In Pursuit of the ‘Holiday Experience’

A guest post by The Happy Hippy.

Holidays are very important to me.

All my holidaying life I have very rarely travelled to the same location, except to visit friends in foreign places, and my husband and I attempt to give our children ‘experiences’ which they will remember – and also hopefully ones which shape and change how they view the world.

Every year we have the same dilemma, where and when to go and how much to spend.

With three growing kids it’s hard to balance the cost with the right experience for us all, and in an attempt to match my ‘green credentials’, I’ve also always tried to ‘do the right thing’ – buying local products, using public transport, being responsible etc. It can often be difficult to balance these green aspirations within the mix.

But last year we found that rare thing – a holiday experience which met all of our expectations and more !

I’ve always tried to book destinations which are a little off the beaten track, offer some kind of engagement with the locals – avoiding at all cost the high-rise, the fight for the beach beds, the noise and glitter of a ‘resort’ . . . much to my kids’ disappointment. I hear them now . . . ‘ please mum can we just go into one arcade for candy floss and kiss me quick hats’ . . . ‘NO’ I say, ‘we must have an experience !’

The destination that managed to make us all happy last year was Transylvania.

I can honestly say that Transylvania was by far one of our best experiences to date. Our initial concerns about vampires and dark dangerous forests were soon dispelled upon arrival. Apart from the usual ‘what a beautiful country’, ‘great views’ etc – what made it special was seeing how sustainably many of the locals live.

Romania joined the EU in 2007 and you would think that they would have embraced all the EUness of their neighbouring countries. While the rest of Romania, leaving behind its communist history, may be on this route, hopefully Transylvania will remain one of the hidden gems of the world.

The first thing I have to mention was the food – divine ! Everything was handmade, the jam, the yoghurt, the elderflower and raspberry juice and not a plastic bottle in sight. The wine was produced in the neighbouring valley and was perhaps the best wine I have had anywhere – and it was organic. There is something quite special about seeing the food being grown on site and watching the cook hand picking fruits and vegetables from the plot for that evening’s taste sensation. All the villages had gardens full of fruits, vegetables and flowers.

We stayed in the small village of Miclosva for a few nights, then moving further into the Carpathian Mountains, to an even smaller village. There was no TV, no mobile phone signal, occasionally no electricity and there was no phone, as the copper had been stolen from the overhead cables. . . and where were all the cars ? How would my husband and kids survive ? I was worried, I wanted us all to have that ‘experience’, but I didn’t want us to be bored! I needn’t have worried.

Usually one of my children would do anything to avoid the ‘countryside’ but even they were excited by the nature walk. Our guide, Garbor (fantastic name and fantastic guy) was very knowledgeable and engaged with the children, showing them a multitude of wildlife, exploding plants, fields of butterflies and bear trails, including their ‘poo’. We all shared a scary moment in the graveyard late that night when Garbor took us bear watching. We had to remain as quiet as possible lying on a bank and listening and focusing on the clearing in the woods. I couldn’t believe the children were able to remain quiet for so long, not a sound, us all waiting in anticipation.  We heard grunts, gruffs and heavy breathing getting closer . . . then all of a sudden Garbor jumped up shouting and screaming, the bear had approached from the side and in fact was worryingly too close! Thankfully the bear was sent on his way and the kids thought this was one of the highlights of the whole holiday and told the story many times of how we were nearly caught by a bear !

We spent our days on horse and cart visiting the charcoalers, the sheep and goat farmers who had to milk their 200 strong herd twice a day every day, the Ferrier and their work horses, the farmer who worked the land by hand with the help of their children, the baker who baked real bread, the shopkeeper who sold nothing which the kids could relate to – all working together as part of their village community.

Perhaps as close to a truly sustainable way of life as perhaps it’s possible to get these days ?

Early one evening my daughter and I were taking a gentle stroll along the dirt track through the village; all the villagers were sitting out in front of their houses chatting with neighbours, their children playing with the dogs, puppies and ducklings. Everybody we passed spoke to us and smiled, many inviting us to chat and offering us drinks. On our way back my daughter, who was then 12 – and like all 12 year olds loves her shopping – said, ‘these people don’t have much money do they, they don’t really appear to have anything?’ ‘No’ I said pondering on her remark. We walked in silence for a few seconds and then she said something which put all the rights and wrongs of the world into perspective . . . ’but they are all so happy and friendly’.

