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.