Vacation As Usual?

Chichen Itza, Mexico
The Spanish Club visiting Chichen Itza in Mexico. We sure are small next to that pyramid.

My clock reads 2:55 am.  I can’t sleep, I’m too anxious for tomorrow to arrive.  The packing is done, my gigantic suitcase is patiently waiting by the door.  Who wouldn’t jump at a chance to explore the ancient ruins of Chichen Itza, and Teotihuacan, both UNESCO World Heritage sites in Mexico?   

From childhood, I’ve been blessed with a life full of trips and vacations that increased my awe of the world and exposed me to the joys of travel.  My family fished in Canada, in the Bahamas, and in the Florida Keys.  We swam in the Gulf of Mexico, spent a rustic week camping in northern Wisconsin, and marvelled at the luxury of Atlantis (the resort).  In high school I travelled to Mexico and Spain with the Spanish Club, and right after our high school graduation, my two closest friends and I added over 4,000 miles to my mom’s Land Cruiser in 12 days, taking a roadtrip across the West.  I returned to Mexico during college for a short-term study abroad.   In March I spent 10 days in the Philippines for a Creation Care and the Gospel Consultation.

Lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae), feeding on Agave flower, Amado, Arizona. This bat is listed as vulnerable. ROBERTA OLENICK/CORBIS
Lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae), feeding on Agave flower, Amado, Arizona. This bat is listed as vulnerable. ROBERTA OLENICK/CORBIS Discovery News.

In my opinion, the best way to develop a sense of God’s brilliance and a love for his people and creation is to simply go.  Air travel makes the world much smaller, much more accessible.  My appreciation for Mexican hospitality, siestas, wildlife, and café de olla exists because I was there!  I stayed in a small hotel, just down the road from a farmer’s market.  I bought fresh papaya and mangoes, and chatted with the vendors.  I revelled in the less-hurried lifestyle (funnily enough, work still got done!) and learned where tequila comes from.  Most interestingly, I learned that the agave plant is pollinated by bats.  So you can thank a bat the next time you enjoy a margarita!

I’ve seen a lot of the world, but not enough.   My list of “must-visit places” includes: Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Ireland, and Perú, to name a few.  But I have come up against a roadblock (tarmac-block?): flying uses vast amounts of resources.  Think of all the energy being used to run an international airport, not to mention the fossil fuels in the jet.  If I’m serious about God’s designation that I take responsibility over the flourishing of creation, I must seriously consider if my vacations are honoring to God and good news to all His creation.  Cue the inner conflict: the fun and excitement of experiencing new cultures and seeing new places vs. trying to be a wise steward of creation by not travelling so far.

One possible compromise is responsible ecotourism.  It’s a twist on “regular” tourism that, when done properly, helps people act less like consumers and more as ambassadors.  My friend Philip Yong co-founded Borneo Adventure in 1987, and they bring people into one of the last remaining rainforests in Malaysia: the home of the endangered orangutan and the Iban indigenous community.  Borneo Adventure partners with the Iban villages to sustainably showcase the beauty of the natural and cultural world of Sarawak, Borneo (sustainability means preserving both the cultural heritage and way of life of the Iban, and the environment) while giving the visitors an unbelievable adventure full of wildlife, canoeing, and much more.  You know the quote by Baba Dioum, a Senegalese conservationist?   He said,

“In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught.”

Ecotourism like Borneo Adventure allows people to fall in love with rainforests, living close to the land, clean water, and the Iban people, created in the image of God.  When folks love what God has made, it motivates them to take care of their slice of creation, their backyard.  Hopefully.

I have one other idea.  What about “stay-cations” (a getaway within your state or region, even in your own home)?  I live in Wisconsin, and in my 18 years in this state, I still haven’t explored the majority of the state and county parks, museums, and historic sites.  Places I have visited, mostly through school field trips, would be wondrously great to see as an adult.  My awe of this beautiful world could use a dose of reality: my backyard was made by God.  Instead of longingly gazing at the green grass on the other side, I should perhaps look down at the grass under my feet; and if it’s not green, water and nurture it.

I encourage you to join me in reconsidering the way we take vacations.   Whether through ecotourism or intentionally staying close to home, let’s enjoy the company of our families and friends as ambassadors more than consumers.  As for me, I still plan on going to Korea someday.  And Ireland.  And Peru!

Where do you dream of vacationing, and how will you go about making the experience meaningful?  Which ecotourism programs do you recommend?

p.s. This New York Times article by Ron Lieber seems to support “stay-cations,” and that making memories with everyday activities, rather than extraordinary travels and adventures, leads to greater happiness.