, my marriage could not be saved, such that even someone who doesn’t give up, who is persistent like me, had to face up to that and take the responsible action.
It was the most difficult thing I’ve had to do. But what came after that was a re-evaluation. Especially being a planner, like most people I had built preparations for a certain kind of life according to what you knew about, growing up. And it wasn’t until that life was no longer possible, that I opened my view to understand what sort of life was in fact right for me.
I began to let go of expecting a certain kind of life. I began by letting go the things I had laid by for that life. I realized that in fact I didn’t miss them, and that in fact giving them away was much more fulfilling and freeing. The process led me to see the people who truly needed them. And it began to change a lot of things – longstanding thought patterns I had carried from childhood – about other people, acceptance, belonging, and so on.
And then, when I was done with that, I thought to myself, what else do I love, which I haven’t given from? The only thing left, was my time. My vacation time. And that’s when I looked it up and discovered volunteering travel. I actually wrote about this journey in the article about the first volunteering trip I took, in the Perhentian Islands, here.
2. With the changing world of the tourism industry what is your biggest worry? How do you think this can be avoided/fixed?
I love travel. I love how it expands your worldview, and leads people to get to know one another, observe other cultures and ways of life. My biggest worry is the surge in cheap tourism. While not necessarily a bad thing, it does enable irresponsible travel in a way that has not happened before.
There are two ways to consume – consciously, and greedily. Travel is not unlike food or clothes or entertainment. We all understand that there is a difference between healthy, sustainably grown, home-cooked meals, and mass-farmed, industrial food. There is a difference between ethically made clothing, and chemically laced, sweatshop clothes. One is perfectly fine and the original way people made things, and the other is often a source of injustice and damage to oneself and others.
In the same way there is a difference between responsible travel, and the self-centered kind.
This is one of the reasons why I support a carbon price that is applied universally. I carbon offset myself, and advocate for it often. But having it by default embedded into pricing gives at least one negative impact of travel a clear cost. But as for the other impacts, nothing short of structural change to the industry can do it. After all, despite knowing about its negative impacts, we still have industrial pseudo food and throwaway fashion dominating modern civilization.
What are some of the most upsetting things you have seen of your travels in terms of the environment and other issues?
Single use plastic. As a child as recently as the 80s, I remember that beach litter – if any – were mainly random flip flops or pieces of glass. But just 20 years later, there is no beach I’ve visited that does not have plastic trash. Household waste mix reflects that – plastic now comprises the bulk of waste. Try going without disposable plastic for a month – you will surprise yourself.
Everyone – even people who work in environmental fields who should know better – buys plastic bottled water. And then, hotels have begun to offer free plastic toothbrushes too – we used to bring our own toothbrushes as travelers. It’s destroying immense ecosystems in the ocean.
What are some of your biggest successes whilst travelling with sustainability in mind?
On a personal level, I think what I’m most proud of, was the time when I committed to using a portable water filter. (recommend the Sawyer Mini Filter). That trip included India – the super dense part of Uttar Pradesh, not the remote pristine parts – which usually strikes fear and apprehension regarding water safety. I didn’t buy bottled water even once. The filter was able to give me all the safe drinking water I needed – I even just used the bathroom supply. I didn’t have any bowel issues.
I felt that this proved that even in places where the water supply is doubtful, you do not need to consume single-use plastic. Given that the water filter is in fact more convenient than constantly having to buy bottles of water, there really is no logical reason why people still do so.
Could you please tell us more about the variety of volunteer projects you have worked with?
To be honest, I’ve only done it three times, and only for environmental projects. I’ve worked with the Blue Temple (now Perhentian Marine Research Station) on a plastics reduction and recycling initiative in the Perhentian Islands Marine Park, Malaysia. In the same year I participated in a corporate sponsored project with Earthwatch in Sirsi, India, which was about tree and amphibian surveys for climate change indicators. And I decided to change it up and volunteered for the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program the year after that, which was a whale shark survey program.
Bad volunteerism is a frightening thing. What are you tips for finding reputable volunteer opportunities and other than the ones mentioned above, can you recommend any others?
I’m less knowledgeable about social volunteering projects. However, some of the tips for environmental projects may generally apply.
Environmental projects are usually not free – ask what the money goes to, see if it makes sense relative to the purpose of the project. For example, it often goes to renting or buying services from local communities, to demonstrate the alternative value of environmental conservation vs exploitation. Also, are they run by qualified people? Data collection for example, should be headed by actual scientists. Otherwise the data is frequently unusable.
If the project involves data collection, ask what happens to the data afterwards – does it go to any agency or entity to inform research or decisions? Data collection is not a goal by itself.
