This piece is written from my own experience as a backpacker. What are my qualifications for writing a piece like this, you ask? I am just another young traveller. I’ve trekked the Amazon, swam with hammerheads in the Galapagos, zip-lined through the Laos jungle, trekked to Machu Picchu and hung out with elephants in Thailand over the course of three large backpacking trips. There’s more, but those seem to be the ones that people’s attention…and so they are at the top of this article. (Please keep reading I promise I’m interesting.) These experiences have educated me far more than my undergrad degree ever could. And it’s these experiences that qualify me to share what I think the value of backpacking truly is to us as humans.
“Do it while you’re young.” It’s the same thing I’ve heard again and again, when I tell people that I am going travelling. Before kids, money, career and well, life, gets in the way. This sentiment is both obvious and simple, and yet rings true. Ask your parents, your grandparents, your neighbours, your friends. Oh, and even though you didn’t ask the customers at the restaurant you work at, they’ll tell you the same thing. Almost everyone will argue that travelling was something they needed to do before jumping into the working world.
It develops our independence, opens our eyes to the world beyond our personal bubble, and most importantly helps us discover a sense of self and purpose in our lives. I believe that backpacking or similar independent travel is integral in the positive development of today’s youth.
A couple of things for you to remember before you freak out at me: Yes, I know an international trip of epic proportions is not financially attainable for many people. I am aware of the privilege I am speaking from; white, upper middle class, Canadian. I acknowledge that I am lucky. However, there is potential, through creating and funding travel and education programs, that young people without the advantages in life could indeed have the important experiences that come with travel. This opens up a whole new topic and I would love to explore that as well in the near future. One thing at a time people!
So let’s dive in shall we? Backpacking is associated with (a) backpacks (I know, shocking), with (b) extremely cheap travel and with (c) being young. With it comes the stereotype of a “hippie” attitude. “Go with the flow dude” and all that jazz. There is often a negative connotation associated with the word “backpacker”. Smelly, free-loading, lazy, soft, flakey; a person with an aversion to a hard day’s work. Those damn millennials eh? (Oops…I let my Canadian slang get in there.) In reality, there’s no secret initiation to being a backpacker…put all your things in a backpack, head to a new destination, try to do it cheaply and BAM you’re a backpacker! Congratulations, you’ve done it. Stop showering and join the club. Just kidding. In all seriousness, independent travel for young people does not have to be done with a backpack and it doesn’t have to be done in the vein of “backpacker culture”. I hope to eradicate any stereotypes you have of backpackers because while they may perpetuate a lot of those “hippie” cliches, I can gladly say that the majority of the travellers I have met are the most independent, hard-working, self-aware and globally conscious people I have ever met.
Stepping Out The Door
A lot of us in our early twenties were confused, and having trouble finding ourselves. Oh yes, I just threw that in there; finding yourself. More on that later. It’s a weird time in your life. You feel too old to live with your parents, but too young to be settling into a nine to five office job. So let me ask you a question; have you done much travelling before this point? No, I’m not talking about the resort in Dominican Republic that you went to with your family when you were fourteen. Those are fun too though. Here’s a follow up: Have you ever travelled without your parents before? Odds are, the answer is no. And that’s okay.
When I graduated university at the ripe age of twenty-one with a general arts degree (groundbreaking I know), I was unsure of myself and completely lost. I had been in school for the past eighteen years, and now I was here with no school anymore, no career, somewhere between adulthood and my youth, untethered. I had never known a freedom like this, and it scared the shit out of me. It can be immensely terrifying and very disheartening for a lot of us. After realizing how sad I was, my mom threw out a suggestion “Why don’t you travel?”. Just like that. Um…okay? She reminded me that there was a whole damn world out there, just out the door. And I finally had the time to see it! So the wheels started turning and before we knew what we were doing, Alex (the other half of Whirlwind Travellers) and I had planned a four month backpacking trip through Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand. What in the world did we just get ourselves into? Cue the stress, the fear, the nerves, the excitement and the giddiness.
The most magical thing happened on that trip. An independence blossomed in both of us as we navigated a world we barely knew existed, all by ourselves. No one told us where to go, or what to do, but that also meant that no one was there to pick us up when we fell, to find us when we were lost, or to make tough (or any) decisions for us. There was also no one to tell us how or where to spend our money. We had to figure that out and survive on what we had. With such immense freedom came a heaping helping of responsibility. There was nothing to fall back on but ourselves, our own strength of will and our own personal fires to drive us forward into the unknown.
