The traveler's footprint: environmental costs of tourism

In the past year and a half I’ve been exploring the world without any limitations. I went where I wanted, when I wanted and how I wanted. What this means is that I’ve transported myself by foot, car, van, bus, train and plane; I’ve eaten in restaurants almost every day; I’ve consumed drinking water from plastic bottles in most destinations; I haven’t recycled (or had the opportunity to do it) for ages…

This got me thinking. How big is the impact of me traveling around the world? A precise answer is virtually impossible to calculate, but the estimates are already shocking. Mainly because of mobility, my traveler’s footprint is 12 times bigger than our planet can take. This means that by January 30th, if everyone lived like me this past year, our planet would be consumed to its core. This is just an estimation, and I figure it could be even worse.

One of my flight's around the world, here I was traveling from Bangkok to Denpasar. Photography by Guille Álvarez

I’m not the only traveler around here, so you could multiply this impact by the thousands. Let’s put an example with my first flight out of Barcelona. I was so happy because I found an offer to fly for 250€ to Singapore, a good start of my Asian part of the project. Only now I realise that flight meant 52% of the annual amount of CO2 I should consume in order to help limit the Global Warming impact to only 2ºC. It’s crazy, and it seems impossible for a backpacker or any other tourist to just project several months of travel without severely impacting our climate.

There is a final paradox to the mobility issue. The least problematic method for traveling is the least used: rail and boat transportation, both at the bottom of the CO2 impact stats, represent less than 20% of all global traveling.

Note: these guys probably did a better job than me in this sense by biking from Spain to China… and they’re still going! Walking or cycling, of course, reduces a 100% your transportation carbon footprint.

The CO2 emissions and its toll on the planet from my flight Barcelona - Singapore.

Exploring the world is great, but the environmental costs are greater

The statistics by scientists and scholars confirm my individual suspicions on the destructive relationship between travel and climate. Tourism’s global carbon footprint accounts for about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, this study published in Nature affirms. That’s four times the impact previously consensuated by scientists a few years back. If tourism was a country today, it would be the fourth most impactful towards global warming just under the United States, China and the European Union.

There are other indicators, apart from the carbon footprint, that should change our behaviour. “One tourist consumes 3 or 4 times more water per day than a permanent resident”, confirms another study. I can think on the many many bottles of water I’ve bought all around the globe, not only consuming all this extra water in showers, pools, sinks, etc. but also impacting the amount of plastic residues that are consumed on a daily basis.

Plastic products are an epidemic threat for nature, with giant garbage floating islands reported in several parts of our oceans. They also undermine the climate overland. Most countries I’ve visited in Southeast Asia and South America have little care for recycling and littering. It’s been a rare discovery to find natural attractions without plastic bottles, food envelopes or papers appearing in the floor, messing with the landscape and nature. Are we careless and idiotic? YES.

Hundreds of tourist gather for sunrise in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. How couldn't this affect the environment and the heritage site? Photography by Guille Álvarez

The problem with traveling is that, in general, it’s impossible to avoid these irresponsible attitudes. At least it’s not easy and straightforward. Wherever tourism reaches, trash surplus and misuse takes place. It’s there in plain sight, it’s a logical consequence. How can a tiny tropical island cope with the luxurious tourist standards? The only way is through the exploitation of land, which affects the climate, the nature, the fauna and also, let’s not forget, the local inhabitants.

I’m standing at the edge of a cliff in Copacabana, a little town on the edge of lake Titicaca in Bolivia. I savour the amazing sunset, focus on the horizon of this immense lake standing still at 4.000 metres between the Altiplano and the Andes. The breeze chills my bones, the sun burns my skin, but these are the sights you can’t pay for during your trip. I take it all in.

But I inevitably look down the cliff, and the magic is broken. The garbage covers all the cliff’s edge, bottom to top and around me. It’s just the last example of destruction of our environment and climate that I’ve experienced as a world traveler. Without proper education and resources, we’ll never fix this.

I certainly don’t have an answer to the bigger picture, but I know it starts with the actions of every individual.

