Why We Travel: A Backpacker’s Ethos
By Jerry Diakiw
I am a backpacker. I travel with a small pack to off-the-beaten-path countries. I travel with locals, eat with locals, and sleep with locals and other backpackers, mostly in hostel and dormitories.
I travel overland using local shared vans, local buses, occasionally a train and often when transport is scarce or when I feel it is safe, I hitchhike. I am not unique.
I am a member of a silent tribe of travelers from all walks of life, nationalities and ages. We unconsciously adhere to a shared set of common core values –what I call the “backpacker’s ethos”.
Nothing Written Down
While we do not have any written credo, word of mouth is our bible, yet we do have common shared texts,–the Lonely Planet country guides may be our primary resource.
We recognize each other instantly on the street, in terminals or in airports. We have no high priests, no services, no organized dogma. When we meet, we instantly share tips, suggestions, and stories. The whole world is our temple.
We mostly travel alone initially, though not always, and will often match up with others for short periods of time, if mutually beneficial.
We distinguish ourselves from “trekkers” who also carry a backpack, but theirs includes everything they need for survival, such as a tent, sleeping bag and often cooking gear, while we carry the bare minimum, buying what we need in local markets as we need them. They travel in the wilderness, we travel from country to country, city to city, town to town.
For example, in 2011, I “backpacked” overland from Capetown to Cairo. Last year, at 75, I traveled the Silk Road from Istanbul, overland through Iran to Tajikistan, over the Pamir Pass, to Kyrgyzstan and into the Takla Makan Desert in Western China; this year from the southern tip of India to the roof of the world in Katmandu.
I became a convert and addicted to this way of travel when in 1963, before backpacking became popular, I backpacked overland, from Singapore to Beirut, over nearly ten months of travel, for a total cost for transportation and accommodation of $3.41 (In 1963 dollars!). I stayed in temples and monasteries almost the entire way.
A day never passes that I do not think of some experience I had on that trip. It changed my life forever. It transformed my career and my life in multiple ways. It even changed my personality. During that trip, crossing so many deserts of the Middle East inspired my desire to cross all the major deserts in the world alone.
Being Alone in the Wilderness
There is something spiritual about being alone in the wilderness. In the last ten years, I have made solo backpacking trips across the Gobi in Mongolia, the Atacama in Chile, the Sahara(3x), the Thar in India and the Kalahari, as well as crossings of Libya, Ethiopia, and Uzbekistan.
The ethos of ‘backpacking’ however, is more related to reducing travel to the lowest, simplest level, –staying and eating in the cleanest, cheapest, accommodations and restaurants where the locals, as well as a wide variety of international travelers, stay.
Backpackers, today, include everyone from university professors, doctors, and teenagers to geriatrics like me. There is the challenge of doing it on the “cheap”, to travel as long, and as far, for as little, as you can.
For me I never make a reservation, I rarely know my route from day to day and though I sometimes have a destination such as Cairo on my trans-African trip, on other occasions I travel until I feel it is time to go home, such as my Silk Road trip.
Backpacking alone is particularly a way of meeting the local inhabitants. When you walk along the street alone you are frequently offered help, asked questions, invited for tea or coffee, and sometimes to stay overnight in their homes. When you travel with another person you rarely are offered this kind of hospitality or opportunity to get to know them and their culture.
I have found that the backpacking”ethos” provides me the opportunity of seeing the world through a different prism: Experiencing and living in each country closer to the way the local inhabitants experience life than any other way of traveling. I eat where they eat, I travel on the same buses and trains as they do, and I sleep where they sleep.
As Pico Iyer, a world traveler wrote, “I want to be moved and I want to be transported and I want to be sent back a different person.” Backpacking accelerates this transformation.
While one normally thinks of backpackers as young men and women setting out to see the world before they settle down to marriage and a career, in reality, there is a whole backpacker culture out there, of all ages, from all over the world.
Most have strong feelings of support and sympathy for local cultures and traditions, are usually environmentally sensitive, abhor cruelty to animals, dispose of refuse properly where often others do not. We travel to destinations that raise more questions than answers, destinations that “inspire questions that reverberate long after you leave” as Iyer says.
Traveling this way, especially, alone, results in a very reflective, often meditative, introspective look at one’s life. I have remarkable adrenalin highs. My trip in 1962 across Asia started this life long journey and addiction to backpacking across deserts and continents. I felt on top of the world then and again now. I feel like I am a better man now for accepting this challenge and achieving my goal.
I feel I understand the world better, I stand taller. My knowledge and concerns for Africans and Central Asians are greater now. My thoughts for locals in emerging nations are visceral, and my dreams for their goals are greater, I understand them better, I understand the world better.
At another level entirely, I have often reflected on the grand sweep of historic and mythical travelers. In the reflective, dream-like states, it is not me, but some mythical figures from some ancient script come to life to seek answers.
The hero sets out on his journey to face many challenges and returns a transformed man, ready to take on the challenges necessary in his family and society. It is me, but, not me. Yet, I am transformed. In this dream-like reflection, it is the mythical me that ventures forth and then returns.
