Souvenir Live: A Conversation with Erin of @alpacamybagspod

Souvenir Live: A Conversation with Erin of @alpacamybagspod

August 27, 2021

A conversation with ERIN of @pinatravels + @alpacamybagspod

Girl with mountain background

Welcome to Souvenir, where we focus on the goods that you bring back from traveling. We're not talking about those physical items you bring home. We are  talking about those conversations, those learnings, those cultural exchanges that you've experienced and you've touched on the road that have really impacted the way that you've come home and live your life. Here, OT founder Britt is talking to Erin, mindful travel mastermind behind Pina Travels and the Alpaca My Bags Podcast.

Britt: Hello Erin and welcome! Erin has been tackling topics ranging from voluntourism to traveling with chronic illnesses to diversifying the hashtag van life. And we fell in love with her authentic approach to real yet under-recognized topics in the travel world. What drew you to travel blogging and starting Pina Travels, and did it start off as a way to talk about mindful travel practices, or did it transform into that over time?

Erin: Ooh, so Pina Travels started, I guess, around three years ago. I had the idea for the blog originally because my partner and I had just come back from Asia. We had been there for nine months traveling all around, and we came back to Toronto, settled back into life in the city, and we both got our first full time corporate jobs. I was very much missing travel. And so the idea for the blog was really just a space where I can share memories and ideas and thoughts about travel as a way to keep me connected to this thing that I love, even though I can't be traveling the world as freely as I had been for the last nine months. So that's where the idea for the blog came from. And honestly going into it, I didn't really have any plan. I was just like, I'm going to make this and start writing and see what happens. Over the last three years, it's definitely evolved to be very focused on mindful and responsible travel. And I think it went in that direction because that's what I was thinking about. I had a lot of questions and curiosity about how to travel better. And I just started using the blog as a way to think about that and share my thoughts on it. And it also meant, because I was reading about these topics, I was researching them a lot, so really, it was just about learning. And so the blog evolved into that. 

And then podcasts were also just like a hobby of mine. I really love listening to podcasts and also really love how podcasts are such a great medium for gentle learning. I find that I personally tend to gravitate towards podcasts that teach me. So eventually, I was just thinking, oh, a lot of these blog posts I'm writing around topics that I think would translate really well into the podcast medium and I thought, let's do it. Let's figure out how to make this podcast. And literally I posted in a Toronto-based Facebook group asking, "Hey, I want to start a podcast. Does anyone know how to start a podcast or have tips?" And someone tagged Katie Lore. We did not know each other, but she messaged me and she chatted with me for a bit and told me that she was working, but she wasn't working in podcasting, which is where she wanted to be working. And so she was looking for a podcast project to work on. And she had education in radio, so she definitely knew how to make a podcast. And basically she was like, "Let's just meet in a coffee shop and you can pitch me your idea". And we did that and she loved it. And she came on as a producer. 

Girls podcasting

Britt: You guys make such an amazing team. I remember really early on in the Origin Travels journey, we were actually just both starting off at the same time. And I was maybe one of your first podcast interviews and it was so much fun. And you guys were such a dynamic team, even from the beginning. So what was it about your travels and the way that you travel that made you think there's a better way to do this, there's a better way to travel the world. What is sustainable travel, and how can we be better when we're on the road?

Erin: I think responsible/mindful travel is becoming a bit of a buzzword in the travel space. It kind of suggests that that's something that you can just do. And once you've achieved it, you've become a responsible or sustainable traveller like, there you go, you did it, you are responsible and sustainable. I actually think that it really boils down to a dedication to continued and sustained learning, and continuing to self-evaluate your own practices and how you can improve them. I think it started with me noticing other things happening in the travel community that I took issue with. I would see people behaving in hostels in ways that I questioned. It was just sort of that little dose of questioning that really got me thinking about how I myself could do a better job traveling. When I talk about it being like a continued journey, for example, I definitely have participated in animal tourism in the past that I now wouldn't. In my previous life, I have done things that nowadays I realized no, that's not the right way to approach it, and I want to do this in a better way. And so I do think that that kind of suggests this is really a journey. It's about continuing to improve yourself.

