A response to: “Why You Should Avoid Other Backpackers”

A recent guest post on Almost Fearless annoyed me to the point I had to write a response.  Evan Carpenter, the author, makes the argument that befriending backpackers on your trip abroad is a no-no.  For the remainder of this post I’m equating flashpackers with backpackers to include myself and the rest of the flashpacking community.

The Statue of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva at the top of Mt. Emei in China.

The Statue of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva at the top of Mt. Emei in China.

Synergistic With Your Goals

Evan writes, “Hanging out with backpackers is antithetical to your goals”.  He quickly throws out the idea of traveling with other westerners and focuses on goals such as doing something new, seeing a different culture and feeling a sense of wonder.  I believe backpackers can meet all these goals and even share those experiences with others.  Not one of these goals requires you go off on your own and avoid other travelers.

In fact, when backpackers are just starting to travel for the first time, everything seems new and full of wonder.  Sharing those first time experiences with a group of backpackers you just met at the hostel is usually a highlight of a trip, not something to be avoided.  In addition, other travelers have a way of pushing you and your trip in a different direction or motivating you to do things you never expected.  On a recent month through China, I traded my original plan of going to Shanghai for a climb up Mt. Emei with eight others I’d been traveling with and it was one of the highlights of my trip so far.  I wouldn’t have sought out that experience, but was thankful to have done it.

Flashpackers on the Great Wall

Two Canadians, a Scot, a Kiwi and a couple Yanks on top of the Great Wall of China.

Experience AND Destination

Evan’s second argument is that you can either experience a location through the locals OR see/experience the sites and attractions.  These two things are not mutually exclusive.   If you’re willing to spend time in a place, you’re going to have local experiences if you seek them out.  On this point I agree with Evan, slow down and spend more time in a place for a more authentic experience.  This doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t have those local experiences while at the same time seeing the wonders of the world.

I was recently at a festival near Chiang Mai where I intended to spend the day photographing a few bands, eating organic food and maybe doing some yoga.  Instead, one of the four people I was traveling with arranged a visit to a local’s house at a village 60 kilometers away.  After a harrowing 90-minute ride through mountain roads in the back of a pickup, we arrived at a local village by the river.  We all joined in the shopping and cooking, and later went for a dip near our host’s house.  An amazing experience I wouldn’t have been privy to had I not been traveling with others.

The children of our local host play in the river with the flashpackers that were invited to diner.

The children of our local host play in the river with the flashpackers that were invited to diner.

Have It Both Ways

The last section talks about trying to do just what I described above – have local experiences while being with other backpackers. While he mentions a few good tactics for having local experiences (I highly recommend and repeat his suggestion about http://couchsurfing.org) he says something here that really rubs me the wrong way.  “Most backpackers aren’t that nice to or interested in the locals so the bar is set extremely low.”

I don’t know whom Evan has been traveling with, but with very few exceptions, the people I’ve met on the road have been absolutely incredible.  Sharing the experiences I’ve had with them along the road has made my trip 10 times what it would have been had I avoided other travelers.   Not one has been mean to or treated the locals in any other way than with respect and kindness.

Ultimately travel is about being open to new experiences and learning.  We get out to see the world because we want to know what else is out there, and to share that with others of like mind makes the whole endeavor that much better.  So, get out there and meet other backpackers/flashpackers.  Go have those shared experiences and be willing to share your highlights with others along the way.

The host family of the Oudomphone Guest House in Laos.

The host family of the Oudomphone Guest House in Laos, a family I got to know well.

  • Joseph Elwell

    “Most backpackers aren’t that nice to or interested in the locals so the bar is set extremely low.”
    That line totally bugged me too! What is he saying about ME? I think this line, alone, sets the context. He must have bad luck, or a poor ability to choose who to mingle with. Or Birds of a Feather? I’ve definitely left behind fellow backpackers when I found them too closed minded or too shy to venture out.

