Friday, April 9, 2010

Backpacking Then and Now

I just realized this afternoon that I've been on the road for exactly a month. That means this is my longest backpacking trip since Europe in 1994 ... oh, I've had great holidays since of nearly a month (New Zealand, Australia and Central America) but because I've only recently made it to five weeks' vacation allowance (one of the perks of working 18 hours a day as management), I never had enough time off to be gone for a month, unless I used every single vacation day in one shot.

So it's my second longest trip ever, as of today, as I realized. Then I started thinking about the differences between backpacking way back when in Europe (1994! Can't believe it was more than 15 years ago), and backpacking now ... here's the 10 things I think have changed the most.

1. AGE:

Well, this one is obvious. I was a young chick of 25 when Julie and I backpacked around Europe, and I'm over 40 now (but only slightly). The average age of backpackers has remained about the same, so that means now I could be "mom" for some of them. Hell, I have a friend my own age with a 20-year-old son; there are boys staying in my current hostel who aren't any older than that.

2. HAIR:

This goes along with age. I didn't have to worry about this in 1994, but if I go for the entire trip without dying my hair again, I'm going to have about 6 inches of greying roots. I think I'll be dying it on the road, as high-maintenance as that might sound. (I am not high-maintenance otherwise -- no makeup or hair products in my travel bag!)


NOW, I have as few clothes as I thought I could cope with, plus a small but reasonably well-stocked first aid kit, hiking boots, Tevas and a pair of flip-flops. Oh, and of course a couple of novels and some journals, plus the netbook I am currently typing away on. All packed in a high-tech, extremely well-designed backpack that cost me something like $300 and is a marvel of ergonomics.

THEN: for some reason which I now don't understand, I packed a green silk robe, white denim shorts, red Converse sneakers and nothing resembling anything so practical as a first aid kit. I think I even bought a pair of high-heeled sandals in the south of France (which fell apart about two weeks later). Actually, I loved those red Converse sneakers, and I'd bring them again if I still had them. But the rest was a bit silly. All packed in a canvas backpack from an Army surplus store (cost about $15), which was extremely uncomfortable when fully loaded (canvas straps cut into my shoulders).


THEN: collect calls home every week or so to let Mom and Dad know we were still alive. Postcards every so often, and handwritten letters to a couple of friends and my then-boyfriend. No internet or Skype anywhere. Anyone beyond a chosen few who wanted to hear about the trip had to wait till I got home again.

NOW: mostly don't even have to go to an internet cafe, even though they're everywhere (even in tiny towns), as I have a netbook and usually have access to free Wi-Fi where I'm staying. I have a blog which you, dear reader, can access whenever you want to see what I'm up to. So much easier! How did I cope before the electronic age? How is it that I was alive, and an adult at that, before the internet took over the world?

And while I am not one of them, many backpackers now carry cell phones, iPhones, Blackberries, or other electronic devices that mean they are never actually out of touch for a minute. Plus iPods to block out any chance of hearing any sound on the bus or in a dorm room. I think I remember one person in 1994 who travelled with a Sony Walkman*, but that was about it.

*NOTE: for anyone under the age of 30: feel free to email me and I'll explain what a 'Walkman' is.


THEN: paper copy (remember those red carbons? I miss them actually) of plane ticket home, carried around anxiously in my money belt since if I lost it, I'd have to buy an entirely new ticket. No way to change it without expensive international call and very stiff surcharge.

NOW: don't think I even bothered to print a copy of my e-ticket. I just showed up at the airport, showed them my passport and they knew the rest. The details are stored somewhere in my email so I know where and when to show up to fly home eventually. If I want to change it, I can do it online.

6. HOSTELS: the basic concept hasn't changed, although they've added a few more amenities like Wi-Fi. But how you organize where to stay has changed.

THEN: wander from hostel to hostel when you arrive somewhere, until you find a place with a bed. Or else take a guess at which one might be good and deal with frustrating and often non-functioning international phone systems to try to make a reservation ahead of time, which may or may not be waiting for you when you eventually arrive. If not, you can't actually prove you ever made it, and if there are no beds left, that's just your tough luck.

NOW: book online if you like. Read lots of reviews ahead of time, look at pictures of the hostels and maps of the areas, check out what's nearby, print out directions from the train or bus station, pay a deposit ... and when you get there, they already know your name and where you came from, and have a bed waiting for you.

