16 February 2012

The Backpacker Paradox

Every time I travel, there sometimes arises this bitter taste in my mouth, whenever I see something on the road. It is what I think I should call the Backpacker's Paradox.

See, I love to travel independently. I don't use tour guides and group package tours as much as I can. If I can do it on my own, I would. So one can say that I belong to the backpacker subculture. However, there are times when I am on the road and I see fellow backpackers, and sometimes, I just want to get away from the rest of the travelers.

The thing is, I find it ironic sometimes, that the people who identify as backpackers travel that way in "search of a unique and native experience". There is this idea that by traveling independently, one can see the unique destination, the destination as it is in the wild, the destination without the Disney-fication of foreign influences.

Now that is good and fine. However, whenever these backpackers are on the road, they act like seeing a unique and untarnished experience is not what they want.

See, there's cafes and restaurants and hotels that have it all ready for the backpacker. There's cafes that offer Happy Hours and group tours and smooth transfers and all the amenities that a backpacker can want. There's a disco ball that rotates in the dark dance floor. The backpackers hang out with fellow backpackers, instead of hanging out with the locals. I just find that ironic.

So where I am coming from with this rant?

Well, I am actually writing this in Copan, Honduras. I decided to stay in a hostel, and sure enough, I met fellow travelers, which is fine. My bunkmate is from France, and we are civil with each other. The hostel manages a cafe across town, and they gave me a free drink ticket. One day, I decided to use it, and so I checked out this cafe. I didn't like what I saw. The clientele was all foreign. The menu was in English. Everything was set up for the convenience of the foreign backpacker. Whatever happened to seeing the destination in its untarnished and original form?

I don't know. I guess I deviated from my plan, and I got disappointed. Before that, I have been getting food from the local joint, from that street stall that sells pupusas. I guess I'll revert back to that. It's a more unique experience anyway.

(Rock Corridors, from my Machu Picchu Series)


  1. Yeah, I noticed this "backpacker" culture too. Wasn't that bad in Copan though, it's still fairly low-key. But it's the same in Caye Calker, Belize; or even in Antigua.

    When you travel for a while, you can be relieved to see some restaurants and some foreigners. Some parts of Honduras had literally no restaurants because locals obviously eat at home and there are few travelers passing through.

    That said... I know what you mean ;-)

  2. Zhu,

    You're right, sometimes, it is relieving to see a restaurant when you're on the road and have been eating local for quite a bit. But the restaurant doesn't have to be set up JUST for foreigners. I was in Coban (the other similarly-named town, in Guatemala) after spending a bit of time in Flores, and I went ahead and went inside a McDonalds. Sure, it's a restaurant, but even non-travelers go there too. It's not something artificial that people created just for the convenience and mirage of the traveler.

  3. This is an interesting post. I can totally relate to this. I'd like to do as the locals do (i.e. eat street food or at a hole-in-the-wall joint) but oftentimes when I'm traveling with a friend or group of friends, it's difficult for me to insist on what is usually out of their comfort zones.

    On the other hand, one can't really escape the preponderance of businesses geared towards the foreign visitor - this is a great way to boost local economy and, I'm sure, there are tourists willing to patronize them.

  4. Dennis,

    That's true. I think one just has to result in a little tact and personal selection: pick and choose whatever floats your boat. Let's hope that travel and travelers don't ruin the destinations that we decided to visit in the first place, just by being there.