    It’s this line that I think he’s close to being right about:
    “It’s not that there is actually anything wrong with being a backpacker, in my opinion, or with being in the company of a backpacker or two. The problem is being with many backpackers. ”

    In my experience when I’m with more than a handful of backpackers there is usually at least one naysayer who will feed the flock. It’s harder to leave a flock, if you’re vested in one of the individuals (say someone of the opposite sex). So you might end up having the one naysayer keep everyone from doing anything interesting.

    This happened to me, once while in Prague. A large group of us left the hostel together for dinner. On the way home entertainment/dancing was suggested but at least 1 person just wanted to go back. Since I was interested in one of the girls I succumbed to the peer pressure and ended up having a very dull evening back at the hostel. I ended up leaving Prague with poor memories of the city. It wasn’t until my next visit that I fell in love with Prague, now it is my favorite city in the world. During my second visit I went with a “backpacker” who I met in Luxembourg, but who was from Prague. So that backpacker turned out to be a local.

    It’s hard to justify ignoring any experience, whether it be with a local or with a fellow traveler. In the end I think you’re going to lose when you ignore opportunities.

    Joseph Elwell.

    • Anonymous

      I’ve had that happen as well on occasion, but then I just peel off the bigger group and do what I’m looking to do if I can’t convince the naysayer otherwise. That’s one of the things about bigger groups – the more people there are, the more opinions you’ve got to deal with on everything. It’s like trying to decide on a video to watch or where you’ll eat – eventually a decision is reached and everyone usually goes along with it.

      I think you’ve got it right here: “It’s hard to justify ignoring any experience, whether it be with a local or with a fellow traveler. In the end I think you’re going to lose when you ignore opportunities.” Closing yourself off to any new experience from the beginning is really going to limit the potential being a flashpacker offers.

      -T

  • Anonymous

    I definitely think that you need a balance. It’s easy to get sucked in with a group–and often easier to become more distracted by the fun you’re having than what you’re surrounded with. While I don’t like traveling with big groups, I think it’s great to travel with one or two other travelers–particularly if they’re from a different country than me! I’ve learned lots about Australia, England, Norway, Germany, etc. by becoming friends with fellow travelers from those countries, which I think is a cultural experience in itself!

    • Anonymous

      Balance is where it’s at! Isn’t the trip supposed to be about having fun anyhow? I travel solo sometimes, in small groups sometimes, and in big groups sometimes. Big groups are often harder to come by, but end up as a kind of mixer for meeting new people who you can then travel with in smaller groups.

      And you’re right, having the opportunity to travel with people from other countries and learn from them as well is a bonus you might not be expecting. http://couchsurfing.org is really good for this as well. In my experience, many of the hosts out there are foreign to the country they’re hosting in, but have the extremely helpful knowledge of a local.

      -T

  • Jennifer with @twoyearsoff

    I think travel is, to some people, a very personal endeavor. Obviously there are good arguments for both sides, but at the same time, maybe it shouldn’t be an argument, but rather a personal preference based on what you want to get out of your travels.

    Though I’ve traveled to 10 different countries, I’ve only caught on and been a backpacker once — in my most recent trip. LOVED it. I love the idea of backpacking/flashpacking; really enjoyed the people I’ve met both locals as well as fellow travelers I can learn from. I want to become a full-fledged backpacker on our upcoming two year round-the-world trip (starts in Aug, 2011, yay!).

    With that said, I believe there’s no right way to travel. My ultimate goal is to become more worldly, and understanding of other cultures. I really enjoy getting to know locals, avoiding tourist traps when possible, and doing as the locals do. When in Rome, right? Definitely during our travels, I want to met fellow backpackers and I can imagine having great conversations/experiences with them. But at the same time, I do believe traveling in large groups will make locals less likely to want to approach you, or will approach you for the wrong reasons.

    Yes, I can imagine getting homesick (that’s what traveling with the hubby’s for :)), and will want to meet people like myself once in a while instead of struggling to communicate all the time. At the same time, I think the key thing to remember is that we don’t want to hang around other backpackers ALL THE TIME or even too much of the time. It’s too much IN my comfort zone, and I’m trying to practice being outside of my comfort zone.