Let me ask you another question: Before this time in your lives, had you ever been that independent before? When were you almost completely alone to make all the decisions and to take care of yourself? Your first part time job? Maybe when you moved into residence or away for university or college? Yes, perhaps then you experienced a new degree of responsibility and maturity. So did I, but let me confirm right here and now that when backpacking, this maturity grew exponentially. There was so much to think (and worry) about, to do, to see, to decide; it was overwhelming and exciting all at once. I can honestly say, this was the most freeing time of my entire life. Find me something else you can do to capture this same growth, freedom and independence. I dare you. Independence is something one needs in order to grow into a functioning adult, no doubt about it. I also have no doubts in my mind that travelling on your very own trip is one of the single best things you can do to find that independence.
Popping The Bubble
Most of us in Western society have also grown up in one or two places. I lived in the same childhood home for twenty years. I was used to the societal norms of Toronto, as well as the technology, food, water, and transportation available at my fingertips. (Yes, I am still aware of my privilege). Leaving my own little bubble and seeing how other people survive and thrive in the world drastically changed my understanding of what we had, and what we were lacking.
The poverty I saw throughout my travels hit me hard and has stuck with me since then. It made me realize just how much I took for granted. I was mind-blown that I had ever complained about my living situation or my own wealth before! The feeling of just how lucky I was sunk in and it hasn’t left. I now carry with me a certain degree of thankfulness for everything I have that so many others do not. This experience is hard to fake, and it’s hard to convince someone of if they haven’t seen it with their own eyes. It’s invaluable to creating a socially conscious individual; someone down to earth and who understands the disparity in the world and our current social climate.
Now this isn’t to say that I have everything. For me, this trip illuminated society’s need for the material. We put an insane amount of stress on ourselves and others to make enough money, or “move up” in the world. Some of the local people of the countries I’ve visited may have less than we do, but many of them were happy nonetheless. I questioned: How could we be so unhappy when we had materially more? Meeting with people outside of my own little bubble taught me the things that really matter were the immaterial. You are healthy, you have a roof over your head, food to eat, clothes on your back, people who love you. This sounds cheesy, and I’m sure you’ve heard it before. I get that. However, I firmly believe this kind of travel will help it sink in for the next generation of young people. I came back with the goal of changing the way I saw my own privileges, and to take steps to live a more environmentally friendly, socially conscious life. To forcibly remove the power that material objects have over me, and to focus on the big picture. This is why I say that many travellers I have met are smart, down to earth and open minded. Travel facilitates this mind set.
I would like to quickly point out that the people I met while travelling (both locals and other travellers), were not viewed simply as tools in my own growth and story. They are all humans on their own journeys, with their own problems and lives to live. Working to see the local people as such and not as props in your own adventure is an important thing to discern. Understanding and having compassion toward others is a huge step to take toward maturity.
With this independence and this new, more realistic view of how the rest of the world lives, one can finally start to form their own sense of self. Yes…I mean find yourself; I promised I’d bring it back! Friends, school, teachers, parents, work and the media we regularly consume, it all informs who we are. And when you leave those influences behind, you’re finally alone to learn about yourself. Who are you without those influences? How do you feel about the world around you? How do you deal with the challenges thrown at you? You won’t know unless you try…and you will never truly throw yourself out there unless you remove those influences and get out into the world!
Travel has a way of driving home just how small we are in the world, and just how much smaller our “problems” are. Without these trivial stresses cluttering your mind and your soul, you finally have room to explore the big things. Who you are, what you really want, what will make you happiest? With all this room to make these discoveries, you are able to realign your views and values to be exactly the person you want to be. This space is vital to the growth of well-rounded individuals.
This self-work may not happen consciously, and you may not have it fully formed by the time you return. In fact, you probably won’t, but the leaps and bounds you’ve made during your travel will help you realize everything in life, including yourself, is always a work in progress. This discovery in itself can be a step toward growth and maturity (I’m getting a little meta aren’t I?).
So, to young people (actually, anyone for that matter), I say this: Step out of the bubble. See how the rest of the world lives. Give yourself all the space in the world to discover who you really are. And when you get back, you will be changed, but you will have the independence, worldly understanding, compassion and sense of self you need to live a fulfilled life. Yes there are going to be big challenges and big problems in your life, but when those come, you’ll be ready.
It’s a big world out there and I can’t for the life of me see any better way for young people to learn about themselves than to see it! It seems like an awful waste of the best classroom you could ever have.