How meaningful I thought from a 12 year old but how true. It’s sparked many a meaningful conversation since and when she asks for a new designer sweatshirt, I remind her of this experience.

I hope for their sake the EU, with its regulations and policies, does not change them too much . . . . . unless they want to be changed of course.

A number of companies offer eco-holidays to Transylvania, including Responsible TravelGreen Mountain Holidays and Transylvanian Eco-Holidays.

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Urban Forests

Whether tree-lined streets, parks and open spaces, suburban or rooftop gardens, or perhaps something more unusualtrees are incredibly important in cities, and are increasingly valued as such.

They provide islands of natural ecology for birds, insects and other animals, as well as filtering the air, moderating water flows, providing street level shade, screening road noise and also reducing the urban heat island effect caused by the thermal properties of buildings and hard surfaces.

In addition, of course, they look nice, which is not a trivial issue, both due to the significant effect mature trees can have on property prices in an area of a city, but also in the promotion of general health and wellbeing. American sociobiologist Edward Wilson argues that the people are attracted to natural environments and feel happier in the presence of nature.

The presence of urban trees also have a number of more unexpected beneficial effects – average traffic speeds are lower along tree lined roads and less ‘road rage’ is also known to occur, tree dense areas typically have a greater sense of community and are often safer as a result.

There are many charities and groups promoting the beneficial effects of urban trees, and running various planting schemes; including Trees for Cities and the Government backed Big Tree Plant scheme in the UK.

Photo from The Seafarer via Flickr

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Stories of Poverty from Just Down the Road

Sometimes it almost seems easier to focus our attention on the poverty and problems far away, than that right on our doorstep.

Perhaps we’re uncomfortable by its proximity, or scared-off by the inevitable links with alcohol, drugs, crime and abuse. Maybe the remoteness of poverty far away in the developing world seems somehow less challenging to us than the problems of our own communities, which can seem difficult and complex.

The truth is of course that all poverty is difficult and complex to resolve, and it can be easy to forget that across the rich world there are millions of people living lives of hardship and deprivation – perhaps just a few streets away, unseen behind closed doors.

In the UK over 13 million people, live on less than 60% of the median national income level, the most commonly cited level of relative poverty, including 1.3 million children living in severe poverty. While not the absolute poverty seen in the developing world, millions of families routinely have to choose between heating their home and food, who can’t clothe their children properly, struggle with social exclusion and unemployment and all too often find themselves weighed down with debt.

For those of us living more comfortable lives, this poverty in our midst can sometimes be difficult to understand.

Listening to the stories of the poor themselves, often gives the best insight:

 

Claire – from Hull (from Barnados)

“My daughter Ruby (age 4) knows – she could see me worrying about it. I couldn’t believe it when she said ‘don’t worry mummy I won’t have a birthday present this year.’ That made me cry so much, I felt so guilty for not being able to give them more.”

Claire lives with her four children, aged 18 to 4, who don’t have the same opportunities as many others, sometimes missing out on birthday presents, the right school uniform or school trips.

 

Denise – from Birmingham (from the Joseph Roundtree Foundation)

Denise is a single parent with two children, who works 16 hours a week. Due to a delay in her payment one week, she found herself with no money at all left to give her children one Monday morning so they could have food at school. Denise knew she had £3 left in her bank account, but that the local cash machine would only pay out multiples of £10.

Denise had to phone her Mum and ask her to bring over some bus fare so that Denise could get the bus to the nearest branch of the bank, and withdraw her £3, so she could give her children (who were still waiting to go to school) £1 each for lunch.

 

Anthony - from Tyne and Wear (from the BBC)

“I just don’t know what the future holds for us as a family”

“Two years ago my wife was diagnosed with myeloma cancer. It meant I had to give up my job to look after her. At the time I was paying £40 per month dual fuel, then it went up, the company told me I would have to go to £80 pounds per month. I have recently received another letter saying I now need to pay £115 per month, from my £220 per month carer’s allowance. Needless to say my savings have disappeared over the last two years.

