During their senior year of college, Katie Diederichs and Ben Zweber studied abroad in Florence, Italy — and they never looked back. From their early days teaching English in South Korea to their recent campervan adventures throughout the U.S., the travelers behind the Two Wandering Soles blog have enjoyed a life exploring countries and cultures around the world.
And no matter where they end up, they always make sure to travel responsibly. We caught up with Katie to talk about ethical travel — what it means, why it’s important, and what we can all do to reduce our travel footprints.
Can you talk a little bit about your first trip to Florence and what it is that hooked you on travel?
Prior to studying abroad, I had never actually been overseas. Ben and I both spent our semester abroad in Florence, Italy, and while we were there, we were able to experience Italian culture and travel quite a bit across Europe. It sounds really cliché, but we caught the travel bug. After that first experience, there was just no going back. We got a taste of this world that we had never seen and couldn’t wait for more. Ever since then, we’ve been looking for opportunities to explore new places, whether they’re close to home or far away.
After you got married, you decided to quit your jobs and travel the world, is that right?
We quit our jobs six months after getting married. We took a three-month backpacking trip around South America, and after that we went to South Korea to teach English. Following that year-long contract, we spent about a year traveling on an around-the-world trip on our way back to the U.S. Now we’re living out of a campervan while traveling around the western U.S.
I’m sure that a lot of people love the idea of dropping what they’re doing and traveling the world, but they’re held back by financial anxieties. How did you overcome that obstacle?
Like most people our age we have student debt, but we just decided that if this was something we wanted we would cut back in other areas and reprioritize where we were putting our money. Before we quit our jobs — Ben was an engineer and I was in graphic design — we spent a lot of time saving up. Each portion of our journey has been a separate step. We saved up for a trip in South America, but then we moved to South Korea and taught English so we were able to save up enough for our next trip.
We also work on the road. Ben teaches English over video chat, and I do freelance writing. And we’ve started making money through our blog as well. So we’ve found ways to make it work, by planning ahead and taking it one step at a time — which kind of sounds like conflicting messages, but that’s what’s worked for us.
What was your experience teaching English in South Korea like?
Teaching abroad has always intrigued us because it’s an opportunity to explore another culture in depth while also earning enough money to support ourselves.
Teaching English in Korea is a really popular job and people from all over the world are there, so it’s a pretty easy thing to navigate. We were each placed in different schools, so we were the only English-speaking people there. That’s just an experience in itself — being an outsider in your daily life. But we got to work with some amazing kids. Teaching in Korea was really fun and rewarding, and we felt very privileged to do that for a year.
So what does it mean to travel ethically?
First, let’s talk about the difference between ethical and sustainable travel. Sustainable travel is focused on ways you can be conscientious of the environment you’re traveling in, whereas I think ethical travel embodies a little bit more than that. It’s not just about making a smaller footprint on the land you’re traveling through — you also have to be conscious of the people you’re impacting.
Tourism can be wonderful for communities, or it can destroy them. It can bring jobs and prosperity to people of poverty, but it can also water down a culture. It can even bring things into an area that aren’t necessarily good for the people — like drugs and behavior that goes against their culture.
While we were traveling, we felt the need to be responsible not only about what we were doing, but also about what companies we were supporting. There are a lot of companies that exploit members of the community or hurt the land. It might not seem like they’re having a big impact, but 10 years later that land and those people are completely changed by the tourists coming through.
We wanted to make a conscious decision to try our best to travel ethically, sustainably, and consciously — and to help others figure out how they can as well.
When did you make the decision to be more aware of your footprint while traveling?
It’s something I’ve always thought about, not only with traveling, but at home as well. I try to support farmers markets, local artists, and smaller grocery stores. It’s always been my mentality.
But while we were traveling in South America, we talked with some people who had gone with a cheap tour company into the Amazon. They told us that the company was trashing the environment, that there was sewage leaking into the waterway, and that the wild pink dolphins they advertised were actually fenced in. The local people weren’t really getting anything out of it. When I pictured the Amazon, that was not what I had in mind.
So we started doing research about eco-companies in the Amazon. We saw that there are a lot of great companies out there that employ indigenous people and make sure they aren’t taking more from the land than they’re giving back. That was our first experience consciously choosing a company that was doing good things for their community — after that, it’s been our number one priority.
Before we go anywhere, we try to research the history of the area — whether its people are being exploited or whether the land is being hurt — and we try to travel in a responsible way that will bring more good than we’re taking.
What are some specific things people can do to make sure they’re traveling responsibly?
There are a lot of really simple things to do when you’re traveling: Try to do things abroad the same way you would at home. If you go to a farmers market and support local artists, try to do that when you’re traveling as well — put your money back into the community.
One of the biggest things we’ve seen exploited is animals. Lots of animal tourism is bad for the animals, even if it’s not apparent. It’s becoming pretty common knowledge, for instance, that in Thailand, most of the elephant tourism is terrible for the elephants. Animals are often exploited because they don’t have a voice for themselves. If you’ve done these tours in the past, there’s no reason to feel bad. Just commit to doing more research in the future. If you want to see animals on your travels, do some digging and choose companies that are committed to their wellbeing.
One big thing I see a lot is tourists taking pictures of locals — oftentimes that can make people feel as if they’re in a zoo. Instead, make eye contact, and make a gesture like, “Can I take your picture?” If they say no, respect them and move on. If they say yes, you might have a new friend.
And also learn about the place you’re in. You can learn a lot about the community — and yourself — by reading about the place you’re visiting and talking to the locals.
We have an entire article with 31 ways you can travel more responsibly on our website, which is a good starting point for anyone trying to travel ethically.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to travel more ethically?
Don’t go into it trying to be perfect because you’re going to learn along the way. Just adopting a mindset of wanting to be more conscious about your travels is the best way to start.
Everyone starts somewhere. Be open to learning and trying new things. Travel can be such an amazing thing as long as we think a little bit more about how we’re doing it. Traveling can connect people from all over and show us that we’re more similar than different. It’s one of the most important steps in making our world a more global — and more connected — place.
What do you and Ben look for in a travel destination?
That’s shifted over time, but one of the biggest things we look for, and one of the things we enjoy the most, is connecting with local people. Going to places where the culture is very rich and vibrant is really exciting for us. Every country and every place has something beautiful about it, but we’ve really enjoyed Colombia, Vietnam, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Turkey — all have very warm, welcoming people and vibrant cultures.
We also enjoy beautiful landscapes and adventurous activities. We both really love being outdoors, so sometimes we stray from the bigger cities and navigate toward smaller towns that are surrounded by nature.
And then, there’s food. We love all things food. Vietnam blew our minds with its cuisine. Typically when we eat in a country, we like the street food and the little hole-in-the-wall places the most. It’s fun to see the venues where the entire family runs the restaurant and cooks there. You can see Grandma and Mom and their kids, and it’s just a fun overall experience.
In early 2014, Katie and her husband, Ben, quit their full-time jobs and set off on a three-month adventure in South America that never really ended. Along the way, they taught English in South Korea, worked on a remote farm in the Ecuadorian Andes, and trekked to Everest Base Camp. On their travels, they seek good food, interesting culture, and adrenaline-pumping adventures. And whether they’re in a remote village or a modern city, they always aim to travel ethically and leave a small footprint.