I’ve come to a realisation lately.
Around 18 months ago I wrote a post ambitiously entitled Why I’ll be a 73 year old backpacker, where I outlined the reasons that I’d likely still be wandering the planet as I entered my eighth decade upon it. While I still stand by that statement and the curiosity that drives it, it’s become apparent that I’m already becoming a pretty terrible backpacker at half that age.
To be honest I’m not sure I ever really fitted the stereotype all that well, even back in my early twenties. I didn’t have a gap year. I often travelled with a girlfriend. I never got eaten by bedbugs. I used deodorant. Every day, in fact.
These days, though, I fit it even less. It seems as if the longer I spend on the road, the less “backpacker-like” I’ve become. It’s been almost two years since I started this trip, and with each passing week I realise the following to be true.
I hate to say it, but there you go. With the odd exception, I just don’t like dorm rooms any more. I’ll refuse to stay in anything bigger than a six bed dorm if I have a choice, and even then I’ll be sick of it after a few days. Waking up half a dozen times a night to the sounds of farts and snoring is no longer my idea of a good time. I don’t need to hear drunken conversations at 1am, tearful Skype calls at 3am or rustling plastic bags at 5am, and picking someone else’s suspiciously curly hairs out of the blocked shower drain gets really old, really quick.
As a result, you’ll pretty much never find me in a hostel in cheaper parts of the world – if I can get a guesthouse for $10, I’m not going to stay in a dorm for $4. No, not even if they include a free beer at check-in. Even in more expensive countries, I’ll be checking out the prices of private rooms and apartment rentals long before I opt for the 20 person dorm. I stay in a lot of Airbnb rentals these days (use this link to get $25 off your first stay), and to be honest I much prefer them.
I used to love conversations with other backpackers. I never thought I’d tire of the endless mix of accents and stories, plans and histories. The problem, for me at least, is that many of those conversations become interchangeable after a while.
Where are you from? How long are you travelling for? Where are you going? Where have you been? How drunk did you get? Who did you sleep with when you were there?
The locations change, but the story stays the same. Groups of 19-year-old guys are not that different the world over, whether they’re carrying their life on their back or not. My two months in New Zealand earlier this year were mostly spent in hostels, and I heard some variation of the above conversation every night. Typically, it was shouted across a nearby table by a sweaty dude from Birmingham, clutching his can of lukewarm beer as he tried to hook up with the bemused Swedish girl on the other side.
I get it, I really do. I used to be that guy. When you’re on a one, three or six month trip around the world for the first time, these stories are genuinely interesting. For me now, though, they are incredibly dull. Not every conversation is like that, of course – I’ve met some amazing people here and there with fascinating things to say. They just seem to be in very short supply.
I guess I’m just getting old and cynical.
Do a Google search for ‘packing list’ and you’ll find half a million blogs full of photos of khaki shorts and sensible brown travel shirts. While many of the details will vary slightly, they’ll all agree on at least one thing. Don’t take jeans. They’re bulky and heavy, hot to wear and slow to dry.
Yup, they’re all of those things – and yet a pair of jeans is the only pair of long pants that I own. They’re easily the most practical, useful item of clothing in my backpack – I can wear them to a decent restaurant one day then ride a couple of hundred kilometres on a scooter across Thailand in them the next. They’re comfortable, ubiquitous and unremarkable. I love them.
Backpacker credibility: zero. Care factor: about the same.
There’s a real pissing competition amongst some long-term backpackers about just how light they can travel.
I travel with only carry-on. Well, I travel with two t-shirts and a pair of shorts. Well, I’ve had just these y-fronts and half a flip-flop for the last eighteen years on the road.
Yeah, to be honest I couldn’t give a shit. I like to be comfortable, I like to have more than three clothing combinations, and I don’t actually want to look like a dirty backpacker my entire life. It’s nice to be able to spontaneously decide to go to a decent bar or take a friend out to a good restaurant without getting eyeballed by security from half a block away.
Similarly, I don’t particularly like smelling like an armpit and trying to work out which t-shirt least resembles a biohazard each morning, so I’m kinda religious about washing my clothes once a week. With laundry soap. And not in a hand basin.
Once upon a time I was definitely the guy at the dive bar drinking cheap beer and watered-down shots all night with the best of them. These days, however? Not so much.
When your trip doesn’t have an end date – when it’s a lifestyle rather than a gap year – it’s hard to justify drinking heavily every night. Nether my bank balance nor my liver could deal with two solid years of Jägermeister shots, even if I wanted them to.
It may be related to dating someone whose alcohol tolerance is about half a can of cider, and working online most days undoubtedly has something to do with it too. It’s tough to hit deadlines when you’re lying in a darkened room wishing you were dead for most of the day.
Sure, there’s exceptions – pretty much every sailing trip I’ve ever been on, for instance – but most of the time I’m much more likely to have a couple of drinks with lunch than I am to be playing beer pong until dawn.
Yup, it’s true. I’ve never had sex in a hostel dorm room. A drunken kiss after leaving the bar or wandering hands in the street outside is about as far as it’s got. Having heard far too many grunting, squeaking, embarrassingly brief attempts by others over the years, I’ve never felt the need to keep my dorm mates awake with my own sexual antics.
I guess I’m just a terrible backpacker.
Once upon a time, there was literally just one criteria that I used to make decisions about how I travelled. Price. I didn’t care how long the train ride was, how many layovers the dodgy budget airline had or how big the holes in the roof of my bungalow were. If it was cheap, I took it.
These days, things have changed a bit. While I’ll still sort by price rather than anything else, I do actually consider other factors. If the flight requires me to get up at 4am, or arrive at midnight, I’ll probably look for something else. If there’s a direct option that costs a little more rather than sitting around in transit lounges all day, I’ll usually take it.
If all I want to do is get to my destination and there’s a two hour flight for $100, I won’t be paying $40 to sit on the bus that takes 27 hours instead. If it’s five bucks for the room with no fan or bathroom and double that for the room with both, I’ll opt for the latter.
I still travel on a budget. It’s not like I have a choice in any case. It’s just that now and again, I’ll stretch that budget a little to try to avoid the worst of the bad travel days. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have even considered it.
Ok, so this one has really surprised me. It’s not that I want a house, you understand. It’s certainly not that I want all of the crap that most people have in their houses. Living out of a backpack is one of the most liberating things I’ve ever done. It’s just that, well, sometimes I stay in an apartment or crash on a friend’s sofa, and I see some household item that I’d really like to be able to use now and then.
A coffee machine, for instance – there’s only so much Nescafe you can drink in your life, and I think I’ve reached my limit. Having a refrigerator would be handy, since I prefer my beer cold and my milk without chunks. After months of using laundromats, I also do tend to start drooling slightly when I see someone with a washing machine of their own.
Even an electric toothbrush or a working printer would be nice now and then.
It’s the little things, I guess.
So I guess all of that tells me that I’m just a failure as a backpacker. Where’s my credibility? How on earth will I ever be able to show my face in the hostel common room again?
You know what? Somehow, I think I’ll probably get over it. There isn’t a single right way to play this game, just the way that works for you. I might be a terrible backpacker these days, but I’m a very happy long-term traveller.
See you on the road. Just, perhaps, not in that 20 person dorm.