I’ve been freezing in single digit temperature here in Melbourne. So to channel some positive vibes, I wrote about my ever-sacred, never-to-be-broken 8 Commandments of Backpacker Travel. Enjoy!
1. THOU SHALT CARRY A BACKPACK.
A backpack signals to other people certain things.
Firstly, it gives you street cred amongst the backpacker community. If these are the people you seek to meet, then these are the people you will attract. You will be judged when you lug your heavily monogrammed LV trunk onto a tuk-tuk in Koh Phangan, I promise you this. Lugging a suitcase into a hostel makes you
look like a douche.
Secondly, and more importantly, leverage off the universal (and mostly true) assumption that backpackers are poor, broke tight-arses.
If I needed to leave my luggage in storage or unattended somewhere for whatever reason, I’d stake out a spot right next to the nearest briefcase/Gucci suitcase/flashpacker’s laptop bag/camera bag. It’s like parking your Nissan in between an Audi and a BMW. That’s just laying low and getting the crosshair off your possessions.
Thirdly, a backpack is versatile. It doesn’t have a hard shell so it squeezes into tough spots. You can attach gear on the multiple straps of the exterior when you run out of space. You can carry your backpack onto that 12 hour bus ride through Laos and sit it on your lap while the other tourists worry about their bags sliding off the roof of the bus. You can’t wheel a suitcase through the cobbled streets of Europe or the medinas of Morocco or through sand to your desert camp, but your backpack trumps the situation. Carrying 20KGs on your shoulders is a breeze compared to heaving it with your arm. Running for a plane, train, bus is more doable with a backpack. Etcetera etcetera etcetera.
2. THOU SHALT ENGAGE WITH THE LOCALS.
Most people choose not to have much to do with the locals for various reasons. Admittedly, it is a hard thing to do – it involves making yourself vulnerable by trusting people you might have nothing in common with, making a conscious effort to step out of your comfort zone and expending time in your itinerary. Add to this the every few bad apples who prey on the unknowing tourist and scammers a-plenty and the inevitable reviews about these on travel guides and websites. All fair reasons but I say… to hell with them!
I may as well have been purely relying on National Geographic for the hope of ever learning anything about a culture instead of flying halfway around the world if I didn’t intend on getting to know the people- the making and byproduct of a country’s history. (And no, ordering pad thai from the staff in your 5-star beach resort does not count.)
The best (and most random) experiences most other travellers would never have lived out that I’ve had on the road were thanks to some amazing locals. Kemal, our contact someone in Istanbul had set us up with in Göreme, started reminiscing about Australia with Jing and I as he used to live here for 7 years. I was told time and time again to not miss out on the classic hot air balloon rides over their beautiful fairy chimneys and rock formations that this Turkish region was known for.
We, however, got driven right into the heart of Pigeon Valley at 2AM on our first night in Göreme (this must be safe right, hur hur hur). It was the single most beautiful thing with the sky speckled with stars and the fairy chimneys looking kind of ghostly in the night, mad dog chilling on the bonnet of the car with a couple of beers. Kemal brought us into an amazing fairy chimney which was an abandoned church, with the rocks forming an actual altar and pulpit! He tells us they now use it as a DJ stand for parties held there in the summer. Too cool for school. An experience I’d safely bet a majority of travellers wouldn’t have even imagined, much less have experienced.
3. THOU SHALT ENGAGE WITH OTHER TRAVELLERS.
It’s shocking that not many people do this. There is nothing more I look forward to than to meet other travellers, which is predominantly why hostels are my choice accommodation while on the road. Travellers generally get along well with other travellers because of the obvious and immediate common interest you share.
Many are doing the same routes as you, and might have an abundance of wisdom to share from their personal experiences. When I took time off in Uganda from working in a safari to visit Kenya with 6 other interns, we were referred to an independent tour guide and driver via a traveller. He cut us a deal for 3 days and 2 nights in the Masai Mara outback for $200 per person inclusive of all meals and accommodation. A simple Google search will tell you the best price for the same package via a tour group would have been $650 per person. UH-MAYZING.
A Croatian girl we met in Istanbul who had done our route the other way around told us that it was low season in Morocco and hostels and B&B’s were ready to negotiate daily rates, what more take you in without a booking. So we ditched our $25 a night bookings for $5-$7 a night rooms.
Gina and Mickael who we met in Aqaba, not only dropped us off at the port to catch our ferry after a long day of diving, but also sourced a phone and internet from the owner of the dive centre they worked for, for us to make bookings and arrange transport to our accommodation in Dahab when we got there.
We met an equally homesick and miserable bunch of travellers in Fes who were all missing Christmas celebrations as much as we were. As you can imagine, no one cares for Christmas in a predominantly Muslim country like Morocco. So we wallowed in misery together and had our own Christmas, with turkey and everything.
