When you stagger home from a trip with an emaciated bank account, broken flip-flops, a possible intestinal parasite and nothing on your resume to show for it, it is likely that the stuffier members of your family will harp: “Now, what was the point of all that?” Stifle their kvetching by explaining these seven ways backpacking has enhanced your life.
Not a Degree, Definitely an Education
Your classroom is the screeching bedlam of Kolkata where tuk-tuks dart like blow-flies between gridlocked Hyundais, wooden rickshaws and idling cows. Your instructor is the Tz’utujil shaman lighting the cigarette that dangles from the statue deity Maximon’s lips. Your textbook is the hand-drawn map that came with the sputtering scooter you hired in the shy Laotian town. And your degree is the memories that continue to enrapture and dazzle you for years after you’ve wandered back home. Travel is truly the ultimate learning experience.
Did you know that, when an individual dies in a Dayak community in Borneo, it is customary to exhume the skulls of their deceased relatives—and if the relatives haven’t been dead long enough for the flesh to decompose, then coconuts with Sharpie smiley faces can be used as stand-ins? I didn’t either until I visited a traditional longhouse during a funeral ceremony. The sheer array of cultures, histories, ethos and ecologies on Earth is, for all intents and purposes, incomprehensible. It is a beautifully humbling experience to realize just how grand and intricate the world is beyond your pocket of existence, and that one lifetime isn’t a fraction of the amount of time required to know and understand it.
Live in the Moment
The essence of indie travel is adventure and excitement; that electric sensation of being flabbergasted by something incredible you have never before encountered. These experiences of novelty, wonderment and exhilaration often encompass your every fiber as you are wholly enchanted by the here and now. Could this be what your yoga teacher was talking about when he instructed you to “stay present”?
Stop and Smell the Roses
Or the spice market or the ritualistic incense or the noodle vendors or… well, you get the idea. Traveling greatly facilitates the notion of appreciating the little things as said little things—which to locals are mundane and pedestrian—astound foreign backpackers. While residents may react with mild amusement when they catch you photographing stop signs or Coke cans because they are written in a non-Roman script, it is this appreciation for and celebration of even the most minute differences between cultures that will ensure your (almost) perpetual infatuation with life abroad. (Hint: whatever you do, just don’t stop and smell the open sewers, or the fish market on a particularly hot day)
How Many Facebook Friends?!
It is not only where you go but the company you keep once you arrive that makes a journey special. Indie travel allows you to meet people from all over the world who you wouldn’t encounter under normal circumstances. As English is ubiquitously spoken within hostels (fun fact: more than 50 per cent of the world speaks at least two languages), it is easy to exchange jokes, stories, perspectives, ideas and travel tips with your new friends.
The Art of Going with the Flow
If you are someone whose morning begins with a precisely six-minute shower and can be ruined if the kettle does not whistle at the exact moment that the toast leaps skyward, then indie travel to anywhere other than perhaps Germany will unstitch you. Life on the road is full of surprises and plans are often destroyed and reborn on the fly. As a backpacker, you discover how to think and adapt quickly as well as how to recognize which opportunities are worth seizing and which are best left to skulk in shadowed alleyways.
One of the best and most definitive characteristics of backpacking is that challenges consistently present themselves, be they in the form of new skills (e.g. scuba diving), physical activities (e.g. alpine trekking) or miscellaneous events (e.g. attempting to navigate the twisted labyrinth that is Varanasi in search of your guesthouse). One of the first lessons you will learn as a newbie indie traveler is this: you are capable of far more than you think you are. If you enter every presented situation with an open mind and a gung-ho attitude, then you will certainly astonish yourself with what you are able to achieve. (Take that, kvetching relatives!)
While indie travel may not be a career-fueling activity like university or an internship (then again, you may discover a passion while out and about that eventually leads to a career), it is without a doubt a holistically enriching experience that will improve your life in ways innumerable.