The better news is my wife is in remission and she will return to her part-time job at the local school. We do not know yet how we will pay the bills. In the last couple of months my gas, water, electric, media services, TV Licence and life and home insurances have escalated – and now my mortgage, but my carer’s allowance has not changed!”

 

Ultimately eradicating poverty, whether globally or locally, will require a significant change to our systems and structures, but in the meantime there are many national or local groups already working to make a real difference, and transform the lives of those most in need . . .

. . . you might want to consider lending them your support.

Shelter, End Child Poverty, The Joseph Rountree Foundation, Christians Against Poverty,  Foodbank, Action Aid.

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Food Banks

Despite our welfare system, and society safeguards, people still go hungry in the UK, and across the rich world, as a result of debt, sickness, job loss, relationship breakdown, addiction, mental health problems or delays in receiving state benefit.

Food banks collect donated food and then redistribute it to those in need, usually via some form of referral system from professional welfare agencies. The idea is that food banks aim to support people for the short time until the system ‘catches up with their problems’ – serving those who fall through the cracks.

In the UK the number of food banks have increased dramatically in recent years, with the charity The Trussell Trust, providing a standard model and advice for those wishing to set-up a foodbank. The effects of the economic downturn have caused a significant rise in the number of people in need of support in the UK, and more than one new food bank was opened every week during 2011.

If you’re interested in doing something to help combat poverty in your local area consider volunteering to help at a foot bank, or simply donate – either financially or food. If you don’t have a local food bank, then perhaps you might want to work with others to help set one up ?

 

Photo from Cardiff Food Bank

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Cold Cold Wind

This Autumn was one of the warmest and driest on record in the UK. As a result reservoirs are low, harvests were impacted and wildlife became confused.

But as the weather begins to change and winter finally arrives, a different concern returns, one that doesn’t always get the coverage it deserves: the 4 million UK households in fuel poverty.

Fuel poverty is defined as existing when a household needs to spend more than 10% of its income on heating, in order to keep adequately warm. Due to rising fuel prices and the economic downturn the number of households in fuel poverty has been increasing rapidly, and shows every indication of continuing to do so. An amazing one in five UK households is now classed as being in fuel poverty, with almost half of those affected aged 60 or over.

The result of people being unable to keep adequately warm is an additional 26,000 deaths in which the cold weather pays a part over the winter. These deaths arise from respiratory problems and also from heart attacks and strokes resulting from the thickening of the blood and associated rise in blood pressure that occurs when we are cold.

Our energy policies are not only failing future generations due to climate change, but also failing many struggling households in our current generation too !

The problem is that these issues are often played off against each other.

Many of the critics of wind farms and feed in tariffs etc argue that they ‘further add to the fuel bills of those in hardship’, and while I sometimes question how genuinely these concerns are felt by those voicing them, there’s no denying it is a issue that needs addressing.

Unfortunately those seeking to defend subsidies for renewable energy sometimes appear unsympathetic to the plight of those in fuel poverty – simply pointing out that the additional cost of these schemes to average energy bills are in fact very low (which indeed they are). This risks missing the real point – that it’s difficult to make a just case why cold pensioners, fearful of turning on their heating over the winter, should pay more for their energy bills – regardless of the amount involved.

Environmentalists who only talk about melting ice sheets and polar bears, can easily appear dismissive of those facing real hardship. Framing the debate as either green energy or warm pensioners avoids the critical issue – both problems are real and urgently require a solution.

What is needed is a system that achieves the necessary decarbonisation of the economy, while allowing vulnerable people to keep warm in their own homes. Environmental issues are almost always social justice issues too.

Of course things are complex.

Real world solutions will need be a mix of price protection and support for those in most hardship, cost incentives to reduce the energy use of those with the ability to pay, grants for insulation, subsidies or tax benefits for energy companies to become more efficient, and, of course, subsidies and incentives to encourage the development of more renewable energy sources.

Government is at least engaging with some of these issues via its proposed Green Deal.

We’ll all have to wait and see if the detail of what’s being proposed lives up to expectations.

 

Photo by Clearly Ambiguous via Flickr

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