Lessons from Backpacking, and More Yet to Learn

Tuesday, January 26, 2010 | New York, NY, USA

On my first backpacking odyssey, I was all smiles and sunburn. (Ilha do Ibo, Mozambique)
Lots of people look down on "backpackers." The label brings to mind lazy, dreadlocked, pot-smoking, genie-pants-wearing, hostel-slumming, ocean-bathing, direction-less European twenty-somethings. Perhaps there are some stiff northern Europeans among them too—more put together, perhaps more evidently destined for success than their Latin cousins, but nonetheless still bumbling around the globe with only a sack on their back.

Like all stereotypes, these are in part derived from some truth. But skeptics, don't knock backpacking until you've tried it—and I mean in a part of the world where travel is difficult and requires an enormous amount of discomfort, sacrifice, and adaptability. I'll explain:

The first time I really hit the road on my own, I tossed a few pieces of clothing, books, and my much-abused digital camera into my backpack and set out for three weeks in East Africa. Mind you,
this wasn't the RV-on-your-back type of bag that makes most vagabonders look more like tortoises than tourists. No, it was literally a bookbag (the same one, in fact, that I'd used in high school to haul my textbooks around). But by the end of my three-week odyssey, I had reached a surprising conclusion: the bag that had at first seemed ridiculously small now seemed too big. I had shed unnecessary junk, and left clothes and shoes and gizmos with friendly locals along the way. I had learned to make do.

How to "make do", it turns out, is exactly what backpacking teaches. With little "stuff" at your disposal, in a foreign environment where you're lucky to speak a few words of the local language, and all while you're trying to do something very difficult—get from point A to point B safe and sound—is not easy. In this way, backpacking forces you to make snap decisions with very limited information, to trust strangers, to accept that some will screw you over, and to learn from your mistakes. It is life in human society at its most vibrant; it is life, with all its frustrations and all its joys, accelerated.*

The introduction of a traveling companion into the mix—Jacqueline—is likely to compound this already-complex equation, making the challenge an even greater one this time around. But the inevitable compromises will be well worth it for us both—my first backpacking experience was exhilarating, but still felt hollow, since I had nobody to share it with. Having a travel partner in Jacqueline along will be a welcome addition, and I think we're up to the challenge.

We fly out in a few hours to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia!

* And science has shown its cognitive benefits.

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