7. MONEY: probably the biggest and best change!

THEN: carried travellers' cheques around in money belt for months, so had to keep track of numbers as they were cashed so I knew which were left in case they were stolen and had to be replaced. Bank card didn't work anywhere outside Canada, so when I ran out of travellers' cheques I took a cash advance from my mastercard (which Mom paid off for me at home so I didn't get charged interest). No way of checking bank account or credit card balances so had to just hope all was in order till I got home.

NOW: travellers' cheques didn't even occur to me before I left. I left home with a couple of hundred dollars in U.S. cash, three credit cards and two bank cards. I take out local cash as/when I need it from regular ATMs, even in the middle of nowhere. Can transfer money and pay bills online so will never be charged interest on credit card.


THEN: travelled with my sister Julie. We are quite alike in many ways so probably drove each other crazy at times. In other ways, we are not that alike at all: she is much more of a planner and a list-maker, for example, while I like to show up spontaneously somewhere and assume everything will work out. Come to think of it, I probably DID drive her nuts. I think she may have ended up doing most of the organizing, but cannot recall.

NOW: Me. Just me. And whatever random people I meet along the way. This is both good and bad: good, because I get to indulge myself entirely and go wherever the spirit takes me without having to consult another living soul; and bad, because it is ALWAYS me to has to buy the bus tickets, book the hostel, buy the food and cook dinner, make the decisions, and so on. Just the price you pay for independence, I suppose.


THEN: this also now seems silly, but at the time I liked to run around wearing a short little white cropped top when it was very hot. Probably with the totally impractical little white denim shorts. Then I wondered why Italian men were so attentive. (I used to have a midriff worth showing off in crop tops ... am working on getting that back again, it just seems to be a little harder now that I am, er, slightly more than 25.)

NOW: one of the backpacker girls in the last hostel described her dressing style as 'masculine christian missionary'. Mine might be described as the same, mostly; it is considerably more modest, anyway, than little white crop tops! I do have one halter-style tank top, if I ever feel like showing a little cleavage. And I know better now than to bring either white or denim along; white becomes grey after a week and never gets clean again, and denim takes days to dry.


THEN: had English boyfriend with whom I was madly in love, who was supposed to be waiting for me in London. (See also #11.) Accordingly, not allowed (according to my own rules) to pick up interesting foreigners of the backpacker sort or otherwise.

NOW: no romantic attachments of any kind. Many lovely men in my life, but mostly gay (they do make the best boyfriends, I have to say, aside from the obvious drawback). Completely free to interact with any attractive Kiwi lads or smouldering Argentinos with whom I may be so inclined. Or anyone else, for that matter.


THEN: No job, no apartment, no life plan. Think I spent 4 months or so on Mom and Dad's couch trying to decide whether or not to go back to England; had just broken up with then-boyfriend (he did some things while I was away that displeased me immensely) and didn't want to get back together with him. (Did, inevitably, when I went back to England, but that is a whole other story.)

NOW: In theory, at least, am going back to a challenging, well-remunerated, and fairly senior job in the provincial government. (Whether or not I will actually go back is a matter of some debate.) Have apartment (currently inhabited by sister) furnished with real furniture (not entirely from IKEA or hand-me-downs) and other grown-up stuff.

Okay, I thought I had 10 things, but it appears that I had more to say! It would be very interesting, actually, to go back now and do the same European trip, just to see how different it all was, and what things were still the same. I won't, of course, since there are too many other places I've never been, but I hope all those naive little 25-year-olds who head out this summer on the European bacpacker trail enjoy themselves as much as I did!**


  1. Love it!
    I don't really remember doing lots of organizing for our Europe trip, incidentally. It musta just organized itself! LOL.
    So true, though, eh, how different it feels to travel as a "grown-up," eh?
    Of course, on my major "grown-up" adventure, I added a husband. That's a whole different take on backpacking again!

  2. Now, the real interesting way would have been if you'd acquired the husband somewhere randomly WHILE backpacking...:)

    Very true about the technology, I think I'm the only person I know who still doesn't own a laptop!

    (this is Shelley again - someone will have to show me how to make a profile on here someday...):

  3. Shelley! It should be easy ... you're a smart girl, I have faith in you figuring it out. Maybe I'll take you up on the suggestion and come back with a husband -- who do you think would be most surprised? (after me, that is)

  4. I figured it out! :)

  5. Hey, I thought of one more ... I can cook now (couldn't then). I don't think Julie and I ever actually cooked a meal in 1994 (I remember a lot of bread and cheese), but definitely have this time around.