Lake Titicaca views are ruined by the constant presence of trash in the surroundings. Copacabana, Bolivia. Photography by Guille Álvarez


Alive in the desert: when nothing is everything

Colombia is a vast country that can boast of all sort of things. It’s a magical place, like his best author, Gabriel García Márquez, would suggest in his many chronicles and novels, archetypes of realismo mágico. The landscape of the country that connects South America with Central and North America goes from breathtaking mountains to stunning beaches. What doesn’t change in these landscapes is the people: keen, boisterous, and happy despite misfortunes and miseries. Having both the Andes and the Caribbean is quite an accomplishment, even if it’s only a given and natural gift. It’s also a good combination for forming the populations’ character.

The realisation of how great Colombia is came for me in my last stop in the south of the country, en route to Ecuador. And in a place where there is literally nothing, the Tatacoa Desert. Its landscape suggests we’ve finally landed in Mars, yet I was still in the same place I landed three weeks ago to start off my South American experience. Having visited 22 countries in the last year, the feeling of amazement or surprise gets somewhat misplaced: another waterfall? Not exciting anymore. But this desert was / is something else.

I was alone on my first morning there. I didn’t come across a single other human being from 6am to 10am, only a dog entertained itself by following me a couple of times. Rising early to beat the heat, the non-existent crowds and the charm of a good sunrise, a pleasure best learned while traveling, I enjoyed views that rather transported me to a Hollywood movie –and its recurrent Westerns imaginary, or lately, space and science-fiction fables.

From Mars to Me

In all honesty, there is little to nothing to do in Tatacoa. That’s precisely good. Alone in its immensity (not literal, but mentally it feels like that), one has time to reflect on inner feelings, future plans and true being. Many times I’ve been walking around this kind of places and thought to myself: how lucky am I? All my friends would jump at me. “Of course, motherfucker, you’ve been traveling the world without working for a year”.

They’re right. But they forget too. I chose to do this, I freed myself from our imaginary chains and just threw myself into the unknown, into the vastness of our universe. Or what’s reachable for us (not astronauts), planet Earth. The benefits of my decision I see very clear, and all those doubts and ‘what ifs’ have disappeared into oblivion. When I was walking around the emptiness of Tatacoa desert, I was less than a week away from my year around the world.

Jobless as I have been, I think I’ve worked a lot. Worked on relevant things: on me, on others. Learning how we all are: new cultures, unknown countries, good and bad situation in foreign places. My world has expanded exponentially with every passing day. I feel I know myself better, who I want to be and what I want to accomplish here. I want to know more, read more, write more. My year away, which I gave myself by working my ass off and by randomly being very fortunate –you know, not being born in the third world, having a supporting family or by having been able to study and work for many years, amongst other reasons– has shaped me as a more real version of me.

I had no restrictions, I could do whatever I pleased. In Tatacoa, after a year of travel, my mind was already skipping to new possible futures: this job, this city, my girlfriend. Maybe write a book? Become a digital nomad (for real)? Buy a van and travel more? Become a volunteer?

There are so many aspects of this complex decision I took: quitting my job, giving myself all the time I wanted to enjoy other places and other people, living an alternative life. Give myself a chance to sit back and reflect. I can’t put them all into words, it’s just impossible, the same when everyone asks me to highlight the best place of my travels. You cannot simply choose one, but you can always go yourself and find out, then you’ll get me.

See, I was gonna write about the desert, about Tatacoa and its emptiness. About its local population of, probably, 30 or 40 people. Crazy place. But emptiness has these things… my thoughts drove me here, to a rather unordered reflection. Today I just wanted to write something to complement my other enlarged passion during this voyage of self-discovery: the art and pleasure of photography.

I think the desert speaks for itself, so let’s leave it here.


One line, one bullet: a story of Medellín

Matt was bragging about the funniest thing the other day. He just hiked two hours up one of the most beautiful valleys in Colombia, the Cocora Valley, and instead of enjoying the scenery, he started to boast about his feats in the city of Medellín. “Woah man, you have to be careful in Medellín. I died five times over there”.

A thirty year old North American dude, Matt spoke loudly amongst the hordes of Colibris flying around him. He was explaining those nights out in Poblado, the touristy neighbourhood of the three million people city, to a German couple who was incredibly interested in that crap. “The stuff is so good and cheap there”, he almost announced to a rather unimpressed pack of visitors surrounding the Colibris in Acaime, a cool breeze finca on the top of the Cocora trek.