    Does that make any sense?

    • Anonymous

      I totally agree – traveling with others along the will come down to what you want, your personality and where you are in your trip (if that makes sense). To each their own. Saying that, however, isn’t the same as saying “avoid backpackers or your trip will be ruined” which was the sense I got from the original article. Everything is about balance.

      I’m thrilled you got to backpack and look forward to following your trip once you two get started. My suggestion is to meet as many people along the way as you can, but stay true to who you are while being flexible with your itinerary. One of the best aspects of meeting flashpackers/backpackers abroad is the information you get from them. You’ll inevitably come across someone who’s heading in the opposite direction and has tips on items in the direction you’re headed (places to stay, things to see/do, people to look up, etc.)

      -T

  • http://twitter.com/skinnybackpackr Dustin Main

    Everyone travels in a different way. It’s probably not in most people’s interest to either forgo any other ‘Western’ social contact, or to just hang out with fellow backpackers all the time.

    Writing about controversial topics with hard lines is great for hits and comments (already 26) though! :P

    • Anonymous

      Agreed.

      and

      Agreed.

  • http://www.wanderlass.com wanderlass

    I’m always careful to not generalize anything when I write because I hate it too if I’m categorized in any way. But then again perhaps, as Dustin Main suspected, it was purposely made controversial to get hits! :)

  • http://www.achickwithbaggage.com/blog Abbey Hesser

    Ya. I get both sides of this arguement. When I first saw that headline, I was like “WHUUUUU??” especially coming from Evan, who I usually really like. But then I read the article and it isn’t as radical as I thought it was going to be. A lot of places have been completely ruined because of tourists, but I think to throw all backpackers in the pool with TOURISTS, I think, is a bit of a jump. There is a huge increase in people who call themselves backpackers (can we say a group of 20 from a study abroad program who “backpack” together to a neighboring city to party for a weekend) but I think the true mentality of most real long term backpackers (or roller suitcasers or two-backpack-ers, whatever you may be) is that we don’t want to ruin places for others to see and we don’t want to just skim through a city seeing only the big Fodors or LP sites. It is possible to see a place and immerse yourself in it’s culture. Tourist attractions are popular for a reason (if they sucked, no one would go there). So… I guess I didn’t really take a side. Are we supposed to take sides?

    • Anonymous

      I think you’ve taken a side – but that’s because you don’t believe backpackers are people to be avoided. I suppose it comes down to how you feel about other travelers while in the midst of your own travels.

      TOURISTS, are more likely to be less educated about a country/culture and more interested in seeing the sites on a bus tour and then getting back to the hotel, but this is also a big generalization. Ultimately, to throw everyone into a group and then deny yourself access to that group seems harsh to me.

      • http://www.someneatthings.com Katrina

        I don’t think it’s necessary to take sides and I don’t think Abbey has. Evan threw out some food for thought and people latched onto it like it was troll bait. I am a big fan of questioning the status quo, and that’s what he did. The language he used was provocative enough that it got up the noses of some folks. That’s not always comfortable, but it does tend to be effective in promoting discussion.

        It’s unfortunate that rather than being taken for what it is — an opinion piece that could lead to some introspection and questioning of assumptions — it’s being taken as an opportunity to dig heels in and create more labels. I see valid points in both posts; more importantly, I see opinions. I can vehemently disagree with an opinion, but that doesn’t make me right and someone else wrong. It just means I have a different opinion. *shrug*

      • Anonymous

        I think most travelers question the status quo just by getting out on the road like they do. At least this is the case for for me, being from the United States where most people never leave the country. But I’m not really sure that’s what he did in the article. It’s one thing to state an opinion like “I don’t like broccoli” and then not eat broccoli. It’s another to say “broccoli is bad for you so you should avoid it as it will ruin your meal”.

