Bubbly, wide-eyed Valeria is working reception when I arrive. She leads me up to my room for the next three nights. My friend from Mexico City and Oaxaca adventures, Rose, waits inside. We hug in a flurry of jokes and expressions of how long it feels since we were last together, despite it only being six weeks or so. Our little travelling group of four parted ways in Puerto Escondido on the Pacific, and now the two of us are reunited again in another Puerto, on another Mexican coast: Puerto Morelos, on the Mayan Riviera. We’re meeting up to spend Christmas together in our next destination, Tulum.
A meme of ours resurfaces before long in our silly, excitable conversation. It’s this notion that both Rose and I, in our own special ways are “the worst backpackers ever”. We do both find ourselves blundering through various aspects of independent travel, albeit with no drastic consequences (so far, fingers crossed). Just small to mid-range fuck-ups or oversights, which we laugh at, because we feel like we’re low-key messing up our trips, and somehow not achieving some standard we expect of ourselves as backpackers. But why?
First I have to blame Instagram. I have to agree with social media naysayers on this (up to a point) – it can make you feel inadequate. If you’re comparing yourself to other travel accounts, it can feel like others are having the perfect trip with no blemishes or hiccups. That is obviously nonsense, since that’s impossible. A: what does ‘perfect’ even mean and B: it doesn’t exist anyway. Instagram is aspirational. It’s best used as a source of inspiration, as a positive tool to motivate you to travel more, or bake more, or pose for selfies with your top off more, whatever. It’s a creative platform and you should create things to share on it, not scroll through a photo feed feeling sad that your life isn’t as great as the ones you’re looking at. Those lives aren’t any greater than your own. Even if they might actually be, you have no way of actually peeling off the filters and getting the full 360 view of the whole scene, and feeling how the person in the picture is really feeling. So enjoy it, be mindful of what you like about it and how it inspires you, and make some pretty pictures yourself.
That said, the social media Big Bad isn’t really the main culprit here. In terms of the more specific ‘oh I caught a really inconvenient bus when I didn’t have to’ or ‘I vastly overpaid for that tour’ moments, it’s your interactions with your fellow travellers that can really enforce the idea that you’re doing something wrong, or just not very well, in how you’re approaching some of your adventures. And that idea that you’re doing something wrong, it doesn’t come from others, it comes from you. Nobody ever judges you for having done something differently, but you sure can judge yourself for it.
Meeting people in hostels, on tours or randomly on long bus journeys in the dark, is the one of the top reasons I travel. You’re choosing a lifestyle which opens you up to the most life-affirming, inspirational and entertaining conversations you’re ever going to have, because people are AWESOME and the ones living out of one or two bags are AWESOMER. You can learn so much from chatting to other travellers, whether it is in a in-depth discussion of a certain city and its good and bad sides, or a breezy chat about that funny quirk of the local dialect.
You can also gain valuable perspective on your own travel choices and plans. This can cut both ways. For plans you’re yet to pin down, you can get so many new ideas and tips to make it more fun / cheaper / waste less time. But, for the things you’ve already done, or are in the process of doing, you can suddenly be zoomed out of the moment and see from an outside perspective those things you’ve already done, and how you can see now how you really didn’t do them in the best way, in comparison to how your new Polish pal on the night bus did it. I experienced this A LOT. As I’ve talked about before, I tend to not research things too much in advance, and just kind of bluff my way along. This leads to lots of exciting detours and discoveries, but also sometimes wasted days or missed opportunities. It’s impossible not to compare yourself to others when you’re all doing more or less the same activities, just on different days and in slightly different ways.
This notion of being the ‘worst backpacker’ also heavily involves the actual physical backpack itself. And how you pack it, unpack it, store it, and keep track of what’s inside it. Rose, for example, constantly loses track of everything, only for it to magically turn up wrapped inside a towel or in a secret pocket three days later. I never bother to fix the straps on my pack, so it is always tilting to the left and bumping people who try to pass me on the pavement. These little things feed into the idea that we aren’t ‘competent’, that we aren’t making things easy, effortless and effective for ourselves. We both have a tendency to withdraw into the internet world sometimes, when things around us in the hostel are a little quiet, and so we spend time randomly scrolling and watching freaky animations (Rose, you need help btw) rather than having the experiences that would make us feel like ‘good’ backpackers.
But everything isn’t easy, effortless and effective. You can’t have those incredible experiences all. the. time. Maybe if your trip is a few weeks long, and you do your research in advance, every day can be fireworks and waterfalls and laughter and madness, and it isn’t going to matter too much how well you handle your backpack, cause before you know it you’ll be home again and not living out of it any more. Yet when you’re backpacking for months, or even years, at a time, you need some downtime. And whether you want it or not, life is gonna throw some at you anyway. You’re not going to be able to justify that tour in your budget; you’re going to end up in a rubbish hostel because all the good ones were taken; you’re going to catch a stomach bug and have no energy for a week. The days you spend not really achieving anything Instagram-worthy or life-affirming are okay – they don’t make you a bad backpacker, they just make you a backpacker. A person.
So you missed an archaeological site, or a food you didn’t come across; you weren’t aware of a loophole when it would have handy. So what? You’re not a ‘bad’ backpacker. You may have some weaknesses sure, we all do. And although we laugh about it, there’s a voice inside that tells you you’re not good at what you’re doing. Well that voice can KEEP ITS UNHELPFUL THOUGHTS TO ITSELF. If you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing. You’re only ‘bad’ at it if you aren’t enjoying it, if you’re making decisions to keep other people happy and not yourself, if you’ve no common sense whatsoever and keep falling into dangerous or unpleasant situations over and over. You’re only inadequate if you tell yourself that you are. You’re not the ‘worst’ backpacker. Rose is not the ‘worst’ backpacker. And neither am I.