Shaped our Santa hats into little Fes-es, we did.
Most day tours organised by the hostels work out cheaper if you have the numbers. Or even taking the equivalent of a maxi cab somewhere helps when you have headcount. Definitely doesn’t hurt when you can get in on these and guarantee some amazing company at the same time.
Draw inspiration from other backpackers’ stories and build upon them. They all have as much, if not more, to share, as you do!
4. THOU SHALT NOT BE CONSUMED BY THE CAMERA
It is so easy to be drawn into the experience that you feel like you have to capture everything.
Have you ever taken a photo of a single landmark from more angles than you thought could exist and then ended up skimming mindlessly, and even deleting most of them when you get home?
Travelling with your DSLR attached to your face removes your presence in a place. It almost solidifies your role as a tourist, creates a barrier between you and other people worth meeting and all because you were trying to figure out the right damned exposure settings.
5. THOU SHALT IMMERSE IN THE CULTURE
Engage with the local culture, always have an open mind to new cuisines, routines and perspectives. It’s so easy to recognise a difference and immediately reject it as unfamiliar and unlikeable.
I remember being told about how cheap and convenient taxis were in Kenya when I first got there. What a win, I thought.
And then they flagged me down a taxi.
Turns out it’s an 8 seater van which really seats 13 (if you’re lucky) and only goes the one direction. Refer below.
Yeah dudes… NOT a taxi.
Embrace the crazy and weird. Take the taxis of the world anyway. Take a crap in a hole in the ground. Get into it for the experience, I say!
No better way to impress the locals and garner a smile than babbling in the local language colloquially.
Approaching someone with an Assamualaikum! Bonjour! Ni hao? conveys respect, gains respect and immediately gets them on your good side if you’re intending to ask for favours, help, directions etcetera. Also helps with number 2 (of the list, ahem).
After all, expecting everyone to speak and understand English is a little arrogant considering you’re the foreigner in the situation. Some people love hacking new languages and that’s an exhilarating challenge and experience altogether but for the less gifted commoner (me included), just the act of trying goes a long, long way. You don’t have to enrol for months of language classes, just use phrasebooks and download phrase guide apps on your phone.
7. THOU SHALT GET LOST
Chuck out the map, throw away the organisation and put aside the plans.
It is liberating to just get lost and walk aimlessly in a new place.
On my second day in Marrakesh, I wandered off back to my hostel alone to get a head start in the showers. Anyone who has read/been to Morocco know about the weaving labyrinths that make up the old medinas of this medieval country. It took me a whole 5 minutes and I was hopelessly lost. I had ended up at the same red door (or was it?) 3 times after having walked down 5 different alleyways. And it was dark. And I was a female alone in a country where females do not wander out alone in the dark. FREAK OUT.
Then a man on a motorcycle drives past and says he will give me a lift. I said no persistently, assuming he was either (a) a rapist, (b) a murderer, (c) one of the many faux guides in Marrakesh who would demand a ridiculous 10 euros if you were lucky after delivering directions or (d) all of the above. He then proceeded to proclaim that he was “Ali from yesterday! The hostel manager from Nari Nari!” who we had met.
What proceeded was the best half hour I’d spent in Marrakesh, which consisted of a death-defying fate-bending weave-in weave-out under-ladders pothole-avoiding tour of the city’s narrow alleyways where pedestrian walkways were shared with donkeys and coincidentally, motorcycles and pushcarts too. He showed me his favourite spots of the city, got me some good ol’ mille feuille (GOOGLE THIS NOW) before dropping me home in one happy piece back at my hostel.
8. THOU SHALT TAKE THE PISS OUT OF ANNOYING SITUATIONS
Being on the road takes its toll. Living out of a suitcase is taxing. Sharing dorms and living on a budget is painful.
Add to that a whole different culture and place where you have to constantly be getting lost and finding your way back and people quite literally lose their shit.
One thing that annoys me on the road is constant haggling.
I’m always up for a great bargaining sesh but after having one too many “YOU WANT MASSAGE?”, “MAKE A SUIT, MA’AM?” and “TUK-TUK!”s being yelled at my direction, i get all pissy.
What do I do? I take a piss out of the situation. Have fun with it. Try selling them YOUR stuff. “I don’t want that, but DO YOU WANT MY SCARF??? Only $5!” Offer a massage. Don’t be snide about it but have some LOLs. It’s good for the soul and gets you out of the funk.
So there you go. My 8 Commandments of Backpacker Travel, tried and tested over the years. And I will apply them over and over again on all future travels.
I have a strong suspicion I’d add to this, however. Until next time!