A few days ago, Jordan and I learned that we are going to be able to take a quick trip to Puerto Rico this summer. We are giddy with excitement! We adore traveling with our kids, but traveling just the two of us is a big priority. As our kids are getting older, we’re finally able to make it happen more reasonably. (Although, we have had some courageous and wonderful family members and friends take on watching four tiny toddlers for days at a time so we could get away! Absolute angels.).

As I started looking into flights and lodging for our upcoming trip, I was very aware of wanting to take this trip responsibly and respectfully. Our Puerto Rican neighbors have been through so much in the last couple years after being devastated by multiple hurricanes. At least 3,000 people lost their lives, and much of the territory was without power for months. These people have gone through incredible grief and hardship. I know that they are now open for travelers, and in fact are eager for the tourism industry to pick up again, as that is a large part of their livelihood. However, I want to be cognizant of all that the people of PR have been through, and to travel with a sense of respect and empathy.

So I began my travel plans not only by looking at flights, but also by looking into what Puerto Rico needs from its visitors, and how we can travel there responsibly.

This is not a new thing for Jordan and I, as we always travel with the intention of melding into the local culture, experiencing it and learning from it, rather than expecting the local people to revolve around us. We are very aware of our position of “privilege” as white, middle-class Americans, and we go to great lengths to be sure we are not living into any unpleasant stereotypes. We have a postcard on our refrigerator that we picked up in Amsterdam last year that says:

“Don’t be a tourist, be a traveler.”

Traveling ethics is a concept that has been on my mind a lot in recent weeks. It seems that all my reading and research material lately has brought this theme up again and again.

For one, I’ve been reading books about Himalayan mountain climbing, and the way that is has become such a commercialized endeavor, despite the incredible dangers associated with climbing mountains over 8,000 meters tall. Mount Everest is swarmed year after year with nominal climbers, who join guided expeditions to reach the summit of the world’s tallest mountain. This flood of humans means massive amounts of trash are left strewn up and down the mountain face. In some places, there are piles of thousands of empty oxygen canisters. The high altitude means that human excrement left behind at the various camps will never decompose, and the conditions become more and more unsanitary. More experienced climbers have undergone expeditions just to remove many tons of trash from the mountain.

Besides the environmental impact on the Himalayas, the risk to human life is extreme.

The Sherpa people of Nepal are famous for their brave, skilled work as guides and porters on the mountains. For most of the Sherpa people, the mountains are their livelihood. However, when they join expeditions to help amateur climbers who have no business scaling such extreme mountains, their own lives are at risk. When a climber gets into trouble high on a peak, assisting or rescuing them is a life-threatening endeavor. Beyond that, Sherpas are usually given the most dangerous and difficult tasks on the climb, and very little glory for their risks–meanwhile, the wealthy amateur who would not have made it up the mountain without Sherpa assistance goes home with great notoriety.

One story I read recently was about a young girl who grew up in poverty in a small village in Nepal. Her family made a meager income by renting a room to tourists who came through on their way to hike in the Annapurna region (Annapurna is considered one of the most difficult climbs in the world.). As a little child, she would work 18-hour days to haul water, cook, and care for these tourists, as well as go to school. The woman she was telling the story to apologized to her for tourists everywhere, that she had to live such a difficult life in order to serve them, but her response was gracious. Her family was grateful for the tourists. Without them, they would have had nothing.

This story has nagged at me for days. Is it right that a little child should toil under backbreaking labor so that wealthy people can see the world? And yet, without the tourism industry, what would these families do for an income? As someone who loves to travel and will continue to do so for as long as I live, what is my role in all this?

Jordan and I had a long discussion about this, and for us, it simply comes down to living the way we live every day, and holding to one of our life statutes:

Treat people like people.

When you travel, the people who are there to serve you are not your servants. You are paying them to do a set task for a short time. You will benefit from their work, then you will move on and most likely never think of them again. But for them–the waiters, the housekeepers, concierges, drivers, tour guides, cooks, busboys, etc.–this is their LIFE. They are there day in and day out, caring for people. It’s how they make their livelihood, and often it is their chosen career. It is YOUR job to treat them with the utmost respect and dignity. It is your moral responsibility to show them genuine appreciation for their hard work. Tip generously, don’t ask for unreasonable service, and for crying out loud, don’t be rude…just be a good person.

In fact, I encourage you to take it a step farther and show genuine interest in the people serving you. They are not simply accessories to your luxury travel, these incredible human beings have stories to tell that you would not believe. They have lived lives and seen things you could only imagine. They have dreams and plans they are working hard for. Talk to them. Trust their expertise. Take their suggestions. Learn from their wisdom.

In short, when traveling, treat others how you want to be treated.

In an upcoming post, I’m going to talk about specific ways we can be good travelers, in relation to people, culture, and the environment. This is important, especially in our social media-driven society, where the desire to get cute Instagram pictures and make a dollar through influencer programs drives people to do some pretty disrespectful things. It begs the question, do we travel for our own glory? Or do we travel to better know and understand the world?

Photo by Jonatan Pie on Unsplash

Happy (respectful) trails, my friends!

More posts you may like:
Finding the Courage to be Adventurous
How to Travel on a Budget – And Still Have the Time of Your Life
4 Great Ways to Save for TravelĀ