A Travellerspoint blog

April 2006

My Backpacking Essentials

Such is the life of the eternal vagabond and travel bug sufferer, that when you're not travelling, you're thinking about and planning your next trip. It's in this latter state that I've conjured up a few of my backpacking essentials.

A Reliable Backpack

A rather obvious place to start but I'm a firm beleiver that when the rucksack was invented, mankind (and womankind) took a huge step forward. However, it disappoints me to see cheap and useless versions, of such a valuable commodity, being produced. It's easy for first time backpackers to fall into the trap of buying a cheap backpack and keeping a few extra pennies for the beer fund. I myself fell foul to this temptation. On my first ever venture into foreign lands I hauled around what looked like a small wardrobe with wafer thin shoulder straps attached. I also made the mistake of cramming it with almost 25kg worth of crap. This in turn lead to me walk as though I was continuously heading into gale force winds as I stooped forward to cope with the weight. Needless to say it was somewhat of a hinderance and an obvious source of amusement to the locals, especially in Morocco where the local nomadic people would know doubt have tried to sell me a donkey for my baggage, had they been able to speak english.

In preperation for my second trip I doubled my rucksack budget and still ended with a backpack that struggled to keep pace with the hectic travelling life. Every single plastic buckle for adjusting the shoulder straps broke. I would get off a bus, throw my bag over my shoulder and feel it snap before hurtling towards the ground and an imminent collision with a local childs head. So in the interests of friendly relations with the locals and keeping myself out of a wheelchair, I think a small lightweight, backpack is a must.

A Good Guidebook

A guidebook is one item that can have a massive impact on what kind of trip you have, where you go and what you see. There are people who purposefully travel without a guidebook for various reasons and there are even people who travel with a guidebook so as to not go where everyone else is (Lonely Planet apparantley aren't too bothered about the fact that their books are used to see where not to go, but then I suppose I wouldn't be all that fussed either if the travellers in question are still buying it!). I always like to have a guidebook with me, even though I might only refer to it now and again, it's still good to have. And my personal choice would normally be a Lonely Planet. Even though the old LP gets a bit of a rough time from the more judgemental sections of the travel community (there are people who look down upon "Lonely Planet clutching" travellers) I still think it's gold on paper!

However, despite my love of Melbournes finest product (although the Acland street cake shops are a contender and I did grow up watching Neighbours...) you still can't rely solely on a guidebook. Not only because it would take the adventure out of travelling but also because, dare I say it, the books aren't always right. I've found myself in a building site at the top of a Vietnamese mountain and a few thousand dong out of pocket because of guidebook recommendations and lost in a Moroccan city because of a bad map from a guidebook. Who knows, maybe even the language translations are a bit off the beaten track (please refer to Monty Pythons "Hungarian to English dictionary" sketch). Anyhow, back to my point, I would say a guidebook should be an essential part of anyones travel checklist as 99% of the time it's right and it gives an initial insight into the culture your trying to explore in the first place.

The Right Attitude

In my opinion the most important thing to take with you on a trip is the right attitude towards it. Leave any prejudices you have at home and go out with an open mind toward the weird and wacky people and places of the world. Even if sometimes you feel like screaming at the tuk tuk driver following you down the street saying, "hello, where you go? hello, where you go?" Just try to be patient and remember that these are the people and the culture that you are there to experience.

Talking of annoyances, probably the biggest nuisance to travellers, particularly on the tourist trail in Asia, are the locals offering services i.e. transport, accommodation and tours. More than once I would have quite happily jammed a stick into a Vietnamese cyclo drivers wheel or stood on the toes of the touts pushing hotel cards at my eyeball, but as a student of my own philosophies, and out of fear of them having tough friends, I always refrained. However, if you are patient and understanding as to why it's so important to the tout or driver to get your money then you will automatically be more laid back toward the situation. You'll often find that when the money matters are out of the way, the touts etc will geniunely try and become friends with you. My girlfriend and I were partially abducted by a touts family in Morocco. They were so keen to show us good hospitality that they took us to their relatives home in an obscure Moroccan town and forgot to tell us that we were staying the night! And even when we returned to Fes, we had to tear ourselves away from them otherwise my vegetarian girlfriend might still be there to this day, suffering the quizical looks for refusing the chicken cous cous.

