What I learned in 1 month with 1 backpack and 1 camera, on 2 continents in 6 countries
The past nine months of my life have been very much filled with plastic: Writing about plastic, taking photos of plastic, filming plastic, making art out of plastic, studying plastic, talking about plastic, looking for plastic. I fell into this quasi-obsession with all things plastic after sailing with a bunch of Danish sailors and scientists across the most polluted stretch of the Pacific Ocean last November, where I saw a heck of a lot of the stuff floating around. It was an experience that changed my life in many ways.
My awareness about the problem of plastic pollution grew exponentially after that trip. When sailing, I saw plastic items like laundry baskets, dustpans and condiment bottles floating across the surface of the world's biggest and deepest ocean. Plastic items improperly discarded on land, dumped into the sea or lost from shipping containers all end up in the ocean. It was unsettling to realize that many of these things had traveled more than 1,000 miles from land (where they are most commonly used). The reason there is so much of it is because we use so much of it...and all of the plastic is causing huge ecological problems and is harming our health.
Plastic, as a material, is entrenched in modern human culture. Whether you're going out for a meal in the city or a bike ride in the forest or a stroll around town; or spending a day in an office or a classroom or a lake, you're bound to encounter plastic. No. It's more than that. You're bound to plastic...it's a part of modern life. Personally, the sailing trip challenged me to question what is most important in my life. I realized that I need to slow down and spend more time with the people who make me happy, and to place less value on material things–which really don't contribute to lasting happiness.
After sailing and seeing plastic pollution firsthand, my goal was to learn from scientific experts about the effects of plastics and possible solutions to the problem, and also to see on-the-ground efforts to minimize plastic pollution. I visited world-class plastic scientists in the U.S. and Denmark from February through June. Last month I traveled to Thailand to learn about how plastic pollution is addressed in Asia–the world's top plastic-polluting continent–and went back to Denmark again to spend more time in the lab and catch up with my Danish sailing friends. I traveled with just one backpack and my camera across two continents and to six countries (Thailand and Denmark, plus stopovers in: Rome, 5 days; Lisbon, 2 hours; Moscow, 1 hour; and Sweden, 4 days).
I'm a strong believer in the idea that travel can teach a person some pretty important lessons about life. It can also helps a person arrive at their truest, best self. I think these effects are especially strong when you travel with as little as possible, with a flexible plan, and alone, as I did. I've traveled on structured trips with more gear and in groups before and the results can be similar but are not quite as potent. Throw yourself into the world pretty much naked and see what happens. See what types of places you find, what types of people you attract, what kind of challenges you encounter, what you feel.
Thailand was unlike anything I've ever experienced. I've never been to Asia before, and the energy is indescribable. Perhaps I'd classify it as frenetic peace. There are many, many people–often on scooters–and during the day they move quickly, speak quickly. In Thailand the sun is hot and the waves are crashing and cars are honking and people are talking, talking, talking. But then when you remove your shoes and walk into a shining, gold-gilded temple, the world stops. You can hear your own breath moving in and out. All is quiet–unless a monk is saying prayers or if a temple cat is purring at your feet.
In Thailand, the world's sixth-biggest plastic polluting country, I found a lot of plastic on the country's roadsides and beaches. And I learned that plastic pollution is an ongoing problem there in large part due to the cultural taboos that surround cleaning it up. But I also found people working to combat it, as I've written about recently. I got to document a fitness boot camp where participants workout on a beach for an hour and then clean that same beach for an hour. I met a photographer-filmmaker-chef who documents how climate change affects how people cook, and he and I traveled together around Phuket on photo-expeditions for a week. I also met Thais and expats who care deeply about the environment, and I listened to their stories: about what they do and what inspires them.
In Denmark I worked again with my scientist-sailing friend Kristian Syberg examining the plastic samples our crew had collected while sailing the Pacific. While I was interviewing Kristian, he got a call from journalists from DR, the Danish national media, who wanted to visit the lab and ask him questions about plastic after a large plastic fishing net had been found earlier that week in Danish waters. During the filming, I stood out of the shot until the cameraman asked me to step in so he could create some b-roll. I can now say I have been on Danish television (albeit in a nonspeaking role, wearing a lab coat and for all of about a fraction of a second or two). And it's all because I've gone traveling solo, with so little, with a flexible plan.
Besides time in the lab, I spent time with two sailor friends on a Hobie Cat. I was introduced to some amazing outdoor artwork and a great international food court from another sailing friend. I met a talented and interesting Danish artist (and bought some of his art). I had a chat about an increasing loss of creativity in many increasingly expensive cities with two men living in Christiania (Denmark's famous intentional living community), cooked Danish food, biked everywhere and enjoyed some celebratory øl with the crew.
This trip across the opposite side of the world reiterated to me that we as human beings don't need much in life to be happy. That pleasure is found in friendship and experience, not things that you buy. I recognized too that we have more in common with people from other countries than we think. I met kind souls everywhere I traveled, and truly connected with them, even when I couldn't fluently speak their language.
Many of these are lessons we are taught when we are young, but I think as adults we sometimes forget. Traveling helps ingrain them into the brain. You don't need much to let them in. Just an open mind.