The Traveler (A response to Laida’s question… ‘Backpacker Ka Ba?’)

Date posted on April 28, 2009

My now Dubai-based great friend Laida linked this blog entry in her postrecently. I liked it cause it provoked me to think, especially since I’ve always loved traveling and I’ve been having a fair share of it lately.Ako? Hindi. I was never a backpacker and never will be one, I think. I can be pretty koboy (cowboy) if needed, but I wouldn’t easily give up comforts if it is accessible and affordable naman. I don’t find shame in admitting I like taking photos, but despite being touristy in that sense, I revel in the interaction with the locals and being shown around by one. That’s the immersion I crave and aspire for in each of my travels – which, if the article is to believe, is surprisingly not present in the backpacking culture after all (at least not always).

What Babakoto (the blog owners) says in the article is that ‘backpackers’ don’t refer to what it used to anymore. The term, and its accompanying identifiers (i.e., among other things, the backpack) has come to mean a superficial lifestyle detached from the simpler meaning it used to have – that they are people who travel with their backpacks in search of adventures and in pursuit of unplanned experiences.

“Backpackers” now refer to a community of people with a particular look, custom and conduct. (Babakoto writes about this in detail. Take time to read it, it’s an entertaining observational account). Let me say early on that I take exception to that (and the coming) generalization. Nevertheless, based on my encounters, I do tend to agree with most of what was written. That description tends to be true for most Western backpackers I’ve come across in most of my trips, though they are admittedly far less annoying than the average tourist-tourist. I’m particularly peeved when the latter (the tourist-tourists) make no effort to speak the language, speaking louder in their same un-understandable English when lost in translation, and act as if they’re clients with the locals providing services. I have to say that most backpackers do behave better than that, though not always less colonially.

Even more interesting to me is that it’s also true for many Pinoy backpackers I’ve encountered. Ilang beses na nakakasabay ko sa mga local biyahe ko yung backpackers na alam na alam yung pupuntahan nila. They have inside knowledge of the locale: the language, customs, where to go, eat, drink, and snatch the best quality drugs. They too find satisfaction in not being the average bakasyonista (vacationer). They’ve been here before, or at the very least, they’re not here for shallow reasons like seeing tourist attractions. They do shun the cursory trip to the hanging coffins, Chocolate Hills, henna tattoo stall or Burnham Park. Yet frequently, they are still regarded as outsiders. A much friendlier bunch who discriminate less, perhaps, but outsiders nonetheless. In the article, Babakoto wrote:

“…in the unfortunate situation that (they) have to take a local bus, (they) seclude (themselves) as much as possible from the local people by wearing (their) Rayban sunglasses and putting the earphones of (their) iPod in (their) ears. Subsequently (they) sink unashamed in (their) seat, and put (their) feet with coal black soles, at the arm rest of the seat in front of (them).”

It’s funny because that image is so vivid, whether talking about foreign or local backpackers. It is this lack of discretion, however welcomed and knowledgeable about the locals the backpacker is, that makes him no different from the average tourist. The fact that he stands out makes him an outsider, and the sad part of it is however he thinks otherwise, he still is.

All this, of course, is arguable. One might also say that my agreement with the article is a reaction to non-inclusion, especially since there seems to be an existing condescension backpackers have toward other kinds of travelers. However, I find validity infered by the Babakoto article. It is indeed curious that while backpackers celebrate the value of travel and discovery, it seems quite ironic that they make great effort in maintaining exclusivity and the subscription to an image, to the extent that they often miss out on an undeniably important aspect of travel: the ‘nuanced understanding’ of cultures, places, and people previously unknown.

Once I took an online quiz once which concluded that I’m a ‘leisure traveler.’ I suppose that’s true. Di ako backpacker-cool! I don’t belong to that community. Pero okay lang naman.

That’s not to say that I’m any better, but I do aspire for experiences that transcend that of an outsider. I don’t always succeed. In fact, often times, I fail miserably. After all, it’s hard not getting overwhelmed by sights, sounds and people that confront you for the first time. I remember how in Camiguin, we befriended a local who owned a very modest videoke-bar-sari-sari store. We kept coming back to her place to drink and enjoy the videoke. We truly felt welcome and liked. By that virtue, one could think that he’s a cut better than the average turista, but all we truly were was an inconvenience – keeping her up past her normal closing (and sleeping) time. However she enjoyed our singing and genial gestures, we were outsiders and her time with us was a an aberration in her life.

What I can say is I definitely try to transcend being an outsider and find fulfillment in a genuine immersion. On another occasion naman, while sharing bottles of beer with our tour guides in Batanes, I remember them telling me and my friends:

“E iba naman kayo, syempre. Quality tourists kayo e.”

Quality nga, tourists pa rin! And there I thought we were being backpacker-ish na. Still, I guess that’s a step closer to the kind of interaction I aspire for. What I’m really saying is that being a backpacker does not guarantee that you’re better than an average tourist – not in that respect. It doesn’t really matter how you prefer to go about your journeys, but it would sure be great if however you do it, you come out changed and inspired by it. That’s the one aspect that doesn’t always survive in all of it e. Whether it changes you by galvanizing you to change something in the community you visit or the one you belong to, making you less of a bigot, or simply making you more understanding of those who are, what would be most ideal is that you change. Otherwise, we squander the privilege travel affords – connecting with and learning from people and experiences.