In defence of the backpacker
I can understand why backpackers aren’t much liked. It’s the self-congratulation and the implied superiority.
It’s the suspicion that, for many, a backpacking trip is little more than a prolonged jolly masquerading as a deep life-altering journey. Garnished as it so often is by the banal vocabulary of self-discovery, long-term travel can come across as a bit of a sham.
Last month gave us a poster-girl for all that’s wrong with the world of travelling. In Ellie Hawkins, the 23-year-old Brit arrested for stripping off on the summit of a sacred mountain in Malaysia, we had our unflattering backpacker stereotype fulfilled.
But, at a time of year when many school-leavers and graduates are pondering whether to organize their own overseas adventures, someone needs to stand up for the much-pilloried backpacker.
After all, it’s not as if long-term travel isn't one of the very best things you can do with your time. It is.
Time To Withhold Judgement
Are backpackers too harshly judged?
Yes, there is a lamentable breed of curiosity-deficient 'traveller' that goes away for three months and stays tethered to a bar-stool on the Khao San Road, their only epiphany the cheap price of beer and the heady flip-flop weather.
That doesn’t mean you need to be one of them. There is no law stating that the backpacker must deploy a selfie-stick in a place of worship, or tattoo a Chinese proverb up their neck or buy a bongo. There are millions of long-term travellers out there who successfully mix fun with discovery, and who check the form before disrobing on a mountaintop.
In a decade of lugging my own rucksack from place to place I’ve witnessed some jaw-dropping acts of cultural insensitivity overseas, from the man who snatched up a priceless gold crucifix from the altar of a stone-carved church in Lalibela to the girl who, posing for photos in Petra, wrapped a suggestive leg around a column of the Treasury as if preparing to hump one of the greatest relics of all antiquity.
Most of these astonishing faux pas were perpetrated by people travelling on insulated group tours, not by backpackers, for whom the associated haughtiness of the ‘traveller-not-tourist’ self-image tends to dictate a semblance of humility, at least when sober.
Of course, that same self-aggrandisement does few favours for the backpacker’s reputation in the eyes of those who have to suffer the stories. But nearly everyone is guilty of broadcasting their overseas experiences.
Is Envy Altering Our Opinions?
It’s tempting to hypothesize that the big difference between Granddad’s uninvited slide-show of the 1970s and the social-media braggadocio of today is that the modern backpacking experience, with its ever increasing access to corners of the world that were once much harder to reach, is intolerably enviable.
“Oh look, a bunch of pretty young people on a beach in Belize,” we think, blinking away jealous tears as we sit at our desk scanning another sun-drenched Facebook gallery. “Now when are they going to come home and get on with the drudgery like the rest of us!?”
Could it be that this resentment – of our own circumstances prohibiting us from living with such selfish abandon – lies behind the belief that long-term travel is a preserve of the extremely well-off?
Because this idea, too, is bunk, tending to ignore the two centuries of democratization tourism has undergone since the days of the Grand Tour, when aristocratic scions gallivanted through continental Europe on daddy’s coin picking up souvenirs in equal measure.
Certainly, all backpackers have an obligation to recognize that disrespectful behaviour can appear especially tactless in the kind of low-cost, often impoverished countries that attract people who are hoping to make their budget stretch for months on end.
Yet the 'Gap Yah' view of backpackers as inconsiderate hoorahs riding roughshod over local sensibilities simply doesn’t tally with the broad cross-section of young people you’re likely to share dormitories with around the developing world today. In reality, if your parents are willing to tolerate your continued occupation of that bedroom they secretly want to turn into a study for a little while longer, it’s feasible to save enough in six months working minimum wage to travel Asia for the rest of the year.
None of this is to say that backpacking should be thought of as anything more profound than a glorified holiday. The point is: the most vulgar features of backpacking are the most vulgar features of all travel. And because travel is leisure – an indulgence – it will always be open to criticism.
So if you’re an eighteen-year-old mulling over whether to make a break for it before joining the rat race, try and ignore the anti-backpacker brigade. Don’t let homebound fogies deter you from enjoying the sort of experiences I did on my own Gap Year, which gave me memories to cherish, not all of them involving 50-cent bottles of moonshine.
Granted, it won’t always be high-culture. But lift your head up for a moment, and a period of youthful wandering will teach you some important things about the world we live in: that human kindness is widespread; that away from our crowded little island are empty places that can nourish the soul; that happiness is seldom contingent on material riches.
And that, despite it all, home is precious.
Artless and aimless as those off-the-peg weeks in North America and South-East Asia might be, you’ll probably come back thinking you’ve had the best time of your life.
You’ve got the rest of it to stay home, grow up, and complain about other people’s holidays.
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This article was written by Henry Wismayer from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.
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