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Obviously when you examine the truth behind any cliché you invariably come to the conclusion that reality isn’t as black and white as the cliché so purports.

Of all the concepts or ideas that clichés or fantastic notions touch upon, I think there are some really ingrained ones — at least in Western culture — regarding activities such as ‘backpacking,’ ‘hostelling,’ ‘backpacking Europe,’ ‘backpacking Asia,’ ‘backpacking South America,’ etc. Basically any extended, solitary, or with-a-close-friend epic sojourn during which truths are revealed and you return sage-like and at peace or whatever. You get the idea. Anyway, there’s a certain romance people both believe and attempt to pursue in their engagement of these activities (I think this is a completely reasonable goal, by the way), and I’m here today to discuss those that I think are most pervasive.

You will ‘find yourself.’

My intention with this article is definitely not to shit on traveling or the very real personal growth and worldly understanding it can promote. Regardless, I feel that traveling for the purpose of ‘finding yourself’ is an essentially meaningless goal, because the idea of ‘finding yourself’ means basically nothing, or at least can be interpreted in so many ways that any real consensus on the expression is probably impossible.

Taken literally, ‘finding yourself’ is obviously paradoxical, since, you know, you’re right here. I think what we actually expect when we seek to ‘find ourselves’ on extended forays into other cultures is to, via the romance and beauty and ‘secrets’ of another culture, discover some intensely meaningful idea that, once fully grasped, will change us from individuals who are confused and not having clear direction in our lives to veritable sages who have a clear and unquestionable sense of purpose, a reinforced system of morals, and, generally ‘everything figured out.’

While I’m not a believer in such metamorphic personal change unless one is a Born Again Christian, I think one is likely to be educated on certain things while abroad, such as how other cultures live, and potentially a kind of deeper understanding about different ways of life. I think it’s also totally reasonable to expect some degree of realization with respect to the knowledge of your own personal boundaries and limitations. But ‘finding yourself’? The jury’s still out.

You’ll meet so many people.

To some extent it is very easy to meet people while backpacking. At the least, hosteling and backpacking is unquestionably way more conducive to meeting peers than in ‘real life.’ For example, let’s compare a bar in your hometown with a hostel bar. They’re completely different. At a bar in your hometown, you’re most likely with your friends, who you’ve known for at least enough time to warrant them as candidates for ‘getting drinks’ with. And unless you’re total social butterflies or Casanovas or whatever, the average night for you at a bar in your city is probably going to involve drinking some beer and sometimes peering over each others’ shoulders and perhaps pointing out a particularly attractive person or offering some other remark on whoever.

By contrast, in a hostel bar, if you’re drinking with a circle of friends, odds are you’ve just met them that night, or you met them a few countries back and just happened to ‘fall in’ with them because you guys were going the same way and seemed compatible enough. And your night will likely be spent slowly integrating other people into your own group and/or mingling with other groups that are also patronizing the hostel bar. In this sense, you will indeed meet people while backpacking and hosteling. There’s a qualifier though.

All this socializing requires you to consistently cross a certain threshold that’s associated with comfort, confidence, social ability, and self-esteem, and it’s not that uncommon to sometimes have a hard time crossing it. I think for an average individual it’s actually uncomfortable to cross, especially when you get realistic about it; it really isn’t second nature to a lot of Western individuals to simply approach a stranger, smile, and be like “Hi, I’m [name],” and to consistently do that, on, basically, a daily basis, for however long one is traveling.

Backpacking is idyllic.

In many backpacking fantasies, whether they’re through Spain or Third World Central America, there always seems to involve some sort of expectation that things will be consistently wondrous and awe-inspiring and constantly making one feel as light as a tropical breeze and as high as the mushroom shakes you scored on Koh Phangan. The fantasies probably involve deeply introspective, sage-like moments wherein the central character (the future backpacker) — at the top of some recently trekked mountain or perhaps in a lush rainforest beneath a gigantic fern — has an epiphany so great that she returns from her epic journey a completely changed individual. Or nights spent in some major European metropolis in which your server is totally nice to you, all the inhabitants smile at you, and you meet your dream date.

But the truth about traveling probably includes more dimensions than that, including the fact that you crap on a daily basis, and that when you came back to your dorm room in your hostel after a night out someone was either violently puking, so much so that the room fills up with the smell of vomit and you’re seriously worried about catching whatever the guy’s caught, or someone’s having sex with someone above you, or you find yourself incredibly sick on a 12-hour bus ride through curvy, mountainous terrain with a bunch of locals who speak an Asian language you don’t understand.

There can be idyllic feelings and experiences while backpacking, yes, but like all clichés and romantic notions of the world, the reality of the situation is much more complex.

This piece was originally published at Thought Catalog. Follow them on Facebook.

Travel Illusion


About The Author

Brandon Scott Gorrell

Brandon Scott Gorrell is senior editor at Thought Catalog. Follow him here.

  • Scott Hartman

    Nicely realized piece! if I’ve “lived” a cliche, am I one? :)… you know, I have “found myself” while traveling (or, should it be, mySelves), in fact, I find some part of me every time I go (a part not readily available back home)… not always (actually, seldom) a part I wanted to see… but, there you have it :)

    As for the idyll… was hitchiking in Iceland many years ago, reading Jim Harrison poetry (The Theory and Practice of Rivers) and I read – “pay out your 125 bucks and find out that the world isn’t what you think it is, but what it is”… ever since then, that’s how I go, and why :)

  • Katka Lapelosová

    I have never made any friends while staying at hostels, because I’m super awkward. And I’ve stayed at a lot. Hooray for validation!

  • Liz McKinley

    I loved this! There is certainly not much idyllic about staying in a hostel. Although, I did meet a lot of people when I stayed in one. I found it surprisingly easy to talk to my fellow hostel-mates because we were all pretty much in the same situation, and somehow they all seemed so much more interesting just because they were foreign to me.

    The puking experience you had sounds miserable. I guess I will consider myself fortunate. One of the nice Australian boys I met ended up telling me about a night in his bunk where he heard every noise of the two having sex directly above him. I feel like something like that could ruin your hostel experience for sure!

  • Katya Sokolova

    It’s very true about meeting people. I’ve found it easier, though, since you know you’ll probably never see them again and anything stupid that happens will stay there. A very well written article , thank you.

  • Correen Bo

    wow what a downer! it’s what you make of it and your mindset…if those things are what you want, then that is what will happen…I’m guessing your trips started with a skeptic mindset regarding these three aspects and then you got exactly what you put out into the universe.

  • Tom Bybee

    I found myself, I made tons of friends (I’m not socially awkward, despite being somewhat of an introvert), and felt a constant sense of wonder in my first major trip. By “finding myself” I mean to say that by taking most of the variables in my home environment and changing them, I discovered a lot more about who I am as compared to who my environment influences me to be. I also had an epiphany of sorts while sitting at a monastery atop a hill, looking at a beautiful view. I’ve had plenty of negative things I could focus on, and had times I swore I wouldn’t make it back home alive, but those are simply part of the adventure. And I guarantee if someone in a hostel at least manages their way to the same room that I’m in, we WILL become friends! :-P So basically, I disagree with the message this article appears to be sending. If you have the right mindset, all of these things are there to be grasped.

    • Richard Cronin

      I thought it was funny the way you’d wish everyone in the dorm sweet dreams every night.

    • Tom Bybee

      Hey, how are you man?! I’ve been keeping up with your blog, seems like a hell of an adventure! I quite miss the excellent group of folks we squeezed into the…un-official Party Room of Mavi Guesthouse. :-P

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