Britt: Totally. And not to mention the world is always changing, as are the people, and at the end of the day, what sustainable/mindful/regenerative travel is really about  is that as a traveler, you have a lot more impact on the communities that you visit than you could ever imagine. And it's not just about you going abroad and going to a beach and enjoying your time and flying home and continuing your life. There's so many different touch points along those trips that can really impact your life as well as the lives of the people you're visiting, whether that be staying locally in a house or eating at local restaurants, hiring a local guide, abstaining from riding elephants. All of these decisions that you make in one trip can really impact the trajectory and livelihood of the people that you're visiting. And honestly, from your first episode, which was called Cambodia Tours Shooting Rocket Launchers, you questioned some of these crazy things that travelers have taken advantage of just because they left home and so they left rules and what governs the way we live our daily life. They're just like, "Oh, wow, this country". And so in light of this movement, what should we be keeping in mind about the way that travellers make decisions abroad? While it's great that mindful travel is getting more recognition now, it also means that there's a greater chance that these sort of efforts get diluted or routed with fancy marketing words to attract people but will eventually lose traction. So how can we as travellers go abroad and make sure we're making good decisions?

Erin: I think to start, it's important to emphasize that we need to expand what sustainability actually means. I think a lot of people hear that term and associate it with eco travel, which it does encompass, but I think it's helpful to think more about your responsibilities as a traveler on a broader scale. So don't just think about how you're impacting the planet in terms of nature and animals, think about people as well. In terms of how to approach it, I think the key is really to research. I find a lot of people research the wrong things when they travel. 

I do agree that looking at a list of 10 best places to see in Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a great thing to do. But you also want to look up, What are the cultural norms there? How can I be respectful to Cambodian culture? What is the language? How do people communicate? How do people communicate through body language? These are all things that you can look up in advance that will really help you to travel through that space in a responsible way that emphasizes that you are a visitor and to find a balance between respecting their cultural norms with your own.

And then I think the other two steps are to be open to learning, to correction, and to talk to local people. Guides are a great resource. Whenever you have a guide, you can ask them those questions that you might not be able to find answers to online, and you can ask them questions about things that you might witness or see in that country that make you curious. And then I think you should rely on self-examination as well. 

Like I was saying about the way that I have participated in animal tourism, when I reflect back, I realize, okay, that's not the same choice I would make now. And I had that realization because I took the time to self-examine. So I think if people introduce that practice into the way that they approach travel, that's a great stepping stone to just finding more responsible ways to travel. 

Britt: Totally. Where do you draw the line, right? And is this good? Is this bad? Can I do this/that? And so it's not black and white, and it is up to us to really make sure we understand all sides of it before committing to anything that we do.

In terms of our influence, one of my favourite stats is actually mind blowing. Are you ready? So pre-COVID, according to the US Travel and Tourism Overview, direct spending by resident and international travellers in the US averages $3.1 billion a day, $128.6 million an hour, $2.1 million a minute, and $35,700 a second. When you actually think about it, travellers have the ability to change the world. As people, we all feel like we're so small and like, "Oh, what kind of impact can I have? I can't change the world. I'm just one person." You're on Instagram and you're seeing all these people doing these crazy things, and like, "I could never do that. I don't have the resources. I don't even have a car." But everybody loves travel. 

If you're reading this, you probably like to travel or are interested in travel. And we are here to tell you that you can literally change the world by just being mindful of the decisions that you make. Travel and tourism is a huge global industry and money gets circulated around the world by people visiting new places. So with the movement of people, there's movement of money and ideas. 

And at the end of the day, I think that if there's anything that's COVID has really taught us, it's that as a community, we work better when we work in tandem, supporting the more vulnerable in our communities and uplifting voices that aren't heard. So as a travel operator, it's been quite a bittersweet place to be, bitter because I haven't had a business for a year and I want to be out traveling, but at the same time, it's sweet, because I recognize that this global stop has really allowed people to step back and recalibrate, like what does this mean for my life now that I don't have the option to travel? What does this mean for small, medium, large businesses on the ground in those places that you visit that aren't getting the travellers and the tourism dollars.

