backpacking & its cultural markers

Researchers have noted, for example, that within backpacker enclaves there is a clear hierarchy based on shorthand status cues curiously similar to those of home. Whereas back home income and influence might lend to status, backpackers fixate upon travel experience and fashion. Anderskov’s research subjects assert that “real backpackers” travel at least three months, and they demonstrate their credibility through their clothing, spending, and storytelling. Backpacker novels confirm this ideology, frequently using such markers to communicate experience and travel savvy. In Gardner’s “Losing Gemma,” for example, readers learn immediately upon meeting Coral that the character’s “scuffed canvas carry-all” and well-worn clothing (a “dark red sarong, tied loosely around her concave stomach, a droopy cheesecloth top, and leather flip-flops”) advertise her two years of travel experience. Through these grungy fashion details, she is identified as “a true traveler, her soft Western edges eroded by months or even years of vivid Third World Experience.” Before long, Coral rescues the passports and money carelessly lost by two travel neophytes, Gemma and Esther, and recommends they deliberately roughen their bags in order to boost their street cred.

In addition to such strict adherence to anti-fashions, all the novels depict disheveled backpackers earning rite-of-passage by enduring the workaday hardships that come with independent travel in the developing world. When Sutcliffe’s Dave suffers a bout of diarrhea, he notes that, “crapping your pants ... is a dire and miserable experience; but having crapped your pants—I mean, that’s a pretty good conversational party piece.” Over time, status within the community’s hierarchy hinges on the accumulation of such difficult travel experiences, which travelers collect and trade like blue-chip stock portfolios.

Accordingly, upon meeting “older” Australian travelers in their 20s, Sutcliffe’s Dave admits, “I felt I couldn’t really talk about what I’d done, because they’d all been on the road for months and had amazing stories I couldn’t possibly compete with—about how they’d got lost in the Thai jungle with heroin smugglers, had fought off kitten-sized cockroaches in an Indonesian prison, or had done the entire Everest trek dressed in flip-flops and a Bondai Beach T-shirt.” Anderskov adds that this kind of social hierarchy is “situational and floating”—it depends on whom the backpacker is socializing with. As a result, it is possible for the initially clueless protagonists in the novels by Sutcliffe, Gardner, and Barr to accumulate status over time, with each of them near the end of their stories encountering “fresh-faced scared bunnies” who remind them of their previous, less experienced selves and confirm their advanced clout within the independent travel community. In this way, a typical story arc of the backpacker novel focuses not on a deepened understanding of local cultures, but on gaining social standing within travel communities that aren’t all that demographically distinct from cliquish subcultures back home.

via World Hum.