AFTER COLLEGE, I moved back in with my parents. I was miserable. It was the height of the recession and I couldn’t find a job. The only money I had was what I made working at a small local grocery store. I was slowly losing my mind. So, after reading Into the Wild, I developed a plan: I would live out of my car, a 1997 Toyota Camry named Eddie, and I would travel around the country looking for work. If I was going to be broke, I might as well be broke and traveling.
I started stockpiling supplies and making concrete plans when my dad finally sat me down.
“Matt,” he said, “Look, I know you’re miserable. But this is a stupid idea.”
“No it’s not!” I said, “I’ll find jobs. I know people all over the place.”
“You’re going to run out of money, and then you’re just going to be stuck someplace, and I’m gonna have to bail you out.”
It was a fair point — he’d already had to wire me money while I was living in Argentina after I’d been robbed and was suddenly totally without cash.
“I won’t call you for money,” I promised. “I’ll just figure it out. I want to do the whole Into the Wild thing.”
My dad sighed. “Matt,” he said, “the guy from Into the Wild died.”
I didn’t end up taking the trip.
Late in July, AJ+ published a video about Thailand’s “beg-packer” problem. It went viral.
In short, “beg-packers” are people who finance their travels through begging or busking. There’s been an increasing number of them in Southeast Asia, and the optics of travelers from rich countries begging for money to finance their travels in poorer countries aren’t great:
— Solo Traveller ✈ (@ImSoloTraveller) January 17, 2016
Thai immigration officials have begun asking visitors to show that they have the financial resources to support their trips, according to News.com.au. The rule isn’t new, but it’s being enforced more often, partially in response to the beg-packer problem.
— Solo Traveller ✈ (@ImSoloTraveller) January 19, 2016
The internet loves to be outraged, especially when rich kids behave like privileged assholes, and it’s easy to look at these photos and think, “Are you fucking kidding me?” But Helen Coffey at the Independent is 100% correct in pointing out that we do not have the full context of many of these photos, so our outrage is possibly a bit premature.
I personally understand that the impulse to travel is often strongest when you’re young and broke. Absent some timely parental intervention, I may well have become one of these people myself. On top of that, I write for a website that advocates budget travel. So I see the romance in being a “vagabond” or a mendicant traveler. I see the romance in being a wandering musician, a journeyman that must scrape by on his skills and wits.
But there are ethical lines here, and they are worth defining.
1. Don’t beg.
There is nothing wrong with accepting kindness from strangers. Say you’ve been robbed in a strange city and have no cash or cards and don’t speak the local language, and someone you’ve never met before sees you in distress and offers you a place to stay, or a few bucks to call home: there’s nothing wrong with accepting that help.
There is something wrong with a totally capable person relying on the kindness of strangers, particularly when the strangers have less than you. If you are not in an emergency, take care of yourself. Don’t make other people do it for you.
2. If you want to work your way around the world, do your research.
We all have skills and labor that we can cash in on, and if you have a skill you can travel with, there’s nothing wrong with using it to make a little extra cash while you travel. Most people I know who travel while they work are what’s known as “digital nomads.” There’s no shortage of ways to make money while you travel, especially if you have a computer.
Lots of people fit travel around their work by teaching English abroad, or by working for a non-profit, or by trading labor for room and board (WWOOFing is a popular way to do that). Some people get their travel bug out by going into the Peace Corps or the French Foreign Legion. Doctors work with Medicins Sans Frontieres; journalists take up postings in foreign capitals; scientists attend conferences in other countries — all of this legit, and there are hundreds of books and blogs explaining how you can make this work.
There’s a huge asterisk next to this, though: you have to do your research. Singapore is one of the spots that has recently seen an uptick in buskers who play their instruments on the street for cash. The issue is that street performance, a totally valid way to make money in London, New Orleans, or Paris, is not legal in Singapore. There’s no culture for it there. Likewise, no one would think it’s okay for a Doctor without proper licensing to just pop into a country and offer free physicals in exchange for a bed to crash on. That would be obviously illegal and super creepy.
Don’t break the law. Don’t violate your visa. Respect the rules and culture of the country you’re visiting.
3. Know the context of the place you’re visiting.
One of the harsher realities to the beg-packing phenomenon is that many of the beggars are coming from countries that have done some really messed-up shit to their host countries in the past. An Indian citizen, for example, could be reasonably upset to see a British kid on holiday begging for money in New Delhi, given that Britain spent centuries extracting India’s wealth while subjugating its people. It’d be like robbing someone’s home and beating their family and then coming around later to ask if they’ll pitch in a few bucks for your holiday.
History matters. Context matters. And every seasoned traveler knows that often, what is okay at home is not okay abroad (and vice versa). There are different norms and different customs, and you don’t have to fully understand them or agree with them so long as you abide by them while you’re visiting.
Nothing can be fully understood out of its context. Travel, at its best, can educate us about our world and our place in it. At its worst, it is no more than us blundering thoughtlessly through other people’s lives.