A Question of Carbon Footprints and Other Potential Transgressions

I was in conversation with a dear friend, one who constantly challenges me to examine my better conscience and my behavior in relationship to the earth. I had just returned from my fifth trip to Mexico, a place where I am always happy to be. The kind and loving nature of the people, the colors, the tastes and smells, the music and fireworks, the history and cultural blend of Indigenous and Hispanic influences inspire and intrigue me. As I have had a long love affair with the desert and Turkey, I also dearly love Mexico. Call me fickle, I have always yearned to explore other places and other people.

But I’m aware of my carbon footprint. This awareness does rub roughly against the isolation I feel when I limit my travel to keep my carbon footprint negligible. If we remain within our own secure boundaries, the “other” can take on more sinister and fearful projections. When we get up close, live among others, eat their food, study their culture and perhaps their language, they become more knowable to us and we become more knowable to them. If and when they do cross our borders, we are pleased to welcome the diversity that has always been a huge part of our own.

The American footprint

However, I am more than aware of the ugly and arrogant American. We have the money to buy frivolous remembrances of our sloppy footprints in places where people do not have the money to eat and to feed their children. In their marketplaces, they watch us and our vacations, our easy finances, our disdain for what might be truly beautiful to them while we purchase the same touristy items as those who have gone before us. Well, that’s why they are selling so many of them in the first place.

Many years ago, my father returned from a trip to India. He proudly told me how he had entered a kitchen in a restaurant without invitation. My mother clearly had no prior knowledge of what he was about to do. He was in there for quite some time before he returned to tell her that had given them a good lesson on cleanliness and how to run a better kitchen. I had learned by that time to keep my mouth shut. Perhaps the best I can hope for is that it gave them something to laugh about once he had returned to his seat.

Learning through my travels

In New York City, where I lived for 21 years, I almost never drove a car. Mass transportation back then was the safest and most economic means of travel. In those days, I was fairly poor, concerned with how to pay my rent and buy groceries, and so I could only spread my muddy carbon footprints so far. Once in a while, on weekends, I could borrow or rent a car and go to the country. More often, I had to take a bus. When I met my husband, we began to extend that footprint to more distant places. Aside from briefly living in Morocco and traveling to France and Spain, my passport had very few stamps. My husband had even fewer. At first, to see how well we traveled together, we chose English-speaking countries like England and Ireland. After a couple of years, our footprints became wider and deeper, coated with layers of strangeness that soon fell into natural familiarity. We learned wherever we went. And as we went, we realized the stupid mistakes we had made only weeks before because we hadn’t known any better.

Learning through the heart

“Awareness is a good thing,” I tell my friend. I genuinely believe this to be true. There are so many ways to gain awareness and so many ways to express it positively. But there is also the awareness of what is really going on with people in other places that cannot be gleamed from books, newspapers, television or movies. There is no opportunity to interact, to ask questions. This is how I learn best.

And so, I will share my carbon footprints with you, but go and see for yourself. I don’t feel I have exploited the Mexican people, and if I have made some cultural mistakes, I can only hope I will be forgiven. My heart is in the right place.

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