As you read this lament of a not so modern day backpacker I hope you will excuse this brief sojourn into my grown up self as I mourn the loss of my twenties – and even early thirties – and embrace my inner grumpy old man.
I have been backpacking a long time now, well over 15 years in fact, and in that time I have seen so many changes in the world and in the backpacker community.
More people are travelling independently now than ever before and that is always a great thing, but as modern technology has advanced and time has moved on, the way in which people travel has inexorably changed too. The backpacking bubble is a very different place now, and it isn’t always for the better.
A Simpler Way To Travel.
I remember a time when travel was simpler, or at least it seemed to be. Back when I first started travelling 15 years ago ‘The Beach’ wasn’t nostalgic it was a contemporary commentary, digital cameras were still a burgeoning new thing (and the 1 or 2 megapixel advanced models really good enough to use for decent photos) and mobile phones only came in the old Nokia brick versions (in fact could still be called just phones, maybe with a snake game if you were really fancy).
In fact most people didn’t travel with a mobile phone at all, much less a smart one, and one of the biggest ‘hacks’ (a term that wasn’t even used for travel then), involved protecting your precious camera film.
I started travelling back when Lonely Planet was still the bible and the only thing you had to do to find somewhere quiet, cheap and out of the way was head somewhere that wasn’t mentioned in their accommodation section. Carrying around paperbacks was an actual problem and hostels still had bookshelves with book swap services! I even remember when to use the internet you had to seek out one of the many internet cafe’s scattered around popular backpacker haunts, and to call home you had to find an IDD phone, often in the back of that same internet cafe.
Yes, I’m old. Shut up.
I mourn for that simpler time sometimes. Like some aging uncle Albert constantly muttering ‘during the war’, I find myself increasingly shuffling round the hostels and guesthouses grumbling to myself and shaking my head at the folly of youth as I contemplate another upgrade to a private room. Sod it, I have a career now, I can afford it!
That’s what happens, right? Or that is what is supposed to happen anyway. The hostels are just for the young, so they say. I’m not in my early twenties any more, I’m not supposed to want to stay in a dorm, I’m supposed to want my creature comforts damnit! As you get a little older and hopefully a tiny bit richer you are suddenly supposed to want a little bit more comfort, a private room with an en suite and a power shower. Presumably to soothe away all the aches and pains of my supposedly creaking bones after trying to keep up with the youngsters on yet another jungle trek.
Well that’s kind of true. But never mind that despite the fact I do occasionally want a nice private room in a guesthouse, I still might want to sleep in a hostel too sometimes! Hell, I may even want to sleep in a grand luxury hotel, a tree house in the jungle or a Buddhist monastery if the mood takes me, in fact I still do! I think that backpacking is about living the full range of experiences out there, not just limiting yourself to one class or type of accommodation because of a label.
But Then I’m Getting Old, What Do I Know?
Oh that’s right, stay away from the hostels!
Maybe it’s for the best. You can’t even have a decent conversation in hostels anymore. The common rooms used to be filled with people, some occasionally reading a book or writing in a journal, but mostly conversing. Backpackers and travellers from all over the world swapping stories, giving tips and advice, telling tales and telling each other of new places to discover and see. Even activities like playing pool or watching a badly pirated DVD on a small communal TV were often done as a group. Everyone was welcome.
Now of course it is an entirely different experience. Instead of a whole range of new, friendly faces that greeted you in every dorm room all you see is a swathe of glowing screens as everyone stays in their own insular world of Facebook and Candy Crush, as if Apple has taken over the world literally instead of just figuratively and replaced everyone’s head with an iPad like in some grotesque episode of Doctor Who.
Conversations are out of the window of course as everyone puts their earphones in and retreats to their comforting and familiar playlists that they can carry with them, safe in the familiar world of social media and the same social circles they had back home, albeit online.
I mean why bother travelling? Stay at home and watch the travel channel if that is what you want to do!
It’s ironic that one of the biggest questions newbie travellers ask now is what app do you use to meet people when travelling! For crying out loud! Just look up from your screen! They are right there in front of you!
Social media has taken over now. Backpacking the world isn’t just about experiencing it, it’s about making sure everyone you have ever had a passing acquaintance with experiences it with you and gets a blow by blow account of how you deal with the door less toilets in China. Instagrammable locations are actually a thing now! Every new experience must be immediately uploaded so everyone back home can live vicariously through you with instant updates on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and any of the hundred other faddy social media outlets that have come and gone in the time it has taken you to read this far into the article.
Look Up From Your Phone Once In A While And Enjoy The Places You Are In!
The world is full of amazing sights, from natural wonders like epic waterfalls and sunsets to man made marvels like the Pyramids or Machu Picchu. Take the time to actually see these amazing things, soak in the atmosphere, actually experience the places you are visiting!
