Backpackers are mildly delusional. I mean that in the most serious way. They travel to some of the most travelled regions of the globe, along paths so well worn that they have been eroded to their skeleton of touts and shysters, but carry within them the idea that they are somehow traveling ‘off the beaten path’ or engaged in some sort of unique journey of self-discovery. They arrive with fantasies of exotic lands, and the belief that their journey will be unique, experiential and enlightening. They insist on remaining oblivious to every sign around them that reminds them that they are in fact indulging in what is no more than another ‘packaged tour’. Facilitated by the Lonely Planet guide, the ‘individual travelers’ bible, and quite possibly the most significant inducer of the delusion that the world is just waiting for the individual travel to explore it and explore him/herself, they simply follow the instructions on the pages, right down the sequence of the experience.
That these travelers, with their illusions of discovery and self-exploration, arrive and live amongst tens of thousands of others doing the same thing, does not deter them from their fantasy. Neither do the many touts, hospitality businesses, tour guides, and others constantly waiting outside their doors to whisk them off to some ‘exotic’ locale or sell them some faux-exotic trinket. Perhaps the best sign of their self-sustained fantasy is their annoyance and aloofness towards other such travelers – they avoid looking at each other. Another backpacker reminds them that in fact they are not indulging in anything unique, but in merely the easy and conveniently packaged. It reminds them that they are not in fact unique, nor on an adventure, not exploring anything, and not ‘off the beaten path’.
Jörg Brüggemann has been working on a wonderful photo project that captures much of this ‘alternative’ but mass tourism travel industry. I wanted to post it here because I loved how these images really reflect the world of the backpacker and how they capture the contradictions that define their experience. The images are intelligent and express his intent and ideas well.
So what do these travelers tell each other, and their friends once these travels are over? What world have they really seen and experienced? As the entire ‘backpacker’ experience remains largely packaged and delivered with convenience and ease, it remains travel with little or no experiences. The entire path as laid out in books like the Lonely Planet guide or any number of other ones found in bookstores everywhere, is lined by ‘professional’ locals – people who are there to sell and nothing more. Ironically, a backpacker can no longer expect to meet any real experience, individual or situation since all of it is fronted by professional ‘locals’, ready to deliver a ready-made experience, sell ready-made souvenirs and provide ready-made stories for the ‘intrepid’ to take back home and attempt to impress their friends with. This is of course a generalization, but like most such generalizations, also largely true.
Can we ever travel again without the travel guide? I wonder.