Sons of ‘The Beach’

Travel Books: What do "The Beach," "Are You Experienced?" and other travel novels say about us? Rolf Potts and Kristin Van Tassel explore backpacker fiction.

11.11.10 | 11:22 AM ET


When “The Beach” hit American cinemas just over 10 years ago, most of the hype surrounding the movie centered on its star, Leonard DiCaprio, and its director, Danny Boyle. Scant media attention was given to the movie’s core themes, which drew on Alex Garland’s 1996 novel of the same name about a community of Western backpackers veering its way into self-destruction on an anonymous Thai island.

Some critics compared the macabre adventure tale to earlier works like William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” or Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” but few pondered how the story reflected the globalization-tinged insecurities of the age in which it was written. In fact, the most intriguing theme of “The Beach” was not the moral degeneration of the backpackers’ island “paradise,” but the insipid consumerist fantasies that inspired how that paradise should look in the first place. In trying to create the real-world equivalent of a tourist brochure (and in succumbing to the petty social-status rivalries of home), Garland’s characters became an ironic extension of the mass culture they’d tried to escape. 

To better understand how “The Beach” reflected the anxieties of its age, it’s worth looking at similarly themed pop-novels written between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of New York’s Twin Towers. We find a spate of British-authored pulp fiction about self-absorbed 20-somethings trying (and failing) to use travel in Asia as an escape from the superficial, directionless, consumerist lives they lead back home.

William Sutcliffe’s Are You Experienced? (1997), for example, is a madcap satire about a misanthropic young traveler’s misadventures in India. Simon Lewis’s Go (1999) reads like a gangster-chic potboiler, its misfit protagonists traveling to places like Hong Kong and Goa. Emily Barr’s Backpack (2001) blends serial-killer intrigue with chick-lit romance along the Southeast Asian backpacker trail. John Harris’s “The Backpacker” (2001) follows two Brits and an American on a gritty, laddish adventure through various corners of the Orient. Katy Gardner’s Losing Gemma (2002) is a coming-of-age friendship drama and murder-mystery set in India.

Though all these novels’ characters seek escape from the “regimented, mundane, nine-to-five life” bemoaned by Harris’s protagonist John, the fictionalized backpackers ultimately function as ironic agents of mass culture. In the process, their actions hint at the dull inevitability of consumer culture, as well as latent anxieties about the uncertainty of status and authenticity in an increasingly globalized world. Faraway places and their cultural differences, these novels suggest, could no longer be actively experienced; they could only be passively consumed.

Contemporary sociological and anthropological tourist-behavior studies underscore how these backpacker protagonists are influenced less by their exotic surroundings than the social dynamics of home. In a 2002 study of independent travel communities for the journal Ethnography and Social Anthropology, tourist scholar Christina Anderskov identifies independence, frugality, and acceptance of the locals as central tenets of backpacker culture. But as novels like The Beach illustrate, these values are largely a self-directed rhetoric within the insular confines of indie-travel social circles. As Anderskov acknowledges, backpackers seek each other out, and the travel communities themselves—not the host cultures—ultimately become the focus of travel. Instead of looking for nuances and complexities within the host culture, independent travelers frequently cling to signs of subcultural authenticity in each other. 

Researchers have noted, for example, that within backpacker enclaves there is a clear hierarchy based on shorthand status cues curiously similar to those of home. Whereas back home income and influence might lend to status, backpackers fixate upon travel experience and fashion. Anderskov’s research subjects assert that “real backpackers” travel at least three months, and they demonstrate their credibility through their clothing, spending, and storytelling. Backpacker novels confirm this ideology, frequently using such markers to communicate experience and travel savvy. 

In Gardner’s “Losing Gemma,” for example, readers learn immediately upon meeting Coral that the character’s “scuffed canvas carry-all” and well-worn clothing (a “dark red sarong, tied loosely around her concave stomach, a droopy cheesecloth top, and leather flip-flops”) advertise her two years of travel experience. Through these grungy fashion details, she is identified as “a true traveler, her soft Western edges eroded by months or even years of vivid Third World Experience.” Before long, Coral rescues the passports and money carelessly lost by two travel neophytes, Gemma and Esther, and recommends they deliberately roughen their bags in order to boost their street cred. 

