This past weekend, I spent four days in Telluride, Colorado. Although fancy resort towns aren’t usually my style, I was there for Mountainfilm Festival – a four-day, six-senses experience of art, adventure, culture and the environment. Tucked into a beautiful valley with snow capped peaks sticking into the blue sky, it was the perfect setting to watch inspiring films and listen to speakers who are changing the world.
As I walked into my final film on Monday morning, I was emotionally exhausted. With so many passionate people working on everything from social to environmental causes, my brain was spinning with ideas. Spending time in Telluride had been humbling to say the least. It was in this state that I walked into the screening of Waste Land. Filmed over the last few years, the documentary follows New York-based artist Vik Muniz as he travels to his native Brazil to develop his latest project at the world’s largest garbage dump Jardim Gramacho. He works onsite with a group of recycled material pickers, creating large scale portraits of them “painted” with garbage.
But it’s not the garbage that is the point of the film: it’s the human story behind it and the power of art to change how we think and feel. Being closely tied to the environmental movement, I had spent the first part of the film focused on the horrific amount of waste that found its way to this landfill, but by the end, the tons of trash were practically invisible to the story of the characters and how this project was changing them. Tears were streaming down my face as I watched one of the main characters leave Brazil for the first time to attend an art auction in London, where one of Muniz’s pieces was auctioned off and all of the proceeds donated to the association that works to protect the recycled materials pickers back at the landfill. Someone’s life had been changed.
It’s easy to say to ourselves things like “if only I had more time, I could do more to help my community,” or “if only I had a job that let me make positive change.” But it’s not about what we have or where we are, it’s what we do, and travel can help us realize this. Although the focus of this film was art, travel was an important vehicle for inspiring Muniz to initiate his influential project.
The film reminded me of one of the essential aspects of travel – that taking ourselves out of our comfort zone and to unexplored places, we see new things. And it isn’t just finding ourselves somewhere foreign that helps us to do this. The point of Waste Land is that Muniz returns to his home country, but sees it in a different way. Be it a voluntourism trip, a month-long European adventure or a business trip to Southeast Asia, there are new possibilities to explore at every corner, and often, those new possibilities force us to rethink our own lives when we return home, hopefully allowing for positive impact on our own ground.
A few years ago, I returned from a trip to Southeast Asia right before Christmas. Within one week I had gone from playing with Cambodian street kids and communicating via hand gestures, to sitting in a strip mall parking lot watching the dazed look of Christmas shoppers. I was blown away, to say the least, and made a mental commitment to never take things for granted. But even if travel inspires us to do better things with our lives, it’s done its part if it simply gets us to make small, everyday changes.
As I sat in the parking lot watching Christmas crazed shoppers walk towards present mecca, oblivious to the world around them, all I could think of were the potential NGOs I could start and move to Cambodia to help save the world. But saving the world starts at home, and starts realistically. I went home and told my parents they weren’t getting any Christmas presents. I donated money to a cause instead. I now work with conservation causes and help with communications, I write about issues that I care about, because those are the things that I know that I do well.
Everyone has something that they are good at, and we should use travel to inspire us to put those skills to good use. Vik Muniz isn’t a climate change scientist or a scientist that’s working on a cure for AIDS, but he’s an individual that knows that he can bring something to the table, inspiring and helping others and hoping that this trickles down to their own communities.
The next time you return from a trip, take time to reflect on what you’ve seen and been moved by. Then think about how your everyday actions can be influenced by that. Maybe you’ll take time to volunteer in a local homeless shelter, maybe you’ll teach a class to impoverished youth, or maybe you’ll encourage your community to stop using plastic. Whatever it is, don’t let your travel inspiration dissipate.