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Who is this creature called the “backpacker”?

Yesterday a Frenchman accused me of being a fake backpacker at a Cuban bar in Lisbon. His allegation came after I revealed that I was staying at an AirBnB rather than a hostel. We had a lot to chat about–he had recently returned back to his nine to five IT job in Paris after a seven-month “backpacking” trip in Australia and Asia.

“I bet you don’t even have a backpack,” he said with a smirk.

“I’m not a backpacker!” I said in protest. “And I certainly don’t carry a backpack on my sensitive shoulders.”

Our discussion made me realize once again why I decided not to stay in hostels and why I defied the categorical “backpacker” label. Though I indeed was once a “fake backpacker” and it was while I slept in hostels in Colombia. Thankfully my fraudulence only lasted five weeks.

Before arriving in Colombia I read various blogs on traveling alone—all posts instructed staying in dorms for a fulfilling social life on the move. So who was I, a novice solo-traveler, to stray from the path? While staying Colombian hostels I enjoyed chatting with other travelers about their next destination. More often than not I even tagged along to that very next stop on the gringo trail.

The ease with which one could meet people in hostel living rooms was stunning even to a social extrovert as myself. All I had to do to make friends was to breathe and exist. They also have an additional benefit in providing travelers with quick access to a variety of tours and activities. But my bout of pretend-backpacking taught me I’d much rather draw my own path than get distracted by the billboard or the common-room raucous.

Making friends while traveling solo and avoiding hostels

With seven months of travel behind me, I will respectfully challenge the view that hostel dorms are a necessary ingredient for making friends while traveling alone. While they happen to be great for a certain type of globetrotter, they are not suitable for everyone. For those on a budget, eager to check as many points of interest off their list as possible, meet like-minded travelers, and have the comfort of having a variety of tour options at reception, hostels are perfect. For meeting locals and other individuals not carrying large backpacks, they are not as useful.

When I arrived in my first AirBnB in Mexico City I was a bit nervous. My time in Colombia had taught me that despite the fun times, hostels did not provide the vibe I was looking for. The problem was beyond the discomfort of sharing a room with a handful of strangers that may or may not snore and the annoyance of having to lock my bag every time I left the room. After all, private rooms at most hostels cost about the same as an AirBnB room.

There are endless styles of travel from the all-inclusive resort to solitary camping in a dense jungle. With the risk of making generalizations, many hostel-hoppers get sucked into a bubble that ironically resembles the touristic resort wherein the interaction between the tourist and the local is superficial if at all present. For the traveler who aims to submerge in the local culture, hostel-dwelling can actually impede this goal.

I wanted to live in the places that I was visiting, not just pass through them. So I decided to find local hosts through AirBnB and I am still plagued with the problem of having too many dinner invitations. Making friends while not staying in hostels have been just as easy. Except this time, most of these new friends speak Spanish (or Portuguese) and can differentiate between different kinds mezcal just by smelling them.

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Hiking San Miguel de Allende’s Botanical Gardens

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Making friends with plants in San Miguel de Allende’s Botanical Gardens

I also met many lone travelers who chose to avoid hostels. As Matthew, a friend I made in San Miguel de Allende said, “I wanted to be submersed into a culture, be dropped into someone else’s life and find my ground in their world.” Matthew and I were AirBnB cousins: his host and mine were friends. They took us on a beautiful hike through the town’s botanical garden.

Renting rooms through AirBnB, I got a chance not only to meet my hosts, but also their friends and family. But AirBnB is not the only affordable alternative nor is it the only way to make friends. Websites such as homestay.com or workaway.info can be pathways to getting more immersed in the culture of the country you are visiting. Many swear by couchsurfing but I have yet to try. For other journalists and writers out there, I recently became a member of Host Writer–a new venture connecting journalists around the world, facilitating collaboration as well as location of available couches.

I’ve made friends in yoga classes, in bookstores, sitting in coffee shops, buying vegetables in organic markets, taking classes, and simply by walking about town with a smile.

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Museum day with new friends in Mexico City. Photo by Alex Wooton.

I won’t say that I will never stay at a hostel or that they are evil breeding grounds for bedbugs. As I mentioned before, they can be loads of fun. And the truth is, a private room on AirBnB can be twice the price of a dorm-room. Nevertheless, most hosts make substantial discounts for people who stay for a week or more and to really understand a place, to feel its rhythm, a few days is never enough. But that’s just my humble opinion. As Matthew put it, “staying in a hostel is like driving a car through town, and staying with a local is like riding a bike through it.”

Before I finish this post about making friends while traveling alone–which is more a rant about the need to classify travelers using neat little labels–I wonder who is this creature called “the backpacker” anyway?

Our need to find a name for every being, a new label have emerged for travelers who carry electronics: “flashpackers.” This culture has evolved into various branches since it’s modern birth through the hippie trail of the 60s. The hippie traveler of the previous generations emphasized personal growth and interaction with local cultures. Hostel dwelling may have contributed to this aim back then but it certainly does not today. Carrying a backpack is not the essence of its philosophy — it’s just an accessory.

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Wendy was my friend in Llano Grande, a village in the mountains of Oaxaca with a population of 200. She and I learned how to take photos together.

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Felicia and Enzue, my flatmates and dear friends in San Cristobal de las Casas, in the garden of Enzue’s beautiful home.

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We also had duck friends.

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And had crazy times chasing and being chased by those ducks… At least Ksenia, another dear friend, certainly did.

I said I was finished with this post but I lied. As I sat at the House of Wonders in Cascais, Portugal quietly working on this text a magical sound distracted me. A man with the voice of love sat at the next table singing in Creole. He noticed that I was staring with my mouth open, mesmerized by his ballads. He invited me to his table and treated me to a glass of wine. That was three hours ago and I lost count regarding which bottle we just opened. Cape Verdean singer Tcheka, his friends, and I have been drinking and listening to his music…

Now I must return to my private concert. The video will come as soon as I get reunited with my camera cable, for now google him. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

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At the House of Wonders with Tcheka

 

 

 

 

 

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  1. Pingback: The ABCs of Hostel Talk | Pack the Story

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