In addition to such strict adherence to anti-fashions, all the novels depict disheveled backpackers earning rite-of-passage by enduring the workaday hardships that come with independent travel in the developing world. When Sutcliffe’s Dave suffers a bout of diarrhea, he notes that, “crapping your pants ... is a dire and miserable experience; but having crapped your pants—I mean, that’s a pretty good conversational party piece.” Over time, status within the community’s hierarchy hinges on the accumulation of such difficult travel experiences, which travelers collect and trade like blue-chip stock portfolios.

Accordingly, upon meeting “older” Australian travelers in their 20s, Sutcliffe’s Dave admits, “I felt I couldn’t really talk about what I’d done, because they’d all been on the road for months and had amazing stories I couldn’t possibly compete with—about how they’d got lost in the Thai jungle with heroin smugglers, had fought off kitten-sized cockroaches in an Indonesian prison, or had done the entire Everest trek dressed in flip-flops and a Bondai Beach T-shirt.” Anderskov adds that this kind of social hierarchy is “situational and floating”—it depends on whom the backpacker is socializing with. As a result, it is possible for the initially clueless protagonists in the novels by Sutcliffe, Gardner, and Barr to accumulate status over time, with each of them near the end of their stories encountering “fresh-faced scared bunnies” who remind them of their previous, less experienced selves and confirm their advanced clout within the independent travel community. In this way, a typical story arc of the backpacker novel focuses not on a deepened understanding of local cultures, but on gaining social standing within travel communities that aren’t all that demographically distinct from cliquish subcultures back home.

In this vein, Anders Sorensen argues in a 2003 Annuals of Tourism Research article that social exchanges operate not simply as hierarchical “challenges” in the community, but also as the “social glue” of what is, ultimately, an insular community. Although independent travelers rhetorically “position themselves in opposition to conventional tourists,” research suggests and the novels reinforce that “interactions” with the native peoples is defined loosely—with observation counting as interaction—and the majority of encounters revolving around monetary exchanges. Overwhelmingly, this is the case in the backpacker novels. With the exception of Harris’s characters, who spend two-thirds of their time in Asian brothels, the young travelers go out of their way to keep local contact brief and simple.

Hence, a curious paradox emerges wherein native knowledge and practices contribute to backpacker status, although natives themselves are overwhelmingly absent. For example, Sutcliffe’s backpackers, “mainly into cards and drugs,” proudly teach one another how to smoke joints like the locals, though they never actually smoke with anyone other than their fellow Western travelers. The smoking, like the ethnic clothing or banana pancakes, carries import only within the confines of the backpacker community.

Both curious and interesting is the extent to which many of these novels offer genuine, if inconsistent, attempts to critique the false elitism of the communities they portray. In “The Beach,” Garland’s Richard comes, increasingly, to recognize the insignificant differences between travelers and tourists. Barr’s Tansy denies affiliation with backpackers for over half the novel, declaring that “people who spend ages on the road must be people who are scared to have proper friendships, who are too insecure to put down roots, but who want to reinvent themselves, safe with strangers, year after year after year.” Gardner’s novel includes the narrative commentary that: “Backpackers who treat ... the world as a vast global playground ... for their personal thrills and adventure, [run] the risk of being violently disabused.”

The most explicit and extended critique comes in Sutcliffe’s novel, which includes an encounter between Dave and a western journalist, who challenges openly and at length not only Dave and his enclave, but also the very possibility that life in a backpacker community might ever approximate anything resembling authenticity:

The real point would have to be about how going to India isn’t an act of rebellion these days, it’s actually a form of conformity for ambitious middle-class kids who want to be able to put something on their CV that shows a bit of initiative ... You come here and cling to each other as if you’re on some kind of extended management-bonding exercise in Epping Forest ... I suppose you could call it a modern form of ritual circumcision—it’s a badge of suffering you have to wear to be welcomed into the tribe of Britain’s future elite. Your kind of travel is all about low horizons dressed up as open-mindedness. You have no interest in India, and no sensitivity for the problems this country is trying to face up to. You also treat Indians with a mixture of contempt and suspicion which is reminiscent of the Victorian colonials.

