An Interview With a Professional Backpacker
I backpacked for a year around Australia and Southeast Asia in 2002-3. While travelling I noted how regularly I had to orient myself in new locations and how often I got lost. I frequently wondered where to find necessities, and I tried to figure out the local culture. Guidebook entries helped, but chatting with other travellers that I met in hostels, restaurants, busses and boats offered the most insight and entertainment. I also noted the limits of existing technologies supporting the travel lifestyle. Internet cafés seemed ubiquitous, even in small villages in Vietnam and remote islands in Thailand. However, the Internet largely connected travellers with those at home, and occasionally with backpackers they had met long ago that were still broadcasting travel diary updates. It appeared that there was an opportunity to investigate what technological artefacts backpackers would find useful while exploring foreign lands. So I started applying for Ph.D. programs. I had my original transcripts and birth certificate mailed to me poste restante (a system of collecting mail from local post offices) in Thailand. I updated my resume and filled out university application forms from Internet cafés. I was living a mobile lifestyle. However, with the exception of occasional calls from my parents on my mobile phone, the only place I could do my everyday business was in a stable café. Similarly, any travel research I needed to do was either done through a paper guidebook, chatting with those around me, or back in the office-like environment of the Internet café. Clearly there was more that could be done with mobile devices to assist both my travel and my career goals - only no one had created them yet.
Several years later, I was working on a Ph.D. on the topic of researching mobile communities and developing mobile devices for them. As part of this I was conducting some research with TravelPod, a company supplying travel blog (web-based diary) facilities to backpackers. There I met Carmella, one of their recent employees who impressively had been travelling for three years straight. She has an account under the pseudonym WhereSheGoes, and had been blogging about her travels every few days during the entire trip. She had circled the world several times and touched all of the world's continents. And now she was finally returning home - via a cruise line between Europe and the USA, which most people choose to fly. Clearly she is someone who intimately understands what it is to be a backpacker and who might be able to convey part of the experience to others.
Backpackers have become the primary focus of my research for a number of reasons. First, they are friendly and interesting to talk to. Second, they are easy to bribe, which is important when trying to find participants to take part in boring research studies. Third, they represent an enormous mobile community with very little technological support, which still manages an effective social network providing travel tips. But as is the case with most rich social experiences, a few words summarising major aspects of a culture do not do justice to the original experience of living it.
Since my thesis is surely not going to do justice to what it really is to be a backpacker, I have determined that someone who can truly be termed a professional backpacker should tell part of the story herself. Accordingly, I have interviewed Carmella (WhereSheGoes) about her travels, and have selected excerpts from her blog to illustrate points that are representative of the broader backpacking experience. My sincere thanks go to Carmella for her willingness to share her travel experiences with the readers of this thesis. Her trip started in Europe and took her to many exotic locations. The following sections relate Carmella's experiences and opinions about various aspects of travel. In some ways it is the 'story behind the blog' and in many ways it is the story of 'the dedicated backpacker'.
Life Before Travel
Before someone has truly been 'bitten by the travel bug' and can identify strongly with being a backpacker, they always have a first trip by themselves or with friends. They frequently do not have much experience at this point and are typically in their late teens or early twenties. Leaving one's own country for the first time, and for a long period of time (often for a year or longer), is frequently a scary experience. Reasons for travel vary, but it always takes some commitment to extract oneself from the routines and responsibilities of daily life. Carmella faced these issues and other practical matters such as: finding funding for such a long trip, the dilemma of whether to study now or later, and how to balance work and leisure.
"It was not my intention to travel around the world. It was never really my goal. When my parents divorced, we did not have much money so if I wanted something, I had to work for it. My mom could not give me an allowance anymore so I found other little jobs. I moved out very young and realized that although I had been accepted, I could not afford to go to University. So instead of borrowing (I hate being in debt), I decided to work and save the money. I did not know what I wanted to study yet anyway and did not want to waste money on a degree I would not use. By the time I had enough money, I still did not really know what I wanted to study. I guess I thought that travelling would be a better use of my money and that I would learn a lot more than in a classroom. Plus I had worked so hard for so many years, I desperately needed a vacation. Or more like a sabbatical.
