Tag Archives: backpacking

Life is Not a Reality Show Starring Me

One of the hallmarks of western people traveling is that by and large, we only “befriend” service workers.  That is to say, our only local interactions of any length involve the exchange of currency.  Of course I think we should support local businesses as much as possible, but think about your life back home–is it dominated by people who are with you because they are paid to be?  How much would you really know about your city or country if you only went to the top ten tourist destinations and spoke only with cab drivers, tour guides, bartenders, waitstaff and hotel/hostel staff?  I understand that this level of engagement is fine or even optimal for many people, but to me it is severely lacking.  Luckily, that is starting to change.

People ask a  lot of questions if you travel, and one of the absolute best was by one of my dad’s cousins a couple of years ago.  “So if we were in Cuba right now, if we were just two Cuban guys, what would we be doing?  What would our day be like?”  If I asked a variation on this question at most travel meetups, or sadly after many study abroad programs, the response would be crickets.  Or worse, when someone fills in the blanks with stereotypes or takes one small thing they saw once and applies it to an entire city, country, or region.

Traveling to other countries, for me, is not about getting as many different passport stamps as possible, or crossing off everything in a guide book or 1,001 places to see before you die.  Other people’s lives and communities are not playgrounds for me, set pieces and props for my story, devices to teach me and other western people valuable lessons in navel-gazing.  They are human beings, whole and entire.  They are not merely sad and pitiable, noble in the face of their immense struggles, nor are they just inspiring in their happiness, ignorant to how much better life is with iPhones and DVR.  They have a full range of emotions and experiences, just like us.  Other people exist for themselves and their own goals, struggles, and desires, not for our profile pics, poverty porn, and Eat, Pray, Love-style enlightenment.

If I’ve learned anything while traveling, it’s that our world is full of millions of other small worlds, each one fascinating and full of its own truth.  If I am patient, kind, polite, and sit by very quietly, occasionally I can learn something from these worlds as I encounter them.  If I am able to stay somewhere long enough, sometimes these worlds let me in so I can be a part of their community for a little while.  All of my best memories abroad (and at home–because travel is not an escape from real life) come from getting to know people and places well enough that they trust me with some very real part of their existence.  Some of the most interesting things that have ever happened to me are the things that have re-aligned my view of people or a place, clarifying some generalization or misunderstanding I have previously held.  There is more to this world and this life than 7 billion people and 196 countries at the service of me.  My travel, no matter how exciting to me, is still just somebody else’s Wednesday, their day job, their ride home.  And to me, that is the most exciting part of all–not the bungee jumping or the skydiving or the tattoos or the scuba diving; getting to see what somebody else’s Wednesday can be.

Backpacking is a good way to travel…

…But not a good way to do anything else.

Included in “anything else”?  Meeting locals, learning the language, getting to know the country, and becoming immersed in the culture.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of literature (books, articles, blogs) written for, by and about backpackers.  I love travel and it’s all they talk about, so I thought it would be great and inspiring.

Not so.  I think the ’round the world’ deal is impractical.  I would rather go to one region at a time, with similar climates to save space with gear.  This of course would also allow for more time in each individual place.  But I also hate the idea of being just a tourist.  Many of these backpackers made comments about how it doesn’t matter if your clothes are dirty, because you’ll only be hanging out with other backpackers.  Or they made the bold suggestion that hey, every once in a while, you should try some local food.  But only if you’re feeling brave.  And of course, one of my personal favorites, is the total disregard for local culture and values, manifesting itself in attire.  Um no, a two piece bikini is not acceptable everywhere, and neither is a miniskirt. 

A lot of these backpackers seem mostly concerned with hooking up with people of as many different nationalities as possible, looking cute, and seeing tons of countries with no repeats.  So, yes, if you literally want to move from one place to the next, rapidly, while stopping only to sew your wild oats, backpacking is for you.  The physical act of travel (on the cheap) is their specialty.

But that’s not my deal.

I want to live in a bunch of different places, for a few years at a time in each.  The six weeks I spent in Egypt seemed short, and I’m eager to stay somewhere on a slightly-permanent basis.  Even in high school, I immediately knew I wanted to return to Paris for a few years. I was talking about the importance of being there for more than a year with Marisa.  You need to see the way the place cycles through every holidayand temperature change.  How activity waxes and wanes.

Travel shouldn’t be about checking things off your list.  It should be meaningful, it should inherently change who you are, adding to your personality and life story.  In my mind, a lot of experiences gleaned from backpacking are akin to a layover.  You might’ve been there for a bit, and you probably have a couple stories from it.  But what did it really mean to you?  One backpacker can say she went to India, true, but she spent the entire time in her room because it was so “uncivilized.”  In my mind, she got as much out of India as I did out of several hours in Germany.  I can check “drank German beer in Germany” off of my life list, but I don’t know what the countryside looks like.  I haven’t attempted German, or relaxed with locals to get their perspective on…anything, really.

So keep your 36 countries in 52 weeks.  I set my own pace.  I’ll cover the globe.  Eventually.  A place is like good food, and I savor it.