Curiously, these moments of insight and perspective never lead to identifiable, plot-driven character development within the novels’ pages. Sutcliffe, Barr, and Gardner’s travelers ultimately stumble into vague personal or romantic realizations; Lewis and Garland’s protagonists reach the final pages chastened by harrowing episodes of violence; Harris’s characters don’t even appear to travel along a recognizable dramatic arc. None of the novels is resolved in a manner that might suggest an interest in the dynamic host cultures that lurk beneath the consumerist veneer of backpacker fantasy. 

While it’s difficult to discern whether these tepid plot resolutions reflect authorial intentionality or a collective failure of the imagination on the part of the writers, they offer a telling glimpse into the ways in which 21st century travel experiences are becoming more and more an extension of home life. These are not, after all, ambitious literary novels; they are pulp fictions, most of them rushed to press in the years surrounding the best-selling success (and cinematic re-rendering) of “The Beach.” In this way, the novels may well reflect populist fears and globalization-era preoccupations that might have been absent in more nuanced narratives.

If the self-obsessed dimwits who serve as protagonists in these stories never question their consumer-driven expectations of what is and isn’t “authentic” in exotic places, it could be that the authors themselves were beholden to the same rhetorical convolutions and cross-cultural confusions along an Asian backpacker trail that was rapidly becoming an extension of global mass culture.

Indeed, if the fictional backpackers of fin de siècle pop entertainments could travel halfway around the world only to discover that they hadn’t really left their home culture, it’s probably a reflection of the fact that their actions were dreamed up in an era when an unmediated experience of otherness was becoming an increasingly difficult endeavor. One decade later, as smart phones and social networking services allow home life to play an even larger role in travel to far-flung parts of the world, keeping open to the nuances of one’s host culture is an ever more complicated challenge.


Columnist Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, and Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. His stories have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times Magazine and Conde Nast Traveler, as well as in “The Best American Travel Writing.”

Kristin Van Tassel teaches writing and American literature at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas. Her essays and articles on place, ecology, motherhood, and travel have appeared in Alternet, Counterpunch, Mamazine and Transitions Abroad. Her poetry has appeared in Relief and Mamazine.


33 Comments for Sons of ‘The Beach’

Roger 11.11.10 | 4:24 PM ET

This is a very well written piece. The long and the short of it is that the most natural human response to the foreign is insularity. It is human nature. You can take the person out of their country, but you can’t take the country out of them. I think this has been hightened in the electronic communication age. I lived abroad before email and internet connectivity and felt content to absorb the local customs and forms of entertainment, and to write and type letters and send them in the post and wait for a response just like anyone else at the time. It’s all a matter of what you are used to, and what limitations you are able to accept. There did come a point when the urge to keep American ties became less and less the norm, and the desire to create bonds with the native culture became more the norm. It’s a matter of length of exposure. If you have a temporary mindset to your travels, you’ll never embrace it. One must think of travel as being bigger than “me.”

Dave 11.11.10 | 6:01 PM ET

It was in the 1980s when I first began to travel. I was then in my forties.  In Greece I saw all the young travelers and thought how fortunate they were to be traveling the world when they were so young.  But then I noticed that, while they were all over Athens and a few other places, that in the remote Peloponnese or on most of the small islands there were none of them, and realized that they were not traveling independently but always with their own kind.  Traveling by myself I was regularly asked by Greeks to join them at meals or come into their homes or come with them to church, and none of those times did I see any backpackers and in the end decided that once more, youth was being wasted on the young.

Tony 11.22.10 | 2:38 PM ET

The characters in Michel Houellebecq’s Platform and Lanzarote definitely fall into the category of tourists as opposed to backpacker (though, as the article points out, there is very little difference anymore), but I think they do represent the outlook that the authors of the discussed books get out without realizing it. Great article, and something I’ve certainly thought about during my middle-class-right-of-passage backpacking days.

Michael 11.23.10 | 11:40 PM ET

What a well thought out, well written essay. While in agreement with many of the points the authors raised, I think one powerful aspect of the travel experience for me has always been the other travelers.  Sure I have both fallen into some of the same routines and cliques.  Beyond the negatives of the backpacker culture in general, it still somehow gets a groups of people together that I would otherwise never meet and I very often find them to be incredible people.  When one goes camping/backpacking in the American woods, there is a marked difference between the people who camp near the road and those who hike in 6, 15, 25 miles into the wilderness.  Those people I meet in a small village in a far flung country are like the people I meet deep in the woods.  Regardless of background or motives, we have both made some serious effort to get to that point, and it counts for something that is hard to explain and creates a strong, fast, if short lived bond that can make 3 hours of conversation on a bus more powerful than years at work with a colleage.  Maybe that just says something about my social skills, I don’t know.  I joked with a friend that a bar where some not unreasonable but telloing number passport stamps were the currency required for entry would make for a nice place to grab a pint

Mr Tall 11.24.10 | 3:30 AM ET

Great article!

