The Strange World of Backpacking

After you’ve been travelling for a while, strange things begin to happen. The normal conventions and rules of life cease to apply and new ones replace them. Backpackers are their own small community, not defined by geographical location, culture or language, but they nevertheless form a functioning society, with its own unique set of customs. See how many of these you agree with…

1. Your first question upon meeting someone is not: What’s your name? Instead it’s: Where are you from?

Don't we look cheesy? And we did learn each other's names, eventually.

This question is followed almost immediately by: How long have you been travelling? It will be several more travel-related questions before names are exchanged, if at all. The brutal fact is, that this is a constantly shifting society, with people coming and going all the time, so while being able to identify where someone comes from and what their travel plans are might be useful to you, their name is almost certainly not.

2. You become best friends with people for a few days, you do everything together, then you never speak to them again

BFFs - or at least BFs for now - on the Inca Trail

This is nothing personal, it’s not that there was some kind of disagreement, it’s just that in this world, people bond very quickly by necessity and because they have instant things in common (i.e. that they are both travelling in that part of the world and possibly that they share a common language), but when they go off somewhere new, they lose the basis of their relationship with the other person. Of course, some people you meet will become friends for life, (‘keepers’ as one traveller I met calls them) but other people will just be friends in the here and now, and that’s ok.

3. When exchanging tips, the hot topics are not on destinations, but on where you can get the best shower

Hot showers are like gold-dust in South America

Of course everyone is travelling to see a little bit of the world, to experience different cultures and to explore different places. But the chances are, you already know roughly heading next and what interests you, which may be entirely different to someone else. However, travelling is not always the most comfortable thing, and if someone knows where you really shouldn’t stay and maybe, just maybe, where you can get a guaranteed hot shower, that information is worth having.

4. You feel ‘at home’ somewhere the moment you’ve put your toothbrush in the bathroom, and if you get round to unpacking fully, you may as well have been living there for years

Yep, I've officially settled in

Time is an elastic concept, but in this sense, it is extremely compressed. Travellers have to be adaptable; they may be moving from place to place every few days and they need to get used to a new environment very quickly. That person who’s been in the hostel for a week is the veritable expert on the local area. People, even travelling types, like to nest; unpacking shows that you’re settling in and making the place your home for a while. After all, for the time being, that bag contains the entire contents of your life.

5. It’s perfectly acceptable to extol travel as the meaning of life at 5am

Ahhh the power of a pisco sour to loosen the tongue

In this way, the travelling society becomes a lot like the student population, in that it is entirely reasonable to expect to have deep and meaningful conversations in the early hours, after that one drink turned into three. One guy in the group is obliged to wear a floppy-eared hat, woollen socks and flip-flops. Everyone else will be wearing at least one item purchased from the local tourist market, otherwise the conversation will never get going.

6. Striking up conversation with complete strangers is perfectly acceptable

Talking to a stuffed bear? Now that's entirely sane behaviour!

Because they are part of your community and therefore not really strangers at all. Personally, I’ll strike up conversation with anyone at all, traveller or not, but there is a certain code that makes this especially appropriate with other travellers. There will be a shared smile, perhaps a ‘hello’ if two gringos find themselves in the same restaurant, shop or passing on the street, and soon point #1 will be implemented. A word of caution: if you are a solo traveller, especially somewhere with few other gringos, it is easy to breathlessly blurt out your entire life story to someone you’ve barely met. This is considered crazy behaviour in any society.

7. Bracelets are a hierarchy indicator

I have a pretty lowly position on the bracelet scale

The more string, material or other untakeoffable bracelets you are sporting (guys and girls), the higher your kudos in this society. Each one should be from a different place or have a different story behind it. the same is not true for those ridiculous pajama bottoms, the printed T-shirts from tourist attractions or the llama-printed legwarmers. If you must have them, they are to be used strictly as nightwear. They are never acceptable for public situations. I’ll say this slowly and clearly: They. Do. Not. Make. You. Look. Cool. Got it? Good.

8. It’s OK to escape the community sometimes

THIS is why you came travelling. Remember that.

The Traveller-types can be a full-on bunch and while it is wonderful to have a ready-made group to socialise with, sometimes it gets too much and takes you away from the reason why you came travelling. At these moments, it is perfectly acceptable to seek out a small, locally-run guesthouse, a town whose name doesn’t appear in the guidebooks, a cafe which opens at odd hours and only serves strange-tasting coffee and is hence a place where only locals venture. It’s nice to have people around who accept the fact that you are travelling solo through various countries without so much as a raised eyebrow, but they’re a tolerant group and they won’t mind if you go off and rediscover exactly why it is you are travelling solo through various countries.

Do you have any rules or pet hates about the travel community? What ‘interesting characters’ have you met?

1 Comment

  1. Cool post Katy and in many, many ways alarmingly spot on, travellers are a unique crowd and backpackers an even more unique bunch. Don’t worry you still have a month to raise your status in the braclet hierarchy oh well thanks for sharing, I am just off to get a very hot long shower 😉


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