Updated: Jun 15, 2022
The howler monkeys begin before first light. Their calls echo through the rain forest like creatures descended from the cross of a lion and a bullfrog—impossible to sleep through. Later an open-air breakfast consists of fruits, granola, and locally-grown coffee, all of it made even more delicious when accompanied by the squawks of parrots and the hum of insects. Language classes begin after breakfast. A line of leaf cutter ants hauls large slices of vegetation past our study table.
Estación Biológica Laguna de Apoyo, the eco-lodge and Spanish school where I stayed, is located inside a dormant volcanic crater about 45 minutes to the east of Volcán Masaya in Nicaragua. That trip stands out in my memory for the exhilaration hangover that stayed with me for weeks afterwards. I'd traveled alone before, but at that time, it was the farthest I'd ranged from the beaten path. I'd been nervous to go to Nicaragua by myself, but along the way fellow travelers and locals encouraged me. And every challenge accepted made me feel stronger.
For me travel is not about vacations; it's about discovery. When in an unfamiliar place, my brain wakes up to the environment more easily than it does at home. I feel like a kid trying to figure out the world and wanting to absorb everything.
On that trip to Nicaragua I met kindred spirits. At the Spanish school I connected with another single woman traveler, and we ended up exploring the coast to the south by bus. At this point in her journey, she had already traversed the country alone, toting a backpack that weighed almost a much as she did—probably due in large part to her jars of Marmite, a favorite British spread.
On another afternoon we hiked out of the volcano and somehow ended up in the back of a pickup truck with a few openly trans folks. Their bravery in traveling through such a conservative country blew me away. They explained that Managua regularly hosted a gay pride festival, and I later learned it had started in 1991. I still cherish the memory of that exchange, riding with the wind in our hair and the shared smiles that felt like freedom.
So travel has taught me, despite what we see on the news, that we are surrounded by more good than bad. This doesn't mean danger doesn't exist, or we should abdicate common sense, but by just taking normal precautions, I have found hospitality and kindness in unexpected places. And now, I cannot imagine who I would be without these experiences.
So as the school year comes to a close, I'm feeling the itch for a summer trip. It may be a knee-jerk reaction. It's summer; let's go! But my worries about climate change have me on a flight budget, which sometimes chafes.
A friend in Mexico recently reached out. She's sad and worried about a multitude of things. You're on summer vacation, she wrote. Please come visit. This is the kind of No that's always been hard for me. I love Mexico, and I loved living with this woman while I was there, but I doubt an in-person visit from me would cure her worries. And these days I do not simply hop on a plane at every opportunity.
In dealing with my carbon budget, flights must serve multiple purposes. I've committed to flying at the end of the year from Philadelphia to Buenos Aires with tango friends, so I cannot say yes to Mexico. I'm not imposing a complete embargo on myself, but given how fortunate I've been in my travel so far, limiting leisure flights to once every two or three years feels necessary.
I've previously mentioned on this blog that I've used carbon offsets. Offsets mostly consisted of funding planet-friendly projects such as tree planting. For the Argentina flight, I'm again looking for a way to deal with the carbon. The round-trip mileage is nearly 5,300, so my passage alone would put 3.42 tons of carbon into the atmosphere according to Native, an organization dedicated to funding regenerative projects. The advertised offsets would cost me $53. That's a penny a mile.
Somehow $53 for nearly 4 tons of carbon seems inadequate. Incidentally this is roughly equivalent to Argentina’s per capita carbon expenditure in 2018; comparatively, for that same time period in the US, our per capita expenditure was 15.3 tons according to the World Bank. (We have lots of room for improvement.) In any case, when one adds the difficulty in measuring results from offsets, I have my doubts that they alone, even if widely adopted, will get us close to Net Zero.
So I keep looking. Truly, aren't budgets miserable? I did find an organization geared toward adventure travelers called Tomorrow's Air. This group asks folks to contribute $28 monthly to carbon-recapture technology. Carbon recapture is based on the concept that we can pull carbon out of the air and either permanently sequester it underground or redirect it for other uses, a recycling program if you will. Tomorrow's Air has partnered with Climeworks, a Swiss-based organization that's actively implementing this technology.
The monthly contribution of $28 turns out to be a bargain compared with paying outright for carbon recapture on a trip by trip basis. For example, according to researchers at the German nonprofit, Atmosfair, round-trip travel between New York and London emits 986 kg of carbon per passenger. Through Climeworks, the total cost to remove 100 kg permanently through carbon capture is $120. So that trip back and forth from NY to London at nearly 1,000 kg would cost $1200. Yikes!
Despite all of my good intentions, which only pave the way to hell, as I was told repeatedly as a child, I still yearn to travel far and wide without completely deserting my family. This means flying. I hope one day to return to seeing friends I've made around the world, but in a sustainable way. For now, until the costs of carbon recapture come down, that means more road trips. My husband recently purchased an electric vehicle, so that helps.
As it turns out, with gas prices through the roof, many summer travelers are leasing electric vehicles for their trips. Rental EVs should be easier to find one day soon as Hertz is buying 100,000 Teslas for their fleet. This is something I wouldn't have imagined even a few years ago. I suspect that this possibility now exists because early adopters helped fund the technology. I will sign up with Tomorrow's Air and hope for a similar leap forward in carbon recapture technology.
If inflation and rising gas prices are still cramping your travel plans, I will pass along some wisdom from the mindfulness meditation community: No matter where you go, there you are. Basically, they recommend we all cultivate our comfort in stillness. I'm still working on that one, but I'm committed to the effort.
How do you think about carbon expenditures and summer travel? I'd love to hear your ideas.