Packing It All In

They're still out to see the world, but today's backpackers aren't exactly roughing it like their predecessors.

January 06, 2002|By Viva Sarah Press | Viva Sarah Press,Special to the Sun

Standing bleary-eyed in front of the bathroom mirror one morning not too long ago, I was shocked to see the woman next to me using an electric toothbrush.

Perhaps if we were somewhere in North America where civilization abounds, I would not have been so taken aback. But we were standing in the communal bathroom of a rugged campground in the Namibian wilderness. Just to get from my tent to the bathroom, I had to trudge through a raging sandstorm. And here was this woman, casually brushing her teeth with an electric toothbrush as if nothing could be more normal.

Welcome to the world of backpacking in the new millennium.

On the road since mid-June, I've discovered that backpacking is not the way of life it used to be. This "roughing it" lifestyle -- which I first embraced nine years ago -- seems to have changed to accommodate the modern world.

In some ways, says Don George, travel editor for Lonely Planet, a publisher of guidebooks for independent travelers, backpacking is still mostly young people "plunking a backpack on their back and setting out with ... wanderlust in their eyes."

In other ways, adds George, who has traveled to more than 60 countries in the past two decades, "it's changed immeasurably. I still remember picking up my mail at American Express offices around the world; now it's all e-mail. You can keep tabs on your friends, arrange rendezvous and communicate with the folks back home so much more easily and quickly than before -- and that's changed how people travel."

Today's backpackers still carry all their belongings in one bag on their backs. But what's in their packs can be surprising.

Call me old-fashioned, but when I chose to leave the working world to travel on the cheap for a year, I left my laptop computer, mobile phone and my music collection behind. My yellow-and-black backpack is filled with not much more than a change of clothes.

My fellow travelers have different priorities. I met a British woman in Sydney, Australia, who had 12 pairs of shoes in her backpack ("I like to have a variety"); a guy who was lugging 75 CDs ("I like to listen to my music"); and a couple who were hauling more than a dozen books in their packs (they must like sore muscles).

While these examples may be extreme, the majority of today's backpackers I've met have one or more of the following items in their packs: a mobile phone, the latest mini-disc player, music tapes or discs, a stereo, digital camera and accessories such as hair dryers and electric toothbrushes.

Briton Tony Gonsalves, a doctoral student in physics at the University of Oxford, is an example of the modern nomad.

"Having a mobile phone is so useful," says Gonsalves, who bought one while traveling in Australia. "I can send text messages to my friends in the UK. Instead of wasting time and money in Internet cafes, I can message friends while I'm on the bus."

But because Internet cafes are popular the world over -- be it in Swakopmund, Namibia, or the Australian Outback -- some (myself included) still see mobile phones as contradictory to a "roughing it" way of life.

Gabriel Thallon, who with his wife, Kathy, runs Tropic Days hostel in Cairns, Australia, agrees. Phones are convenient, he says, "but I don't think they are necessary. The first time I saw people with mobile phones, I laughed. I couldn't believe people were traveling with them. It goes against being a budget traveler. The closer ties you have with what you're trying to get away from, the less you're really getting away."

Arizona residents Joe and Ellen Anderson, who have been on and off the backpacking circuit since 1968, say there is a positive side to the new technology.

"Everything has gotten lighter, and better," says Joe, 51, who with Ellen, 54, has motorcycled across the United States, driven a Volkswagen bus for almost four years from north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden to the Spanish Sahara, and traveled across Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

"What used to be the hard-core exotic backpacker gear from Eddie Bauer or REI is now quite commonplace," he explains. "On the first backpacking trip Ellen and I did ... we had J.C. Higgins sleeping bags that probably weighed 50 pounds between the two of them. And one rolled up pretty well took up most of a pack frame."

Adds Ellen: "There's no way [today] I could carry the stuff I carried on those first backpacking trips. I carried 50 pounds and Joe carried 70. It was just too much."

Seeing the world

I was 25 years old when I quit my job last summer as an editor at the Jerusalem Post. I gave up my apartment and packed my belongings into five storage boxes. My peers and colleagues were surprised and somewhat in awe of my decision to spend the next 12 months without a fixed address.

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