Going Green And Fair When Traveling

Summer sunshine is finally here in Portland (thank goodness!!) and the summer travel season is in full swing. But do we think about how the way we travel impacts others and the planet? My blogging buddy Cheryl Janis over at Planet Pinkngreen posted an intriguing new concept this past week – fair trade travel! Apparently it’s all the rage in Europe right now (why are Europeans always ahead of us on these cutting edge ideas?).

The concept makes sense. Travel of any kind involves large quantities of fossil fuels, unless you walk to your vacation. Many of us travel to developing countries because we want to experience something different from home plus the lower prices we enjoy help our dollar go so much further. But do you ever wonder what the people who make your meals, serve your meals, clean your rooms, drive you all around, etc are paid? I know I do. Traveling in developing countries means opening our eyes to the realities of poverty – we just can’t avoid it no matter how cush the accommodations. There are fair trade labels for travel in South Africa but most other countries don’t have such labeling yet. I garnered some great tips from the UK site Responsible Travel, which I’ve paraphrased below plus added a few of my own:

  • Reduce carbon emissions by minimizing flying time and layovers – the worst carbon emissions are released during take-off and landing. Buy carbon offsets for flights you can’t avoid.
  • Travel with respect. Learn a few words of the local language before you go and read online or pick up a book about the country from your local library. Traveling with respect earns you respect.
  • Buy local produce over imported goods.
  • Do not buy products made from endangered species, hard woods or ancient artifacts.  Whenever possible buy directly from artisans themselves rather than from souvenir shops or middlemen.
  • Use public transport, hire a bike or walk when convenient – its a great way to meet local people on their terms and reduce pollution and carbon emissions.
  • Use water sparingly – its very precious in many countries and tourists tend to use far more than local people.
  • Ask your tour operator or hotel staff whether there are local conservation or social projects that you could visit on your trip, and if/how you could help support them.

Have you found a way to travel with a lighter impact? Let us know about it here!


If Willy Wonka Were A Social Activist, He’d Work For Theo

This past Monday I experienced a little taste of what heaven will be like, if I have any say over what I eat in heaven. Along with Steve, Grace and my mom, I took a tour of Theo Chocolate’s factory in Seattle. Housed in a renovated single-level brick building in the hip Fremont neighborhood, visiting Theo’s headquarters feels more like an artist’s workshop than an industrial factory.

That feeling of being around art was only enhanced as our tour guide, Rachel, walked us through the dozens of steps involved in creating the perfect chocolate bar. We learned, for example, that after workers pick the football-sized cacao fruit, the fruit has to be fermented, then the cocoa beans extracted and dried in the sun, a process that takes skill and many weeks. Theo Chocolate is the only company in the United States to boast “bean to bar” processing. They import their own cocoa beans (100% organic and fair trade!) and do in-house everything involved in creating perfect chocolate bars from roasting and grinding the beans to mixing them with only a few organic ingredients (sugar, milk, spices) to create each of their unique delectable bars. While their cocoa beans are all imported, I was impressed by how many local inputs are used including Sunshine Dairy milk, Washington-grown spearmint and artwork for the product labels from a Seattle artist, to name a few. This company is serious about sustainability.

While learning all the steps involved in crafting the perfect chocolate bar was fascinating, I have to be honest that the highlight of the tour were the many, many, MANY samples. We tried everything from bars made with nothing but cocoa and sugar (did you know cocoa from Ghana tastes like cherries but cocoa from Ivory Coast takes like nuts?) to chocolate mixed with Indian curry powder (actually tasty) to truffles infused with Earl Grey tea.

I’ve blogged before about the ethics (or lack thereof) in the chocolate industry. Theo Chocolate proves that you can treat workers well, care for the environment and make some of the highest quality chocolate around. Theo Chocolate has won numerous awards for its delightful confections, most recently the NW Source Best Chocolatier award, and been featured in magazines like O Magazine and Time, so they’re getting plenty of attention. You can find a selection of their chocolates at natural grocery stores (New Seasons, Whole Foods) and I’ll be adding a few of their bars to my site later this week as well.

Take a tour yourself next time you’re in Seattle and see what all the fuss is about!

Excuse me sir, can I please roll around on your chocolate-covered table?

Elusive Fair Trade Wine of Argentina

I discovered a lot of amazing things in Buenos Aires- medialunas (croissants) and cafe con leche on sidewalk cafes, gigantic parks and tree-lined boulevards, incredible steak dinners with red wine on white-linen tablecloths for under $10 – but sadly fair trade wine was not one of them. Although Argentina is the primary manufacturer of certified fair trade wines, most or possibly all are exported to Europe with a small portion being exported to the United States (but nowhere near me it seems). As I blogged about a few days ago, I shopped for new jewelry for Bambootique at several fair trade shops in Buenos Aires. I figured if any one could tell me where to buy fair trade wine, my contacts at those shops could. Through Dolores of Fundacion Silataj I received the sad news that Argentina exports its fair trade wine. She also provided me with this list of fair trade vineyards, and if you come across them anywhere in the States please let me know.

Bodegas y Viñedos Amadeo Marañon S.A. (Producer)

Cribran S.A. (Producer)

Davolio, Nidi (Producer)

Mendoza Vineyards SRL (Trader)

Inal SA (Producer)

Bodega Furlotti SA (Trader)

Viña de la Solidaridad A.C. (Producer)

Trivento Bodegas y Viñedos S.A (Trader)

La Riojana Cooperativa Vitivinifruticola de la Rioja (Producer)

The Conquest of Buenos Aires’ Public Transport System

There is something profoundly satisfying in conquering a city’s public transportation system, especially a city in a foreign country. By “conquer” I mean stepping into the bus, train or ferry free of the dazed and confused look of a tourist and instead full of the confident boredom of a local. I try to exude this nonchalance as quickly as possible in new places, hating the tag of tourist, although I’m sure the guidebook, map, huge backpack/ diaper bag, bottles of water and English I speak to my husband give me away within seconds. Ah well, it’s worth trying.