I worked for a lot of years making lots of money but burnt out at 25. Realized that life was not about working and happiness was not determined by the number of inches of your TV. So I quit the job and sold everything I owned (more or less...kept a few investments) and left. I had a good relationship with my family and friends but I felt like I was not really growing. I could go to University but I did not know what I wanted to study. I never really thought backpacking was very interesting but then all of a sudden, it just seemed like the right (the only) thing to do. I kind of came to a point in my life where something needed to change. I was not sure what that something was so I just changed everything..."
The beginning of Carmella's blog relates the excitement of leaving home.
"I am finally ready to go. I have quit the job, sold the stuff, and said goodbyes. I am leaving in less than a week. My sister will be driving me down to Calgary to catch my flight. I am still not really nervous but I get emotional some days thinking about what will come of all this. Everything in the planning for this trip has come so easily which just reminds me that I am on the right path. I hope to get any last minute errands done this week. I am still in search of the perfect shoe."
In many ways the challenge of being a successful backpacker is knowing what to leave behind. Backpackers primarily have the possessions that they carry on their backs available to them. While backpacks can get fairly large there is a limit to what can be comfortably carried. Thus, there is a tendency to analyse what is really needed, and to highly appreciate good travel gear. New travellers often do not know what to pack and even seasoned travellers can find that different equipment is needed in various locations.
"The gear I bought was mainly trekking and outdoor gear. First I found the smallest backpack I could that would have a detachable daypack. I did not want to be one of these people carrying around their house with them. As for clothes, I had a few pairs of zip-off pants (legs come off converting them to shorts) and a variety of tops. Almost all my clothes were wrinkle free and thin quick dry material. I had one white shirt that I lost in the first few days. White is not a good travel colour. Great was a travel towel from Hostel International. Its soft and thin and dries quickly. Love it. Soaks up a lot. Then I had a really great sleeping bag that packed into a tiny ball. It was wonderful and saved me many times...I tend to get cold. I bought my ticket from a student/adventure travel place (a branch of TravelCuts). I spent very little time and just kinda went with it. There was a sale through an Asia airline so I got that one but it ended in New Zealand. I planned to buy more tickets later on. So I did not start with [an] around the world ticket, but I ended with one."
Everyone develops some understanding of foreign countries via television, books, newspapers and other media. Sometimes this is the reason people choose to go to a location. However sometimes as in Camella's case, it is simply the desire for something new that prompts a trip.
"Regarding expectations of Europe. I did not really have any. Here is the thing. I spent a lot of my life until this point working and in a serious mindset. I had not really thought much about anywhere else. I was focused on work. I did not really know what to think about other places. I guess I knew they would speak other languages and that it would be old. That is about the extent of it. Simple, I know. I just wanted to adventure. The only thing that I was sure would change was the fact that I was no longer stuck in a schedule and planning my days out to the minute as I had in my old job. Now I was free."
Change In Perspective
Arriving in a foreign country for the first time can be a surprising experience. Language, money, customs, driving rules, people, clothing and many other things can be dramatically different than what one is accustomed to. Being away from home for long periods can produce a disconnection from familiar norms and allow backpackers to try new lifestyles. It is also well documented that people often experience culture shock when travelling. Carmella experienced these things and discusses how travellers change while away from home.
"Before my round-the-world trip, I had done the typical week to two week long packaged holidays. I would not say that is travelling though. I had been on cruises, resorts and short holidays but never had left the continent (or my comfort zone). I suppose that in the beginning when I arrived in Europe, I was overwhelmed by the change in culture, language, architecture, landscape...everything."
Her blog during this period relates the wonder and understandable confusion with which she experiences the locations she travels through.
"I am finally here. I am really tired and this keyboard is funny...the 'y' is not in the right place and there are dots on top of the letter öäü. It is a different world here. Note to self: buy compass. I got lost 4 times today. Its ok though because I got to see places I prolly would not have gone to by plan."
"Yesterday I went on a motorcycle ride all over the place. The scenery is so picturesque. I saw sheep, rolling hills, snowy capped rock towers ;)... It was just like the postcard! I really hope that all is well where you are. I go to bed so happy that I have such wonderful people in my life. It is really starting to hit me that this whole trip...is pretty special. I know its only the third day but I have to wonder when the surreal feeling will wear off. But then I stop, because I realize that it will only wear off if I let it."
When I talked with her she reflected on how the experience of travelling by herself for so long has affected her.