In Medellin you can die of several things: for people like Matt, a drug overdose could be easily first; then, in their imaginary of what the city is, the playground of Narcos and Pablo Escobar, you can also be ran over by a local nut driving his car, a horrible episode of diarrhea, a bad hospital treatment or maybe, by a bullet that inadvertently flew around. Matt laughs out loudly, the rest of reasonable people gathered to see the beauty of nature is still unimpressed.

* * *

The night of the 20th of September, Matt partied hard in Perreo, Perreo, Perreo, one of the shady clubs of Poblado’s nightlife. All the right ingredients mixed there. Big gorillas at the door, high heels sitting presumptuously next to the bar and some Westerners looking for affordable fun. And fun it was.

Matt and his group headed to the club with their pockets full. Full of powder. They had bought it after lunch in the neighbourhood, outside a green grocery store two blocks from their hostel. The dude that sold them the golden priced coke wasn’t, they thought afterwards, even 18 years old. He couldn’t legally drink a beer, but there he was dealing with the higher stuff.

Well, Matt and his friends enjoyed some lines at the club, forgot about the kid, and closed up the night in a previsible fashion, hooking up with hookers. Also cheap, beautiful and luscious, like the magical powder they used to enhance their salsa and reggaeton moves. Amazingly, Matt gave all that away after his Cocora trek, for all the rest of mortals there to hear out loud.

* * *

* * *

What Matt didn’t do is think… or read the news. I did. The 20th of September saw six lives lost in the city of Medellín, the shadow of violence and drugs still very present on a daily basis. One of the unidentified victims –the Police is not the most effective in this lands– was found dead next to a park in La Pradera neighbourhood. The victim was 17.

Matt was there the day before, not that he would ever realize. He toured like most tourist the Comuna 13, once Medellín’s most dangerous area, a perfect fit for narcos and arms traffickers to introduce their product to the city and the country, since the place had access to both Atlantic and Pacific sea through highways.

María, a tour guide, is a young woman who has twelve brothers and knows the history of the neighbourhood by heart. When I met her on the 21st, on that same tour Matt took, she had to cry about what happened the day before. Shots were fired, maybe a couple of blocks aways from the tour, and the frightened tourists had to take shelter in a shop, laying on the floor, covering their heads and praying –some for the first time– for their lives not to get lost. They stayed on the ground for 15 minutes, more shots heard, people running in the street, screams and panic installed in their bodies.

Silence came back, so Maria recomposed herself and led the pack to San Javier metro station. The tour had abruptly ended before everything there was to be said was said. The shots were definitive. Nele, a german tourist that got trapped in the shooting, was done with the city and escaped, never coming back to what, despite these events, is a great city.

“This neighbourhood has overcome so many things, but still invisible frontiers are held by gangs and the problem persists. It’s really safe for us, but not everyone here can say that”, states María. “I’ve lived here all my life, and before you couldn’t go out even at daylight”. Comuna 13 is now an art hub, full of coffeeshops, graffitis, dance collectives and football fields for the neighbourhood kids to play around.

Thanks to the citizens push, these initiatives have distanced most of the shadowy businesses, not that they’ve disappeared.  Now they concentrate in other neighbourhoods or in higher spots of the steep landscape of the city, which has seen a lot of change in the concentration of violence during its history.

First, the center of the valley started becoming dangerous, so the neighbours decided to move to the surrounding hills to build new houses and neighbourhoods, which they defended themselves by creating their own police. With time, this self-defense movements became corrupted so the neighbours, again, had to flee down the valley for safety. The history repeats itself up till today.

The latest tourist trend is fatal for Medellín’s future: narco tourism is now a thing, so business is rolling like always.

* * *

* * *

Matt has returned to the US and leads an average live, regardless of having contributed to the miseries of Colombia. He will never figure it out, unfortunately. Federico Gutierrez, mayor of Medellín, is trying to change the focus on tourist activities in the city, that receives almost a million visitors yearly. “The drug mafia is the worst thing that ever happened to Medellin because it distorted values ​​such as those of honesty and hard work by emphasizing easy money made from crime and the suffering of innocent people”, he said in Bucaramanga, during the XXIII National Congress of Travel and Tourism Agencies. Some of this agencies, a lot of them actually, offer several Pablo Escobar tour packages easily accessible online. Did they listen?

