More than footprints? How backpacking lost its way Foreword 1/3
Take only photographs, leave only footprints?
‘The 747 appears at first as a small brilliant white light.... It has been in the air for twelve hours. It took off from Singapore at dawn. It flew over the Bay of Bengal, Delhi, the Afghan desert and the Caspian Sea. It traced a course over Romania, the Czech Republic, southern Germany and began its descent [into London’s Heathrow airport] above the grey-brown, turbulent waters off the Dutch coast.’ - Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel
For those of us with itchy feet it doesn’t take much. There are days when you can almost hear the rungs on your career ladder snapping under the weight of a postcard from a friend on a Thai island. Students on a gap-year spend less time pondering reading lists than they do rehearsing how they’re going to tell their parents they’ve dropped out of college and taken a bar job in Sydney. Standing that morning at the bus stop, reading de Botton’s book in a thin horizontal drizzle that we were still (despite all the evidence to the contrary) calling July, I had the feeling my days of catching the bus to work were numbered.
The closer that plane gets to Heathrow the less appealing it becomes, but ‘dawn’ in Singapore. Dawn in Singapore. What happens at dawn in Singapore? Nothing probably; most people will still be in bed. But given the choice between standing there, waiting for the number 13 to come round the corner, and standing in Singapore’s Changi airport scanning the departures board for a connection to Ho Chi Minh City, or Yangon, Vientiane or Phnom Pehn… Well, I'm sure you understand.
I’ll admit that reading a travel book under that grey slab of English cloud was probably asking for trouble as far as my new job was concerned, but if the British summertime wasn’t going to make an effort, neither was I, and anyway, I had an excuse.
I blame my parents.
When I was 14 my dad took my brother and I out of school for three months to visit that part of the family that had emigrated to New Zealand. We toured North Island, camped in the ‘bush’, met people with tattoos on their faces and barbecued on the beach in December. During that trip I learnt something very, very important. Sitting there on a sand-dune, 20,000 kilometres from double maths, looking out over the Bay of Plenty at the white plume of smoke from an active volcano, I had a revelation. Travel, I thought, is quite simply a lot more fun than whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing.
People leave home for any number of reasons, but backpackers, if we’re honest about it, travel because it is - or it’s supposed to be - fun. Our idea of fun may get us into some tricky situations occasionally, compared to someone looking for a fortnight of cocktail umbrella escape from work, but fun - even retrospectively if the situation was particularly tricky - is still fun. The world is an empty colouring book to be filled in with experiences, and when backpacking, rather than being cocooned in a tourist resort, you sometimes get to go outside the lines. Since that Kiwi travel bug bit, I’ve travelled a lot more than a long list of university professors and employers might have deemed necessary, and ‘home’ has usually had to be said in a different language to the one I grew up with. I’ve had an alarming amount of fun, and I’ve seen quite a few of the things you hear people talk about.
I’ve also heard countless people tell me that Goa or Bali or Koh Pha Ngan or Vang Vieng is ‘ruined’ now, that it was much better when they were there ten years ago – “less developed” – and however smug they may sound when they say it (in an ‘I got there before you!’ kind of a way), they’re both right and wrong. Goa’s not rubbish; it’s just different, and it’s different precisely because they were there ten years ago. They may bemoan the development of those pristine beaches, but that development was funded by the money they spent when they got there (which is the first thing we should say to anyone who thinks somewhere used to be ‘better’).