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Austin Chronicle Adventures in Backpacking

Fear, Loathing, and Banana Pancakes on the Traveler Trail

By Mary Fitzgerald

MARCH 28, 2000:  The recent release of the Lord of the Flies-for-the-Nintendo-generation movie The Beach marked the celluloid canonization of a new and steadily growing tribe, that of the full-time traveler. Traversing the globe in search of vaguely expressed ideas of "enlightenment," dabbling in other cultures, or just plain old-fashioned hedonism, these sybaritic hordes of the great unwashed have developed an entire culture of their very own.

Of course the idea of living out of a rucksack for an infinite time is not completely new. Today's travelers are the love children of bored boho 18th-century aristos such as Byron, Shelley, et al., who slummed around on their Grand Tour of Europe, and the tie-dyed hippies of the 20th century who did the overland Morocco-to-India odyssey in search of the finest stimulants and their own personal guru. Their offsprings' experience differs in that it often appears that it was so much better 10, 20, 30 years ago when there were parts of the world relatively untouched by the greedy hand of tourism, whereas now it seems, despite the travelers' protests otherwise, there is little difference between their experience and that of the Fodor's-toting, air-con-insisting, luxury-coach-traveling "tourists" whom they despise.

The traveler culture is a tribal one. Though generally found all over the world, the travelers' preferred habitat is Asia and in particular Southeast Asia, which rather like migrating birds they return to again and again. Their bible is the Lonely Planet guidebook, the phenomenally successful series set up by an Australian backpacker who dropped out on the pan-Asia hippie trail in the Seventies, their prophet of choice, Alex Garland, bestselling British author of the novel on which The Beach was based. Easily recognized, their garb is a strange hybrid of cultures, the rich pickings from a global bazaar: wide-legged batik trousers from Indonesia; multi-hued saris from India worn with battered Birkenstocks or Nikes; pseudo-tribal tattoos and multi-pierced orifices done on the street in Bangkok; Stussy T-shirts; ubiquitous tie-dyed sarongs; Bo Derek-style braids woven by some kid on a Vietnamese beach, and a pirate's hoard of silver on fingers, wrists, necks, and ankles.

As in any other tribe, there is a subtle hierarchy, borne of fierce snobbery headed by those who believe themselves to be hardcore "real" travelers and filtering down to the "cut-them-and-they-bleed-tourist-blood" minions. Though the nuances of every level are often difficult to ascertain, there are some definite demarcation points:


Appearance

Hardcore travelers emaciated from months of "Delhi Belly" in India have a slightly crazed, hollow-cheeked, opaque-eyed look which they put down to the spiritual awakening they experienced in an ashram in Madras. Their nut-brown skin sets them aside from the much-maligned pale-skinned newcomers sheepishly trying to appear as if they have been traveling for months, man. "Real" travelers will also be recognized by their loud braying voices telling of yet another narrow escape from death or diarrhea they had on the road or how they have discovered a hitherto unknown Eden deep in the jungle, and no, they are not going to tell anybody where it is.


Luggage

One of the easiest ways to separate the "genuine" travelers from the pretenders, and one of the most popular conversation/bragging topics. True travelers cover the entire Asia circuit with nothing more than the ragged clothes on their backs, a splayed toothbrush, some suitably profound tome -- usually a curiously pristine edition of the Bhagavad Gita, Ulysses, or War and Peace -- and a good luck charm bestowed on them by the Dalai Lama himself, all carried in a tiny fraying army surplus bag. The oh-so-arriviste lesser beings can be seen struggling under the weight of their spanking new rucksack filled with extensive Red Cross standard medical kit, 10 changes of clothes, hair dryer, a pair of heels for the girls when they hit the party islands, and the latest John Grisham/Stephen King/Chicken Soup for whatever book. Funnily enough, in the many used bookstores in the backpacker centers of Asia, there are hundreds of never-read copies of such worthy epics as Ulysses and War and Peace gathering dust while dog-eared, chai-stained John Grisham editions fly off the shelves. Hmmm ...


Money

Ask a traveler how much they have spent on their trip and the answer will be more often than not in pennies. True traveling in Asia is very cheap, but the issue of money often becomes yet another bragging topic. I have heard hardened backpackers tell tales of living on $10 per month, and at times it seems like there is some sort of rivalry going on to see who can spend the least. This unfortunately results in the all-too-familiar sight of travelers arguing over pennies with people who earn that much in a day. Those new to the whole scene will reveal themselves by flashing Daddy's credit card and describing the bargain room they got in Calcutta for $20. No seasoned traveler will ever spend more than $1 on a room, and if they can't get that then it's the beach/park bench/train station. Aspiring travelers also need to hone their haggling skills for the fast-paced markets of Asia. Viewing of the market scene in the Life of Brian is recommended. There is nothing funnier to a "real" traveler or indeed the seller himself than to see a rookie traveler give the seller the first price he demands.


Time

Bona fide travelers don't believe in time. They will feign to have forgotten when they started their great voyage of self-discovery but the reality is usually just a year ago. Disdain is reserved for those who don't know any better and tell everyone that they are "on holiday" for two weeks or admit that they have to leave to go back to university. To be accepted as a "real" traveler, you must lug your rucksack around for at least three months; anything less and you're just a tourist.

So how "real" is the traveler experience? The sad truth, despite the backpackers' belief that they are being adventurous, is that backpacking has become a embarrassingly predictable affair. Instead of being a truly unique, individual experience, the existence, power, and influence of the traveler tribe is creating a homogeneous backpacker culture in traveler destinations throughout Asia and beyond. The backpacker experience is increasingly becoming similar to that of the "tourist bubble," in that very few travelers encounter local people in a noncommercial setting. This is most visible in the emergence of traveler ghettos in places such as that veritable epicenter of Southeast Asian travel, the Khao San Road in Bangkok. In his novel The Beach, Alex Garland describes this stretch of cramped hostels, 7-Elevens, cafes, and trinket stalls: "a decompression chamber for those about to leave or enter Thailand ... a half-way house between East and West." Thronging the street are travelers who spend much of their days drinking beer with their compatriots, discussing the latest football results from back home, surfing the Net, and watching old Bruce Willis videos. Settling into the comfort zone, many backpackers don't really experience anything beyond this sanitized limbo and remain in its safety net, believing that they are seeing the real Asia, while they eat a hamburger and reminisce about the great pizza they had in Sumatra.

While cities such as Bangkok and Kathmandu can absorb these ghettos, smaller places can have their characters irreversibly changed by pandering to travelers' demands for Western food, bars, and other home comforts. The Lonely Planet guidebook series helps promote, however unwittingly, this rash of traveler-oriented centers. Having reached such ubiquity on the backpacker circuit that the guidebooks are often referred to simply as The Book, the series' influence is so pervasive that a Lonely Planet mention of a particular cafe, hostel, or town is enough for traveler custom to skyrocket. For many backpackers, the guide is literally indispensable, and the idea of venturing off the beaten Lonely Planet track unthinkable.

The traveler culture, for all its pretensions, has more in common with tourism than it likes to admit. Backpackers are tourists -- the only difference are choice of destination, length of trip, and amount of money spent. There are some places that remain untarnished by the traveler tribe, however, places where instead of eating spaghetti and pizza, you point, like the locals, at whatever looks good at the roadside stall, places where you can meet people unharried from catering to hordes of backpackers, places where Bruce Willis, let alone his videos, is unheard of.

Where are these places? I'm not telling ... .


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