I had similar reactions, summarized some time ago in a ‘Litany of the backpacker, in 10 easy propositions’:

http://www.batgung.com/node/119#comment-725

rhonda hankins 11.24.10 | 5:52 AM ET

As one of the backpackers who spent a couple years travelling third world countries in 1996-1997, the highlight of my experience really was getting to know myself. My primary aim of travel was to see nature. I didn’t go in search of other cultures or with the intent of getting to know the locals. I went to see the stars at night, snorkel in remote bays without a bunch of people around, and hike in mountains where I felt safe camping. I’m a long distance runner and loved the isolation I found in Patagonia & loved jogging the 17 hilly miles across Koh Phan Gang, my favorite island in Thailand, without seeing anyone. I loved having my head full of my own thoughts after years of college professors, well intentioned friends and family members, and bosses telling me what they thought about everything.

Like everything else in life, people travel for different reasons and with different intents. We might not respect their motives or their actions and clearly in any group of people there will be buffoons, so I’m not sure I understand the purpose of the critisim.

soros 11.24.10 | 6:50 AM ET

I wonder what could be said of habitual expats: those who move abroad to earn a living, then move somewhere else, then yet another place, eventually to forget where ‘home’ is, or was… Know of anyone who has written on this topic?

eppou 11.24.10 | 8:40 AM ET

Gita Mehta’s KARMA COLA is THE book about backpackers.

Daddy 11.24.10 | 12:03 PM ET

i am an American who has been living abroad in Europe and Asia for work for the last 15 years. I do not spend a huge amount of time with Americans, and my wife is European. The overwhelming feling that you end up with is that you are neither happy entirely in any culture…becuase every culture has something that it does better than any other culture. To be honest, the key ingredient for me to stay away for so long has been technology. Amazon, ESPN and internet news keep me connected to home in a way that simply wasn’t possible before. I never did go in for backpacking (other than though the woods). These kids on their gap years (overwhelmingly British) are learning a bit about self-reliance but in many ways seem to miss the point that the best way to make it in a foreign land is to embed yourself deeply in the host culture. I guess if what you are really interested in is getting laid and smoking a big blount, then you aren’t trying to make it. That’s all great until you need some real help.

Neil 11.24.10 | 1:24 PM ET

All of this article is accurate and true to trekking in Mexico and Latin America. Here are the worst offenders, in order, by nationality:
1. Australians—loud, obnoxious, over-sized groups of dingos
2. Germans—Germans in Latin America should be a brand-name, as they all strictly adhere to the same dress code, interests, and ‘experiences’
3. Brits—not as bad as Germans, but on the order of. They’ve all been to Thailand, and they all tell the same story in the same way about their SEA adventures. They don’t speak a lick of Spanish
4. Americans—yes, we are often too loud, frivolous with money, strangely entitled and appalled with things don’t conform to our expectations
5. The French—very insular, but not as mono-typical or obviously present as the above

From what I’ve seen, Americans tend to avoid each other’s groups like the plague; lots of sneering, judgement, and general avoidance of our fellow countrymen and women.

I’ve met many lone French and Americas who speak the language, blend in, and largely associate with locals. I’ve met one Australian and one Scandie who was like this. No Germans.

The most natural Latin American traveller? Canadians, by far. Canadians don’t seem to have a utopic vision of getting abroad in Latin America. They just snowbird, like other seasonally migrant animals. They carry less cultural baggage than any other nationality that I’ve encountered, they get along well with locals and travellers alike, and when they stay, they live in and with locals or evenly blended ex-pat communities. In L.A., Canadians know how to do it.

I’m just saying.