"Comparing the beginning to the end of my travels, I would say that I have grown in many ways. I am more open-minded to new things and much more willing to try just about anything. Instead of being threatened by things that may be different than what I am used to, I now try to understand them rather than judging and labelling them. I see diversity as a learning experience and chance to grow. "
"[For example, while] speaking with someone with different views or morals or values, I no longer feel the need to convince them of my thinking. I would rather listen and learn why and how they get to their conclusions. Perhaps I am more flexible. I have realized that there are many many ways to get to the same place. And my way and your way may both be correct. So I try to listen more. I try to understand why. I am more careful and responsible with my words and actions than I was pre-travel. I see how much of an effect they can and do have. I am trying to live in a heightened awareness causing the least amount of unnatural disruption. If I can benefit the environment around me, then that is a bonus."
The Travel Experience
Many unexpected things happen during travel. These events can range from being awe inspiring, fun, tedious or frightening. Occasionally situations arise which are 'perfect moments', as the following blog entry indicates.
"The sailing conditions were perfect as the sun shone down over the ocean as we ploughed through the slight waves. Every now and then a fine mist would fly over the deck cooling us just enough. We were all in great spirits as we anchored just off Great Keppel Island. There were only a few other boats in the area and the long white beach was deserted."
Even common activities such as staying at hostels can produce fun experiences. When Carmella was in Switzerland she enjoyed the atmosphere and accent of the locals where she was staying.
"I am staying at the Funny Farm. You can just sit and play monopoly, or chat with one of your newfound friends. Because here everyone is your friend. I have already gotten pages of travel advice. Zou can play tennis, foosball, pool, or ping-pong. Or zou can jump out of a plane if that is what floats zour boat. I mean, zou have to sleep in a barn but reallz who would not want to sleep next to Mr. Ed or Babe? How often do zou get to sleep below Mickey Mouse or Felix the Cat? Everyone I have met (prolly 30 new great people in just one day) is such a character and has so much to say. I love it."
However, not all experiences are pleasant. An example of a frequent experience which can be tedious is transportation. One of Carmella's blog entries discussed a particularly trying flight to the Seychelles islands.
"The plane ride was a bit tedious, but luckily I was able to block out the problem with a movie I blasted in my ears which took up almost the whole plane ride. The whole plane (and it was a 747...but not all 400 seats were full) seemed to be all honeymooners and couples...except for this one family of five which consisted of two oblivious parents with three bratty boys who terrorized anyone within 10 feet."
Unfortunately not all travel experiences are enjoyable or safe. These experiences often make good stories later, but they are stressful when they happen. Surviving one tends to increase the self-confidence of the traveller greatly and enhance one's ability to cope with future situations. Carmella relates a particularly trying experience in Greece.
"I asked about 15 travel agencies how I should get to Patras (which is 3 hours away by bus and 4.5 by train). No one knew. Or shall I say no one wanted to tell me. I was getting very frustrated because I knew that they knew but because I was not buying anything from them, they refused to help me. "
"I could not find a bus for the life of me so I decided to take the train. I knew where the metro was so surely I could find the way. About three stops into it and a half hour later, I realized that there was no way I would make my midnight ferry if I took the train route. So I got off and went back the other way to where I had started. I began asking another 10 travel agents, by now having tears in my eyes dreading spending the night in Athens and missing my ferry to Venice. "
"Finally a girl told me to take a taxi to this place that starts with a K and there would be a bus there. I had to repeat the name of the bus station 5 times so I would get it right to the driver as many of them do not speak English."
"Next, hoping I was on the right track and only 5 hours away from midnight, I tried to hail a cab. Would you believe NO ONE would stop for me! I could not believe it! Here I was practically THROWING myself in front of them and they just sneered! Then the seediest looking prolly not even a real licensed cab stopped. It had a makeshift taxi sign on top and was very beaten up. I had no choice. I got in and repeated the "K" place. Then I asked how long it would take but the driver informed me he did not speak any English. I sat there watching him chew off all his finger nails into bloody stumps as he drove me into the most deserted and decrepit parts of Athens. I was sure I was about to be raped and murdered, so almost in tears I prayed again for the hundredth time that day. I reminded myself I could not cry because that would prove that I did not have faith...and then what would I have."
