This past April I quit my job at Dell, crammed some stuff into a backpack, and went to Southeast Asia (and a few other places) for about six weeks. Not exactly “traveling the world” as I only went to a few countries, but it was more of a backpacker/adventure travel experience than I had ever had previously. (Last month I did another 2.5 week trip with a backpack to Australia and New Zealand, so this has gotten a lot less scary since then.)
The trip was modest, so I won’t act like it was some kind of transformative experience or anything. That said, I did learn a few things.
- I don’t need that much “stuff” to exist. My travel clothes consisted of two pairs of shorts, three pairs each of underwear and socks, about six t-shirts, and a sweater. That’s it. Whereas back in the U.S. I had amassed closet and a dresser full of clothes, most of which I never wore. Why did I accumulate so much stuff when a backpack’s worth of clothes could sustain me perpetually? Sure, I didn’t need a winter coat or a sports jacket on my trip, so those deserve some shelf space. But why did I own 6 different suits and 35 different dress shirts?
- I vastly underrated “home” while I was living there. Adventure travel is a tempting siren when you’re sitting at your desk job and dreaming of grand adventures at Mt. Everest or the Great Barrier Reef. I think this caused me to pine for the future and underrate the present. Home is awesome. I live in a country where I can freely travel and live in any of 50 states, where all of my friends and family are easy to see and contact, and where I’m relatively unscathed by the police / government / taxman / whatever (I’ll grant that this doesn’t describe everybody’s experience in the USA, and that I’m luckier than most in this regard.). For some reason, at the beginning of my trips I always think I’ll never want to come back home, but each and every time I’m mistaken. It’s made me a little more thankful and observant in my regular life in the States.
- People are people are people. No matter what country you go to, people put their pants on one leg at a time, so to speak. Even though different cultures can be vastly different from one another, most humans share quite a few common experiences. I suspect that the media caricatures of the daily live of people in North Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. are somewhat overstated. Not to understate the horrors of political tyranny, but most humans go to work in the morning and tuck their kids into bed at night just like the rest of us.
- There’s nothing “special” about backpacking culture. Some people describe backpacker/hostel culture as more “authentic” than traditional tourist/hotel/hospitality culture, like there’s something more “real” about sharing a room in a dirty hostel instead of staying at the Hilton. And sure, I’ll grant that you are less likely to grasp local culture if you spend your trips at five-star resorts. But if you go to any hostel in the world you’ll see the same scene: A bunch of 19-year-old British / German / French / Dutch / Australian backpackers in tank tops smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. Is that any more unique or authentic than middle-aged Americans in Brooks Brothers oxfords drinking rum and Cokes in every Ritz-Carlton on the planet?
But…. it’s still awesome. I think everybody should take at least one backpacking trip, even just for the opportunity to have a really bad time and learn a lot from the experience. There’s a lot to see out there.