- Nov 27, 2008
- Reaction score
I recently read a great review of a number of travel novels excoriating backpackers for being as phony and regimented as the societies they attempt to flee. It is an issue particularly dear to my heart as I have rarely met anyone as shallow and self-satisfied as the slumdog globetrotters I met in youth hostels when I was younger. They would spend entire evenings together like cult members reciting the litany of canonical destinations they'd been to, nodding at the implied significance of having visited a favela in Rio or joined a religious procession in Karachi. The poorer and the grungier, the less understood, the more degrading, the better. Here are some excerpts from the article, with a link at the end:
http://www.worldhum.com/features/tra...each-20101020/Researchers have noted, for example, that within backpacker enclaves there is a clear hierarchy based on shorthand status cues curiously similar to those of home. Whereas back home income and influence might lend to status, backpackers fixate upon travel experience and fashion. Anderskov’s research subjects assert that “real backpackers” travel at least three months, and they demonstrate their credibility through their clothing, spending, and storytelling. Backpacker novels confirm this ideology, frequently using such markers to communicate experience and travel savvy. [...] In addition to such strict adherence to anti-fashions, all the novels depict disheveled backpackers earning rite-of-passage by enduring the workaday hardships that come with independent travel in the developing world. When Sutcliffe’s Dave suffers a bout of diarrhea, he notes that, “crapping your pants ... is a dire and miserable experience; but having crapped your pants—I mean, that’s a pretty good conversational party piece.” Over time, status within the community’s hierarchy hinges on the accumulation of such difficult travel experiences, which travelers collect and trade like blue-chip stock portfolios. Accordingly, upon meeting “older” Australian travelers in their 20s, Sutcliffe’s Dave admits, “I felt I couldn’t really talk about what I’d done, because they’d all been on the road for months and had amazing stories I couldn’t possibly compete with—about how they’d got lost in the Thai jungle with heroin smugglers, had fought off kitten-sized cockroaches in an Indonesian prison, or had done the entire Everest trek dressed in flip-flops and a Bondai Beach T-shirt.” Anderskov adds that this kind of social hierarchy is “situational and floating”—it depends on whom the backpacker is socializing with. As a result, it is possible for the initially clueless protagonists in the novels by Sutcliffe, Gardner, and Barr to accumulate status over time, with each of them near the end of their stories encountering “fresh-faced scared bunnies” who remind them of their previous, less experienced selves and confirm their advanced clout within the independent travel community. In this way, a typical story arc of the backpacker novel focuses not on a deepened understanding of local cultures, but on gaining social standing within travel communities that aren’t all that demographically distinct from cliquish subcultures back home. [...] Although independent travelers rhetorically “position themselves in opposition to conventional tourists,” research suggests and the novels reinforce that “interactions” with the native peoples is defined loosely—with observation counting as interaction—and the majority of encounters revolving around monetary exchanges. Overwhelmingly, this is the case in the backpacker novels. With the exception of Harris’s characters, who spend two-thirds of their time in Asian brothels, the young travelers go out of their way to keep local contact brief and simple. Hence, a curious paradox emerges wherein native knowledge and practices contribute to backpacker status, although natives themselves are overwhelmingly absent. For example, Sutcliffe’s backpackers, “mainly into cards and drugs,” proudly teach one another how to smoke joints like the locals, though they never actually smoke with anyone other than their fellow Western travelers. The smoking, like the ethnic clothing or banana pancakes, carries import only within the confines of the backpacker community. [...] The real point would have to be about how going to India isn’t an act of rebellion these days, it’s actually a form of conformity for ambitious middle-class kids who want to be able to put something on their CV that shows a bit of initiative ... You come here and cling to each other as if you’re on some kind of extended management-bonding exercise in Epping Forest ... I suppose you could call it a modern form of ritual circumcision—it’s a badge of suffering you have to wear to be welcomed into the tribe of Britain’s future elite. Your kind of travel is all about low horizons dressed up as open-mindedness. You have no interest in India, and no sensitivity for the problems this country is trying to face up to. You also treat Indians with a mixture of contempt and suspicion which is reminiscent of the Victorian colonials.