Becoming an Intentional Backpacker

8:20 AM

I was reading a Huffington travel post the other day by Suzy Stratner that started out with this:

"If the flocks of postgrad travelers in elephant pants haven't told you already, Southeast Asia is having what we like to call, 'a moment'"

A post grad with a sore back and maroon elephant I am. I came on this journey after reading dozens of travel blogs from people who have come and experienced Asia and I realized how many of us follow the exact same path and how quickly I have become just another backpacker. We all buy the same pants, drink the same cocktails, flush toilet paper that clogs up the drain, and follow the line that leads to free wifi. We complain when things don't meet our westernized standards but expect to pay local prices. 

Tourism here is booming, the real question is, what do we do with that "moment" and how do we limit the ugly footprint we have left on the backpacking trail of Asia? 

I have learned that my values should not be synonymous with my expectations. I may deeply value a warm shower, however I should never expect one (especially when my hostel is 4$ a night). 
If you do expect the comforts of home, don't backpack. Still come, but don't backpack. Book a resort, eat the westernized versions of the local food, and you will certainly enjoy Asia from the comfort of your beach front cabana. You will flood money into the economy and you won't have to think too much about where the money is going. 

I have learned that being a backpacker means you have to work a little harder. Because a shoe string budget usually means eating the local street food, taking the local metros and busses, and communicating more with the local people. There is a responsibility you must consider as you walk the line of tourism and local immersion.

A question that has crossed my mind many times here is this:

"Is my presence enabling or disabling this community?"

For example, it might seem like the right thing to do to give the street child with a bundle of bracelets on his arm, money. But in reality; that child is kept on the streets because we keep giving him money. You get a bracelet, and he loses motivation to go anywhere else or do anything different. That is not a fair trade. 

I came to Thailand, excited to ride on top of an elephant and play with baby tigers because that's what everybody does here, right? Until I learned about the horrors, and abuse the elephants have to endure to be able to trek people through the jungle. And I found that the reason those wild cats are suddenly so friendly is because they are tranquillized. Tigers were meant to be in the wild, elephants weren't meant to be transportation. 

I think about the tourists who have boosted the sex industry here and taken advantage of the vulnerability of these beautiful women. I think about how many times in Indonesia that I was asked to buy drugs, and how many times I was expected to say yes. 

I think about how we barter so hard to get the price lowered 20 cents on a tank top when that 20 cents means little to us, and much more to them.

I think about how I've lost trust in anyone that is overly nice to me, because of how many times I have been lied to or offered inflated prices. 

It's obvious that tourism does not offer a fair exchange. So do we stop traveling? I don't believe that we do. I think that there is a great deal to learn and a great need for the money that we offer. But maybe instead of pouring money into elephant trekking, we give our money to an elephant sanctuary that rehabilitates elephants that have been used for tourism. Instead of expecting everyone to speak our language, we learn some of theirs. And maybe we love the places we visit for the people who help us when they had no reason to, than to become bitter at the people who rip us off. 

So when I come up to a taxi driver, and I ask him for the price to get to my backpackers hostel, how am I going to convince him that I'm any different than the thousands of other travelers that have exhausted his resources? The truth is, I probably can't, and I might not be any different, but that doesn't mean I can't be better still. 

An intentional backpacker is not something that I claim to be yet. It is certainly something I aspire to be, and I believe that the more I travel, the clearer I will be able to define what that means. I still find myself becoming irritated with my own selfishness, and my own discomfort. I still make mistakes that I realize later. But everyday is another opportunity to leave a better mark and find my own way through this well blazed trail. 

(If you need motivation to come to Thailand, here are some pictures from our trip to the elephant sanctuary. I have never fallen in love with an animal the way that I have fallen in love with these creatures. Seeing them able to roam as they wanted in a safe place was worth the bumpy ride through the jungle) 

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