Medellín has approximately 240 different gangs with an estimated amount of 5,000 members, the majority of whom are loyal to the Oficina de Envigado, the organized crime syndicate that once was the local enforcer army of deceased drug lord and now pop icon Pablo Escobar. Other illegal armed groups, particularly the paramilitary Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), are also present in the city. Guerrilla group ELN is still present in Medellin, but has not carried out any violent actions in years.

All this is explained in the very popular tour of Comuna 13 I attended a day after the tragedy. Life goes on in Medellín, even after one of the worst shootings of the year. The city council reports that gang violence has sparked a 30% from previous years, yet the whole visit feels safe for us. Normally, when shootings occur it’s because members of rivaling gangs trespass the invisible frontiers set by their leaders. If you cross them, you’re dead. That is what probably happened to the young boy that sold coke to Matt.

* * *

* * *

I cannot understand how people like Matt can go on and buy the product that devastated and still devastates people, families and countries after visiting one of the hotspots of the problem. They give you all the information you need about how bad it is for them, how kids are swallowed by the gang system only to be expelled as corpses. It’s a simple equation for any tourist. If you go and buy coke in Colombia, you’re responsible for the shootings, the persistence of a culture of violence and, of course, the homicides. There’s no other way around it.

After leaving Medellín, sad with this conclusion about the rise of narco based tourism, I was surprised by yet another crazy idiotic tourist trend. You can actually visit a coke lab and make your own stuff. It’s an insane offering that foreigners do take, yes. For a hundred bucks, you get to visit a clandestine lab stuck between thick forests and mountains, and then you can leave the facilities with a gram of dope for your own recreation. That’s what they sell, and people still go for it. You’re paying narcos to show you around their backyard, you’re giving direct money so they can increase their profit, justify their violent nature.  “It’s always the English… and the Australians”, explains a coke cook of San Agustin to a VICE reporter

* * *

After enjoying Medellín staying in a locals quarter, Laureles-Estadio, I can say it’s a great city to understand better what urban Colombia feels like. Watch football, eat salchipapas in a street stall, dance salsa on the weekends, walk up and down the hills of the city until your legs burn…

I have to say that it is shameful to discover that Medellín is still, for the guidebooks, the best city to visit in Colombia for the wrong reasons. The true sense –hidden on the surface– of these popular reviews perpetuate social problems, drug trafficking and promote living like a king amongst the poorer.

Colombia is a country of great offerings, from natural breathtaking landscapes to an immense cultural pulse that calls up thousands of youngsters to the big cities. Good food, great coffee, all types of landscapes –from the Caribbean to Los Andes– and thrilling adventures should be more than enough reasons to take a pass on Pablo Escobar’s still troubling legacy.

If you come here, please respect the citizens of the country and yourself by not contributing to narco tourism. Thank you.

Read more stories about South America following this link.


Latin America, the rich land of poor people

The division of labor among nations is that some specialize in winning and others in losing. Our part of the world, known today as Latin America, was precocious: it has specialized in losing ever since those remote times when Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of the Indian civilizations. Centuries passed, and Latin America perfected its role. We are no longer in the era of marvels when face surpassed fable and imagination was shamed by the trophies of conquest— the lodes of gold, the mountains of silver. But our region still works as a menial. It continues to exist at the service of others’ needs, as a source and reserve of oil and iron, of copper and meat, of fruit and coffee, the raw materials and foods destined for rich countries which profit more from consuming them than Latin America does from producing them”.

Eduardo Galeano, The Open Veins of Latin America. 1971. Opening statement

Citizens of Cienfuegos, Cuba. Photography by Guille Álvarez

The European and North American fascination for Latin America resides in thoughts of adventure, rowdy individuals and vast lands. A place where, inexplicable in contemporary terms, the richness of the landscape contrasts with the poorness of its people.

