If your life is changing dramatically right now, think about our world itself. The Earth is changing just as dramatically as our individual lives.
That’s the news from veteran travel writer Holly Hughes, who pulled together Frommer’s travel writers all around the world to create a new kind of guidebook that I recommend we consult for 2009. It’s called “500 Places to See Before They Disappear.”
No, not before we disappear. But before these global treasures vanish.
Now, that turns our world on its head, doesn’t it?
I called Holly at her home on the East Coast last week to ask about this travel guide, but I would say that it has a deeply spiritual theme running through it.
She told me that the idea of this particular book really caught fire across Frommer’s broad network of writers: “I turned to these writers and asked them: What in your part of the world ought to be in a book like this? And I got all of these passionate letters back saying: Please, please, please feature this site I am recommending. If it’s highlighted in your book it may get the attention it needs to survive.”
Holly explained, “To save many of these places, we need attention from governments, we need a groundswell of grassroots activism and we need tourist dollars, too, and all of this just may save an endangered place or the rare plants and animals that live in some of these places.”
What’s endangered? The answer may surprise you. Holly and her global crew list 500 places, including many National Parks in the U.S. They also list many world-famous landmarks as well as a host of spots you will discover for the first time in the pages of her book.
But let’s consider a famous place for a moment — and one that hardly seems fragile from a distance: Consider Ayers Rock in Australia, pictured above, which actually is called Uluru by the native Anangu who consider it a sacred place.
“I’m amazed that they haven’t forbidden tourists on the rock,” Holly said. “I would never climb the rock, but people still do. It’s just like visiting a mosque. You wouldn’t go into a mosque with your shoes on or, if you’re a woman, with your head bare. These are holy places.
“We need to respect these holy places that really are endangered. In England, people may be disappointed these days that you’re forbidden to walk right up to the rocks at Stonehenge and touch them and you certainly can’t climb on them. Too many people have touched those rocks too many times over too many years. We should stay on the paths and see these ancient places. They are holy.”
Her book also points out that, if you do travel to Australia, you’ll learn a lot more about a place like Uluru by carefully moving around the enormous rock — not trying to scramble up its side.
“If you walk around it instead of trying to go rock climbing, you’ll have a much better sense of the scope. You’ll appreciate how the rock was formed by seeing the rivulets around it. It’s a great way to see it — but it takes time.”
Her book also points out that by circling the rock around the 6-mile track and devoting extra time to your overall visit, you can enjoy the Aboriginal rock art and the mala (at left), which the Anangu consider the ancestral guardians of the great rock. Humans have made them extinct in the wild, but rangers are breeding mala in carefully supervised areas and are planning to reintroduce them into their ancient home.
That is, if we behave ourselves as visitors.
Now, you might think — given the world’s collapsing economy at the moment — that people won’t travel much in 2009. But that’s wrong. Millions of people will be on the move for a wide range of reasons. Some of them will be tourists. In fact, some of the sites in Holly’s book are close to home, wherever your home might be on the Earth.
So, I asked Holly to say a few words about how to travel in a spiritually mindful way — which you’ll discover is also the best way to see many of these places, Holly explains in her book.
“My goal in this book is not to scold people,” Holly said. “My goal is to help people see that they really can make a difference in the world by traveling to places like this that may disappear — or where people are working to preserve things that could have been ruined or could have vanished.
“The tourist dollar is very important. So, that’s why you should do some research. Make sure you are using responsible tour operators, that you’re staying in the local hotels and eating in the local restaurants so the people who live near these sites are able to sustain themselves on the tourism,” Holly said. “Certainly when you go to see a ruin, you need to stay on the path. When you go to Stonehenge, you can’t stand next to the stones themselves because people before you began to do damage. You want to try to make as little a carbon footprint as possible.”
If you’re dreaming of a particular kind of experience — seeing mountains, visiting northern Scotland, diving near coral reefs — think of visiting alternative sites instead of crowding into the world’s most famous locations.
“By doing that you may be helping a place to survive even before it gets into trouble,” she said. “That’s why in this new book we’re highlighting 10 places to go see coral reefs that still are great. Give them the attention they need so they are preserved.”
Most importantly, try to devote enough time to soak up the full experience of the places you are visiting. That may mean you can’t see quite as many sites. Uluru in Australia is beautiful in various lighting conditions, “and that may mean you’ve got to stay an extra night and get up early.
“I’m not a bird watcher myself, but the best way I can describe the template of a great traveler is bird watching. Visit a place long enough that the life of the place comes to you. If you’re going to see wildlife, it may mean the wildlife will come to you.”
There is a spiritual principle at work here — a reverence for the world, for people’s homes, communities and the natural balance of animals and plants.
Think of travel as visiting sacred places — hundreds of which may vanish in coming decades of people do not carefully support them.
Think of visiting a house of worship.
“I happen to be a practicing Christian, but whatever sacred place I enter, I light a candle if that’s appropriate, I put some money in the box, if there is one. And I spend the time I need to try to feel what this place was built for.”
Good advice as we contemplate our journeys in 2009!
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