It feels like yesterday yet this summer marked twenty years since a fresh-faced graduate arrived in South America with just a 60 litre rucksack and a thirst for adventure. In those days, South America felt like a final frontier for backpackers longing “to boldly go where no man has gone before”. Imaginations ran riot and conjured up adventures rivalling those of Captain Kirk or legendary explorers like Doctor Livingstone, Vasco de Gama or Marco Polo. To celebrate this anniversary, I dug out my now-faded rucksack and headed to South East Asia. So what has changed over these past twenty years apart from the state of my rucksack and the contours of my face?
Before the communications revolution, travel was less convenient, planning was difficult and information was at a premium. In other words it was bliss. Everything was a source of wonder and spontaneity was a given. Arriving in new places was like watching a film without having seen the trailers. Travellers’ tales only added to the mystery enshrouding names like Machu Picchu, the Nazca Lines, Tierra del Fuego or Lake Titicaca, heightening our anticipation as we inched towards them in some rusty old bucket of a bus, blasted by salsa music or squawking chickens and engaging in elbow battles with pork-pie hat indigenous people for the right to stand up straight. Likewise, in a Facebook-free world, those back home could not comprehend what we were witnessing until we collapsed on their doorsteps under the weight of our photo collections.
Almost as exciting was the prospect of news from family and friends back home in an age when email was virtually unknown and international phone calls required a small personal loan. We would arrive at post box addresses like the South American Explorers Club in Quito hoping to find some crumpled letters sharing outdated news or else save enough money to phone home once a month from the graffiteed booths of centros de llamadas (call centres). The crackly voice at the other end was only sometimes recognisable as my father or mother whilst the delay on the line meant that we constantly interrupted each other and little news was imparted before the pesos ran out.
Before the advent of hotel booking sites like Agoda or Booking.com, the search for accommodation was part of the adventure. An hour before the bus disgorged us on some unsuspecting town, we would consult our well-fingered South American Handbook for hotel tips and then tramp around town to inspect the options, whether in searing heat or lashing rain. However, experience soon taught us to try hotels that were yet to reach that holy grail of a guidebook listing. They tended to have lower rates and higher standards since they were less complacent and more eager to please.
This system only failed me twice, albeit in spectacular fashion. The first was when I arrived in Salvador de Bahia for Brazil’s biggest carnival without a reservation and ended up sleeping in a favela (Brazilian slum area). This triggered a chain of events culminating in the loss of my credit cards, leaving me penniless in the midst of carnival business closures and the intransigence of my UK bank. The second was when we unwittingly arrived late at night in a Chinese town popular with local tourists on a public holiday. After knocking on doors in a futile search for shelter reminiscent of the Nativity story, we finally befriended a hotel security guard who rented us his quarters for a small fee.
A plethora of apps have transformed travel, of which Google Maps is perhaps the most popular and useful. Who now would choose to return to the days of deciphering crumpled, soggy maps and wandering aimlessly in less salubrious parts of town? In addition, travel kit has advanced, including lighter, higher performance clothing and rucksacks, whilst improved health infrastructure in the developing world means that travellers no longer need to carry bulky first aid kits to compensate for deficient hospital care. All this makes backpacking a less-arduous experience that no longer requires that all home comforts be sacrificed. Nevertheless, for those backpackers seeking to maximise comfort, I would still recommend staying at home.
Twenty years ago, intrepid backpackers deviating from the standard round the world routes through India, South-East Asia, Australasia, the Pacific Islands and the US were rewarded not only with spectacular, unspoiled Latin American landscapes and pre-Colombian sites, but also with a sense of camaraderie between travellers imbued with a frontier spirit. Those following the ‘gringo trail’ running from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego would bump into familiar faces met earlier in their trips, something that happened frequently enough to build friendships but rarely enough in a pre-Whatsapp world to make the reunion feel like a wonderful coincidence.
Today, it seems there is less concern for one’s fellow traveller, perhaps in part because travel is easier and therefore more routine, but also because travel has become so commercialised. The way that tour operators move the tourist masses around Thailand provided a graphic illustration of this: a transfer from an island to a mainland city typically involves shifting herds of travellers several times between minivans, buses and boats, with tour operators overcoming this logistical challenge by branding tourists with stickers colour-coded according to destination while ignoring their customers’ pleas for information. The system worked for me insofar as I always reached my final destination but I invariably felt more like a parcel than a passenger.
Interactions between locals and tourists have changed too. The gringo was a rare breed that was sighted about as often as the puma in the Amazon Rainforest. The sense of awe inspired by both creatures was of a similar order too. “I love your blue eyes” or “are you married?” were refrains that I became familiar with despite my rudimentary Spanish. Others said nothing but just stared: that wide-eyed, intense stare reserved for objects of curiosity transcending basic human comprehension. I did not realise how addicted I was to this constant attention until I went cold turkey by returning home to the indifference of my compatriots and longed to feel like a Martian again. Globalisation has reduced cultural divides and fostered familiarity, though mercifully the process is incomplete: in Indonesia this summer I was still besieged by greetings and requests for photos.
Language is ever-less of a barrier as the global domination of English marches on. I was struck by how many young people in Thailand and Indonesia, countries without historic links to the anglophone world, can now hold conversations in English. Very few South Americans spoke English twenty years ago, which meant that visitors had to learn some Spanish if they aspired to eat, sleep or change location during their trip. Beyond this, conversing with locals enriched the travel experience and provided a window into the local culture, though language proficiency could also lead to unexpected consequences. By the time I left South America, I was so immersed in Spanish that I had difficulties communicating with the ‘locals’ on my return to London. For example, I would board buses and announce “setenta” (seventy – my usual bus fare in Argentinian pesos) or greet shop staff in Spanish. In both cases, I was baffled by the blank looks that I received.
Even twenty years ago I could not imagine how it felt to explore uncharted territories and ‘discover’ a natural or cultural wonder, like Livingstone gazing upon ‘the smoke that thunders’ (Victoria Falls in the local language), or Marco Polo witnessing the exotic extravagances at the court of Chinese Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan. I inhabited a world that was comprehensively depicted in atlases and described in encyclopedias. Yet, somehow I longed for similar adventures and imagined hacking through the jungle to discover ancient ruins or unknown tribes. Just as my worldview back then was skewed by a romantic attachment to the feats of the great explorers, so too are memories now of my first backpacking trip tainted by nostalgia, that seductive and corruptive companion of the past. The relative merits of travel through the ages are subjective and debatable, but the magic of travelling endures despite seismic shifts in technology and culture. Or at least that is one way to account for twenty years on the road.