Many wonder, when they fly in –and specially out– of Central and South America, including the Caribbean, why these countries live a couple of generations of progress away. If they don’t find an answer it’s because they haven’t looked at their bellies. If Latin America offers this fascinating contrast it’s because both Europeans first and North Americans afterwards played cards with uneven hands with the region since Columbus set foot in it.

An uncensored genocide

The first invaders, lead by the old Spanish Kingdom, eyed the new territories with watered mouths and reflections of gold, silver and other precious metals and materials in sight. The indigenous they saw as slaves for the future exploitation of the colonies. Not even human beings, just working hands that had little value and then none, when they irremediably died for whatever reason: sickness, extenuation, war, homicide or, after considering the whole picture, an uncensored version of what we call genocide nowadays.

El cerro de Potosí is an example of what the beautiful landscape partially hides. Its decrepit towns gives a hint today, but the looks of them are not enough to account for the numbers. More than eight million indigenous perished working in the mines of this mountain, people forced to move from the flat to the mounts by the Empire as a human token for Europe’s prosperity and development. “From 10 man that went to the mountain, 7 never ever returned”, the historians accounted.

Seniors chatting in Cienfuegos, Cuba. Photography by Guille Álvarez

This is how the trotskyist economist Ernest Mandel defined the situation: “The formidable international concentration of capital in benefit of Europe obstructed the accumulation of capital in the pillaged regions”. Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan journalist and thinker, just needs the first chapter of his book The Open Veins of Latin America to summarise more than four centuries of sacking and humiliation: “The poverty of man as a result of the richness of the land”.

As a tourist, contemplating the sights of Machu Picchu, the desert of Atacama or the Salar de Uyuni is an easy distraction to what lies in plain sight. As Galeano puts it, “not even the 5% of the whole surface of the continent is used for agriculture, the lowest proportion on earth and, thus, its biggest waste”.

What this lands and their people have lived for centuries, including today, are the consequences of an economic system designed to favour a few while using or rejecting the rest. In the lands we now happily contemplate and admire, indigenous were sold included in the bought plots. From 1536 on, and for quite a while, they were sold not only for one life but two: the father’s and… his sons.

A man in Trinidad, Cuba. Photography by Guille Álvarez

A second class America

Galeano recalls the words of Lyndon Johnson regarding the manoeuvrings of United States in Latin America: “Five dollars invested against population growth are better than a hundred invested in economic growth”. Galeano, always sharp and ironic, translates the meaning of the old President into a better definition of Western politics in Latin America: “The Empire proposes to solve the problems of Latin America by previously erasing the Latin Americans”.

In the Western elites narrative, the one we’re taught in our schools, America has become a synonym for the northern part of it. It’s the best way to conclude how the West has treated this region, a view that can be confirmed by landing in any big city of Latin America. I’ve seen this in three capital examples: Bogotá, Colombia, South America; La Habana, Cuba, Caribbean; San José, Costa Rica, Central America.

“For the world today, America is just the United States; the region we inhabit is a sub-America, a sort of second-class America of nebulous identity”. These words of Galeano, written in 1971, are perfectly translatable to the world we live in today. The times in this side of the world haven’t turned that much. Latin America is still living with its open veins.

A street in San José, Costa Rica. Photography by Guille Álvarez

This article was written before the author landed in Bogota, Colombia, the first time he’s on South American soil. The images that illustrate this text were taken this year in Colombia, Cuba and Costa Rica, part of the same abused and pillaged region we know as Latin America.


Hawaii, from Lost haven to concrete America

I never planned to be in Hawaii. I’d never imagined it. But the paths of an around the world trip are unknowable. I planned to end my Asian leg of the trip through Philippines and then move on to New Zealand. But things change, and opportunities start to come like falling dominoes.

With Freya we traced a new itinerary to ‘escape’ Asia. Instead of the Philippines, we opted for South Korea and Japan as a route to cross the Pacific Ocean. The reason, as for any backpacker, was moneywise. To fly from Osaka to Honolulu was incredibly cheap, just a hundred dollars and an extra fifty for overweight luggage –which, considering I flew 10 flights with that company in the same conditions, is a bargain–.

A hundred bucks, yes! I know, amazing. As an unplanned part of the trip, Hawaii was a blast in all senses. We had only one week to explore Oahu. A hostel dorm bed was 20 bucks, and in a day eating out you could potentially spend as much as in our ticket into the island. We had to be careful, but managed to keep our budget safe.