        What I take issue with is that it’s a blog article on a very well known travel blog. If there are people out there looking for tips on how to travel for their first trip, and they take the advice of avoiding other backpackers on the road, that would be a shame. I don’t think it’s an opinion to say “Stay open minded during your travels” when the alternative is to close your self off to this or that.

        I didn’t say travelers should seek to only travel with others and avoid locals – that would have been the opposite of what Evan was saying, and equally wrong and close minded. THAT would have been an opinion and a different argument. Instead, I’d like for other travelers to stay open to any and all experiences that may present themselves and not have prejudged a situation.

        Hopefully I made sense with that.

        -T

      • http://www.achickwithbaggage.com/blog Abbey Hesser

        I think, I am more confused now than when I started. After I reread my original response, I don’t like it. I did not mean to add a new generalization (that about tourists) because sometimes I am a tourist and I don’t think there is anything wrong with it. I guess the only way I can end this and be happy about it is to say the following.

        I think extremism sucks and there is a healthy balance to any traveling situation involving local culture and enjoying your own personal comforts (being around people of your own culture, eating non-local food – yes, like McDonalds). I think I have learned the most in my travels when I let go of what was comfortable to me and hung with the locals, but it wasn’t the easiest decision and is one that is not always readily available. For me, I would rather be with people than not, and if that means sometimes, that I latch onto a group of good looking Aussie hostel bunkmate boys in Madrid for a night out on the town rather than partying with the locals (or alone), I’ll take it.

        Katrina, I agree that opinion pieces should be taken for what they’re worth, but I also agree with you Travis, that extremism blows. I like people and if they happen to look and talk just like me, I’m not going to turn them away in the hope of finding some sort of “authenticity” in my travels. I still see the arguments in Evan’s piece, and I think he does have a valid point that some people settle into traveling with others because they’re afraid of branching out.

        That being said, I probably won’t be asking him to meet me up for a beer if he comes to Spain, since I don’t think I count as a local.

  • Jarnold

    Wow! I am really taken aback by that guys perspective. To me, I have always said, “half the trip is the people you meet”. I cant tell emphasis that enough!!! I have met the coolest people backpacking…and it is those other backpackers that you meet, more often than not, the ones that you continue to email and communicate with. I fully agree with what you said in regards to “Sharing those first time experiences with a group of backpackers you just met at the hostel is usually a highlight of a trip” The guys that we met and the subsequent group of 8 backpackers formed at the train station in Munich on the way to Prague who spent a week together or the English kids that I hitched up the east cape of Africa will stick out in my mind as much as the rest of the experience! This Evan guy sounds like the kind of person that I would meet in India…He would be wearing full Indian garb from head to toe and would ignore me when I say ‘hello’ the first two times. It turns out he has been learning to speak Hindi, and “moved” to India two weeks ago and will be “living” there for a month. Some people you just cant reach so you let them go or ignore them. After all, You cant make somebody have fun!

    • Anonymous

      Yeah, I think that’s what hit me about his perspective as well. I’ve had the same experience as you in that the people I’ve met in my travels have turned out to be some of the most interesting and diverse people I know.

  • http://holeinthedonut.com Barbara Weibel

    Amen. Case in point, I got to meet you!

  • evan

    Hi. Thanks for the response to my post. I think you have some really good points and I’m glad to see this isn’t a one-way conversation. I made a long clarification on Christine’s blog so I won’t cover all the same ground. I just wanted to say a few things directed at both the author and some of the commenters.