Today I feel we came the closest yet to living like locals here in Buenos Aires, at least in how we got around. Today we mastered Buenos Aires’ bus system. Big deal, I hear you say. How hard is a bus system? Put it this way. When the bus system requires a 192-page booklet full of maps, indexes and impossibly fine print, that bus system is not for the comfort-seeking traveler. That combined with choking diesel fumes and the drivers who begin speeding along the moment you step foot on the bus, despite the baby in your arms, means these buses should be avoided by the faint-hearted.

I’ve lived in many places where a combination of public transportation, walking and biking were convenient forms of getting around: small town Japan, Chicago, and even SW Portland. Now though I live in the Portland suburbs where taking a walk is pleasant but gets me only as far as the housing developments around me. The bus or Max are both even more inconvenient. A short stint at biking to work was great for a few months until I got pregnant and was scared I’d get hit by a car (I’m not sure how the two are related but pregnancy does weird things to your brain). So I drive as little as my suburban life allows, use my husband’s more fuel-efficient car whenever I can, and otherwise travel as “green” as I can by using public transportation wherever I am.

Fighting Poverty in Argentina

One habit I’ve picked up in my travels is, wherever I am, to always read a local newspaper. Somehow the people I pass on the streets become a little less like strangers and a little more like neighbors if I’ve read the same paper with my morning coffee as they read with theirs.

Yesterday I picked up a copy of the Buenos Aires’ daily La Nacion. The top headline read “Crece la controversia por el indice oficial de pobreza” or “Growing controversy about the official poverty index.” Apparently the National Institute of Statistics recently came out with new poverty stats saying 20% (or 8 million people) of Argentina’s population live in poverty. That’s a lot of people but it’s a fairly low stat for Latin America where many nations’ poverty levels exceed 50%. The controversy here is that statisticians in the private sector dispute these official numbers, saying there are an additional 4 million uncounted people living in poverty.

Either way the number of poor people in this wealthy country of Argentina is intolerable. I have had the privilege on this trip to meet some inspiring people involved in fighting poverty through comercio justo or fair trade. Earlier this week I visited Fundacion Silataj and Arte y Esperanza, and today I visited Arte de Pueblos. All three are non-profit organizations who work with indigenous groups to market their gorgeous handicrafts and to fund various community development projects. The products include warm ponchos and scarves from llama wool, eco-friendly wood pieces carved from fallen trees, handbags woven from the chaguar plant and beaded necklaces made from beautiful seeds. I was impressed by the variety of products and the quality. The traditional designs were unlike those I have seen in other Latin American countries.

I’ll return home with some new products for Bambootique but more than that I’ll return inspired by the people who work for these organizations, day in and day out, to improve the lives of those who are so skilled in their traditional work and yet live in poverty.

Dolores and Mercedes, two women who work with Fundacion Silataj to market the handicrafts of many of Argentina’s indigenous people.

Beautiful handmade ponchos and jackets

Arte y Esperanza Shop

Earrings made by Buenos Aires artisans from palo santo, an eco-friendly wood
These earrings will soon be available online from Bambootique
(Thanks Amy for modeling!)

If you’re visiting Argentina and want to purchase fair trade handicrafts, I highly recommend you visit one or all of these shops:

Fundaction Silitaj
Vuelta de Obligado 1933, Belgrano

Arte y Esperanza
Balcarce 234, San Telmo (just a few blocks south of the Casa Rosada)

Arte de Pueblo
Libertad 948, Retiro

Buenos Aires – City of Books and Beauty

I feel like I’m cheating on my home city of Portland by calling BA a “city of books.” I’ve only been here a few days but I feel so at home, in part because of the librerias every few blocks. This cosmopolitan city is full of bookworms and there are new and used booksellers everywhere. I love the site of dusty book stalls full of old volumes in Spanish.

The ultimate stop for books and spectacular beauty is El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Recoleta neighborhood. El Ateneo is the largest bookstore in Latin America (although still smaller than Powell’s or even most Borders I’ve been to at home) but quite possibly the most beautiful in the world. El Ateneo is housed in an old movie theater modeled in the early 20th century after the Opera Garnier in Paris. Splendid! My daughter Grace and I browsed its elegant floors one at a time in the company of my friend Amy. I managed to emerge from its wealth of literature with only a Spanish kids word book for Grace, mainly due to the small size of the store’s English section and my lack of desire to read a full novel in Spanish while on vacation. But I left in awe of this city’s love of the printed word and elegance.

Grace explores the shelves of El Ateneo

Buenos Aires – City of Trees

Buenos Aires is an incredibly green city. I mean that literally, there are trees and parks everywhere. The view from our apartment (a wonderful alternative to a hotel when traveling with a child) is of leaves just beginning to take on the oranges and yellows of fall. Although it’s autumn here in the southern hemisphere, the temperature hovers in the low to mid-70s and the morning air is sticky with humidity left from last night’s sudden but brief thunderstorm. This thriving metropolis of over 12 million people has a soul like no other I’ve seen in Latin America and I’m delighted to find that includes a love for green spaces.