I’m a bit confused by the state of modern backpacking, at least when it comes to understanding people’s motives for leaving home in the first place. And with so many travel websites, prescriptive guides and an ever-increasing supply of tourist-compiled material, I somehow feel that the romance and adventure of exploring new lands is slowly being eroded.
Just this August I found myself cycling through the southern parts of the Balkans and had the opportunity to see some amazingly picturesque countries, laid-back lifestyles and rugged mountains. Oh, and let’s not forget the bucketfuls of sweat – it was stunningly hot.
Aside from the cycling, there were plenty of opportunities to mingle with the locals and the current generation of European backpackers. What I found was rather eye-opening.
You would think that the term backpacker is derived from some combination of a pack being strapped to one’s back. So, to see a modern ‘backpacker’ wearing high heels and a cocktail dress while dragging a bulging wheelie bag down the cobbled streets of Skopje was somewhat of a surprise. Straight off the air-conditioned coach and into a backpacker hostel where more of the same caliber awaits.
Maybe my memory is failing, but I’m sure there used to be something grungy, earthy, and in a way, dirty about backpacking. I mean, whoever heard of a backpacker without a tent and a sleeping mat, mud-sprayed pants, dirty fingernails and shoes that were so worn the sides could split at any given moment.
But perhaps modern times are here to stay and it’s just how things are done these days. After all, who would want to cart 20kg worth of stuff on their backs when wheelchair accessible cities provide adequate facilities for the wheelie bag.
Of course, I’m willing to give the modern backpacker the benefit of the doubt and that somewhere under the manicure set, hairdryer and gala dress, lie a well used sleeping bag and muddy hiking boots. Although, I suspect the wheelie bag would still pose some difficulties high up in the mountains.
When they enter the hostel, the tendency is to keep with the newly met backpackers who quickly fall back on homegrown habits and miss the opportunity to meet the locals and experience a culture outside their own.
I am generalizing to an extent, but not completely. There are still those pure of backpacker-heart who are only too happy to bite down on dust balls, feel the crunch between their teeth and let nature take its daily toll on locks of hair without the need to consult a vanity mirror every five minutes.
What’s the point of leaving home if you only ever recreate that which you already know; where’s the opportunity to learn something new or expand your own horizons? Travel’s supposed to educate, inspire and enlighten, but most people these days are only short-changing themselves by not taking up an all-or-nothing attitude.
On a positive note, I met quite a lot of hitchhikers who have managed to cover vast distances without ever paying for a ride. Happy to wait many hours by the side of the road and by chance enjoy the company of international truckers or friendly locals that offered a ride.
I think hitchhiking has gotten a bad wrap lately, especially from a safety perspective. As far as the statistics are concerned, there is no significant difference in safety between hitching and catching a train. You can thank the US movie industry for various horror films in the 1970s, namely Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for wrecking it for the rest of us.
Embracing hearsay and ignoring statistics, like sheep, country by country the practice of hitchhiking has been legislated into extinction without any supporting evidence whatsoever. Forward thinking countries like Poland [unbiased opinion], between 1958 till the beginning of 90’s, maintained that hitchhiking was an official way of travelling and was organized by the National Tourist Board. Back then, hitchhikers had their ID with insurance included and drivers could win prizes every year for their involvement in the scheme.
You could call it a state-sponsored precursor to hitchwiki.org or some of the new hitchhiking phone apps and websites that try to do the same. I think it’s a great way to travel and certainly in line with environmental goals and maximization of available resources. New organizations that support hitchhiking are beginning to form international ties and are embracing the social benefits of shared transportation. Some have even organized global autostop (hitchhiking) races.
The guys (and girls) I met, were travelling across Europe on little more than a few euros for food and were living proof that it’s possible to get around safely and on the cheap.
Be inquisitive, talk to the locals, hear their problems, learn of their lives, try to use that difficult foreign language and don’t be afraid to make mistakes or a fool of yourself. These are exactly the things that will bring you closer to the people whose land you’re visiting. Most importantly of all, don’t forget to laugh at yourself, it breaks down barriers irrespective of the situation.