Talk to the other travellers or locals who are around you instead of Facebooking or chatting over skype constantly to everyone you know back home!
You don’t need to Instagram a shot of your duck face in front of every landmark, tweet a status every five minutes or live stream every step! If you wanted to see these things on a screen you could have stayed at home and looked at pictures on the internet! By all means take a few photos, but then put down the cameras and explore too. See with your own eyes, look deeper than the average snapshot and discover your own unique vision of a place.
The World Is So Much More Than A Damn Backdrop For A Selfie.
Talking of photography and cameras, that’s another thing that has changed, and not necessarily for the better. At least not all of it.
Camera’s themselves have improved immeasurably, and that is a great thing! I love the fact that now we have small pocket cameras that can produce high definition, professional level pictures and video with a little practice and very little equipment.
When travelling in the past I always came across people lugging huge DSLR cameras and an entire film studio around with them – usually looking like they were about to collapse in the heat – as they set up their fancy tripods and struggled with massive equipment bags in the most inappropriate environments. People still do that of course but they just aren’t necessary to the same degree any more with the professional level quality you can get in even a compact camera.
Even back then I used to laugh to myself and shake my head as I snapped a quick shot of the sunset or temple, slipped my camera back in my pocket and then sat back and enjoyed the view of the place or thing I had travelled so far to see.
But now there just isn’t any need to bring a whole film studio with you. The wonder of small digital compacts and bridging cameras. They’re perfect. We reached peak photography! You could get amazing quality with no effort. Why do people have to reinvent the wheel?
The problem now is that as everyone wants to be a digital nomad and blogger. As the enthusiastic amateur becomes a semi professional photographer and vlogger, the superfluous kit is making a comeback!
Massive tripods, endless lenses and attachments, microphones, drones, the list goes on! Backpackers are now all walking around like some unwieldy version of Inspector Gadget without a handy hat to hide everything inside!
Nowadays you can’t even enjoy the view of anywhere you have come to see without some idiot with a GoPro on an extendable stick waving it about in your face!
When did these horrible inventions become a thing? They seem to have exploded from nowhere over the last couple of years and now every second backpacker seems to have one! A whole sea of cameras on extendable sticks held out as far as possible in an attempt to compete for your attention and photobomb as many other photos as possible!
Viewing the Taj Mahal a decade ago.
Viewing the Taj Mahal now. (Disclaimer: Yes it is a mock up!)
Sure they have some practical uses, but unless you are halfway up a cliff, skydiving or otherwise doing something where leaning out to take a self shot isn’t wise, put the damn extendable arm away and use a normal camera like a normal person!
Those things should come with an etiquette guide or at the very least people should be made to take an IQ test before they are allowed to buy one! I swear if anyone else waves one in my face they’ll be needing their medical insurance to have it removed!
And don’t even get me started on those damn drones!
But Change Isn’t All Bad I Suppose.
Yes I’m getting older, that is inevitable. I’m almost certainly already on that slippery slope of antisocial ageing, as if my tolerance levels are inexorably linked to how far my belt starts climbing up my torso.
My patience for certain things is certainly lowering as I get older. I definitely foresee a major international incident occurring in the future when a plane gets diverted and met by law enforcement after another selfish moron reclines their seat into my knees or a video will pop up on YouTube of how someone had a go pro extendable arm inserted somewhere it should never go.
It’s going to happen, I may as well accept it.
But one thing I have never lost, despite my inevitable decline into becoming a grumpy old man, is my absolute passion for travel.
I have been revisiting a few countries lately that I haven’t been to in a number of years and the pace of development in some of them are astounding. It really is almost like visiting the country for the first time all over again, like an old friend who you have to get reacquainted with after a long absence. There is always so much to see and do.
That constant change, that constant energy, it still provides me with that sense of freedom and adventure and ensures that there will always be new places to see, new places to discover, no matter how far I travel or how many countries I visit.
The backpackers I meet in the dorm rooms and the hostels now may have a few fancier gadgets with them, they may be downloading maps onto tablets instead of trying to find the right page in the guidebooks, or instantly streaming their adventures in a variety of media to all their friends and family back home, but beneath all that they all still have that same sense of adventure, they still have that same raw need to travel and the same desire to visit new places, to see new cultures.
I still get asked the same questions I had before my trip every single day, through emails on my site or on various social media by potential travellers dreaming of their very first gap year.
The backpackers of today still have the same concerns and worries about safety, budgeting, health issues and itinerary planning that I had myself when I set off on my own gap year for the first time. They all have that sense of excitement and wonder, that intoxicating mixture of nerves and excitement. They still have that sense of impending adventure and that anything is possible once they step off that plane! It is the exact same feeling I had when I set off on my first gap year over fifteen years ago, and it is still the same feeling I get now when I set off on a new journey.
Maybe backpacking hasn’t changed much after all.
On that note, I feel the need to book another ticket somewhere.
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