5 top reasons why us backpackers – budget and luxury alike – are downright amusing.
I’ve been travelling for almost a year now, and despite the fact that my days of backpacks, budgets, cheap dorm rooms, packing insights and communal hostels are temporarily on hold, I am around travellers every day. I live on the backpacker strip of Saigon for goodness sake! And, amongst this world of guided tours, cheap food, budget drinking and off the beaten path adventure seekers I have realised one true and profound thing…
…that backpackers are funny, a lot.
Don’t get me wrong! To me, the freedom and adventure of backpacking is by far the best way to travel, and I can’t wait for the chance to embrace my inner turtle, don my rucksack and get into my heavy-duty travel boots once more…
But the fact remains that, wether I join them or watch them, backpackers make me giggle. Backpacking gear is silly, backpacking clothes are sillier, and backpacker activities are usually fraught with hilarity.
Travelling turtles are just amusing! They tickle something deep inside. There’s no getting away from it: backpackers are a funny lot. And here are 5 of the best reasons why…
1. They’re big.
Ok so this one directly relates to my context here in South East Asia: where the average European looks like he/she has swallowed about 7 men, or is distantly related to a giraffe. Object all you like: even without the monstrous backpack, traveller’s gear and budget quick-dry clothes, if you’re a Westerner in Asia you will not blend in. I swear, I’m in the family photo album of at least 14 families across Northern India…
I’m guessing that in other parts of the world backpackers wouldn’t be so differently proportioned to the locals they visit, but here in Vietnam you can spot a foreigner a mile away by his lolloping gate and towering crown. People from the west just tend to be bigger.
Is that a moving wall? Ah no, it’s just David.
Good Lord I didn’t know there were mountains in Ho Chi Minh!??! Ah wait, sorry Emma.
Help! A giant! A strangely trunk-less mammoth! A miraculously skinny bear! Ah!!!!
Oh, hi Charlie.
Here, as a temporary expat dating a local Vietnamese god who is barely taller than I, living locally and frugally, and being surrounded by Vietnamese chums every day, I am perpetually amused at how conspicuously large my Westerner backpacking comrades are compared to my friends. In Asia, we are giants!
In fact, I am so busy being baffled by the largeness of everyone else that I often forget my own bulk…
2. They’re small
Conversely, every backpacker is made ant-like under the Mary Poppins’ bag of life that they carry on their shoulders. Though most travellers try to travel light, on a ‘super budget’, backpacking gear is always amusingly bulky, and it so often dwarfs the traveller underneath.
Neck straining, hips thrust back, spine curved like a frog and hands gripping the stirrups of all the things that matter in their nomadic life, backpackers remind me of a hermit crab that forgot how much he could reasonably carry.
A hermit crab who, having eyes bigger than his stomach and dreams bigger than his means, picked the biggest shiniest shell-house he could find: luxury style, complete with gadgets and exciting zippers. Before realising he would have to lift it all up.
A hermit crab who likes big shiny cars but doesn’t know how to drive (let alone drive here in crazy Saigon). Who likes freedom! Adventure! Who likes – !
Wait, just take a moment to imagine a hermit crab driving…
Backpackers under their extortionate gear are like a slim crab, a tiny hermit crab. A slender crustacean who should probably put his load down before his curved spine and angled hips cave in.
Backpackers, like over-loaded hermit crabs, don’t seem the most comfortable of beings under their packs. In fact to me it looks like they’re trying to hold in a dangerously persistent poo…
3. They’re new
And so to ‘top 5’ point number 3: another exciting dimension to the character of the backpacker is that they have absolutely no idea what they’re doing. You may have all the gear, have your budget down-packed, be a dorm room pro, a travel light veteran, a veritable off the beaten path king! But the reality is that, if you’re travelling, you’re likely out of your comfort bubble.
If you’re a well versed load-lugger, a travel worn pack-carrier, you will practise the art of looking like you’re a pro.
You will pretend with the gusto of seven theatrical enthusiasts that in fact you’re pretty much a local, but in fact this just exposes your novice-ness in perhaps an even funnier light!