“I was beside myself with excitement just to be in Hawaii. All surfers, all readers of surf magazines –and I had memorized nearly every line, every photo caption, in every surf magazine I owned– spent the bulk of their fantasy lives, like it or not, in Hawaii. And now I was there, walking on actual Hawaiian sand (coarse, strange-smelling), tasting Hawaiian seawater (warm, strange-smelling), and paddling toward Hawaiian waves (small, dark-faced, windblown). Nothing was what I’d expected”.

Barbarian Days: A surfing life. William Finnegan.

The good thing was that the seven days were packed with awesomeness. The unpromising concrete jungle of Waikiki beach, a hell built into paradise, provided the funniest waves to surf, a good respite despite the ugly and ultra developed shoreline. Apart from surfing a fabled spot, this part of the island is not much to talk about.

The North Shore and beyond is what gets you hooked with Oahu. With a one-day car rental we had enough time to rejoice on the true island views. Lush vegetation, high cliffs and giant waves await you. The roads, yellow lined and a perfect black asphalt, like in the movies, show you around in a spectacular fashion. Our road trip from Honolulu up to Kaena Point was one of the highlights of eight months of constant travelling.

For me, Hawaii had an important significance since it was the scenario of Lost, an all-time favourite TV show. Trekking to a cascade just at the top of Honolulu or walking a beach next to where the show was filmed brought back memories. I was expecting the polar bear to come out, but I guess he was sleeping that day.

Without getting into the tourist hotspots, the vibe of the island reminds you of the adventures of Jack, Kate and all the other Lost characters. For the most curious, there’s a ranch where most of the series were shot. You gotta pay, of course.

“In the mags, Hawaiian waves were always big and, in the color shots, ranged from deep, mid-ocean blue to pale, impossible, turquoise. The wind was always off-shore (blowing from land to sea, ideal for surfing), and the breaks themselves were the Olympian playgrounds of the gods: Sunset Beach, the Banzai Pipeline, Makaha, Ala Moana, Waimea Bay.

All of that seemed worlds away from the sea in front of our house”.

Barbarian Days: A surfing life. William Finnegan.

Hawaii is, like any other exotic territory, a land of conquest, war and colonization. The States annexed the territory in 1898, the last of a series of foreign invasion that supressed –rather killed– the old cultures of the island. The locals still preserve an own approach to life, but always under the strong influence of the American lifestyle and more than three centuries of foreign presence, since the British sighted the archipelago in 1778.

This US influence has been bad for the island in a lot of senses. Tourist masses are obvious, but also the overuse of natural land to create energy, petrol for the mainland. The west coast of Oahu has no clear spot without big chimneys and concrete building on the horizon. Also, just from 1970 to 2015, the Native Hawaiian population has been reduced in representation among the islanders: from 57,7% to just 9,9%.

When visiting and walking around Hawaii, it’s important to know that the forests you see are mostly replanted. The original species and landscape of the island are long gone. They were either used for industry purposes or died because of environment changes (provoked by human activity, to be precise). Already during the first colonization, the Sugar cane industry swept the island’s jungle away.

All things considered, it’s a shame, because the American version of Hawaii you get to enjoy today is still pretty amazing. Imagine how this place was in the past…

P.S. I strongly recommend to read William Finnegan’s autobiography, quoted here twice, a surf poised story that encapsulates, between big waves and reefs, a story of all us.


Allemansrätten and the land of infinites

There is an inexplicable sense of freedom when you drive your car on holiday. It’s an open book, it can get you anywhere. A van epitomises this kind of traveling, a tool for the eternal road trip.

My first vanlife exploration brought me to unknown parts of Germany and Scandinavia, concretely Denmark and Sweden. In 18 days enjoying the pleasures of Ohfy, a middle aged but healthy VW T4, Freya and I had a blast through the great natures of the North. Oh, the North.

Robert, a danish friend I met in Vietnam’s Cat Ba, texted me I was about to enjoy the summer of a lifetime. So, in a sense, I cheated the true Scandinavan experience, none other than cold and rain. Lucky me, lucky us.

