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Rolf Potts: Backpacker Culture Is Not Destroying Civilization

by Rolf Potts Sep 23, 2008
In an excerpt from his new book, Rolf Potts believes backpacking today has more soul than most jaded boomers believe.

ONE OF THE MORE unusual features of my new book is its “commentary track” endnotes, which comment on the ragged edges behind the creation of each tale.

Some of these endnotes detail information that was left out of a given story for various reasons; other endnotes examine the writing-process decisions that went into the story.

Last week, during my virtual book tour stop at Budget Travel’s “This Just In” blog, Sean O’Neill questioned me about the endnotes to Chapter 10, which amount to an extended rant in defense of backpacker culture.

Sean quoted a small portion of this rant, but what I’d like to do today is excerpt this endnote in full for the Brave New Traveler audience, simply to raise the issue of what backpackers have to offer the world of travel.

Just to give a little context, this endnote comes right after a chapter where I detail how I spent five days avoiding the pyramids in Egypt (and the potential letdown that sometimes come when you visit storied monuments) by gallivanting around Cairo with a ragtag bunch of backpackers from a budget flophouse called the Sultan Hotel.

The Excerpt:

For some reason, major media outlets see it fit to ridicule backpackers at regular intervals in the news cycle.

Around the same time [this chapter was originally] published in Salon, one could find articles in Time and the New York Times bemoaning how watered-down independent travel had become.

The template for these articles was quite predictable:

Foreign-desk correspondent visits backpacker ghetto in Thailand (or India, or Guatemala) and observes information-age ironies and/or party scene; reporter then evokes supposed independent-travel ideals of the 1960’s and notes how today’s backpackers don’t live up to said ideals; reporter proceeds to quote Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler, cite tourism statistics, summarize perceived backpacker hypocrisies, and grandly declare independent travel to be irrelevant (or consumerist, or stone-cold dead).

This kind of story is the travel equivalent of those perennial op-ed pieces that use the latest demographic survey to conclude that young people are stupid, or morally lacking, or destined to destroy civilization.

And, just as “kids-these-days” op-eds are meant to convince older generations of their own virtue, “death-of-travel” articles essentially serve to reassure working stiffs that they aren’t missing anything by staying at home.

The Authentic Reality

In truth, backpacker culture is far more dynamic than reporters assume when they visit Goa or Panahajachel to shake down stoners for usable quotes.

Outside of the predictable traveler ghettos (which themselves aren’t as insipid as these articles let on), independent travelers distinguish themselves by their willingness to travel solo, to go slow, to embrace the unexpected and break out from the comfort-economy that isolates more well-heeled vacationers and expats.

Backpacker culture is far more dynamic than reporters assume when they visit Goa or Panahajachel to shake down stoners for usable quotes.

Sure, backpackers are themselves a manifestation of mass tourism — and they have their own self-satisfied clichés — but they are generally going through a more life-affecting process than one would find on a standard travel holiday.

My experience at the Sultan Hotel is a good example. At one level my companions and I were indolent and impulsive in Cairo, skimming the surface of a culture as we cooked rabbits, ogled belly dancers, and swilled duty-free booze.

But most of us also studied Arabic and learned the rhythms of the neighborhood around Orabi Square; we attended Sunni mosques and Coptic churches; we lingered in teashops and made Egyptian friends.

Travel Mindfully

Moreover, the Sultan Hotel (like many backpacker haunts) was a curiously class-free environment, where a Melbourne construction worker could hang out with a Pennsylvania Ivy Leaguer and an Egyptian fruit vendor in a spirit of mutual respect and curiosity.

Hassan the night clerk had trained as a lawyer, but he wasn’t bitter about working a lesser job while he waited for the slow wheels of Egyptian bureaucracy to provide him with a law position. For him, the Sultan was an international education in itself (not to mention a far-reaching networking opportunity).

It’s been eight years now since I stayed at the Sultan, and I’ve probably kept in touch with as many of the friends I made there as I have friends from high school.

A few of them are still traveling; most of them went home and became teachers, lawyers, carpenters, city planners, park rangers, social workers, and graphic designers.

All of which is to say that backpacker culture is far more diverse and engaged than its layabout stereotype would imply. Along with a stint as an expatriate, there are few other activities that — if approached mindfully — can sharpen the senses and tweak the perspective of someone who intends to leave home and experience the world.


Though this outtake essentially defends travel on the backpacker trail as a worthy endeavor, I welcome other perspectives and dissenting opinions.

What is your experience with the backpacker milieu? What do you find charming or annoying or telling about this type of travel?

Explore Rolf’s Book Tour

You can follow the rest of Rolf Potts’ virtual book tour online, or see him in person at one of 20 cities nationwide as he celebrates the release of Marco Polo Didn’t Go There (Travelers’ Tales, 2008).

We encourage you to ask for the book at your favorite local bookstore or, and follow Rolf’s tour diary at Gadling starting Sept 29th.

Tomorrow’s virtual book tour stop will be at Jaunted. To read yesterday’s tour stop, go to Matador Pulse.

Discover Matador

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