How does the volunteer organization interact with the host community? Does it carry itself as a local organization, or does it behave culturally foreign? For example, can the people in charge help you understand local culture? Do any of them speak the local language? Are there local staff? While none of these are conclusive or deal-breakers, it’s a rough indication of attempts to assimilate.
I think if the project can give you a clear and consistent idea for how they are of value, then it should be fine. No outfit is going to be perfect, and that’s where a diversity of volunteers can help. Often NGOs need people who understand accounting, for example. Or media outreach. Even sales. Skills you didn’t think would be related to conservation, but is in fact the ones they are most short of.
How do you see the future of sustainable travel? How would you like it to be?
I would like it to become just the way travel is done. Just like how travelers expect a certain minimum standard for airline safety and food hygiene and lack of child labour for businesses to be considered ‘reputable’, at least some of the most important elements of tourism should simply become ‘normal tourism’. For example, at least in marine parks, I would like one day for it to be just as scandalous for a resort to give out plastic straws, as if they caused food poisoning to their guests.
What are your top ways to travel with the environment in mind?
Carbon offset your flights, provide non-plastic bottled potable water for yourself or demand the resort to do so for you, don’t take free stuff you don’t need just because it’s free, preferentially support environmentally conscious businesses. These are things that everyone can do, whether your travel style is budget or luxury, independent or group.
How do you best like to fit into cultures respectfully when you travel?
I find that the best way for me is to have a host, ideally of my own gender. It definitely helps to have someone to ask questions, to work out what would be expected.
The other thing is your internal attitude. One of the best favours you can do for yourself to be a respectful traveler, is to leave behind whatever pain points or activism you carry at home. Just because some cause is a big deal where you’re from, doesn’t mean it bothers another culture as much. Different countries have very different baggage from very different histories, and as long as you carry yours all over the world, you would not be able to see another’s.
You have hiked all through Nepal, India and the himalayans, what are you best tips for conservation and sustainable hiking?
Technically just Nepal! I read up a lot from other bloggers who are more of the trekking sort than me. My main attempt was to have as light a waste footprint as I could. For Nepal, where there are guesthouses and teahouses, I personally feel that staying and eating at the teahouses is more sustainable than bringing your own packaged rations.
However, my most controversial thought was whether I personally should be hiking in the Himalayas at all. I found that even in summer I could not withstand the cold, and constantly needed the gas-fired hot showers. Not exactly the most sustainable option for such a remote and sensitive area.
Have you ever come into trouble in places such as Nepal and India being a female traveller alone?
Fortunately, so far no. Generally speaking, I seemed to attract family sorts of people. Perhaps because I’m Asian, and look like one of them. So my experience was more people who behaved fatherly or brotherly to me, or like a random uncle, in the way typical of Asian communities.
I had a lot less interaction with women though. I think maybe it was because I never stayed anywhere very long when I did my Nepal/India trip. It is quite typical of conservative communities, that you would be unlikely to be admitted to the society of women as a foreigner (and I mean, by the women themselves), unless you’ve been around for a while.
Which are your three top organisations for sustainable travel?
There are very many good organizations out there, and I can’t say that my recommendations are the best.
I like Earthwatch because they have a variety of projects across the world, and have made a lot of effort to be transparent.
I like the MWSRP (Maldives Whale Shark Research Program) because they network with a lot of institutions studying whale sharks globally, and make their data open source for them. They also actively support a citizen science initiative in the Maldives, the Big Fish Network, which enables tourism providers and tourists to participate in the whale shark surveys.
I also like Malaysia-based Ecoteer, for a more start-up voluntourism sort of outfit. I know people in there; they are persistent and passionate through a lot of growing pains.
How do you go about supporting the “real local economy” on your trips?
I’m a pretty low maintenance traveler, so I don’t actually buy many things. So that means, I put more thought on where I place my biggest spends: accommodation and food. I try to go local small business for these, which is pretty easy these days. For example, I don’t couchsurf in poor countries, even if I can – I would buy lodging, preferably locally-run.
I’m also an organized person by nature. So I keep track of things I need replaced around the house, and do without until I can buy the replacement while on a trip. For example, cushion covers, or clothes – especially cold weather clothing. The reason is that in the city where I live, I’m more likely to buy it as a generic item from a corporation. But if I am travelling, I’m more likely to buy it from local artisans.
For example, my best shawl is a pure cashmere bought directly from a Kashmiri family business in Pokhara, who hosted me for a couple nights. Hands down it outperforms any other shawl I had before, plus it’s the most beautiful as well.
In fact, with the help of another friend, we’re in the very initial stages of setting up an online shop so that they would be more accessible to the modern-day market!
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