Mikey J 11.24.10 | 2:38 PM ET

When one starts traveling it can be quite a cultural experience just to engage with the backpacker community.  If you’re in Rome hanging out with a bunch of Australians, it can still be exhilarating if you have never met an Australian before.  Some will never go beyond that (though they’ll never forget about that crazy Brazilian they met in Prague), others will take traveling to a new level.  Befriending a Norwegian in Thailand can lead to a future trip up to Norway, and here you have an in.  Now you can truly dive into a culture with a local host.

In addition, couchsurfing has opened a whole new can of worms to the traveling experience, and this is something not touched upon by any of the mentioned books.

deltablues 11.24.10 | 4:04 PM ET

I am one of the “habitual expats” Soros mentions, having worked and lived in many countries in Africa, Middle East, North America and north Asia for over 25 years. I always made a point of learning the local language (including Texan) to the extent of being able to at least have a basic conversation, order meals, go shopping etc (not all that easy in languages such as Arabic and Japanese). I avoided the usual expat social rounds as much as I could, and tried to get the most out of my host countries, culture-wise.

On my return visits to Australia over the years I gradually become more and more disconnected—for example, many of the topics of casual conversation with the locals were irrelevant to me/I didn’t follow/was not in the loop. I reached a point where I didn’t really call any country home anymore, but enjoyed each new in-country assignment on its own merits.

I decided to retire earlier this year and went back to Oz, but found it quite difficult to settle in. I was neither fish nor fowl. What to do? I decided to un-retire and recently flew out again. Maybe my next retirement will be better.

Jorge 11.24.10 | 4:52 PM ET

Neil: No Italians on your list?  They tend to be far louder and complain far more than anyone on your list.  I’ve never met an American or a Frenchman who complained about the quality of a free meal, but the Italians are a different matter…

Ed Whitson 11.24.10 | 7:58 PM ET

Novels are your data source?  Ok, then.

Neil 11.24.10 | 8:49 PM ET

Jorge: Ha! I’ve done my travelling exclusively in Latin America—so I’m rather narrow compared to most people interested in this article. But to tell the truth, I can’t remember meeting a single Italian anywhere along the way, even for 12 month stints. I will keep my eyes open, for sure.

MikeyJ: Well said. True. Definitely part of the fun, and potentially life-changing. But, being invited into the home of someone in whose country you’re travelling—that’s the best!

Daniel 11.24.10 | 11:05 PM ET

I enjoyed this. Something else to bring up: the advantage of having expat friends is they’re generally up for a jaunt somewhere new, not always true of locals. You know how it is—I grew up in the NYC area and it wasn’t until a Brazilian took me that I finally made it to the Empire State Building for the first time in my mid 20s. But it’s also true that until you have made a real friend in the country you’re visiting (and/or learned the language), you’re really just a tourist.

I would always roll my eyes at the competitive storytelling that goes on between backpackers but I will also say that many of the most interesting people in my life I met abroad. A few have become really good friends. But then I’ve also met some of the creepiest and strangest people among expat communities. I’m sure I’m not alone in my experience.

Oh, and I found many Canadians annoying, sorry. I especially hated the maple leaf on the backpack. Usually not done out of any patriotic pride but out of a compelling need to tell the world they’re NOT Americans. I heard more than a few lectures about my government from my neighbors to the north….

Jon Mountfort 11.24.10 | 11:18 PM ET

Alternative Hypothesis:

Fiction thrives on social criticism, hence the authors overplay themes such as those discussed above, while neglecting the rather obvious fact that while backpackers are no less hypocritical than society as a whole, they probably do have genuinely different values on average. Come to think of it, if hypocrisy is inevitable, then one mustn’t hang too much of an argument on the straw men of others’ ideals, as if there had ever been any other kind.

Now I’m off to read a bunch of novels so I can better understand string theory.