"I can not tell you the tidal wave of relief that washed over me as we suddenly turned a corner and there was the bus station. I hurried to the Patras bus stop and it was just pulling out. I begged the driver to take me but he said that I did not have a ticket. I had to go 50 feet to buy a ticket. By the time I got my ticket a few minutes later, he was gone. I would have to catch the next bus which was cutting things dangerously close."
"I got to Patras at 11pm and still had to validate my ticket at the Minoan Lines ticket office which was 9 or 10 long blocks from the ship. I decided to cab it and hope that the office would be open, which it was, and then finally I made it onto the ship. For the 4th time that day, I almost cried but now it was from relief and happiness. I found my little spot on the floor of the ferry opened up my sleeping bag and proceeded to sleep for the next 26 hours."
It is these types of situations which most backpackers would prefer to travel without, and are the impetus for much of the research in this thesis.
Planning During Travel
Part of the joy of backpacking is the freedom it provides. Many backpackers avoid planning, instead choosing to take advantage of chance opportunities and see where the journey takes them. However, there are circumstances where planning is necessary and useful. I asked Carmella what she thought of this.
"I do not really plan too much though it really depends. I could tell you a bunch of different factors it could depend on like time, accessibility to planning resources, money, but most of all, it comes down to mood. If I feel like it, then I plan. If I do not feel like it, I do not. Sometimes you can get better deals if you plan ahead but then sometimes you can get better deals by waiting until the last minute. There are some countries that they say are very dangerous or busy so you should make sure you have something set up. But I am not afraid of not having plans. I see it as an adventure."
"There is as much freedom as you allow yourself. Only you restrict yourself. It seems to all come down to choices. If there is something you MUST do then I suppose planning ahead would be helpful. If you are restricted by money or time, you may need to be more purposeful in your travels. If you have certain goals you must achieve, like seeing a certain country, then you must find out if you need a visa or certain vaccinations. But for me, I lean towards not making too many commitments. I am not too upset if I do not get to see some monument or church or landmark. If it is closed that day or I should have bought tickets in advance, then I skip it. Planning and scheduling life reminds me too much of my old job and now I try to relax and take it as it comes."
"Some people think planning allows you freedom but too much can be restrictive. I suppose backpackers are typically more laid back, open-minded, flexible and adventurous than the other types of travellers. This is a very general statement and one really must take each person on an individual basis. Every traveller seems to have their own style. I have seen backpackers who schedule everything down to their rest stops even using a day timer! Then I have seen people in resort packages wandering about in local hangouts looking for new experiences, no map and no preconceived ideas."
Stages In Life and Returning Home
Travelling can be difficult, and the frequent and dramatic changes in environment have an effect on the backpacker. Living this type of mobile lifestyle often provides new perspectives on what home is and how stability plays a role in life.
"To me, travel means experiencing life on different levels. At home, or in stable consistent environments, one may be limited in what they are exposed to. When travelling, there is a much higher number and intensity of unique learning experiences and challenges. So in a way, travelling is a way to accelerate one's growth."
"After three years of travel, I definitely think a break is in order. If there is one thing I have learned, it is the importance of balance. So I feel it is time to rest, recuperate and process all the events of the past few years. In a way, I see it almost as a decompression period. Like I have collected puzzle pieces from all over and now it is time to sit down and try to put them all together."
"Like I said before, there is definitely a need for balance in life. Too much of anything is not usually a good idea. I think that to know one side, you must know the other. Having both perspectives can give you a much better understanding, and that is to me what life is all about. Understanding. I see the benefit in both ways of life and I think that like most things, it can be a cycle."
Sometimes it is not the type of transit or choice of locations that sets backpackers apart, but their reasons for choosing something or way of approaching a situation. Carmella chose to take a cruise line instead of an airplane on her route home, and she had good reasons for taking a mode of travel frequented by package tourists.
"I am on a boat because I was interested in trying something unique and this came up as a pretty good deal. For me, this was an alternative to flying across the Atlantic. Crossing it by sea was a form of travel I had not tried and reminded me of the early explorers tho I am sure they had it very different than a cruise lifestyle. You can see many places in a short time though you really can not spend much time as you only have one day. I had the time and it was not a whole lot more expensive than flying. I have cruised in the past and am no longer excited about going in circles as most cruises routes do. But using it as a form of transportation interested me."
