A career in backpacking

Harriet Bingley tries to persuade us that travelling is more than a pastime. It’s a vocation.

My inadvertent preoccupation of late seems to be terminally boring any unsuspecting and well meaning passing acquaintance. If you on the off hand inquire about my Christmas break I will first trap you in a corner of the library, and then lock you into a self-indulgent monologue on my travels around Peru. However, last week, I was abruptly prevented from retelling yet another pretentious story; doubtless involving a jungle, a handcrafted holey canoe and some miraculous escape, by an extremely polite and long-suffering friend. As I paused for breath he popped in, “I don’t think I could ever go and do something like that, I would feel too guilty, that I should be doing something better with my time?”

I was initially, and naturally, outraged at such a suggestion. How could he suggest that my pursuits were perhaps a little pointless and I, a little spoilt? After a further rant I beat him into submission and he apologised (which I suspect was not a result of my ‘balanced’ argument but his generally apologetic nature).

This incident though has led me to question the worthiness of my own brief travels and of an evident increasing pastime of young people. Why are myself and others so fierce to stress that their pursuits are not a ‘leisure option’ but a passionate vocation? Are my following arguments self-delusion born from deep-seated guilt? Perhaps, but we cannot ignore that a growing number of people are choosing to leave their nation state to live in a period of constant transit. Why are they investing weeks, months, years of their life and pay packets pursuing such a predicament?

Firstly I would dogmatically urge you that the preoccupation of travelling is not a long, extended holiday. You may strongly disagree but I have my defence. I am under no false pretensions that it is a hard to bear, non-enjoyable task. Or that, I, as a traveller, am under taking a sort of global, altruistic community service role which warrants certain martyrdom.

Of course, heading into a desert on the back of a pick up truck, with a cask of red wine is preferable to checking a timetable and then preparing a PowerPoint presentation. But, to enter into yet another self-indulgent monologue, trying to persuade the still drunken local ‘desert man’ the following morning, to give a hint as to the direction out of the desert whilst your friend single-handedly drives his rather rickety vehicle down forty-five degree sand dunes, does offer a unique learning curve. A constructive plan of action including a night watch rota system, to ensure he doesn’t drive off into the canyon and leave you stranded in the desert with nothing but three cans of tuna and a carton of long-life milk also perhaps warrants a impressive Brownie badge. This cannot entirely be pigeonholed into the relaxing ‘holiday’ category.

But are my self-congratulating tales any basis for a worthy case? My own pro-travelling arguments include the same old cringe clap-trap – “learning about other peoples cultures” blah…blah…“putting perspective on your life and creature comforts” – cringe. But I also think there is an often overlooked concept that travellers knowingly, and unknowingly, are partaking in. Once you leave your nation state and enter another’s, especially one in which the functioning of life is not enshrined in legislation, you in effect have no rights. You are not the responsibility of any family or community. The western card and flashing the ‘green stuff’ can get you a certain level of immunity, but you still belong nowhere and to no-one for miles and miles. It is unrealistic to expect a reliable enforcement of precepts for ‘the rights of tourist’.

But am I exaggerating such risk taking? It is quite likely I am. But that still takes nothing away from the feeling of being unmonitored, out of CCTV footage or phone reception. Trusting total strangers who are not following ‘company guidelines’ and ‘insurance clauses’, just trying to make a wage, is also a unique level of exposure. I’m in no way saying that you are not being used by the beaming street boy who helps you find the pharmacy to purchase your nuclear mosquito repellent. He needs your company in order to wink at the growing group of shrieking children behind you and to provide his friends with luminous chilli sweets. And in turn you trust him to lead you through the dodgy bit of town. And you know he almost certainly will. However, you can’t sue him if he doesn’t, or your landlady if all your bags are gone when you get back to your hostel. There’s no Customer Watchdog.

Travelling is not just about swanning around in ethnic baggy trousers and a headscarf, writing occasional action packed emails back to your friends at home gloomily slogging away in Tescos. It’s about a total, perhaps exaggerated and unrealistic, level of freedom. All you need is the overstuffed and overweight backpack that you will slowly and surely grow to despise (admittedly mainly to carry all the unnecessary items and fake novelty lamas you are bringing back for your nearest and dearest). And of course some friends are essential, not only to nervously smirk with when you appear to have lost Ronaldo in the desert, but to bail you out when you lose your cash card (and your traveller’scheques, and your passport…). There is no escape from yourself, from your mates and from your backpack. Indeed a frightening feeling itself, but an immensely special and matchless one.

Why do I urge us all to travel as much as we can before real life sets in? Simply because sitting in the midday sun with your two sun burnt buddies and the whole of the desert stretched out in front of you for miles is an experience you are unlikely to ever forget. All that exists on the horizon is a rusty tin banger and Ronaldo the supposed ‘Desert man’ somewhere within a mile radius, probably down a sand dune in a drunken stupor. And apart from a slight reoccurring twinge of trepidation, you are in that moment entirely liberated.

(Harriet Bingley)

5 comments

  1. I just love your last paragraph, I must say it’s quite true. The whole experience of traveling is really liberating, it gives you a natural high.

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  2. Rich kids, honestly.

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  3. As much as this article was self-deprecating in its appreciation that it epitomises the entire ‘gap-yah’ video, I still found myself frustrated and constantly thinking that the next sentence would be a brief anecdote of you chundering everywah. It also makes an incredibly obvious point, I’m sure the majority of us students would like to spend our holidays swanning around some distant country, but, the majority of students spend these working so that they can afford to live at uni. It’s alright for some, and I have enjoyed my travels, but its a bit assumptive to assume people are not travelling out of an active choice.

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  4. And I have only just realised this article was from 2005, way before the gap-yah video…

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  5. Have you heard of CouchSurfing? I would really recommend it when travelling! Brilliant article.

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