1. I am embarrassed by my backpack.
It’s big and heavy. There are buckles and pouches and straps; they bunch my clothing and create sweat stains. I can’t make sudden turns without risking collision with pedestrians.
The physical backpack is a quintessential signifier of a backpacker. It says “everything I need I can carry on my person, without the help of doormen or rolley luggage wheels.” This idea is central to the identity of a backpacker and one to which I once felt a certain pride: “Train station steps? No problem.”
But something has changed. The backpack has become unwieldy and cumbersome. It probably doesn’t help that mine permanently smells like a Venezuelan waterfall (NOT as romantic as it sounds). I’m embarrassed by the sheer bulk of it, the way it reduces me to a sweaty blundering bumbler. It’s like a walk of shame every time I arrive somewhere—eyes lowered, head down, rushing to wherever I’m staying in order to dump the evidence and try to pass as a non-backpacker as quickly as possible.
The problem is, proper luggage is proper expensive. So until my income matches my new travel status, I’ll be lumbering down foreign sidewalks with sweat dripping down my back. (But at least I can make it up those stairs.)
2. I don’t like staying in hostels.
I’m all for meeting people and being social. But at the end of the day, all I really want to do is sit in my underpants and putter on the computer. And while I suppose I could do that in a hostel dorm, I don’t think it’s exactly the message I want to be sending (see #5).
As I’ve gotten older, I find I really need my own space when I travel—somewhere to relax and zone out, where I can sleep without earplugs and an eye mask. In Rome, I recently forewent the cheapo Termini hostels in favor of a bed-and-breakfast in a hipster neighborhood 30 minutes outside of center. The extra nightly cost: 25 Euros; amount which I enjoyed myself more than previous visits, on a scale of 1-10: 8.
3. I’m willing to spend more for comfort.
It used to be like a competition I had with myself—what’s the absolute cheapest I can do a trip? Pretty fucking cheap, in turns out. I managed to travel Western Europe for six weeks on 36 Euros a day. But guess what? It was the most miserable trip of my life.
Looking back, if I’d waited till I had a little more money, I could have traveled with more comfort—getting a sleeper cars on night trains, for instance, or eating something other than falafel. I would have enjoyed myself a lot more.
Moreover, I’ve learned that cheaper does not always mean more authentic. Some of my richest travel experiences have been those I’ve had to spend a little more for—on transit to remote regions, for instance, or on lodging in places where a backpacker ghetto doesn’t exist.
So, the $5, 8-hour bus to Siem Reap or the $10, 4-hour minibus that stops at a café with a western toilet? It’s a no-brainer now.
4. The “hostel conversation” makes me want to rip my eyeballs out.
Some destinations don’t have the mid-range bed-and-breakfast type accommodations I now favor; Tirana, Albania is one of them. So instead of staying at one of those cement-block high-rises cast in uplit neon, I bit the bullet and stayed at a hostel.
It was a nice hostel, with a patio and an herb garden and a daily breakfast of hard-boiled eggs and Nescafe. Every morning I’d wander downstairs, braless in my stretch pants, and fix myself plate. Invariably this scene would play out:
Someone walked in.
“Good morning,” I mumbled, waiting for the hot water to boil.
“So,” the cheerful backpacker said, “where are from?”
“How long have you been here?”
“How long are you traveling?”
“How long are you staying here? What’s your itinerary?”
Shrug. “I’m just kinda here.” Then I walked out to the patio with my plate and mug.
It’s not like I was trying to be rude, though I’m sure it came across that way. But when you have the same conversation every morning for two weeks, it starts to wear on you.
I used to be enraptured by the hostel conversation, excited to be meeting so many different people from so many different countries. But it slowly became a kind of script—sizing up, determined someone’s stats. I realized that while I may be meeting different people from different places, we were all having the same conversation.
5. I’m not attracted to backpackers.
Ok, to be honest, I’ve never done much hooking up on the road. “A Guide To Hostel Sex” might still be one of Matador’s most popular articles, but the very premise has always struck me as utterly unappealing—the bunk beds, the moldy bathrooms, the condoms of questionable expiry. And there has never been anything attractive to me about a grown man in flip-flops and a tank top.
But there’s a new element that’s recently come into play: all the backpackers I see don’t look like grown men. They look like children. Sunburnt, drunk children.
Aside from being fresh out of their parents’ houses and relatively inexperienced in dating, I wonder what the hell I’d say to them. “So, you a Facebook account in middle school—what was that like?” “You were how old when 9/11 happened?” “Biggie is not old school!”
Wait, Biggie is old school. If you’re nineteen.
Ugh. I’d rather sit at a café and stare at the street. Maybe read the local newspaper. Really, I could do that for hours. Which does not mean that I’m more cultured or intellectual than a backpacker, as much as I may want it to. It just means that I’m old and boring.
7. I’m less concerned if something’s “touristy.”
You know what place I like? Hoi An. It’s an old Vietnamese port town with crumbling French colonial buildings and tailor shops and bomb cao lau. And shittons of tourists on bicycles.
In previous years, the mere presence of other Westerners would have made me deem Hoi An as touristy and thus not the “real” Vietnam. And maybe it isn’t. But I like its mellow atmosphere. I’ve let myself like it.
In recent years, I’ve found myself caring a lot less about whether a place is touristy or authentic, or whether I’m a traveler or a tourist. In a lot of ways, I’m less self-conscious about being a foreigner in a place; I feel less of a need to define a place, or my position in that place.
I’m an outsider. And I’m okay with it. Now give me my cafe sua da and let me soak in the Hoi An vibe.
8. Backpackers make me smile.
I used to feel competitive with other backpackers (see the “sizing up” above). Why would some of the girls looks so effortlessly boho-chic while I was heat-rashy and varicosed? Why did some of them have cooler itineraries and longer trip dates? Why did they all speak better Spanish than me?
Living in a well-touristed city now, I see a lot of backpackers. They walk in droves along the riverside, long legs and smooth skin. Sometimes they walk slowly, and that’s annoying. Sometimes they’re really loud and drunk, and that’s even more annoying. But mostly I don’t even see them—they exist on a different plane and fade into the static of city life.
But every now and then I do see them—eating at the next table, buying bootleg DVDs at the market, lumbering lost with their big backpacks and asking me, “Hey, do you know where the Nomad Guesthouse is?”
And the thing is, they don’t annoy me in those moments. I look at them and it’s the same feeling I’d have when I’d go to the old punk club Gilman in Berkeley and see a group of teenage girls, huddled together and giggling. It’s a kind of tenderness I feel, like I’m looking at a younger version of myself. I see all the same immaturity and naïvity and excitement, and I know it so well it makes me smile.
But I also know that it’s not me anymore. That time is gone for me—it’s been passed down to these other, younger kids, with glowing skin and slim legs. I didn’t even notice it happening.
But I hope they enjoy it.