Staufer 11.25.10 | 6:52 AM ET

Backpacking along a backpackers circuit and mainly hanging out with fellow backpackers is as valid and fun a travel form as any. The problem is, it has no claim to being “better”, and the feeling of superiority towards other tourists that some backpackers have is wholly misplaced. For an example of the perspective of the locals, ponder Bhutan: the country took a look at Nepal, one of the backpackers favourite haunts, and decided it would want nothing of the sort. Bhutan welcomes richer tourists on package tours as they are felt to be less intrusive and economically far more attractive, while keeping backpackers out via high fees. Elsewhere, too, the locals often have a slightly negative view of backpackers while not minding regular tourists (I am a serial expat and have talked about this to friends in different countries and continents). The backpackers grungy dress is often irritating to locals who will take care to look as well dressed as possible and cannot understand why westerners look so shabby when they can afford to look better.
What I don’t like in the article is the implied criticism of tourism as a form of “consumerism”, whatever that word means. People obviously like to travel; now that many Indians and Chinese can afford to do so, they head abroad; so we have the rich European kids head to India while their Indian counterparts head to Europe. Most people are enriched by travel, even of the package tour sort. No need to sneer at that…

CPR 11.25.10 | 8:04 AM ET

This article seems so angry to me. Why all the sneering? People who get on the plane are at least trying, taking a step that for many of them is terrifying. The fact that they end up embedded in the culture of backpackers, as opposed to instantaneously embedded in the host culture, seems a pretty thin indictment of them. Humans form culture wherever they go and the fact that it resembles the culture they were born and raised in is hardly cause for disdain. I spent most of the 80s and 90s backpacking around the world, and while much of what the authors argue is correct, it doesn’t mean my time would’ve been better spent in a cubicle working on my CV or that the people and experiences I had were, somehow, inauthentic.

kanuk 11.25.10 | 12:24 PM ET

The author should take more kindly to backpackers ... they seem far more friendly and flexible than those who don’t travel.

BlairM 11.25.10 | 10:39 PM ET

I have to say in retort to this article - people who like to travel and go to exotic places are inherently interesting.  People whom they see in those exotic places, who have not traveled themselves, are usually not.

I think the absence of interesting natives in discourse and literature is merely a reflection of the fact that people who travel are exciting and interesting themselves.  The people whom they meet are just people going about their ordinary lives.

Christopher, Shanghai 11.26.10 | 7:49 AM ET

Indeed, the cultures of those host countries have themselves invariably changed and converged, mostly in the application of democratic or populist means and the global perspective of liberal consumerist norms; any remnant pretension of mystic communion in the brothels of Bangkok are surely expired. But to claim no, or a too restricted access to, insight and attainment? That their be no chance of individuation and detached intent? Truly, are no dedicated aid workers, ingenuous Mormon missions, volunteering doctors, international educators, soldiers or foreign service professionals at the disposal of experience and exchange? If these kids were willing to descend into Angola or Uganda in times of conflict, instability, or tyranny we should all surely bow our heads in praise.

Julio 11.26.10 | 2:04 PM ET

Not surprisingly, the main points of this article seem to have escaped many of the “seasoned travelers” who’ve bothered to comment on it.  Unwittingly, they’re marking themselves as members of the urban ‘n elite who inevitably turn everything into a pi$$ing match.  Why should travel be treated any differently?  :)

Jim Smythers 11.26.10 | 4:19 PM ET

I am Australian and spent two years travelling in Brazil largely by myself in the 1980’s. I was in my mid-twenties. I want to comment on the clothing thing - the stereotypical poorly dressed grungy gringo is often despised by the locals. As someone put it to me: “Why do they dress like that to go into the city? We put on long trousers and a good shirt - why do they dress like hippies, in shorts and t-shirt?” Long term backpacking residents in a particular place do not necessarily blend in at all. Usually they remain outsiders, no matter how ‘authentic’ they believe themselves to be. Pathetic hippies in sandals with unkempt hair.

I agree that backpackers seem to have national characteristics. The worst in my experience were the Germans - on their annual jaunt for sex with local women, dressed in their silly German hiking gear. The Americans I met were by and large lovely people, articulate and respectful.

Metali 11.27.10 | 12:31 AM ET

Talk about Stereotype City!  Was anyone else who read all these seasoned travellers’ comments struck by the ironic fact that instead of broadening their minds, travelling had clearly narrowed them?  Congratulations, guys!  The only thing you learned from seeing the world was how to despise other nationalities. (“The Italians are worst!”  “No, the Germans are worse!”  “No, no the Canadians are far worse!”)

You disgust me.

Neuman 11.27.10 | 11:26 AM ET

I looooathe you!