"I have used the opportunity to speak to many passengers (mostly from United States) about their country and opinions. I have also learned a lot from the crew who happen to come from all over the world (usually less fortunate countries). I am sure there are not many backpackers aboard and find the exposure to the different demographics interesting. There are many extremes and contrasts here."
When Carmella returned home she experienced some of the culture shock and contemplation which is common for people returning after long periods of time. In the following entry she described her thoughts after arriving to stay with a friend at home.
"I slept pretty well although I still had a feeling of surreality through the next few days. I located some stuff that I had stored from before my trip and packages of stuff I had sent home. I had several time capsules to open. I let it all explode in my room thus beginning the long and emotional task of organizing my 'stuff.' I sorted through clothes I have not seen for years, remembering the last time I wore them."
"I came across the clothes I had first used in the beginning of my trip. I inspected them carefully remembering the wear and tear fondly. They felt like ancient artefacts from a life previous as they seemed to have a special energy. I decided what would retire and what would be amalgamated into my new wardrobe. It was quite the process as I would sometimes get choked up with the overlapping feeling of the old and new. It felt like introducing deep-rooted solidity to a magic light freshness. It seemed to create a floating like feeling as they mingled together. It is a strange space. Nostalgic and poetic."
It is difficult to travel without thinking about what one is learning, and how it will influence the rest of one's life. This type of introspection often leads to personal philosophies of travel which explore the collective experience of large numbers of backpackers. Carmella commented on this below.
"Travel seems to expand ones awareness and is a powerful tool in understanding the world in which we live. Perhaps the more people who do it, the higher the levels of tolerance and understanding [that] will be reached. One of my favourite quotes is by Albert Einstein. 'Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved through understanding.' I see that the trend is moving towards longer periods of travel and certainly technology has enabled us to live more mobile lives."
I also asked her about that perfect shoe she was looking for when she left home.
"Did I find the perfect shoe? I learned that nothing is perfect forever but some things are perfect in that moment. And in that moment, yes, any shoe that would take me from here to there comfortably was good in my eyes."
Carmella's travel blog is available to the public at: http://www.travelpod.com/members/whereshegoes
Towards the end of my PhD candidature I was backpacking in Japan and reflecting on some of Carmella's insights as well as the conclusions of my own research studies. Many situations arose while travelling which underscored the need for better tools for travellers. However, one particular excerpt from my diary stands out as an example of the everyday problems of budget travellers and the role better tools could play in improving the travel experience.
A native English speaker, I am only competent to utter two phrases in Japanese: konnichi wa (hello) and arigato (thank you). With regard to my research, a particularly relevant experience occurred upon my arrival in Sendai. It was raining outside, threatening to get dark, and I was getting hungry. Sendai is a large city with train, subway and bus systems.
The tourist office was closed, and for some unknown reason my guidebook only listed three budget hotels, in vastly different parts of the city. After stumbling out what I hoped was the proper subway exit into the pouring rain (taxis are outrageously expensive here), I began trying to locate my chosen ryokan (Japanese bed and breakfast) on foot. It was nowhere to be found.
Street names on the map were in the Roman alphabet while street signs were in the Kana alphabet. Additionally, streets were omitted from the map, but I was fairly sure I was in the right location. I resorted to asking at local coffee shops and hotels. Imagine trying to get directions in a language you do not speak with street names you can not read.
Needless to say, after another hour of walking in circles it was dark, I and my pack were soaking wet, and I checked into a hotel offering rooms at three times my normal budget. This was a smart move. It turns out the ryokan was out of business and there was no certainty the others listed in the guidebook were not either. Calling ahead does not work well when you do not speak Japanese and your GSM mobile phone does not work in Japan.
Viewed from a design perspective, a number of things could have helped. Accurate information, a simple way of contacting the hotel while on the road, comments posted by recent travellers, an accurate map switching between Japanese and anglicised street names (and showing current location), more extensive listings, and many more solutions come to mind. Observing the problems backpackers experience uncovers requirements and generates design ideas. This thesis addresses this by exploring methods of studying backpackers, and the broader category of mobile communities. These methods can be used to provide solutions for the practical daily difficulties of travelling, such as I and others have experienced. Hopefully when we travel in the future there will be mobile tourism technologies available which help to smooth out the bumps we do not like and help us find the ones we do.