You Can Take it With You: Cultural Interpretations of Backpacking

If you travel, which we have had the luxury to do since college, you will see young people with giant backpacks at every destination you find. If you’ve found it, either from a book or from a friend’s recommendation, chances are a young European has found it, too. Hopefully, you will strike up a conversation with one of these intrepid explorers, and you will find out that he or she has been traveling for months and has another six months ahead of her. Months! What??

Suddenly questions flood your American “I travel for two weeks at a time, maybe twice a year” brain as you grapple with this person’s reality, so different from your own. How does she pay for it? How does she manage the weight of the pack? How does she deal with language barriers? Does she miss her family? Will she be a permanent nomad? Is her family paying for it? Doesn’t she need to work? Why can you only come up with judgmental questions? Are you really that judgmental?

Before your personal existential crisis reaches its climax, you silence your brain and start listening to the stories she has to share. Some are harrowing – “I hitchhiked with someone and got dropped off in the middle of nowhere at 2am!” Some are gross – “I didn’t shower for two weeks.” But overall you are filled with a sense of wonder and jealousy.

Backpacking is an important right of passage for thousands of young adults every year, maybe even millions or billions (it is worth noting here that I am not a statistician). If I took a picture of every 70L pack I saw in New Zealand, all of my memory cards would be filled. And I can’t afford to fill them with backpacks, since, well, I’m backpacking. If you say you are backpacking in the US, people think you mean five days in the woods with camping gear and no toilet paper (gross, please take your own). Americans get camping; it’s fun , you get to eat s’mores, and it takes advantage of America’s Best Idea: our National Parks. But what they don’t fully comprehend is strapping all of your crap to your back and wandering around some continent, working when you need money, hitchhiking around and staying in hostels. There’s something un-American about doing that, somehow, which is a shame for a few reasons.

Backpacking is freeing. When you are traveling for a week or two, you have an agenda and a time limit on everything. Frequently, you find yourself in the difficult position of choosing between two great places, because you”don’t have time” to stay there, or go somewhere else. Imagine if you had a month there. You would have the freedom to stay, or leave, and see everything at the leisurely pace so often lacking in American vacations. Americans approach vacations as a sprint, when it really should be approached as a marathon. Otherwise you get back from vacation – and I have some experience with this myself – feeling like you didn’t really get much of a break at all. How often do you hear the phrase, “I need a vacation from my vacation” from your friends, co-workers or family members? It’s also freeing not to need all of your stuff. You cannot physically carry your washing machine, your hair dryer, your 18 pairs of shoes or your desktop computer. You become innovative out of necessity, and you learn to live with less, which feels pretty good, I can assure you.

Second, backpacking allows you to immerse yourself in a place and see it from the eyes of the people there. I’m sure if I stayed in New Zealand long enough, I could learn to drive on the left side of the road and shift with my left hand. But more importantly than that, I’d also grow accustomed to the changeable weather, the politeness and good humor of the people here, and the slower pace of life. I would start calling people “Love.” I’d become a New Zealander, at least for a little while. And if I wound up being half as happy as the people here, it would be worth it.

Third, because everything in life has three points, backpacking culture is engaging and inspiring. Backpackers have great stories, and like to talk to other backpackers, not only to get tips on where to go and what to do next, but also just to connect to people from other countries and cultures. Backpackers are curious about the world and open-minded, and those are the best people to meet when you are traveling, or to surround yourself with in life. They are also risk takers, asking “Why not?” instead of making excuses. And as long as it is done safely, with a buddy or a partner, it’s not as risky as you would think. People are generally good, and since as a backpacker you rely more on the generosity of others, you might discover that the world is a pretty friendly place overall.

Now while I will not be working while abroad, I will be spending the next few months as a nomad, and I am looking forward to it. We’ve saved up for an experience. I’m excited about the prospect of learning new languages, meeting new people, finding new hangouts, eating new food, and doing it all with little to worry about besides the thing on my back. We’ve been pretty posh up until now, so Asia will definitely be an adjustment, hard at first I’m sure but fine in the end. And if things go well, you’ll be able to ask me all those aforementioned questions, and I will happily answer- and tell you the stories that made it all worthwhile.

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