I was traveling in northern Vietnam when I first noticed the phenomenon of the dutiful backpacker.
It is nearly impossible to travel in Southeast Asia without parallels being drawn to what the locals call “The American War,” and my fellow travelers and I would often make jokes in poor taste about the duration of our “tours of duty” or going for some “R&R.”
But with some of my companions, I got the impression these were not entirely light-hearted remarks.
The “duty” part of their tour seemed to loom pretty large considering that none of them had been drafted against their will to take an extended budget holiday after college.
“I’ve got my photos,” one guy said to me over breakfast.
“I’ve seen the [Cu Chi] tunnels, I’ve fired the AK-47, I’ve taken the Reunification Express. I’m done.”
One girl I befriended confided that she desperately missed her boyfriend back home and wished she could go back to him.
When I asked why she couldn’t, she told me, “Oh, I could. I’ve got an open ticket, it’s just – there’s lots of stuff on my list that I haven’t checked off yet. I don’t want to go back with it half-finished.”
I gently pointed out that, presumably, she had decided to travel in order to fulfill some personal desire, and that if she was no longer happy then surely it was time to go home?
“But I might miss something,” she said anxiously. “Like, Laos is meant to be amazing and I haven’t got there yet. I couldn’t stand having everyone going on at me about how great it is and how they can’t believe I didn’t see it because I went home to see my boyfriend instead.”
I asked her if she thought she would even enjoy Laos, being so homesick.
“Probably not,” she shrugged. “But I’ve got to go, haven’t I?”
I’d rather be building latrines…
I noticed the same attitude in an Australian friend, Maggie, who recently returned from teaching in South Korea.
“I’m getting out!!” was the subject line of the e-mail she sent, telling me she would soon be returning home. The first time I spoke to her after she was back in Australia she kept sighing gratefully and saying things like, “I’m so glad it’s done.”
“Didn’t you enjoy it?” I asked her.
She paused. “No,” she said eventually. “No, not really, if I’m honest.”
I asked her why she hadn’t returned earlier. Her contract at the school had only been for three months initially, and she could have left after that time with no ill will on either side.
“I told everyone I was going away for a year,” she said (by “everyone” she meant family and friends, not her Korean employers). “They would have asked me why I was back early, what had gone wrong, was it awful?
“And was it?” I asked.
“Not – not awful exactly, just…” she sighed again. “I’d just rather have been at home, you know?”
Everyone travels now.
A gap year before or after college, once something guaranteed to make you the cool, interesting one at freshers’ parties, is now so commonplace as to be almost obligatory.
And there seem to be a growing number of people who are traveling as much to keep up with the crowd as out of any genuine desire to see new places or experience new cultures.
“I’m not a traveler,” Maggie admitted in the end. “I could have stayed at home and taught or done volunteer work, but then you run into someone from school and they’re all, ‘Oh, I’ve just got back from 18 months building latrines in Indonesia or whatever,’ and you feel such a dork saying, ‘Yeah, I work at an after-school club down the road from where we grew up.'”
“I guess I thought traveling would make me an interesting person, but it didn’t. I was really homesick and just used to sit in my bed, surfing the net and phoning my mum and all my mates. I don’t feel like I learned anything – except that I don’t want to go traveling again!”
Just don’t get left behind
Ask 100 travelers their reason for traveling and you will probably get 100 different answers: “to find myself”; “to learn about other cultures”; “to get some great photos”; “to get a tan.”
And none of these answers is more or less worthy than another.
But next time you ask someone why they decided to travel, keep your ears open for the telltale signs that their truthful answer might be:
“Everyone else was doing it, so I thought I should too.”
Have you ever traveled just because you thought you should?
Or stayed longer than you wanted because you thought you shouldn’t “give up”?
Have you ever quit a journey sooner than you planned, but had misgivings about your decision?
Hal Amen did, and wrote about his experiences eloquently in the blog, Quitter, which inspired a conversation among other travelers who were grateful to Hal for articulating his feelings.
Share your thoughts and experiences below in the comments.