The first days were exciting; sleeping in the middle of Leipzig, a small version of Berlin, hiding from neighbours and Police, but truly exploiting what having a van with a bed means. I discovered the immense pleasure to have a house on wheels. Potentially, a very cheap option of traveling to the grueling lands of Northern Europe, the rich and expensive nations for southerners like me, a Spanish guy and, adding to it, an active globetrotter.

The excitement of breaking the rules –without bad intentions– was intense those two nights. Then it dissipated and gave way to the problem with van roaming in most Western countries. You’re not allowed to roam free, and you’re quickly robbed from your idea of the ideal road trip. Most European countries won’t allow you to freely enjoy an essential feature of your van: sleep in it.

What? That’s not fun!

Luckily, it wasn’t difficult to respectfully skip the rules in Denmark (sorry?), where there’s not much control on campers on most of the country –overnight sleep is tolerated in rastplats (rest areas). In Sweden, a place where Allemansrätten is not only respected but enhanced, it wasn’t an issue at all. Allemansrätten is a principle of ´freedom to roam’ that applies to everyone and gives us the capacity to freely enjoy the land.

Bam!, that’s what I was looking for.

Now I quote the Swedish tourist board: “Sweden has no Eiffel Towers. No Niagara Falls or Big Bens. Not even a little Sphinx. Sweden has something else – the freedom to roam. This is our monument”. Indeed, it is a great monument to something we are mistreating repeatedly: nature.

With less than 12 basic rules you must follow, all of them common sense, the Swedes actually offer what a road trip needs best: no boundaries, no limitations except the ones covered by respect and common sense. And needless to say, the Swedish do take nature and environment quite seriously. Not by banning or restricting, rather doing the opposite, they grow an environmental consciousness like no other.

Driving through Sweden I got to feel very small. The long straight lines, the majestuous forests endlessly expanding on each side of the van. There you never felt a need to rush, and with the passing of every day, with our little mobile home getting us to a new place, the awareness of how pure nature was in those lands overtook me. How precious this land is, I thought.

By being able to go anywhere, to step on any hill and swim on any lake, my respect for nature and wildlife grew significantly. And that was in only two weeks. I never saw plastic bottles floating in the water or papers laying on the floor. In more than nine months, three continents and fifteen countries, this was never the case. So the benefits of these policies seem clear to me.

Driving back to Germany, I reflected on reasons why the Swedish case is almost an exception. First one, easy: privatization rules the world today; every acre of land is exploitable. Giving freedom to roam can mess with this basic mantra of Capitalism. Other reasons such as the massification of tourism, scarcity of space or our general lack of respect for nature do play a role. Ultimately, I think it all resides in a question of culture and education.

If everyone would consider their own environment how Swedish do, thanks to this massive culture promoted by the Allemansrätten, we would benefit from a cleaner and healthier version of humanity. We would really share the land, and thus, we’d care more about what we do to it and how we do it.

It makes me sad to think I can’t camp anywhere I want back home. It’s banned, but really, someone can tell me why? I’m not planning to bother anyone nor messing with nature, my plan is to go my own way, enjoy the environment I was born in. Never lit a fire, never drive off-road, never litter the land. With common sense, there is no reason to actually deny me or others that right.

Unfortunately, what I felt in Sweden you can feel in a very few countries nowadays. And it’s a restriction that hurts, because it’s ours as all others, man-made.


Seaweed is killing the Caribbean

It’s another sunny day in the Caribbean. Everything is how it should be, how the pictures show you in the travel magazines and people tell you after their dream holidays. There are no clouds in the sky, the vegetation is rich and colourful; the Mango trees provide you with a natural and healthy breakfast. You put on your swim shorts and flip flops, get the car keys and sunscreen. You’re ready to go.

The air is warm and rich, and through the open window it flows. The palm trees look majestic on the roadside. You close in to the beach, but something is off. The idyllic setting is broken by a clenching stench, like if a big invisible sewer is hidden somewhere in there. The car takes a left, starts to progress up the cliff and the beach appears in the wing mirror.