So let's switch gears a little bit, because we talked a lot about sustainable travel, which is a message that I really try to portray through the Origin Travels brand. But along your travels, you've been to so many different places, what would you say are your most surprising learnings from the conversations you've had, or the places that you've been? Is there anything that sticks out or has stayed with you?

Erin: So I'm actually going to say what I've learned from the podcast, because it has been a year now for me of no travel at all and I've learned so much from talking to other travellers. We have done over 60 episodes now and I honestly learned something new with each and every one. So for example, I've learned about different travel lifestyles, what is it like to live in a van, or what is it like to do hardcore adventuring? I spoke with Mario Rigby, who is Toronto-based, who spent several months walking across the continent of Africa entirely alone. 

I've also learned an immense amount of perspective on how our identities impact our experience of travel, which I think is really important to talk about. There are a lot of voices in the travel space that have been underrepresented for far too long. So for example, I've learned what it's like to travel with disability, with chronic illness. I've learned about the Black experience of travel and traveling as LGBTQ+. 

Overall, I would say all of this has contributed to a sort of collective learning within myself, where my perspectives have really, really grown and expanded in a way that doesn't impact just the way I travel, but the way I live my life in general.

And I do think it's important to note that sometimes people who listen to the podcast might think that as the host, I am an authority on any of these subjects, but I really believe that I am on the journey of learning from guests just as much as listeners are. My role as the host is to ask the questions. It's really about centering the stories and voices and experiences of the people that we have on the show. So yeah, definitely been a lot of learning from the podcast, but I'm excited to get back to traveling so that I can learn on the road myself. 

Britt: Yeah. I know, right? It's been a part of you and you don't really realize how much until it's taken away, and suddenly you're just sitting in your house all day. But even pre-COVID life, help us dream a bit, has there been something that happened to you that pushed you out of your comfort zone?

girl on volcano hike

Erin: I've stepped out of my comfort zone a lot while traveling. I think something that travel has taught me over the years, especially the years that I spent traveling as a solo woman. When you travel as a solo woman, stepping out of your comfort zone happens to you every single minute of the day, it feels like. I think I personally have grown a lot of confidence from that. 

And then there's been like more obvious stepping outside my comfort zone, for example, I hiked an active volcano in Guatemala, and that was just out of my comfort zone because I had never done that kind of intensive two-day hike with so much elevation gain.

Britt: Was it the Acatenango Volcano?

Erin: Yeah.

Britt: Oh my God, it was so hard. I'm fine with the volcanic rubble -- that's the thing is that like, we're both from Ontario, a very flat place. We don’t go hiking on the weekends in rolling hill places. Somehow, I'm friends with a lot of people who want to go climb a mountain for two days. And I'm always just like "Okay, let's do it" but it was so hard for me. Origin Travels has a trip to Guatemala and while the Acatenango two-day hike is not included as part of the itinerary, it's definitely something I can help you organize and it's very worth it because once you get to the top, you see these incredible views of an active volcano exploding. It was actually quite transformative for me too. I remember I pushed myself so hard on that hike that I came back and I literally announced to myself I will never give up on opening a pickle jar ever again, which is like a really weird thing to say. I always gave up on opening pickle jars when it's too hard or I gave it to somebody else to help me, but now no, I can do this. I can open this jar. Believe in yourself. So thank you, Acatenango, for allowing me to eat more pickles in my life. 

Last question. What is your favourite souvenir that you brought home?

Erin: A tiffin from India. I don't know if you know what they are, but they're like these tin boxes basically that are used commonly there as lunch boxes. And you can buy them in pretty much any shop and they're not expensive at all. They make great lunchboxes. I love using my tiffin at home. It's been a great buy.

Britt: Amazing, something you can use in your daily life. Tell everyone where we can find you?

Erin: Our Instagram is @alpacamybagspod and if you'd like to read the blog it's pinatravels.org



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