Rory 11.27.10 | 11:45 PM ET

Having travelled a fair bit, I can only agree on the toe curling nature of the one upmanship of stories. In fact, its something I’ve discussed at length with other people: the best insights ever coming this one night at a hostel in Beirut in 06. Was drinking vodka with these two hot German girls and a Canadian guy who’d been working for MSF in the Palestinian refugee camps ...

Ramesh Raghuvanshi 11.28.10 | 3:15 AM ET

Most backpacker are coming to India only for   test the drugs.They visited only some place or stay there for test the drug.They stay in Goa,,remote part of manali and Dharamshala,[ Himachal Pardesh]  Pushkar holy place of Rajasthanand Varanasi because here drugs are easily available.

Bernard 11.29.10 | 7:50 PM ET

I’ve never been a long term backpacker, but I occasionally moved in backpacker circles in my single days whilst travelling abroad during my annual leave.  I can vouch for the clothing issue!  Given my military wardrobe, I would wear slacks and a collared shirt (what else do you wear when you’re not at work?), and this was often commented on by other bemused hostel guests.  The one-upmanship is very real, but that’s not just a backpacker thing; start a conversation about overseas travel at any middle class cocktail party and you will hear the same thing.

The thing that struck me most forcefully was the lack of purpose of so many of my fellows.  I was on holiday; that presupposed a job (or at least life) to go back to.  The long term travellers seemed often to be motivated by nothing more than self-indulgence, in as far as they were not taking a break from anything, but living in the selfish present.  I remember one Englishman in Avignon whom I spent a bit of time with; he was about 30.  He had a long and intense telephone call with a lady friend, and I asked him if she was his girlfriend.  “She was, but I broke up with her before I left so that I could sleep with foreign women.”

“Why don’t you just go home and marry her?” I asked.  That was an overly simple response, of course, but I was incredulous.  His attitude seemed to me to be fairly typical; the food, sights and culture of the host country were a backdrop to, perhaps an excuse for, the backpacking experience.  That experience was typically shallow, self-indulgent and irresponsible.

I’m painting with broad brush strokes here, and I expect to be contradicted by half a dozen folks whose experiences were quite different.  I do not wish to disagree!  Yet I think that there is a lot of truth in what I say.  I should also add that people travelling for a month or two, as I did, are more typically tourists than longer term travellers.

Atlas Al 11.30.10 | 6:54 AM ET

I agree with a lot of what was said in the article.  However, irrespective to the fact that some backpackers might not stray far from the comforts of certain backpacker environments/circles, it’s better to experience something other than your norm than nothing at all.

Emerson Grossmith 12.01.10 | 5:13 AM ET

I travelled extensively in Africa, India, Thailand, the Philippines during the 1980s, the Middle/Near East since that time. My companions were Germans, Indians, Americans, Brits, Japanese, Aussies, Kiwis & god knows who else. We all have our shortcomings but I wouldn’t trade travelling with them for anything—they were all great companions. We shared and learned from each other and that is what one learns from being on the road.

soros 12.06.10 | 7:38 AM ET

The problem with backpacking or ‘traveling’ as I would prefer to call it, as I haven’t used a backpack for years but have been on the road for over 40 (would you believe) is stopping. I once read somewhere that it can become addictive, and it has in my case. I find it difficult living in one place for longer than a year without going somewhere. I lived in China for four years until recently and had to get on a train every holiday. Go somewhere. I flew internally as much as I could. I have never developed a sense of ‘home’ and dont expect to now. I see myself dying en route: in a motel or hotel somewhere, with my rented car outside the door.
Well, what else can I say? Maybe my distant genetic ancestors were Mongols.

soros 12.06.10 | 7:49 AM ET

“I decided to retire earlier this year and went back to Oz, but found it
quite difficult to settle in. I was neither fish nor fowl.” - - Referring to the Australian who wrote this: I have met several ex-pats who have found it impossible to ‘go back home’ as there isn’t any home to go back to. I once tried: found that all of my old friends had little or nothing in common with me and, believe it or not, were jealous of what they pictured as my romantic life. I packed my suitcase and took off again.

Well, living abroad has not been all that romantic. As many of you know, a novel place soon becomes familiar and enchantment turns to disdain or boredom: in other words, we’re back where we were. Yet, modern life is so mundane, so routine, I think those who travel are compelled to look for something more interesting. And we do find it; but it doesn’t last. I’m sure the shrinks have a name for it.

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