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Gringo Trails ~ a documentary by Pegi Vail

May 14, 2014.Oliver.0 Likes.4 Comments


“Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.”

There is no doubt that people can make or break a place. We go and explore, we seek encounters and experiences, we change and never quite come back as the person who left. But do we leave the place as we found it? How profound do we actually touch a place?? Gringo Trails dares to ask these question and aims to find answers – somewhere between reasonable and relentless.

The feature-length documentary is a compelling patchwork of stories, opinions and experiences; footage that not only spans more than a decade but also the globe. The team around director, anthropologist and former backpacker Pegi Vail travelled the world following the footsteps of the well-worn western travelers’ route – the ‘gringo trail’. A journey that will take the audience to South America and beyond to Africa and Asia, “from the Bolivian jungle to the party beaches of Thailand, and from the deserts of Timbuktu, Mali to the breathtaking beauty of Bhutan”.

From backpacking to backpackaging

Starting point for the gripping trip around the world is the Amazon jungle where Israeli adventurer Yossi Ghinsberg got lost and survived alone for three weeks in 1981. An experience he put down in writing in Back from Tuichi, a book whose publication in 1993 marked the beginning of a stream of curious travellers and adventure-seekers intending to retrace the steps of the writer through the exotic wilderness.

Another trailblazer reflecting on the “broom of time” that swept through the cultural and ethical landscape is Costas Christ. He reminisces the moments when he first set foot on shore of the Thai island of Ko Pha Ngan back in 1979. His portray illustrates in a remarkable way the worries concerning the party tourism that seem to have gulped down the place at alarming pace. National Geographic Traveler editor Christ, a reputable driving force in the field of sustainable tourism, questions the irresponsibility of the notorious bucket celebrations at the beach and footage indicates the devastating consequences in a startling manner.

The crew accompanies a couple on their trip in and around the desert city Timbuktu in Mali, representing the African continent in the documentary; authorities of the Kingdom of Bhutan at the edge of the Himalayas justify their approach of regulated tourism via visa costs of $250 per day and an old inhabitant of the Salar de Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia quarrels with the dilemma of rampant tourism.
Other iconic names from the travel trade have their say as well: essayist and novelist Pico Iyer, Vagabonding author Rolf Potts, Lonely Planet travel writer Anja Mutic, travellers and travel bloggers. The result is a pretty versatile mouthpiece.

Authentic experience?

When I watched the trailer after getting the invitation from OutBounding.org for the online screening of the film I was hooked instantly. But I have to admit that the documentary even exceeded my expectations. Gringo Trails offers such a comprehensive insight and a fabulous potpourri of voices. I like how the opinions and experiences analyse the matter from a wide range of positions, creating quite some perspective; outlining the vast impact of tourism on local life worldwide, but also indicating how travellers can make a difference indeed – by embracing a foreign culture in a deliberate and sensible way.

The film ends with the portrait of Chalalan, a small indigenous Quechua community in Bolivia and their efforts to create an authentic experience aiming for sustainability. A project that also has been supported through Kickstarter funds in the final stage of the shooting. I appreciate how the spokesman points out that tourism itself is not the problem, as long as we retain control. Travel can be an irrepressible beast, it’s our responsibility to tame it. And such should be our credo…

Escull el teu camí / Choose your way | @Uyuni, Bolivia by Dimas Streich

Escull el teu camí / Choose your way | @Uyuni, Bolivia by Dimas Streich

It may take another while until the film will be available to a wider audience, but everyone who has the chance to watch it should not hesitate. For some more insight and reception I also recommend the “Ask Me Anything with Pegi Vail” thread on OutBounding.org.

If I should sum up Gringo Trails in a single word it probably would be following: momentous. I think every single traveller out there and everyone even remotely involved in tourism should watch this documentary…

“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again – to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.” ~ Pico Iyer

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Comments (4)

  • Allysse Riordan . May 19, 2014 . Reply

    The trailer looks really compelling. I will keep my eyes open to see if I can get a chance to see the actual documentary.

    I like how they seem to encompass different ways to travel and the impact they all bring. It is inevitable that by visiting another place, another culture we leave an impact as much as the culture leaves an impact on us.

    I was particularly shocked by the images of the beach covered in plastic bottles and decay from the party of the night before. I’ve always found it difficult to understand this kind of travel that seem to take advantage of the foreign aspect of things. It always seem that because they won’t have to come back to it so it doesn’t really matter what happens there.

    • (Author) Oliver . May 20, 2014 . Reply

      Thanks Allysse, the documentary is compelling indeed! I really hope it will be available to a wider audience soon, since the message so important. As you said, travel is a reciprocal experience and every single person can make a difference indeed!
      To be honest and at the risk of sounding terribly intolerant, but I fail to grasp party tourism in general. I encountered it briefly myself while travelling in South-East Asia and couldn’t relate to it at all. It probably feels stranger than even the most exotic place on earth…
      Finger crossed you will be able to watch Gringo Trails at some point, since they mainly make an appearance at film festivals this summer I’m afraid. Thanks again for leaving a few thoughts and impressions, much appreciated!

  • Brad Bernard . June 6, 2014 . Reply

    That’s a really compelling review, Oliver. I hope I get to see the full-length feature someday.

    • (Author) Oliver . June 7, 2014 . Reply

      Hey Brad, thanks for stopping by and your kind words! Glad you enjoyed the trailer and the wee write-up. Fingers crossed it won’t take that long until you can watch the film yourself and it will be made available online or maybe showcased at a film festival nearby…
      Safe travels and I already look forward to your next inspiration!

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