Put it on Your Back: Why and How to Travel

Backpackers

    Without trying to get all Eat, Pray, Love on you about traveling, I will say that with just one trip, one real international trip, you’ll be given the opportunity to see everything you’re familiar and comfortable with–your own culture–from an outsider’s perspective. Traveling gives you a chance to reevaluate your priorities and to reassess what you value and how you value it with fresh eyes. That first trip is all it’ll take, if you let it, to put your life on a fundamentally different path and to free you from societal pressures and self-imposed limitations you didn’t even know you were laboring under.

Most of the Westerners I know who have traveled end up reconsidering the role materialism plays in their lives. Many, myself included, have come to view materialism as one of the most pernicious and pervasive aspects of American culture–yes, America has a culture. When given this chance to see materialism for what it is–a constant messaging to pursue happiness through material means while simultaneously being told to never be happy with what you have because it’s never enough–they reject it. They stop measuring their self-worth and accomplishments the way American culture trained them to. They start looking for their happiness in one of the thousands of other ways it can be attained, ways that don’t create the feelings of inadequacy and unhappiness many feel when they don’t have the latest, newest, biggest, most expensive (fill in the blank).

It’s important to stop here and explain what I mean when I say travel. I’m not talking about luxury cruises or all-inclusive vacations to five-star hotels, no matter how exotic a country it might be in. And I’m not talking about a guided ten-day-ten-city tour through Europe. While there’s nothing wrong with traveling this way to relax or take in the sights, this style of travel is not capable of allowing a person to experience another culture, which is essential for gaining valuable new perspectives on your life.

When I talk about travel, I’m talking about putting on a backpack (under absolutely no circumstances is a roller bag acceptable) and heading out on a trip where the main goal is to travel for as long as you can on a limited budget. But don’t worry, you’ll still get all the obvious benefits of traveling: cool pictures to put up on Facebook, a couple of good stories to tell at the bar and, maybe, a fling or two with some foreign hottie who’s way out of your league but finds your accent charming. However, you’ll get so much more than just the obvious benefits by traveling with this mindset because it means you’re valuing experience over comfort. That ensures you’re traveling in a very different manner than a roller-bag tourist (#youlooklikeanasshole).

This style of traveling means making your money go further by staying in hostels instead of hotels. It means being your own tour guide and finding out what you should see instead of hiring someone to decide for you. It means eating street food instead of gourmet meals (but hey, Anthony Bourdain says street food is usually better anyway). Most importantly, it means traveling to more than just the top tourist destinations, many of which are far removed from their cultural roots. This style of travel means you’ll quickly come to find there are many relatively unknown places in the world worth seeing. In these places, which might not be as easy to get to or around as top tourist spots, your money will go much further. Consider it a reward for getting off the beaten path and giving up a few creature comforts (and so starts the reevaluation of what you really need to be happy in life).

In the travel world, this style of traveling is called backpacking and it’s cheaper, more adventurist and more rewarding than just being an ordinary tourist. It exposes you to other backpackers who, no matter where in the world they’re from, you’ll find you have a lot in common with simply because you had the same mindset on how to travel. I think one of the things my friends who haven’t traveled don’t understand is that backpackers are a community. Where my friends see me heading off somewhere on my own, I know I’m just a plane ride away from meeting a new group of great friends.

I can imagine this all sounding idealistic and romanticized, but it’s really not. Any group of people that experience something unique together form a quick and special bond, and traveling to a foreign country is one of the most unique experiences people can share.  On top of that, backpackers have consistently been the friendliest, most trustworthy and most welcoming group of people I’ve ever met. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve walked into a hostel, bag still on my back, and been invited to grab a seat and have a drink with a table of complete strangers.

Traveling this way, without the constant support of tour guides, travel agents and curbside pickups causes backpackers to ban together and look out for each other. It’s as if everyone is constantly acting with the Golden Rule–Do unto others–in mind. They help anyone they can however they can with the hope that someone will do the same for them when they need it. But more often than not, they offer to help a stranger as a way of repaying a kindness they’ve already received.

More important than the amazing network of backpacks you’ll instantly get plugged into is the fact that you’ll have immeasurably better access to local culture. Traveling on a shoestring budget forces you to live life like a local. You’ll take public transport instead of taxis. You’ll shop, eat, drink, and party where they do because the places set up exclusively for tourists are significantly more expensive, and this all adds up to more chances to talk and interact with them. These interactions are where the meaningfulness of traveling lies.

I won’t tell you anything about what you’ll likely experience, or what observations you’ll make, partially because no two trips are the same, but mostly because it’ll be meaningless to you until you experience this for yourself. What I can tell you now is that these experiences and observations will give birth to new thoughts. While you’re kicking these new thoughts around with your fellow backpackers, some of them will prove genuinely insightful and will form the cornerstones of new points of view that are based on a better understanding of the world around you.

Author: Brian M. Williams

Brian is the author of the recently published travel memoir "Stranger in a Stranger Land: My Six Years in Korea." (Click this profile for more information.) He's also a law school grad with Southern charm and Virginia roots. He recently returned to America after nearly seven years traveling and working abroad. He loves dive bars, international travel and foreign accents. He's particularly good at small talk and was the first person to notice there's no "I" in "team."

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