Should I stay or should I go? Eco-conscious travelling

Kimberley Bingel

This is the story of a South African girl on exchange in Brno. I have flown all over the world in search of two things: education, preferably the kind that comes freely, and happiness. We have good universities in South Africa, but they are too expensive for most of us. Some would say that I am lucky to have dual citizenship; my grandfather fled Germany many decades ago and settled in South Africa – leaving me with two passports, one by birth and one by blood. By right of being a European citizen I had the chance to study in Europe for free, and the world of opportunity suddenly became so much bigger for me. I had no idea where my life would take me, but I hoped it would bring me happiness.

So, where did my journey begin?
At 20 years old, I packed my bags and headed out the door to my bright future! I decided to go to Australia on a one-year working-holiday visa. No one tells you that bouncing from hostels to volunteer work on farms is not the most glamorous way to travel, but I was dauntless. It surprised me how many Europeans had the same idea, to go backpacking, and I made new friends who would change my life forever. A romantic encounter with a blue-eyed Swedish boy convinced me to travel with him to his home country, and my journey took a sudden turn from “Down Under” to the far, far North. I decided to stay in Sweden, and I started studying International Tourism Management, since travelling had become a passion of mine. In my third year of studies, I was offered the chance to study abroad on exchange, and Brno somehow called to me. Maybe it was the taste of Starobrno or the pictures of castles and caves that enticed me. I never expected to discover so much depth to a nation built by war, communism and revolution. My months in the Czech Republic have been both educational and happy.

I found what I was looking for, but at what cost?

With all this travelling under my belt, I had flown huge distances from all sides of the world and created a massive carbon footprint in the process. Had I forgotten that my actions have an impact on the very earth I love? I always tried to be conscientious when I travelled. In South Africa I was an expert at using as little water and electricity as physically possible, mostly more out of necessity than choice. In Australia I rode public transport for the first time and realised that I don’t want to own a car or drive. In Sweden I was educated on how to throw away trash in five separate bins without getting confused. In Brno I switched to reusable bags and bottles. Every small thing counts, they say.

The challenge for me, as a lover of travel, came when I joined ESN and I had the opportunity to book tickets at a discount with Ryanair. I started to imagine all the places I could see and then how much CO₂ I would produce if I decided to fly all over Europe. I thought, “What would Greta Thunberg do?” There is a teenage girl in Sweden skipping school on Fridays to raise awareness about the environment, and here I am a click away from a handful of one-way tickets towards escalating air pollution. I decided to research how flying with Ryanair would affect the environment and how many Fridays I could skip class to go on a long weekend trip.

A ‘Green’ debate – is Ryanair or Flixbus more eco-friendly?
Why should I fly with Ryanair, when I could just take a bus? Honestly, I hate travelling by bus, and the thought of hours spent sitting in a bus swaying around the road, makes me sick. So, perhaps, it is my personal choice to fly. In fact, both Ryanair and Flixbus are “green” travel options. Their websites have detailed information about using more efficient systems, supporting environmental initiatives and how you can donate a small amount when you buy your tickets to offset your carbon emissions. Ryanair is the greenest airline in Europe for two reasons: 1. It has the most fuel-efficient engines; 2. It takes as many passengers as it can. The more people on the plane, the less CO₂ per passenger is produced, and Ryanair manages to sell 97% of its seats. Perhaps, however, the best way to be eco-friendly is not to travel at all.

Should I stay, or should I go?

I could easily fly from Brno Airport and spend a week in London, Milan or Berlin. The flight with the least carbon emissions is the flight of the shortest distance. The furthest journey from Brno is to London, the second furthest is to Milan, and the shortest is to Berlin, making this the greenest travel choice. My only problem with Berlin is that it’s in Germany. Now, remember I said that I’m a German citizen? Well, I’ve never actually been there. Secretly I’m proud that I have lived for 25 years without visiting my German past; it makes me feel a little more South African. This feeling came more naturally when I lived on the tip of Africa and Germany was thousands of miles away. Now I’m in Europe, in a country which borders Germany, and denying my heritage has become all too difficult. Maybe I could still travel somewhere else… London? Milan?

I considered what I wanted to see and experience. I love to visit London for the feeling that there is always something exciting around the corner! It can be anything, from a classical museum experience to a night filled with jazz in an underground prohibition-type bar behind a secret door. In Milan, I climbed to the rooftop of a cathedral and spent an unforgettable afternoon wandering around a cemetery. I took a train from Milan to Genoa and Cinque Terre, where I indulged in wine and gelato every day. I have not visited Berlin yet, but I considered breaking my attempt to never set foot in Germany after reading a travel blog about Berlin by Miss Tourist. It looks like an interesting and fun place to visit for a few days. Which is more important – the rising sea levels and increasing number of forest fires or the fact that I still haven’t been to Germany? Unsurprisingly, no-one cares about my breaking my personal vendetta against my heritage of bratwurst and lederhosen. But I believe that I can care both about myself and the environment by going on greener adventures and having a greater awareness of my relationship to the planet when I travel. It’s all a choice. I hope I make the best ones.