By: Anna Marie

My traveling experience with Global Autism Project has helped me really think about how to be a more sustainable and conscientious traveler.  One that thinks not only about the Autism community that we work with, but how to support the sustainability of the community that we visit and the environment that they call home.  My trip to the Dominican Republic has opened my eyes to some ways to travel with this in mind.

1. Staying in a hotel that is owned by local people.  This not only helps support the economy of the community but provides jobs for more people so that they are provided for on a daily basis. If you stay in a hotel owned by a large hotel group most of the money goes to the corporation and less to local workers.  I know that with the recent publicity about the Dominican Republic and how there have been deaths possibly due to the alcohol that his being served, this has affected the tourism here. Not as many people are coming to the Dominican Republic and this affects the economy that tourism creates in a big way.  The small hotels will suffer greatly and some may have to close if the bad publicity continues. I am saddened to think that people will also miss out seeing some of the most beautiful beaches and jungles that the Caribbean has to offer. Most recently we stayed in a locally owned beach chalet in Samana. They even offered a service of having a driver pick us up from Santo Domingo to the area of Samana.  The driver was such a great tour guide and shared information about his community, the neighborhood that he lived in, and what it is like to live in that area.

2. Eat in restaurants that are owned by locals and really experience the food that comes from that area.  You are not only ensuring that the local farmers and producers are able to sell their products, but they are not importing them from some other country. It is hard at times because you may miss home cooking from your own community, but you may discover some new foods that excite your taste buds.  I know in the Dominican Republic I have discovered a yummy soup called sancocho. This soup has plantains, yucca, all kinds of vegetables and three different kinds of meat. It is thick and creamy and something I have eaten three days of my trip. I love discovering new foods and I know that when I return home I can get those things that I may be missing.

3. Buy local goods from the artisans themselves or from family owned businesses.  Look for those shops that take pride in their work and are willing to give you a fair price.  Even if the price may be a little more than you would like to spend, sometimes it is worth encouraging that artisan to keep it up and to continue to create beautiful things and taking pride in their work.   When negotiating, continue to be respectful and if you can’t pay what they want, thank them for their time and end the negotiation with a smile.

4. Travel light and bring less luggage.  When traveling to the Dominican Republic we were encouraged to pack only a carry-on bag.  It was a bit hard to fit three weeks of luggage into a carry-on but I am reminded of how important it is to travel light.  This lessens your carbon footprint on planes and automobiles in terms of fuel, but it ensures that you can take smaller vehicles that use less gas.  The feeling of traveling light reminds me that we need very few things to be happy and you don’t need a washing machine to wash things, you can just use soap and water to get things clean. 

5. Think of the oceans and jungles and produce less trash.  When I traveled to beautiful beaches of the Dominican Republic I was reminded of how precious these places are and how important it is to use less trash, plastic, and to reduce my toxic load.  These places will no longer exist if we continue to deplete them with the amount of trash that we use. Dominican Republic is a place that has seen the brunt of this with trash piling up in their beaches with waves of trash from gathering from people dumping it in the rivers.  I am reminded to use less single use plastic bags, cups, bottles, utensils, containers for beauty or laundry items, the list goes on and on. Some ways that we have traveled includes getting large containers of water and using a water bottle to pour it into to take everyday to work, refusing straws, traveling with small refillable beauty containers for products, laundry soap bars, shampoo soap in a bar form, and bringing my own bags to the grocery stores.

6. Remember that everyone you come in contact with has their own story and to give them the respect they deserve.  Sometimes it can be hard to visit a community and to have people trying to sell you something all the time and to feel like you are being taken advantage of by them increasing the price based on how you dress or where they think you are from.  But at the end of the day everyone is trying to make a living and doing it the best way they know how. If you don’t want their product or services let them know that you are not interested and remember to smile at them and treat them as someone who is working hard to make a living.  Sometimes we feel we have to be rude or to not make eye contact with someone or they will push harder to sell, but sometimes a firm no and a smile goes a long way to letting them know that you appreciate the offer but your not interested in buying. So often tourists are seen as rude and I think that vendors treat them more harshly due to this perception.  Leave a positive impression on everyone that you come into contact. 

7. Take the time to take in the people and cultural nuances and put your phone down. This is really important to experiencing a new environment.  Make sure to put your phone down and observe what is going on around you. Be fully present and you will become a good observer of a culture that is different than yours.  One think that I really appreciated about the culture here in the Dominican Republic is seeing how relaxed people are and how they gather together to listen to music, play games, or just sit around and hang out.  A good reminder to me to take time to relax and have fun with friends and to slow down during the day or week.