Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 23 May 2019

Why travel is all about the people you meet while on the road

Travel is less about location and more about the people you meet

Celine Cousteau addressed the Adventure Next conference in Aqaba, Jordan. Courtesy Tribes on the Edge
Celine Cousteau addressed the Adventure Next conference in Aqaba, Jordan. Courtesy Tribes on the Edge

I’m sitting in the ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Aqaba Ayla in the south of Jordan. I’m here for the annual Adventure Next conference hosted by the Adventure Travel Trade Association and, on stage, Celine Cousteau – filmmaker, conservationist and sociologist – is addressing the room.

“Every time you take a breath, it’s courtesy of the ocean, the plants and the trees in the world. Everything we are depends on these ecosystems,” Cousteau says, “but the people protecting these ecosystems are suffering. Twenty per cent of the world’s oxygen comes from the Amazon. The people living there, these indigenous tribes, they are our planet’s front line of defence. And they do it without questioning it, without seeking reward. They do it because it’s the right way to live.”

She presses play on a video and scenes from Tribes on the Edge, a movie she has spent over eight years making, flash on screen. The film is Cousteau’s way of turning a light on the rapidly disappearing tribes of Brazil. She believes global awareness of their existence can help them survive. “Travel isn’t just about doing and going,” says Cousteau. “It’s about the people you meet and when you take in what a country is for the people who live there, that’s what travel is about.”

I think for a moment about the week I’ve just spent exploring Jordan’s ever-changing scenery, ticking off the must-dos: Petra, Wadi Rum, Jebel Um Adaami.

Despite the towering mountainscapes and vivid sunsets, I realise it’s the people that I’ve met shine most vividly in my mind. There’s Abu Jaffer – a former shepherd who now spends his days educating young people about conservation at the Dana Biosphere Reserve.

There’s the wide-grinned Mohammed Al Malaheem who lives in the mountains of Al Jaya, making ends meet by renting out a “room” in a repurposed VW Beetle, a place he claims is the world’s smallest hotel.

There’s the woman whose name I failed to catch but who shared the fluffiest freshly-baked bread I’d ever tasted as we journeyed out of Amman. There’s the Bedouin family who welcomed 12 sweat-soaked, sand-dusted cyclists into the heart of their tent in El Quweira, the parents offering tea as children milled curiously around us.

Where you are matters, but who you are, and those you come in to contact with matter more

There’s Yousef, a young Bedouin working in Wadi Rum who proudly shared pictures of his eight-week-old camel with me as we sat around a campfire. And there’s Dana – the six-year-old daughter of our tour guide who insists on speaking English instead of Arabic because of all the Disney cartoons she watches on television. Finally, there’s the memories of many days spent trekking, hiking and scrambling through Wadi Rum alongside Salam, a man who never once stopped joking, singing or laughing while traversing peaks, going through canyons and over rock bridges. I’d never thought about it before but what Cousteau says makes sense: travel is about the people you meet. Where you are matters, but who you are, and who those you come in to contact with matter more.

As travellers, we have a rare chance to touch the lives of, and allow our own lives to be touched by, the people we meet. Recognising our shared humanity and accepting a collective responsibility for the world we all live in isn’t difficult.

Instead of buying coffee from a brand, support the little tea house that’s been setup by the people who live in the town you’re exploring. Spend time bedding down in a guesthouse run by locals. Purchase souvenirs that have been crafted by villagers instead of picking up duty free goods at the airport. Avoid going to places where overtourism is damaging the people who call these places home.

We should use the privilege of travel wisely and with a sense of purpose and shared accountability. This way we can all have an impact on the very thing that makes our world thrive, the people living in it.

Updated: April 20, 2019 01:09 PM

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