Blue smoke dangles on the moist air like a jungle vine, coiling up from the cigarette pinched between the dentures of a human skull. The skull is one of five arranged on red fabric beneath a canopy; as it smokes, its neighbour is fed a hardboiled egg. Custom dictates that, during a 30-day Dayak funeral ceremony, the heads of the deceased’s relatives are exhumed. Those which haven’t yet decomposed are substituted with coconuts with faces drawn on them. Next to the skulls and coconuts, a woman wails mournfully into a karaoke machine—pausing from time to time to chat with family members. Meanwhile, a man with a headdress and spear prays over a twine-bound chicken, preparing it for sacrifice.
I’m at a Dayak longhouse in Eheng, Borneo. In addition to a flight, a bus and a taxi, my trip necessitated a 16-hour longboat ride through the Mahakam River, along which communities live in modest huts on teetering stilts. Between the physical remoteness and culture shock—despite a one-line mention in an old Lonely Planet, this is way off the Banana Pancake Trail—I’ve never felt so far from home.
Yet there’s something about this gathering that’s jarringly familiar. I expected the men playing cards, women drinking tea, and children running amok. But it feels strange being surrounded not just by human skulls and animal sacrifices, but also by local teenagers texting—evidently just as bored with their familial get-togethers as Western millennials.
Globalization is narrowing the gap between societies, and accessible technology is accelerating this process. Historically, isolation bred distinction in languages, customs, and beliefs. Nowadays, interconnectedness and internet culture means those salient differences are dulling. If as a backpacker you yearn to explore a society romantically distinctive of your own, then you’d better get moving—because those texting teenagers are spreading faster than Pokemon Go.
In the ’70s, my friend Sara’s father, Alan, backpacked from England through the Middle East and Asia to Australia over the course of two years—and mailed a grand total of five postcards home, as Alan’s mother informed us through pursed lips. His voyage inspired Sara and I to embark upon our own year-long, round-the-world trip, although we knew ours would never be as extreme. Alan travelled to regions so unaffected by Western culture that he was often the first European the locals had ever encountered. I can only imagine what that would’ve been like—to journey somewhere that not only doesn’t cater to foreigners but where people are as gob-smacked by you and your customs as you are by them and theirs.
Presently, storefronts throughout South Asia boast signage depicting young Britney Spears and “My Heart Will Go On” echoes in even the remotest hamlets. While trekking in Nepal, I was bewildered by the number of guys wearing System of a Down shirts—until I learned that clothing donated in the West often makes its way to developing nations where it’s sold cheaply.
Five years later, my Spanish teacher Esther and I visited such a “shop” (in this case, the bed of a pick-up truck heaped with clothes) in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, and I advised her on which brands were the most expensive back home. While Esther still dons the woven skirts and embroidered blouses signature of Tz’utujil Mayans, her six-year-old son now boasts an extensive Lacoste wardrobe. I can’t imagine Lake Atitlan without picturing the locals in their traditional attire (each village surrounding the lake dons distinctive garb). Yet if Esther’s son is any indication, this unique custom may be extinguished within the next generation or two.
This is therefore a perfect time to go backpacking. Cultures and ethos are beginning to transform, react and homogenize in an unprecedented way as our generation grows transnationally closer than our forefathers’. The world is changing, and fast; go check it out before some of it is lost forever.