    1) I’m a backpacker, or at least I like to be when I have the time to do that kind of travel. 2) I like most of the backpackers I meet. They’re nice, generally, which is why it’s hard to avoid them. 3) If I may be defensive for just a second, I’m not (as one commenter suggested) the guy that wears Indian clothes and won’t talk to you. I’m pretty nice and I wear jeans. Also, I spent a year in India, but never really learned Tamil (or Hindi, as was mentioned). I would have tried harder if I had known at the beginning that I’d be there for so long. It’s a regret. 4) I believe what I wrote is true and accurate, but I didn’t intend for people to focus so much on the critical side of it. With one notable exception (about backpackers being not that nice to locals), my tone was intended to be sarcastic and playful. My goal was to express my belief that many travelers will better achieve their goals by pursuing local friendships (which are harder to make) over backpacker friendships (which are easier) and that one should resist the urge to default to the easier option. Are the two mutually exclusive? No, not necessarily, but the research, which I cited at the end of the post, does show a trend. Jarnold writes in the comments that “it is those other backpackers that you meet, more often than not, the ones that you continue to email and communicate with.” He’s speaking precisely to my point without even realizing it. I agree. That is usually what happens when you travel, which is why I wrote the post. If you rearrange your priorities you could continue to email and communicate with locals. If you don’t want to that’s fine. 5) The post was not intended as an inflammatory piece to create controversy. If you don’t take my advice I don’t think you suck. But I thought it was worth sharing.

  • http://www.travelnlass.com/ TravelnLass

    Hmmm… what with all the ruckus lately on (what I rather always thought was simply an op ed piece – the “op” of course short for “opinion” – as is every blessed post on any blog) this little “…Should…” piece, coincidentally, perhaps we all best plop a little disclaimer like THIS at the top of every gob of blather that we post.

    • Anonymous

      I think for many posts, a disclaimer like that would probably work, though I’m not sure it would have worked for Evan’s since it was directing the reader to alter their travels. To me it didn’t read as much an opinion piece as it did “here’s a better way to travel”.

      Judging from the comments both here and there, I might be in the minority who read it that way, but after re-reading and re-reading it, I can’t see any other way that it was intended.

      -T

  • http://bzpost.blogspot.com/ Lorenzo Gonzalez

    What Abbey is saying is true. And Evan did generalize a little too much.
    BUT, i think that not everyone’s experiences are the same and maybe he has had bad experiences which drove him to personally feel shady towards ‘some’ backpackers(which is acceptable). I for one, have also met some really obnoxious backpackers whilst travelling and because i was craving company, they ruined my experience. BUT again, just like what Travis said about his experience climbing up Mt. Emei, backpackers have also attributed to some of my most amazing travelling experiences – i once ditched my itinerary to visit San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua – AND it was the best! Read about it on #12 http://bzpost.blogspot.com/2011/02/top-12-spots-in-central-america.html

  • http://www.nomadicnotes.com James Clark

    Thanks Travis, you’ve saved me having to write a rebuttal. Far too many blogs these days telling people how to travel. When where there ever rules?

  • http://rightsideguide.com RightSide Guide

    Look at how big their feet look in that top photo! Is that what I can expect if I befriend backpackers?

  • http://travelingted.com/ Traveling Ted

    I think Evan made some good points. I agree that many westerners come to a country and then spend most of their time with other backpackers (or flashpackers). This is why I like to solo travel. I am more open to meeting people whether other travelers or people who live in the country. I don’t think there is anything wrong with hanging out with other backpackers though. If that is what people want to do and they feel more comfortable, then more power to them. They don’t need someone looking down on them for who they choose to hang out with.

    Most of the people in the travel blogging community are kind and treat people in other countries with respect, however, not all travelers do. I have seen many people treat locals as if they were not humans and their own personal servants. It is not that they are mean, just that they don’t treat the locals like equals.

    Good response and way to show Evan that you can find a healthy medium both in who you travel with and the kind of experiences you seek.

  • Ethiopia

    these days many hostels charge like budget hotels and often offer less, no private bathroom for example. Backpackers have plenty of options, like couchsurfing. To come to the point of clusterflashpacking – well, why not, since when is there a purist manifesto to regulate traveling?

    personally, I am not amused by the fact that there are WAY TOO MANY tourists out there and they
    are not all out there on cruise ships, THEY ARE AMONG I & I and even strap on backpacks for camouflage, I have no patience for those who insist on the comforts of home preferably in their native language.