When traveling for any length of time, you hear this word a lot: Backpacker. Who exactly are they? And where do they come from? More importantly, do they ever shower?
If you’re traveling for an extended time and therefore on a budget like me, you’ll probably go the cheap “backpacker” route, by couchsurfing, staying in hostels, small independent hotels, and only using public transport or just simply walking. Now, I wouldn’t turn down a night at a Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton, but overall I would choose ‘low-to-the-ground’ cheap travel any day of the week. Traveling ‘on the cheap’ doesn’t vary all that much from the former, except you are less insulated from the place you are visiting. Plus I’ve stayed in some pretty nice places like the Beehive Hostel in Rome or Sleep Inn in Berlin that were chic and modern, friendly and cheap.
And isn’t that the point of traveling? Taking public transport and staying in smaller, often friendlier, places forces you meet so many more people than if you were holed up on the 15th floor of a posh international chain hotel-where you actually get less for paying more. During my travels over the years, I’ve stayed in $15/night hostels and $350/night fancy hotels and am usually disappointed by the unfriendly, impersonal service at a big hotel. Plus anything you want is an additional cost. Instead, I prefer to stay at a cute small hostel or family-owned hotel, (like this one owned by someone I love) where you know the owner by name, the room is just as clean (and sometimes cleaner-they have more pride in their own business than the underpaid chamber maids at Holiday Inn), and so many extras are free and part of your stay: free tours, free breakfast, free coffee, book exchanges, movie nights, use of a washer & dryer, instant friends, and free and real advice (no concierge-just real locals with real opinions).
By today’s ever-changing vocabulary, I’m more of what’s called a “flashpacker“-a backpacker who travels with some geeky gadgets (such as my laptop, camera, and all their accoutrement) and spends a little more cash for comfort and privacy on occasion. I wear this name badge with pride. About once a month after couchsurfing and hostelling I sometimes splurge for a few nights in my own room. What a luxury! While my bag technically is a backpack, it also has convenient wheels and I almost always pull it rather than hoist it. I carry about 20 kilos (40 pounds) with me for months and months and wear the same 3 pairs of pants over and over again, but I am certainly not roughing it – and always stay somewhere clean and shower on a daily basis.
If you are going on the cheap, keep in mind that you are out in the world to experience something else (I should hope you are), and that the backpacker clique that goes from Irish pub to Irish pub, or hangs out in the hostel’s bar drinking every night for weeks at a time, isn’t exactly the way to experience other cultures-unless your aim is to learn different ways to say ‘cheers’ in other languages.
Flash packing. It’s the new backpacking. From the 60s through the 90s – they were called backpackers – those intrepid travelers hefting a heavy, unwieldy lumpy backpack on their backs as they discovered how to live on less and see more each day. Sometimes showering, sometimes not. But don’t fret, this hardcore, gnarly backpacker is still out there – I have met a few of them.
Sometimes they can be a bit ‘holier than thou’ as far as travelers go – comparing who has traveled the longest, the farthest, who’s been robbed more, or been in strange foreign jail cells the most, whose toenails have grown the longest, who has the busiest (nastiest) beard and rattiest jeans. You know ‘em as the scruffy, odiferous, unshaven, dred-locked, organic, crunchy, granola-type characters who pride themselves on being out ‘there’ and ‘off the grid’ the longest.
A prime example is this guy I met in Istanbul – I like to call him “Irish Jesus.” Well, first obviously because he was from Ireland. And I know from the name, you can already picture him: long, dark, stringy hair with one odd braid coming out from the back with what looked like some old rags twirled through it (perhaps some old underwear that had disintegrated down to a ribbon-sized swatch), a very un-sexy pubic-hair-resembling long scruffy beard with bits of odd goo and crumbs in it, a loose-fitting v-neck bohemian style shirt and loose draw-string pants, most likely made from hemp, brown tobacco-stained teeth and, of course, no shoes.
As he sucked flavored tobacco out of a Turkish nargileh (hookah) pipe and swigged cheap beer, we realized we actually had a bit in common. We were both traveling around the world. He stayed in Spain a bit, something, at the time, I was really hoping to do as well. He lived in the south in a town called Granada. But, ah yes, that’s where the similarities ended. I asked him where he lived, hoping to get some insight maybe on a cheap apartment.
He nonchalantly replied, “A cave.”
As if it was the most normal thing to do. I was not about to accept this as common and proceeded to pepper him with twenty question about his stalactite-filled dwelling. According to IJ, he built some kind of makeshift ‘casa’ literally in a rocky cave in the hills above the town. He had candles and blankets, and… oh, who cares? I stopped listening at some point because it was just a bit out of my realm of reality.
Of course, I bet at home in Ireland, he grew up in a mansion and drives a Mercedes, but now he’s rebelling against those evil material possessions and the superficial demise of mankind. Blah. Blah. Blah. I doubt he walked to Turkey from Ireland-probably had to ride in one of those huge metal, carbon-gas emitting jets like the rest of us flashpackers paying for their carbon offsets.