It’s not white and shiny anymore, and the water is the opposite of crystal clear. Where’s the Caribbean turquoise trademark? Instead of the ocean blue, a big brownish mantle covers the beach. That mantle, formed by seaweed, is the origin of the striking smell. It’s not only ugly and smelly, it’s a danger for the people and the environment.

The Sargassum invasion

What covers the beautiful beaches in Guadeloupe, a small island in the French Antilles, is an algae species known as Sargassum. This species shouldn’t be in the hot waters of the Caribbean, but mysterious factors have made this phenomenon a recurrent problem since 2011. Scientists are still figuring out why this is happening, but they already know the issues posed to the local population and fauna.

I’ve been surfing in Le Petit Havre, a gorgeous beach close to my friend’s house, for a week now. Due to its location and the ocean currents, the Sargassum doesn’t strike as bad. It’s still present, floating through the lefts rising from the reef bottom. On a bad day, they tangle on your leash and you have to swim through a bunch of them to go on the lineup. They even become itchy after a long period of contact with the skin.

There are several risks when this algae accumulate in the sea and also once they reach the shore. Because they tangle together and form big brownish floating masses that stay captured by currents, certain reefs of the Caribbean Sea lose the sunlight that brings them to life. Sea turtles, for example, have been reported dead after stumbling with these foreign invaders.

Once inland, when it washes ashore, the Sargassum starts a process of fertilization that causes the most visible consequences to the population. “The algae will ferment for a week or so, depending on the weather. During that time, a mix of three gases will be released: about half is methane, which is non-toxic and odorless, the other half is ammoniac, which is also non-toxic, and 0.6% is hydrogen sulfide. H2S is very poisonous, even in small quantities. It attacks the eyes and nose, and stinks of rotten egg”, explains Didier Roux, of the Health and Environment department at the Agence Régionale de la Santé (ARS) in Guadeloupe, to Ocean71 magazine.

The smell and the brownish seaweed concentration that kills the views are just a warning of a bigger environmental issue. The phenomenon is believed to have its origins in the Amazon River estuary, where the heavy industry polluted waters clash with the Atlantic ocean. This discharge serves as the main nutrient for the growth of the Sargassum seaweed, a species only believed to exist in the Sargasso Sea.

The problem then swims away from Brazil to the Caribbean by the natural course of the currents, and the governments either can’t face the size of the issue or directly don’t want to put resources in it. The later is the case of the French Antilles and Guadeloupe. Paris doesn’t want to recognize the algae arrivals as natural disaster, which would force a straightforward intervention.

In Sainte-Anne, the main tourist spot in Guadeloupe, the houses in front of the sea boast of beautiful views and idyllic hammocks to take a siesta under the palmtrees. Walking around town though one cannot stand the foul smell of the Sargassum that amasses in the beaches. In the island, more than 50 cases of hospitalization have been registered due to the effects of toxic gas inhalation. It’s not only disgusting, it’s actually toxic.

The tourist focused economy, obviously, has also taken a hit in the last years. “An expert report updated in March 2017 by the French National Health Security Agency (ANSES) notes that in Guadeloupe, in 2015, several restaurants closed during the last seaweed invasion and that hotels have lost up to 50% of their annual turnover”, reports Repeating Islands, a website specialized in Caribbean news.

***

I wake up early in the morning, one last time, to say goodbye to the waves in Petit-Havre. It’s a good session among friends and seaweed, still present like every other day. After a quick shower and feeling rejuvenated by the ocean water, I head to the airport. I’m flying back to Europe via Martinique, another island in the region. Through the small plane windows, I gaze at the ocean and see lines and more lines of dark green and brown colour. A lot of them. The seaweed just keeps coming, and through a bird’s eye perspective, seems a task too big to be tackled only by the islanders.

Who’s gonna solve this problem?

P.S. The Sargassum seaweed personally didn’t affect my experience in the island. In a lot of the beaches, their presence is not as bad as it sounds. There are still good spots to enjoy the Caribbean lifestyle without smelling the rotten egg odour. In my opinion, this disaster shouldn’t kill the economy. Visiting Guadeloupe is still worth it, like the rest of the French Antilles and the Caribbean, I’m positive. Maybe you’ll skip some beaches, stay less in a certain town. It’s also good to see it in person and understand what human activity is doing to our ocean and to our world.