This superhuman, tireless, giant of a man who instantly blends in with the local population, lifts them up if only briefly; they feel good about themselves, see the progress they have made through the mirror I hold up to them. They feel and see the joy I see in their everyday living, the treasure and the joy of family. I feel their joy of a newborn child, of a good harvest, or a welcome rain.
Yes, a mythical giant roamed the hills and valleys of Africa and Asia. His name was Jerry and he liked what he saw. I like this man better than before. He is wiser and more empathetic.
Years ago this feeling of being a mythical man swept over me when I traveled around the world hitch-hiking for pennies. I seek to replicate that feeling every year alone on the road.
The old story of, “Why would you climb Mt Everest?”, “Because it is there”, applies to my trips. “Why backpack from Istanbul to China or Capetown to Cairo?” Because it is there and there is a great feeling of exhilaration in accomplishing my goal as does any mountain climber attaining the summit of his chosen mountain.
I feel that following the backpacking ethos induces a more profound look at one’s life, an introspective navel-gazing that can be both good and bad. The border between introspection and narcissism is blurred.
But it is framed by the visceral experience of experiencing the life of locals, closer to their level of existence, when you eat, sleep and travel with them, especially when traveling in Asia or the developing world where there can be a dramatic, a mostly unconscious leap away from a Euro-Ameri-centric mentality.
Yes, one can experience this on an organized tour, but not at the profound level of a backpacker, in my opinion. It is a palpably different experience. Pico Iyer points out that “We travel, then, in search of both self and anonymity—and, of course, in finding the one we apprehend the other”.
Abroad, we are wonderfully free of caste and job and standing. We are classless and without status and people cannot put a name or tag to us. And precisely because we are classified in this way, and freed of inessential labels, we have the opportunity to come into contact with more essential parts of ourselves (which may begin to explain why we may feel most alive when far from home).
Therein lies the essential dilemma. Feeling more alive when far from home. How can that be, when we love home so much? There is, for me, that essential living on the edge, life reduced to its basic survival essentials of finding a safe place to sleep, safe food to eat and how to get to the next destination.
Travel without the Pressures of Home
I am free when traveling this way of all the pressures of home, whether it be seeking advancement in one’s career, meeting the mortgage or even keeping up with the Jones. Free of these nebulous goals, each day on the road is exhilarating because it is so full of success of food, sleep, and safe travel from A to B.
Interactions with locals when communication is possible is often electric, charged with a strange instant bonding of two people meeting by accident on an empty planet. They are so pleased to know you, and want more of you; a desire for reaching out from their world to touch someone in another.
I acquired all the rights and privileges that were bequeathed to me instantly on birth in Canada. How lucky I am and yet I see endless joy and happiness in what we would call deprived conditions. Suicide rates in Asia and Africa are way below Western rates, and I suspect mental illness rates and depression are well below ours as well.
Their daily needs are so simple– put food and clean water on the table, clothe your family, and maintain and keep a safe place to sleep.
Compare that to our complicated lives, whether it getting further in debt with refurbishing the cottage or looking after aging parents, or even middle-aged children. As Paul Theroux wrote, “just experiencing the simplicity and primitivism of life can lead you to a destination you end up truly loving”.
In backpacking hostels and on local busses I met hundreds of men and women from dozens of different countries of all ages who had stories to share, and I met hundreds of local citizens who have shared their culture, their hopes, and dreams for their families and their lives and their country.
Their life is a series of a multitude of simple joys and demanding hardships. I not only witnessed the relentless poverty, their struggles with the disease, and environmental destruction but at the level of a backpacker, I saw joy and hope.
Travel with locals also allows you to bring new eyes to the people you encounter and just as travel helps you appreciate your own home more, it helps you bring appreciative insights to share with people in the places you visit.
You can reflect for them what they have to celebrate, as much as you celebrate what they have to teach you. We can provide them with a fresh and renewed sense of how special they are, the warmth and beauty of their country.
“Do You Like Our Country?”
The most frequent question I am asked wherever I am is, “Do you like our country?” It is important to me to have at the ready the things that have touched me, the beautiful places I have seen, the kindnesses of the people.
They look at me with a sense of pleasure, at my pleasure and pride in the many good things they have. They see us on TV and in movies. For them, our differences are vast. But when I honor their cultures, their values, the beauty of their country, there is this look of triumph and joy, as if to say, ” YES!”
For backpackers, learning about the people, their problems and their dreams are as important, if not more important, than seeing the magnificent herds of African animals in Ngorongoro Crater, or the Pyramids at Giza or the great mosques of Samarkand.
So, yes, at 76, I am getting on, but as Paul Theroux said, “Years are not an affliction. Old age is strength”. Age is about attitude, not chronology. I am still a backpacker and a strong advocate for the backpacker’s ‘ethos’. I am still a practicing member of the silent backpacking tribe.
Jerry Diakiw is the author of “I’m 74 and I just backpacked across Africa Alone,” Toronto Star, 2011. He teaches at York University in Canada. Read his blog.