At the end of the day however, as long as you're open minded towards new experiences and new people, you're already prepared for any trip...

Posted by scotsman 12:40 Comments (6)

Going Home...

One thing all trips have in common, no matter how big or small, is that at some point, you have to go home.

For some, going home is fantastic. Everyone speaks your language, you know where to go if you need to buy a small everyday item (how difficult would it be for Beijing shop owners to stock deodorant?), the food won’t necessarily put you in hospital and you can safely wander anywhere without the fear of coming into contact with deadly local wildlife (or deadly locals for that matter).

For others, going home is a traumatic rollercoaster of emotions. There are highs of seeing friendly faces again, but lows of feeling disconnected. When returning home people often feel they have grown as a person whilst travelling and that their life has moved forward. As a result it feels as though the friends and family you have returned to see don’t really understand you as fully anymore. They didn’t share that amazing mountaintop view or the curry with meat of questionable origin or the encounters with local characters that shaped you into the person you are upon going home.

I, unfortunately, fall into the latter category. After sixteen months on the road I was looking forward to seeing the friendly faces but after two days I was desperate to leave. When you live a life whereby everyday is new and challenging it becomes very difficult to look at the mundane routines of daily life with any enthusiasm. Where is the fun in going to buy something for breakfast when you know; firstly how to ask for it, secondly what it is you’re buying and thirdly that it won’t necessarily put you in hospital? It’s no fun at all! Travelling, I’ve realised since coming home, challenges you every day and forces you to continuously learn new things. It becomes a way of living your life and not just a trip that you’re making. One of the most difficult questions I’ve been asked since being home is did I enjoy my trip? How do I answer that? How do you sum up a chunk of your life in a small, polite response? It’s impossible. As a result, the conversation quickly turns to what happened at work on Thursday or the questionable sausage roll that was bought for lunch yesterday etc. All no doubt very interesting in their own right but quite difficult to take in when your thoughts are somewhere on the other side of the planet.

On the other hand, an interesting aspect of going home is that, for a short while at least, you are able to see your own country from a tourists perspective. If you’ve been on the road for a significant amount of time then everything seems new and novel when you go home. For example, after becoming accustomed to the erratic, crazy and chaotic streets and drivers of Southeast Asia and China, it was amazing to see a road sign in the UK that politely asked, “please be a courteous driver.” How very British! Although even if there weren’t a sign asking drivers to be nice it wouldn’t matter. Cars often stop voluntarily in order to let pedestrians cross the road, I was amazed! You mean I don’t actually have to walk into a throng of oncoming traffic and risk my life in order to cross the road? A novel experience.

In addition, is there a nation better placed in the world to describe their weather as “blustery?” On my trip I think I may have seen the entire weather spectrum, from central Australia in summer to Siberia in winter and everything in between. Yet nowhere has a weather forecast where for 365 days of the year the word “blustery” (i.e. a combination of whipping winds and drizzly rain) is likely to feature. In my mind, Britain has communist weather i.e. it’s grey and oppressive. But it seems to add to the national character. Because of the grey downbeat nature the population have grown to greatly appreciate small pleasures. Bill Bryson in his book “Notes From a Small Island” quite accurately describes how the British seem to feel guilty in enjoying the pleasures of life and as a result derive immense satisfaction from small luxuries, such as a cup of tea and if you’re a devil then maybe even a biscuit!

Unfortunately though, the tourist phase of going home only lasts for a week or two. After that you have to start dealing with the travel bug. Common signs of having contracted the bug are: prolonged time being spent in the travel section of book shops, the desire to buy a new, smaller backpack, spending time on the internet looking for cheap flights or trains to various locations etc… The only known cure for the travel bug is to hit the road again. However, at some point you have to once more face up to going home. It’s a vicious circle…

Posted by scotsman 12:01 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged backpacking Comments (10)

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