You will not smile at those tourist touts, you will bargain for 30c just to prove you know that the price should be less (even though the salesman you fight with knows it should not), you will learn essential words like ‘how much?’, you will note the names of the most common local delicacies (even if they are disGUSting) and drop them casually into conversations…
‘Hi, mot cai saigon xanh please?’ spoken with the professionalism of one who cares little for tones and knows nothing about the Vietnamese language…
Actually this kind of tourist is down-right obnoxious, not even funny. I hate it when I meet ‘know-it-all travellers’. Honestly, I don’t care about your budget, about your cultural know-how, about where you’ve been or where you’re going or how much more of a backpacker you are than me!
No, I like the shameless noobs best. I am one myself actually: when I go to a new place I just accept my idiocy and relish the giggles it brings to people.
There’s nothing better than a large, obviously uncomfortable white woman pointing, dumb, at a map, questioning you with her shoulders and wiggling her eyebrows at you in complete lack of locational understanding. ‘That way?’ Erm, yes…that way ma’m. And you watch her stumble off still with no idea where she wants to go.
But it doesn’t matter! She will find somewhere else if she can’t find her intended destination, and that’s all part of the traveller’s experience…she’ll probably want to thank you in the end.
4. They’re pink
Ok so obviously not all travellers are pink. But I’m an artist so cut me some slack…
But wether your skin is coffee coloured, moon-like, as dark as the richest of chocolate truffles or as pale as the white of your eyes, the best adjective to describe you in your backpacking gear and get-up is…’pink’.
Baby pink. Cotton candy pink. Naive, childish, pampered, toy-box pink. Especially in Vietnam!
Unless you’re one of those intrepid Bear Grills types you will undoubtedly have a pair of bright, practical sneakers on your feet.
You’ll have shorts on despite the fact that all the locals wear jeans, and the shorts are probably either a bold colour or made of that cheap synthetic stuff you can buy from teen-shops. You will be wearing a T-shirt bought somewhere along your journey, a bia-hoi singlet, or perhaps something you brought from home that still shrieks ‘I am practical, easily washable, dorm room friendly and able to be dressed up or down depending on where I am being worn’.
Backpackers aren’t only funny because of their gear, we’re funny because of how we dress!
To me, pink is a simple colour. It reminds me of babies, of cheap touristy crap, of poppy music and of gaudy jewellery (sorry all you pink-lovers). And this, friends, is how we all look when we backpack. Especially if we wear hippie pants and bum bags…
You can spot a traveller from a mile away.
5. They’re friendly
And this is what finally and definitively distinguishes backpackers from expats in my local sphere. ‘Top 5’ reason number 5: backpackers are funny because they are so down-right polite.
People who do not live here, who have come here briefly to revel in vamped-up tourist culture, hot weather and easily good times…those people are far too friendly.
If you see a man spending more than 5 words on refusing a tourist tout his offer of ‘cheap cheap sunglasses good price for you’, he is either showing off or genuinely not from here. Or both!
Having been on the road for a while now, if anyone offers me something I tend to say ‘no’ politely (just ‘no’), smile once and then avert my eyes. It’s not rude, just practical: I’m on a budget! I don’t want that coconut, sir… (though I do love street food).
But it’s when a person is too polite that you know they’re an outsider.
They say ‘no thank you, I have one already you see’ or ‘Ah no, I want to walk thank you no motorbike today. Tomorrow? No not tomorrow. Why not? Well…’ and engage in conversation.
Silly! Do the local people act like this? Usually not. We in the West are far too overly courteous and all it does is waste time, draw attention to your situation and cost precious breath. Sometimes in life there is no time or need for the luxury of explanation!
Again, this is an Asia-inspired point…is it the same in Europe? Tell me people! Comment and things.
So! Backpackers are funny. Right?
Between our giant packs, intrusive frames, obvious idiocy, gaudy clothes and polished manners, we’re all a bunch of pleasantly amusing buffoons.
That being said not every backpacker embodies these top 5 points.
I truly believe that, talking from experience since I was a backpacker myself, the more that people travel the less goofy they look, the less needlessly polite they are, and the less ‘pink’ they seem…
A suggestion for us all, then! – Learn tips to travelling light, buy a smaller backpack, make a real budget, dress like a local (or just buy heaps of local clothes) and stop boasting about your intrepid travel achievements…and enjoy life on the road :)