Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Backpacker Beat

Written and Posted from Kumily, Kerala, India

Over the course of the past couple of months, we have had the opportunity to meet people just like us. They're doing the backpacker thing just like we are, going here and there, seeing what there is to see. Most of them either quit their jobs at home, have delayed starting work until that inevitable day when they run out of money, or are on a perpetual backpacker circuit where they work until they save enough to travel and then travel until they run out of money. We have yet to meet the independently wealthy trustafarian, though we are sure he or she is out there, staying in much posher hotels than the ones we frequent.

By and large, backpackers fall into two big groups: the young kids and the old kids. The young kids are the ones that are just out of college, or are even in college and doing a study abroad/run away from college thing. They tend to stay in dorm-style rooms, eight to twelve kids to a space, and they're loud and they drink a lot of beer. They watch their budget so tightly that instead of spending $1 on an actual meal, they'll make a meal out of bread and chutney. They almost never splurge on things, but they do find a way to buy tshirts and pashminas, and they always look sunkissed and happy, if not a little bit tired. We've enjoyed meeting them because they make us laugh and they make us feel wise. We, however, do not fall into this category. We're the old kids. (Of course, there's still a set of even OLDER kids and those are the ones I admire very much. They're the people who actually DO what they said they were going to do when they retired. And while they often hang out in big tour groups or sit in big buses with tinted windows, we've met the occasional older kid who just straps on a backpack and some walking shoes and checks out India, FINALLY.) The old kids like us tend to stay in places that are just one step up from the dorm room, and when we eat a meal, it's okay to spend $4, even $5 dollars. We occasionally splurge on things like air conditioning and dessert, and we don't feel TOO guilty if we spend money on a beautiful bedspread (cough, cough). Some of the old kids even travel with their own kids (and props to them, right?) and while lots of the old kids are couples traveling together, many of them are also flying solo, or traveling in groups of two and three friends who decided that they'd prefer to trade their spot in a cube farm for a view of a cardamom plantation.

But the funny thing about backpackers, and here I mean ALL backpackers, is that we all have a tendency to want our experience to be the BEST experience. Though we have been very lucky to have met a few other travelers who are just as excited as we are to be traveling, and who seem like the type of people we would be friends with in our real lives, by and large, when we meet other backpackers, we start off conversations the same way, and then proceed towards a general dissertation of why our trip is the best possible trip ever. By way of example, here is a typical conversation:

Us: Hello, where are you from?
Them: We're from the US/UK/Australia/Sweden/New Zealand
Us: Cool. How long are you traveling?
Them: Oh, just 1 month/three months/a whole year.
Us: Wow, that's great! Where are you going?
Them: Just Thailand/All of Southeast Asia/Southeast Asia, India, Indonesia, Australia, Africa, and New Zealand.
Us: Awesome. We're doing Southeast Asia and Thailand in 3.5 months, so we're on kind of a whirlwind tour.
Them: I'll say! That IS quick. Where have you been so far?
Us: Well, we just got to India about a week ago, and we've already been to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka.
Them: Oh, didn't you just LOVE Thailand/Laos/Vietnam/Cambodia?
Us: Yeah, we did. We feel really lucky to have--
Them: When you were in Cambodia, did you get out to that really remote temple that no one's even heard of? Because we did, and it was SOOOO much better than Angkor Wat or Bayon.
Us: Um, no, we didn't even know about that. But we loved--
Them: And wasn't Hanoi amazing? We thought the hubub was fantastic there.
Us: Actually, it was a little overwhelming to us.
Them: Really? Hmm... well then you better be careful in Delhi, because if Hanoi freaked you out then you're going to have a really tough time in Northern India.
Us (walking away): Um, thanks for the advice. Have a good trip!

And see, when I type it out like that, it doesn't quite convey how annoying it can be to have this kind of conversation with someone. But the conversation usually occurs when we're standing around waiting for a bus or a train, and really, we're all sort of lost, otherwise, WHY would we be halfway around the world when there are perfectly acceptable things for us to be doing in our countries of origin? But practicalities aside, is there really any NEED for that kind of conversation? Do I really CARE that I missed out on the really remote temple that no one's even heard of, particularly considering that I really enjoyed seeing the temples that I did see? Well no. Except that yes, sort of, I DO care.

At least, I care until I remember that in the end, this trip isn't about comparing ourselves to anyone else, or hearing about anyone else's experiences. In the end, this trip is about our experiences and our journey. This trip is about the fact that lately, when I find myself with time to sit and think, I find my mind drifting to happy things like an old friend's upcoming wedding, or how excited I am to live in Boston, or how cute all my nieces and nephews will be. I sit around and smile to myself, which is basically the reason I went halfway around the world. And then there's also the fact that I know myself well enough to know that in a few months, if I run into someone traveling to Saigon, I'll be quick to offer them my opinion about how much cooler Saigon was than Hanoi. You know, just in case they're curious.