8 Reasons I’m No Longer A Backpacker

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.

“Hey!”

Silence.

“So,” the cheerful backpacker said, “where are from?”

“The US.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Coupla days.”

“How long are you traveling?”

Shrug.

“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.


6. I want to do boring things.
Go to the shooting range and fire M-16s? Get shit-housed tubing in Vang Vieng? Rave at a full moon party on Koh Phangan?

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.

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16 Responses to “8 Reasons I’m No Longer A Backpacker”


  1. 1 Emily Hanssen Arent March 22, 2012 at 11:38 pm

    “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.”

    These lines made my heart tug in my chest, Lauren. I’m 23, been backpacking for almost five years now, and I feel like I’m lingering somewhere in between those bright-eyed newbies and the grown-up sitting on the sidewalk with a newspaper. The best thing I’ve learned throughout my wanderings is not to feel guilty about spending a day lazing around. I used to feel so guilty when I did it, like I missed a whole day of sightseeing! But sometimes you need it, and sometimes you find amazing things and meeting amazing people on the days you feel like you’re being a curmudgeon.

    Love your blog, love your writing. Always looking forward to the next post 🙂

  2. 2 Lauren March 23, 2012 at 12:33 am

    I never traveled as a backpacker. Every once and a while I’ll get the yearning to grab a bag and hit the backpacker circuit in Central America, or Southeast Asia. But #6 has been my M.O. since high school, and I remember my wannabe backpacker self never had a chance.

    Great post.

  3. 3 mak one March 23, 2012 at 12:35 am

    i painted graffiti all over the world, i’m 42 now…tatally agree with you…hahaha!

  4. 4 mak one March 23, 2012 at 12:35 am

    ‘totally’

  5. 5 khandilee March 23, 2012 at 12:59 am

    Love it! I think this describes me perfectly. I too ‘like’ some more comforts and enjoy sitting in my underwear on the internet. (doing it now!)

  6. 6 J March 23, 2012 at 1:00 am

    I feel like you’ve just found news ways to identify yourself. Which is neither a good nor a bad thing… it’s just what happens. Thanks for sharing.

  7. 7 laura March 23, 2012 at 2:21 am

    This made my day!

  8. 8 Steffi March 23, 2012 at 7:57 am

    Lauren, you’ve spoken my mind again. After almost a decade of backpacking, I’m so over it. Have to do it here in Chile because it’s too expensive otherwise (around $80-$100 for a single room), but can’t wait for this to be over.

  9. 9 Naomi March 23, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    Oh man. I love this. Though I’m still loving the backpacking scene myself, I had to nod along while reading – especially to 7 and 3!! Some people can get by on 10$ a day, but I find I’m more and more apt to spend a little more here and there for small comforts. After all, if we work hard and save hard for a trip, why not shell out a bit occasionally and enjoy it?

  10. 10 brokenimages March 24, 2012 at 9:54 am

    It kind of scares me how much I agree with all of this. I’ve spent the last 40 days or so here in Napoli, and about 36 of those have mostly been spent reading and writing in cafes — with a liberal amount of pizza thrown in, of course.

  11. 11 risingontheroad March 24, 2012 at 10:01 am

    Currently backpacking (and looking self consciously across the dorm room at my strappy crappy pack) but laughed lots and would definitely agree on one or two as an ‘oldie’ at the grand old age of 33.

  12. 12 TW and Jo March 25, 2012 at 1:37 am

    Love the article! My wife and I are still backpacking too, but we’re liable to spend that extra dollar (or ten) for a bit of creature comfort (like our personal shower). It’s great to be able to hear someone putting down so succinctly what we feel into words. Great stuff!

  13. 13 bbecares April 22, 2012 at 3:45 pm

    Im travelling since several years and, even I travel with a bag pack, never really big or full, I dont consider myself as a bagpacker in the sense u use in this article. I dont drink too much like travelling (cause I aactually travel and work in the monring with my PC) and inside of my bagpack I like to carry, more or ess, nice clothes. In another way I love to stay in cheap places and try to dont spend much money, in the same way I dont understand people that spend a lot in a trip and then they dont have money to go to other places even if they want to. I believe in a broader meaning of bag packing. Anyway, the post is fun!!!

  14. 14 karimikitson April 23, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    i am adoring your blog. pardon me while i read it like a book and probably comment on way too many old posts.

  15. 15 Sure Am July 5, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    wow, i’m not the only one!

  16. 16 Paul Goldman November 22, 2012 at 8:56 am

    I agree, it’s worth it to spend a little extra for comfort. The backpacker circuit also seems to be its own little bubble, just like a more expensive inclusive resort – banana pancakes, pizza, videos, happy hours with other Westerners just like yourself, etc. It wasn’t until I started teaching English that I started to get a real sense of what a place and the people were about. Great column!


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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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