Some Clichés About Backpacking and Hostelling That Are Worth Questioning

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, hostelling 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 hostelling. 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. TC mark

image – Garry Knight


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  • Shannon Byrne

    this was dumb

  • Guest

    you’re supposed to crap on a daily basis

    • Loljame

      you really don’t have to

  • Max

    I just got back from a year abroad in Russia and while I agree that living/traveling abroad is generally way more stressful and difficult than the idealized stereotype (as you suggest) it definitely makes dealing with day-to-day problems easy. Now I navigate unfamiliar territory  LIKE A BOSS and asking strangers questions? EASY PEASY LEMON SQUEEZY. 

  • Poco Bedasheh

    Jimmy Chen, where are yoooooouuu!  

  • Emily Tugwell

    I really appreciate this article because I think this is definitely what some people need to hear. But for me, and MANY other travelers, this is pretty obvious. And I love traveling for opposite reason that each of your points make. 

    I don’ t think traveling helps you “find yourself!” If anything, it can make you more confused and lead to all sorts of existential crises. But that’s wonderful! That’s part of the thrill. You’re moving through the world around you and figuring it all out as you move along.

    Though you do meet quite a few people, it’s never as many as you think you’ll meet beforehand. But that’s fine. It’s better to create a few lasting relationships than just making small talk with loads of strangers.

    As for backpacking, I’ve never done it. But I’ve also never thought of it in the way you describe. I think of it as extremely rewarding, but also ridiculously difficult, dirty, exhausting, depressing, the list goes on!The point I’m trying to make is that traveling is a huge challenge! And I think most people realize that and love traveling for that reason. That’s why I love it. :)

    • truth bear

      I am sorry, but your comments here added nothing. please, you should stop.

  • SippyCup

    Tell it like it is brother.

  • Katherine Albin

    The second point was quite amusing. My USA citizenship was questioned on multiple times throughout my solo backpacking trip, for the people I met could not believe I would actually subject myself to not wanting to travel with a group of friends or being so open to new things. It makes me wonder though, was this because of their stereotypes through media or by meeting firsthand?

    Anyway, you forgot the cliche of meeting a Frenchman/Frenchwoman and falling in love. I did. But he was in his 40s and we communicated through Spanish. And I met his kids.

  • Jaime Wright

    Right. Of course. If someone sets out on a trip purely on the notion of “finding themselves” with no other intention, goals, questions, worries, thoughts, then yes, you should think that person is a dumbass.  But the last time I checked humans are layered beings who may say they are trying to “find themselves” but are actually simultaneously trying to test out independence, experience something new, and figure out if they can cook meals by themselves for three months without starving.  Every experience, if examined, helps people to grow, and, yes “find themselves.”  Is someone going to find themselves completely? No. But if they think that, at least they’re happy.

  • Sam

    People tend to think that traveling will automatically turn a person into Larry from The Razor’s Edge.  But the reality is (and, I say this from experience) that if you are a a close-minded butt-head in your own country there’s nothing to stop a person from taking that show on a World Tour. 

    But, being alone without menial daily tasks to distract you – that certainly can change a person.

  • Courtney Pickard

    Really? It took you almost 5,000 words to articulate that traveling is not as romantic as it may seem? 

    I should have just read your last sentence and saved myself a few minutes. 

    • guest

      it’s kind of weird you took the time to do a word count……… no biggie however. just saying. 

      • Anonymous

        shit just got real critical

    • Strange Friend

      Less than 1,000, dude.

    • sven

      why are you even on TC if all you want to hear is the main point?  You could apply your useless comment to half the other articles here: Really? It took you ‘X’ amount of words to articulate “insert main point”? How the fuck are you supposed to convey anything if not with a number of words

      • Courtney Pickard

        Hi Sven, 

        I love reading though catalog! most of the writers articulate themselves in a way that is informative and entertaining. I was pretty disappointed in the repetitive content in this article and, coupled with the fact that I probably had low blood sugar from not eating dinner, felt obliged to comment!

        Have a great night :) 

  • Sara

    Here for the video. That is is going VIRAL! woohooo! Aussie Filmmakers ftw.

  • Guest

    but if you do go backpacking, you *will* find an Aussie to bang

  • Chelsea

    I’m about to study abroad in Florence for 4 months and I think I needed to hear this, in many ways it brought me down to Earth. I also think I didn’t need to hear this; it makes doing something worthwhile that many do not have the opportunity or wherewithal to attempt seem like a waste of time. 

  • NoSexCity

    I think a lot of people confuse ‘finding yourself’ on a trip for ‘finding a new perspective’ – which, at least in my experience, wears off after you’re back in a familiar setting. It’s easy to feel like you’re in the midst of some life-altering epiphany when you’re conquering language, custom and geographic knowledge barriers daily in an unfamiliar location.

  • ariel

    I guess traveling doesn’t necessarily make you “find yourself” but it did give me a lot of confidence. You constantly put yourself in uncomfortable situations and find out just how capable you are at coping with this. I think it’s awesome. Also, you get to see a lot of beautiful landscapes, churches, castles, monuments, people, and wild life. You get exhausted, sick, and lonely at times but you also get a lot of rewards. I loved when I was traveling that I got to ask myself the question, “what beautiful thing am I going to go see today?”

  • Snmartin

    That was a waste of time to read, and I think the hundreds of people I have met while finding myself on idyllic backtracking trips (on four different continents) would agree with me.

  • david miller

    seems like the video is instructive on some many levels vis a vis how ppl package and brand their own personal journeys.

    note how the dude:

    a. is alone. no interactions with anyone.

    b. is centered in or the obvious subject of every frame.

    c. is always moving through, never pausing anywhere.
    d. has consistent body language / facial expressions that exude confidence /  insouciance / sense of being in control corresponding to an overall package of ‘having the time of my goddamned life’.

    and note how the film:

    e. contains no voices – of the local ppl, of the narrator, of the subject, etc. it’s ‘voiceless.’
    f. is composed of settings / scenes that regardless of culture / place are interchangeable so that
    g. the entire ‘world’ (and all culture / people visited therein)  reduce to this kind of backdrop for the subject to appear in front of, and the viewer to vicariously experience the subject’s sense of  ‘yo i’m having the time of my goddamned life’.

    granted, the filmmaker states that this piece is a ‘ linear concept’ , and there is, if you check out, another film (‘learn’) that focuses on interactions, but still, for me, it’s impossible to view this video (in conjunction with bsg’s piece) and not associate it with the dozens of travel writing submissions i get each month where there’s no sense that the writer struggled with his / her experiences, or wasn’t having anything but – as this this film seems to convey – the time of their goddamn life.

    what’s interesting to me though isn’t how this (the video and the submissions) supports the commonly held / cliched notions that bsg catalogs here, nor potential underlying causal factors- such as  (a) the travel industry providing  the #1 / #2 (plane tickets / holidays)  most purchased items online, or (b)  marketing of travel and place / reduction of it into ‘packages’ which conduce travelers to look at trips in terms of reaching some advertised level of enjoyment / convenience / fulfillment (i.e. ‘find yourself in the heart of Navaho country’) – what’s interesting is how all of this reflects our relationship to place.

    to cruise through a place / culture / ppl as this kind of backdrop seems inherently fucked.

    ppl come back from their trips saying things like ‘the locals in chile just seem way more indian than in argentina.’

    or ‘yeah, we just got back from nigeria – such poverty – but wow, the birding – there are over 400 species.’

    or tweeting: ‘i’m hanging out this weekend with a bunch of aborigines.’

    in mainstream american culture, this is how so people talk. this is how so many people write. this is how ppl ‘see’ place.

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