Gringo Trails

Last night, Steven and I watched the documentary Gringo Trails.

It's about how backpacker culture affects local culture and biodiversity... often for the worse, especially if it goes unchecked.

This is SO up Steven's and my alley. We spent the better chunk of our twenties with backpacks and the simple goal of seeing more of the world together. And we were frankly so embarrassed of our backpacks and what we felt they symbolized to the rest of the world, that these are literally the only two photos I can find of us with them:

In Dogon Country in Mali (hence the crazy wax print patterns), and at the train station in Rabat, Morocco.

In Dogon Country in Mali (hence the crazy wax print patterns), and at the train station in Rabat, Morocco.

(I'm wondering, in retrospect, if we should have simply opted for better looking side bags, but you really can't beat the functionality of a big ass backpack with a hip strap when you're lugging it around for months on end.)

We had a wild, wonderful, life-changing time. And we struggled constantly with the question of what exactly our role in the world was as travelers. Silent observers? Guests? Ambassadors of the States? Ambassadors of liberal culture?

And we struggled with the continual chase of finding "authentic" and "off the beaten path" places. (Btw, I'm resisting saying "undiscovered" because I think that word is frankly, disgustingly neocolonialist in this situation. Oh really, you discovered that place where thousands of people have been living for thousands of years? Cool, Columbus.)

How did we choose our paths, both well-beaten and less-taken? Well, this being pre-Bring-Your-Internet-Everywhere-With-You-In-Your-Smart-Phone, we had tumultuous affairs with guidebooks. Yes kids, ACTUAL BOOKS you had to lug around and hope you didn't lose. They became borderline sacred, to the point that I've kept most of them all these years later.

Tumultuous is really the key word here, because we both loved and loathed these tomes. They gave us deeply practical and necessary tips on things like border crossings and transportation hubs. And they gave us highly subjective reviews of just about everything else. We were partial to Lonely Planet books in particular. Their budget and tone suited our age. But we started actually avoiding hotels that had Lonely Planet stickers in their windows, and bemoaning the inescapable fact that if we had found it in the guidebook, hundreds if not thousands of other people had too

So aside from actively seeking out advice from other sources (shop owners! bar tenders! fellow train passengers!) we became experts on the guidebook authors' language. "Hippie" meant banana pancakes for breakfast and lots of weed, "family-friendly" meant expensive but clean, and "big backpacker hub" meant STAY AWAY AT ALL COSTS. Because that would mean the difference between this:


Getty Image via Mirror UK, and "Gringo Trails" by Pegi Vail.

Getty Image via Mirror UK, and "Gringo Trails" by Pegi Vail.

No joke. These are both on the same island in Thailand: Kho Phangan. The top photo is Steven floating at the oh so peaceful beach of Haad Salad which is only a half an hour moped ride from Haad Rin, home of the Full Moon Parties, aka the drug and booze fueled shit show that is in the photo just above. 

That was the best part of the "Gringo Trails" documentary, if only because the narrative is so straight forward and heart breaking: Pristine beach with local residents is "discovered" by one backpacker looking to get off the usual backpacker trail. Said backpacker tells other backpackers. Just a handful of years later it's a 50,000 person shit show. 

I'm sorry, I keep using the term "shit show" but come on, is it not? I think an alternative title for the documentary could have been:

Twenty-Somethings Just Want To Get Drunk And Have Sex With Each Other Somewhere That Is Not Their Hometown and Ruin It For Everyone Else, Animals Included

(Who was Patient Zero by the way? Costas Christ, an editor at large for National Geographic who has since won awards for his coverage/promotion of sustainable tourism. Kind of ironic, no? The film doesn't get into any guilt he may or may not have felt, but I'm hoping that's only because it was left on the cutting room floor.)

I also enjoyed the interviews with Lonely Planet guidebook writer Anja Mutic. She was especially succinct yet eloquent about the responsibility she feels as a guidebook writer knowing full well that any place she chooses to include in the book will experience an influx of visitors and she can only hope that the local community is adequately prepared for it.

Steven at an elephant rehab sanctuary in Thailand back in 2007. 

Steven at an elephant rehab sanctuary in Thailand back in 2007. 

So what does it mean for a community to be "prepared"? Well, my other alternative title for this movie would be:

Thailand Fucked Up, Bhutan Has The Right Idea

To be fair, Haad Rin got caught by surprise. So places like Bhutan are learning from it and keeping their tourism development highly regulated with a focus on sustainability. And not just environmental sustainability in the sense of recycling all those booze bottles, but the sustainability of the local culture.

Because of course the horrible irony of tourism is that people are flocking to see something that makes that place unique, and simply their presence changes everything. And quite quickly, if development goes unchecked, there's a bajllion shitty restaurants serving those damn banana pancakes and tours giving you the CliffNotes performance version of their "authentic" culture. Yes, there's some quick money to made in it, but then what? You get these xeroxes of xeroxes of culture til it's just a blurry mess. 

Of course this is something I think about in terms of my own hotel.

photo by Ben of #guysonthefly

photo by Ben of #guysonthefly

When we were looking for locations, I hoped to find a place that already had a history of hospitality. Not only would it obviously be a more straight forward renovation, but I reeeeeeally didn't want to swoop into a town and significantly alter its landscape. Especially without having already lived there for a while. So when I found out that at its peek The Schwarzenegger Sunshine Valley House had literally hundreds of guests I was psyched!

Our guests now (all 20 of them max since there is only one remaining hotel structure on the property) are often curious about if we have plans to expand. Add more rooms, become a big time wedding venue. And while of course we're always looking to grow as a business, I feel really strongly about growing responsibly, which to me means slowly and consciously, keeping in mind everything from traffic on Spruceton Road to Steven's and my life/work balance to the wildlife in our backyard. 

photo by Fran of #guysonthefly

photo by Fran of #guysonthefly

Whelp. That got a liiiiittle preachy, but as you can see it's something I feel strongly about! And I have no doubt that I feel so strongly about it, in part, because of everything I saw on and off the "gringo trails". 

So go forth and travel! It will blow your mind. It will change you forever. Just be the guest you'd want to have in your hometown.