When I say backpacking, you think adventure. You think youthful fun. Free spirits, globe-trotters, exploring remote lands and exotic cultures. All the corners of our planet are really nothing but a plane flight away. Let’s backpack, let’s adventure, let’s have fun, while we are young! If we could, we’d be travelling the whole year round. It takes a few local busses and before you know it you are riding elephants in Sri-Lanka, camels in Egypt, and kangaroos in Australia. You can knit alpaca sweaters with the Peruvians, bleach Arabian rugs with Moroccans, and sacrifice flowers at Buddhist temples with Malaysians. When you pack a bag and go, there is really nothing standing in your way. Well let me smack that idealistic portrait out of you straight away. It ain’t all fun and games.
Think about it: most people backpack to make travelling affordable. It is often the only option for people desperate to see the Thaj Mahal or Great Wall of China. That’s where the first problem lies, the extremes through which travellers are willing to go to save some dollars. It is always the backpackers you see sitting on the side of a road in Bangkok eating a single bowl of rice, pretending a pizza ‘isn’t really their thing’. It is them you see folded up in a local African bus with goats and bags of corn packed on their lap, claiming it is not about the comfort but the ‘cultural experience’. Only they will choose to hike up the Machu Picchu instead of taking a tour for the ‘adventure of it’, while their knee-caps are slowly giving in under the weight of their 50kg backpacks.
Backpackers are willing to comprise beyond humane standards. Filthy furniture, bug-infested kitchens, showering with buckets of cold water, getting drunk on cans of warm beer, and sharing a bedroom with five to ten complete strangers. They often spend most of nightly hours lying awake, horrified by not knowing who else is horizontally spread in the same room as them, only a bunkbed away. The smell of backpacks that haven’t been unzipped for days, the risk of tripping over soggy sandals in the dark, and the grinding sounds produced by co-travellers lucky enough to get some sleep at 35 degrees Celsius. There is an urban myth that a tsunami alarm was once triggered in Indonesia, which turned out to be an elderly backpacker with sinus problems, literally snoring the mirrors off the wall. But yet again, for only 3 dollar a night, one is not to complain.
Another problem is that not all people backpack to save money. Some could actually afford civilised living circumstances, yet choose this path in order to meet people. Co-travellers from other countries to whom they can endlessly talk about their abroad adventures. It is inevitable that lonesome tourists try to take advantage of the fact that so many people are stacked in such a small space. You are seldom, if ever, alone, which people mistake for having the right to talk to you. Without being able to do much about it, people will invite themselves to the hike you planned, to the market where you were going to do some shopping, or to the dining table you reserved for you and your book. It is part of the backpacking hazard: we end up talking to Germans, Russians, foreigners who hardly speak any English, and on the rare occasion even to French people. But for a one-dollar breakfast, we willingly pretend to find their travel stories highly fascinating.
People generally get way too comfortable being around other people at backpackers. They force bangles they made down your throat, play guitar at the camp fire, or practise their yoga in the yard: things we were never willing to wear, hear or see. And that’s a problem, we can’t just unhear the songs people sing or unsee the things they make us look at. People publically change into their comfy cloth after a long day of sightseeing because of the lack of space, or lack of hygienic bathrooms for that matter. Backpackers are completely defenceless to the sight of other people’s bare body parts. Painfully pale legs, disproportionally blubbery bellies, excessively hairy torsos, freakishly long toenails, and genitals that escape from their owner’s underwear while tossing around in the bunkbed. Places where the sun don’t shine, assets either too big or too small, body parts that simply should never have been openly exposed. Rumour has it that a traveller once sued a backpacker’s hostel after the traumatic sight of fully-naked, exceptionally unattractive tourists jumping in the pool. Unfortunately, no ground rules could be established to change things for the better because the traveller was too short of money to afford a lawyer.
And not only people’s body parts are exposed, so are their belongings. Because backpackers like to save dollars where they can, they are not shabby about helping themselves to the little luxuries of life provided by co-travellers. Sunblock lotion, charging cables, a trendy scarf; it can get quite pricey if you have to buy all that shit yourself. So don’t be surprised when your toothpaste is gone soon after your bunkbed neighbour left for his next destination. Labelling food in the communal fridge also hardly serves a purpose. Other people get hungry too, what can you do. That’s perhaps an alternative reason for backpackers to be so chatty and curious all the time. They wanna make sure you are heading the opposite direction before they help themselves to your wardrobe. But do not stress, if something goes missing it is not much of a challenge to replace it with a little help from the next-best unknowing person. We backpackers are all poor after all.
Nonetheless, if you are really desperate to backpack around the world, I’m not gonna be the one to advise you against it. Just go through the experience and teach yourself that lesson. In fact, backpacking is very good at that: teaching lessons. It toughens you up. It inspires people to get better jobs, so they can afford a little cabin in the mountains. It also makes people appreciate camping a bit more. Although sleeping under a plastic sheet on a plastic mattress doesn’t seem appealing at first, you at least don’t have to talk to foreigners all the time. I’ve met retired backpackers who don’t wear sandals beyond the expiry date anymore and now buy their own new set of footwear. I’ve seen people that had never done their own dishes ending up with a straight-up cleaning disorder after their backpacking experience. Some refuse to sit in a bus ever again and got motivated to pass their driving license, yet others will no longer stuff Asian dishes down their throat and learned how to cook. I even met hippies that keep their cloth on, having experienced first-hand what exposed body parts can do to a person. So please allow yourself to be free, young and adventurous. You might become a better adult for it with some goddamn principles.