I met a young couple from Delhi recently who were backpacking in the jungles of Meghalaya. We chatted about this and that, the future of India, whether such a concept as Eco Tourism existed and the hassle of being a woman in Delhi. Mostly we talked about India and travel.
Just to clarify at one point she asked, “so you have been backpacking around India for more than 20 years?”
I didn’t need to look in the mirror to know that my face carried that same hesitation of consternation that I have seen mirrored on the face of my son and again in his daughter. I was a little bit taken aback. I haven’t owned a backpack for many years and only bought the small one I am traveling with now because ..well, who carries a bloody wheely suitcase into a jungle village, right?
Just as you are not going to rock up to a five star heritage palace in a rattly auto belching black fumes and tumble out with a grungy backpack, right?
O hang on, I did do that once! But that’s another story to be told another day.
But in terms of the young woman who asked me, I guess I was and have been ‘backpacking’ around India. Even when I didn’t have a backpack. There is no other Indian term to quite describe how I travel. And anyway what is in a name?
I went back to my room and sat in the meditation asana and went deeply into myself to ask that question.
According to my subconscious mind, “backpacking” IMPLIES a whole raft of archetypes, some of which I may fit and some of which I no longer consider myself a part of.
Backpacking immediately assumes that there is a backpack. In Indian terms it also implies freedom (ie NOT traveling as part of a larger family group). As a Westerner in India there is also the unspoken implication of wearing tatty clothes,
of traveling only where the hash is and of having a rather liberal set of morality. None of which actually apply to me. Any more.
The reputation of the Gundi Firangi Backpacker is alive and well in India, thanks to …well thanks to unkempt foreigners bitching about the price of a cup of chai all over India.
In Western terms a to be a backpacker implies uncertainty and in my travel there is certainly that. It implies that you are more interested in the experience than the star rating. Well, that would kind of ring true although I have to admit that
I adore lolling around in luxurious palaces as much as I enjoy sitting on the porch of a local hut and watching the world roll by, chickens scratching in the dirt and all that village stuff. .
In Western terms to be backpacking at my age is almost considered
something of a amusement that only men with beards and women who are “looking for themselves” do and that only really for a season or until they Hook Up with some guy.
To make a habit of that kind of travel is often seen as something slightly weird, it tends to make people with a pension plan slightly nervous. There is an unspoken upper age limit to be a backpacker. Globally its accepted as something to do when you are young, when you can literally sleep on a railway station and still look bloody fabulous after a quick wash.
It wasn’t until I had managed to insinuate my foreign self onto a waterhole census that involved sitting in a branch of a tree near to a tigers den for 24 hours in heat that topped 52 degrees Celsius that I realised I had passed that upper
limit quite some years before. It actually took me two days to straighten up after that experience, something I hadn’t considered when I had begged my friends to get me on the census. (Interestingly those In Charge of the operation were reluctant to allow my white ass on the census because they thought I was too Five Star to manage, they were afraid I might bad mouth the experience or try to rate it on Trip Advisor. My friends begged to differ citing my years of jungle training in the wilds of Madhya Pradesh with the Naga Sadhu.)
For me (at least until I had come face to face with my machan – three pieces of bamboo strung together and wedged into the branches of a tree), my desire was ruled my the idea that I may get to have my insides turned to liquid at the sound of a tiger roar in the dark night of a jungle. Looking back, I don’t think I had a backpack with me at that time, just a small “baba bag” carrying a change of knickers and very little else.
I guess it was the Baba years that taught me how to be the opposite of a backpacker. Instead of a turtle like shell on my back, like the sadhu I lived with everything had to fit into a shoulder bag over which I slung my bed, a 250 Rupee blanket neatly folded in three.
By the time I met the sadhus I had already burned or given everything away and hit the road for good. I guess that’s when I consciously redefined backpacking and started to jokingly refer to my life as Five Star Baba Life.
So I guess in answer to that girls question, yes I have been traveling around India and other lands for more than twenty years and sometimes I have had a back pack, sometimes I have had a sadhu jhula, sometimes I have a purple wheely suitcase.
The point is that it doesn’t really matter what you shove your clothes into but how responsibly you travel. Whether you travel with respect for others, for Mother Earth and with regard to the fact that you are an ambassador for your country whether you like it or not. Most importantly for me is that I use this extraordinary privilege of full time travel to strengthen bonds, to come closer to understanding each others cultures and to make precious heart connections.
So yeah nah don’t call me a backpacker baby, I am way cooler than that!