Backpacking Culture

“And to you, Barrington Bradman Bing McKenzie, “I bequeath the sum of $2,000 “on condition that you leave for the United Kingdom immediately “to further the cultural and intellectual traditions “of the McKenzie dynasty.”

Michael Jennings reports a mildly disturbing – to him, at least – encounter on a recent visit to Europe:

I yesterday checked in to a hostel here in San Sebastian. I was mildly annoyed to see a “No war for oil” sign on the wall. Now, it is theoretically IYHF policy that hostels are open to all regardless of race, religion, political beliefs, blah blah blah, and this seemed mildly contrary to this policy.

Largely, I just wanted somewhere to lie down, but emboldened by what I had read earlier, I decided to make some sort of statement. I signed the credit card slip “Donald Rumsfeld”. Nobody noticed, or paid the slightest attention to what I had signed.

There are two kinds of Hostels. IYHF (HI) hostels and “other”.

In my travels, HI hostels were, without exception, hostile to the Australian hostelling experience. Drinking, fraternisation, any kind of “vulgar” behaviour were frowned upon in the very European HI hostels. Very different to what you find in Australia, the UK and Canada, where this is all part of the fun. I learned to avoid HI whenever possible. Staying at HI is the equivalent of eating at McDonalds because you are too afraid to try the local stuff.

It’s quite telling that many backpackers know the difference between the two without even thinking about it. Those looking for a quiet bed to sleep in while visiting the tourist attractions seek out HI because they have a repuation for sterility. Those who don’t mind mixing it up and getting into the odd sticky situation end up seeking out independent hostels – or those belonging to the “Hostel Anglosphere”

Warning – Massive, Rambling Tangent!

“Anglosphere” isn’t an entirely suitable description, of course. The US is unique among English-speaking countries in that the very concept of backpacking is foreign to them (backpacking means “hiking” in America). I spent a year travelling in America on a tourist visa – they don’t have any such thing as a “Working Holiday” visa. Americans in general, even the ones from supposedly cosmopolitan cities such as New York, seemed bewildered by the concept.

The fact that someone would want to spend their vacation pulling beers at a pub, moving furniture or picking fruit is difficult for Americans to digest. I put it down to economics.

International travel from the US is fairly cheap. You can fly to London from New York for around $120 US dollars. Continental Europe around $200. South America is even cheaper. Most Americans have never had to consider the problem facing young Australians who want to travel. Specifically, the $2500 upfront cost of getting anywhere that isn’t Bali or New Zealand.

As a result, American uni students can afford to take a 1 month trek through Europe. Most Australian backpackers wouldn’t dream of spending that amount of money for a 4 week trip. It just isn’t viable. You only plan on doing it once, so you want to make it last, and go for a year.

It’s not that Americans don’t think it’s a good idea. It just never occured to them. They never had a Bazza McKenzie, Alby Mangels or Pantsman to inspire them. Of the few Americans I met on the travels, a significant percentage were accompanied by Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road”

I admit that I would have thought it a fairly daunting idea if I didn’t already know a fair number of people who have done the 1 year backpacking thing. Whenever I explained the concept to the yanks in the pub, the response was usually along the lines of “Hey, that’s a great idea!”.

Of course there were a few that were convinced I was nuts, or just another illegal immigrant. Being Australian was a significant help in that regard. 5 years ago when I travelled, Australia was still the weird place where Crocodile Dundee lived amongst the Kangaroos and Aborigines. Some people were clearly in awe of my ability to escape from the billabong and find the solitary airport. Accordingly, the treatment of perceived “illegal immigrants” from Australia is more one of fascination than resentment.

I assume that the events since September 11, and subsequent strengthening of the US-Australia alliance have served to better inform Americans of what Australia is really like.

In any case, the point is that backpacking has never been a big part of American culture. At least not in the way it is to thousands of young Aussies, Kiwis, and Brits. Americans are more “tourists” than backpackers. An important difference.

Upon arriving in London, a tourist’s itinerary would be headed by such things as witnessing the changing of the guard, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and the like. A backpacker would probably head straight to Earl’s Court, grab a TNT and begin job hunting. A visit to “The Church” is probably higher on the list than the beefeaters.

Of course, seeing the sights is always nice. The primary difference between a backpacker and a tourist is that a tourist seeks picture postcards, while a backpacker seeks things that can’t be captured with a camera.

I can vaguely remember the view of the Statue of Liberty from the deck of the Staten Island ferry. I even took a streetcar ride through San Francisco. It was a great experience, but that’s not why you go backpacking.

Catching a Greyhound from Vancouver to New York, engaged in a day-long conversation with an only-just-ex-con who is on his way home to New Orleans. Spending the week as an illicit guest in the dorms of an all-girl private university; Getting into a drunken argument with a (unknown to me at the time) “Friend of Ours” on the night Frank Sinatra died;

Explaining, for the 2000th time, to an Israeli guest that the charge is per bed, and it’s not ok to let 6 of your friends in, even if they sleep on the floor; Travelling to the Bronx to play a game of Australian Rules Football against the Australian Embassy Team, who are the only football team in America legally allowed to buy Australian beer that isn’t Fosters; Throwing up on the subway after a hard night’s “cultural exchange”.

Giggling while listening to the Australian consulate lawyer chew the ass out of the NYPD for denying foreign nationals the right to phone the consulate when arrested. (Three guys decided that rather than report a guy they caught stealing their wallets, they would instead dangle him out of a 10th floor window to scare him into not doing it again.) Experiencing life as an illegal itinerant worker. Getting paid $100 to drive some guy’s brand new Mustang from New York to Chicago.

Those are memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life. It’s safe to say that you wouldn’t experience things like that on a package holday. Not even a rambunctious Contiki tour. Immersing yourself in the everyday life of the natives is what it’s all about. It’s what separates the “tourists” from the “travellers”. It’s also what separates the “Youth Hostels” of Hostelling International from the grass roots experience that the independent “Backpackers” provide. In fact, those kind of experiences are exactly what HI guests hope to avoid when on vacation.

How is this connected to Michael’s Experience of the Anti-War sign in a spanish hostel? I’m not sure, but it is. No matter where I travelled in the US, and briefly in Canada and the UK, the same demographics were present. Staff and long term backpackers were always from the same countries.

Australians and Brits are notorious for their antics abroad. Guests from Eastern European and South American countries, while lesser in number, were always happy to stick around. The strange thing is that western Europeans were conspicuous in their absence. In particular, French and German guests didn’t stay for long. Same goes for the Dutch. In their eyes, the quality of the experience was directly linked to the cleanliness of their rooms, security and organised collective activities such as sightseeing tours.

Undoubtedly, guests of that nature would be much happier at Hostelling International, with their midnight curfews, alcohol bans and “quiet times”. I’d venture that even a quiet type like Michael Jennings would be able to put up with a few boisterous guests, if it meant really getting to know the people who are sharing the experience with him.

It’s the same curiosity that caused him to sign his name as Donald Rumsfeld, and I’m guessing that Michael is a little disappointed that he didn’t get a response. The ensuing debate was the real experience he was looking for..and this time he didn’t get it, but I’m sure he’ll try again.

After all, what’s the point of travelling the world if you agree with everyone you meet?

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