The Reality of Backpacking

I have a love hate relationship with Instagram. For the most part I love it – I’ve always enjoyed photography, I like the micro-blogging aspect of it and I’ve met some cool people on there, some I now know In Real Life. I enjoy having a (very curated) view into celebrities I admire’s lives, and I love seeing the talent that Instagram draws. But I hate the focus on perfection, be it what you look like or having a flawlessly themed grid.

I follow a few hashtags on Instagram, and the one that does my head in the most to the point I’ve had to unfollow, is #backpacking. All I ever see is high fashion shots of beautiful people not looking at the camera in their fancy clothes against a stunning backdrop somewhere exotic. These photos are gorgeous – hell, half of them could be in Vogue – but this is not backpacking, and I loathe to think people expect this if they head off to Heathrow with their round the world ticket from STA. Even worse is that this representation of backpacking could be the sole reason some young people want to go at all – a mere pursuit of the perfect Instagram shot that will get them X number of followers, instead of travelling for the love of seeing other cultures, places and the experiences. Because the thing is, there are rarely stories to go with these photos. The stories have all but disappeared. I used to lap up tales of travelling far off places, the good, the bad – all of it. Now we’re left with a high fashion shot in front of the Taj Mahal with an inspirational quote. Where have the stories gone?

It’s so easy to romanticize travelling the world, and let’s be clear – it truly is a privilege to be able to embark on. It is an amazing adventure full of some of the best memories you’ll ever make, and I’m not saying that we should be complaining about this privilege. We should just be a little more upfront about it all, noting the less glamorous parts and stop striving for Instagram perfection. Two of my favourite accounts to follow for a more honest view of travelling are Steph and Nick on @the.curious.travel and Ella and Chris on @toooldtogapyah – they give a fresh perspective, deliver fantastic content in a non-cliched fashion, and they tell you when they get food poisoning. This is the stuff I want to read about. I want to read about the highs and the lows. I want the stories.

I’ve had bedbugs not once, but twice whilst travelling. There is nothing Instagrammable about looking diseased with bed bug bites, washing out every single thing you own and the paranoia that comes with it, praying you got rid of them. You think mozzie bites are itchy? You have no idea. There was the time I got nits in Vietnam – NITS! – and had to get on with it for a week until I got back to Bangkok. Turns out nit solution is not widely stocked in Hanoi, or at least it wasn’t in 2011.

There are the days in 30-odd degree heat without showers, sweat running down your legs even in the baggiest of travelling pants. Two hour waits for a cheese sandwich that ended up being a baguette and a couple of triangles of Dairylea on a plastic plate. Losing your purse whilst drunk in Bangkok with the equivalent of £200 in it, because you’re an idiot who got complacent after three months backpacking. Thankfully it wasn’t my passport, but others haven’t been so lucky.

Food poisoning during a two day trip on the slow boat down the Mekong river (that tuna baguette from a woman on the street in 35 degree heat was clearly not one of the best calls I’ve ever made). Pissing out of my arse in the Gilis for 48 hours, only leaving my room in carefully timed dashes to the local stall for more Gatorade and Pocari Sweat. Living off of Oreos and Pringles on 12 hour bus journeys so as to avoid the chances of ill-timed diarrhea. If you feel weirded out talking about bowel movement before heading off backpacking, you won’t soon.

31 hour journeys with toothache and no painkillers. Trains and buses breaking down constantly, sometimes in the middle of the night on the road without working hazard lights. Bus drivers seemingly actually trying to kill you with their driving (I’m looking at you, Vietnam). Blokes with lit cigarettes hanging out their mouths as they work on fixing the gasoline leak from the bus that’s partly held together with a lot of duct tape. Boats that sink. Being abandoned at the port at sundown twelve hours into a journey from Java to Bali because ‘there isn’t enough room on the coach the other side for you’. Already paid for it and you’re a woman travelling alone? No matter, change into your trainers so you can run quicker if you have to.

Sleeping on a reception floor ridden with mice because you didn’t know the town was hosting a choir festival that day. Trying to ignore the fellow backpackers having what sounds like terrible sex in your dorm room. Scooter burns, twisted ankles, nearly dying in Vang Vieng whilst tubing – all rites of passage.

Paying over a grand of the money you saved to work in a remote animal sanctuary for a month, hating pretty much every minute of it whilst navigating the crocodiles you did not know were there, various snakes and an earthquake. Frantically trying to hook up to the very intermittent wifi connection to find out if there is a tsnumai warning because yes, the animal sanctuary is right by the sea. Getting caught in a low level typhoon in the Philippines with no boats out for three days.

The handful of times I wasn’t sure I’d get away without being raped or murdered.

Despite this, I still think travelling is one of the best things you can do – if you can. As I said before, it’s a privilege. The least glamorous parts of my trips are also some of the most memorable; some make great stories years later, and some I would rather forget because they were serious and not at all funny. Sure, a lot of the time it is cocktails on beaches. And that’s great! I hope you’re having the most glorious time. But can we stop pretending everything is always perfect? Talk about the bad days, the challenges, the hard parts you weren’t expecting. Bring the stories back.

 

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