As today was a grueling, 14 hour travel day taking us from Siem Reap, through the filthy border crossing then finally ending up in an hour long traffic snarl in Bangkok, I will instead write about backpackers.
If you have been following our journey you may recall that back in Luang Prabang we met an American couple named Alex and Angel – she was the one who was sporting a giant shiner after the previous night’s drunken encounter with the edge of a toilet seat. They were an interesting pair and Alex, like us, had been noticing the backpacker fashions and introduced me to his own theory on it, which he called “The Journey”. The idea was that most young backpackers were on a similar journey of self-discovery, and you could tell how far along in their journey they were by what they looked like.
As I love stealing other peoples’ ideas I have taken “The Journey” concept and ran with it. Taking a typical 20 year old female backpacker, here is what happens on The Journey.
At The Airport
Our English backpacker – let’s call her Emma – leaves her home wearing new, clean multi-pocketed khaki shorts, a freshly ironed shirt and comfortable jogging shoes. She is sporting a new backpack, carries a small cute purse, is wearing some light makeup and a dab of perfume, and has her hair tied back in a tidy ponytail. She does not smoke, has a single tattoo of a butterfly on her shoulder and, while not overly concerned with her finger and toenails, does keep them clipped and usually polished. She is at the start of The Journey.
After the first month, Emma has ditched the shorts and boring shirts and wears MC Hammer clown pants and beer singlets every day. She has purchased four fabric bracelets, one from each country she has visited, and wears two on each wrist, and is looking for more for her ankles. Her jogging shoes are at the bottom of her pack as she finds flip flops to be the ideal, multi-purpose footwear. She changes clothes every few days.
Emma has discovered Canadian men are amazing lovers (with Australians a distant second), and has purchased one more fabric bracelet for each dude she’s bedded, which has added six more wrist and ankle bracelets. She hasn’t washed or combed her hair in a couple weeks and she threw out all her makeup and beauty supplies to make room in her bag for purchases of incense sticks, pottery and books on Buddhism.
Dreadlets are starting to form in Emma’s hair and armpit deodorant is a distant memory. She has been through several pair of MC Hammer clown pants, but since every night market sells dozens of different types, it is never a problem buying more. She has taken up smoking and got an awesome neck tattoo of a groovy Chinese symbol a couple countries ago.
Emma no longer wears shoes and the bottoms of her feet have developed a brown, leathery texture that is completely resistant to sharp edges, hot pavement, and soap. She picked up some full length fabric skirts, which were required for getting into temples, and quite liked them so they have replaced the clown pants. Her armpit hair is long and luscious.
Her hair is completely dreaded out and she can’t remember the last time she wore a bra. She carries a natural fabric satchel wherever she goes and has gone vegan, or at least as vegan as possible. She now rolls her own cigarettes with local wrapping papers and tobacco. She chews off her fingernails when they get too long, and the toenails seem to take care of themselves with all the barefoot walking.
With wrists and ankles laden with fabric bracelets, body clothed in natural fibers, hair in a full rasta-doo, a passport out of unstamped pages and a bank account balance approaching zero, Emma has achieved full transformation and The Journey is complete.
Now you may think that the sarcasm runs deep in this little posting, and I suppose it does, but it seems not long ago that I was a young backpacker with ideals, no responsibilities, no family and so many possible futures. I traveled around by myself, tried new things, attempted to be different but still fit in with the other travelers I met (although nobody wore those MC Hammer clown pants back then - not sure when those appeared on the international backpacker scene), and went through my own transformation, similar to Emma. And it was fun! All the young people out there traveling now and bravely taking on the world know that eventually the trip will be over and they will be propelled into a more regular life, where you need to take a shower most days. But there’s no rush. And they are at the perfect point in their lives to do this.
We have met a lot of young backpackers on this trip and I think we were able to relate to them well and not come across as a couple of lame older people. Though our approach has changed (notice the four star hotel pictures….) the reasons for travel have not: seeing the world, learning about other cultures, meeting people, trying new things, challenging our own beliefs, expanding our minds and trying always to understand who we are and why we do the things we do. On this trip there has been an additional dimension – introducing the kids to a wider world, which has become the most important goal of all.