1997. I was 20 going on 14. Aimless, listless, nihilist, angsty, milquetoast, nervous, still afraid of my own shadow, afraid of doing anything in or to the world. And then luck, or serendipity: I found this proto-blog / unpublished book / howto guide website called How To See The World; Art of Travel; European and World Backpacking; On $25 a Day or Less.
I was hooked. In the evenings after work and community college classes and more work (barista in the mornings, busboy / kitchen jack-of-all-trades by night) I'd read Art of Travel. Chapter by chapter, and then rereading favorite chapters. Absorbing what backpacking was, how to do it, and why.
Ultimately this reading catalyzed a vision: First, I would save every spare dime for a year. Second, I would use my savings to spend a summer - the summer of 1998 - backpacking across Europe.
As rights of passage go, that's fairly banal. A modern version of the hero's journey where the dragon was mostly in the actually doing and the actually going. Still, I believe banalities have the potential for strong personal significance. This one certainly did. I flew from SFO to CDG on May 28th, 1998 still a little boy. I came home on August 4th a human, a man. All thanks in large part to this guy John Gregory who wrote and published this book on How To See The World. (If anyone knows John, or John reads: I'd really like to buy that guy a beer!)
If you haven't clicked on the links above, here's another chance: Art of Travel. Yes, it's still online! Coming up on 30 years old at this point, and parts of it do feel like they're from another time in terms of the authority in the author's voice. Maybe this is a middle aged dude talking, but I find this sort of writing refreshing. From Part 1, Chapter 1 on People and Diplomacy:
THE GREAT REWARD of backpacking independently on a low budget is the people you meet. Because all roads have not been smoothed before you, because your feathers are likely to be ruffled when things don't turn out exactly as expected, and because you are likely to be left in somewhat of a lurch now and then, you will have far greater opportunity to mix with local people, as well as backpackers from all over the world, than any tour group or first-class traveler.
Those spending big bucks for guided travel get peace-of-mind in return. They are guaranteed no worries, no hassles, an experience as close as possible to being home, without being home. They get an hour and fifteen minutes for the guaranteed-open museum, then a two-hour sightseeing ride that catches all the picture-postcard highlights. They break for lunch at a "recommended" restaurant, where the food is reasonable and ordering is easy. And as the next bus pulls in they re-board theirs to repeat the routine, ending with an easy check-in at a reasonable hotel, populated with plenty of other tourists, pretty much like themselves.
While all travel is good for the human spirit, budget backpacking is unparalleled for meeting people and experiencing worlds on their own intimate terms. There are many travelers who have the resources for pampered-class but choose to strap on a backpack and see the world via the seat-of-their-pants, because they know it's the best way to experience cultures and interact with local people.
The best travel is not about a list of monuments, museums, and landscapes. The best travel is about people, and if you travel well it is people that you are going to remember most. People that are strange, unique, foreign, similar, friendly, nice, hospitable, loving, kind, rude, outrageous, and normal. These will be the experiences that stay with you forever, that no postcard can ever reproduce.
And from the section in the same chapter called Tourists, Travelers, and Local Culture:
Travel theorist Stanley Plogg places the personalities of tourists and travelers along a broad scale. On one end are people who want their travel experience to be as "like home" as possible. They want to take it easy and not be faced with stressful situations and decision-making. They want everything to "go right." These are frequently (but not always) the people found at posh resorts, or on group tours.
On the other end are those travelers who enjoy new situations, dig deeply into local culture, and travel as if they were natives of the land. They find lodging where the locals sleep, eat where the locals dine, and use their transportation. They may hitch rides to get from place to place, not only as a means of saving money, but as a way to meet local people.
At the moment, here in early 2023, my wife and I are planning our next trip to Europe. This will be my 10th trip to Europe and 17th 'big trip' since the Art of Travel read including Asia and extended trips in the US, Canada and Mexico. Not bad for a formerly ambitionless 20 year old!
My hot take on reading that passage above from Art of Travel is a bit of embarrassment. I'm remembering that 20 year old sitting in his room reading the above, welling with righteous enthusiasm, thinking "This is how I'm going to travel, I'll never be one of those guy who spends big bucks for peace of mind travel".
Seeing as how I've just booked a West London Airbnb that's costing me as much per night as I would spend on my entire travel budget for a WEEK in 1998, I'm suddenly aware that I've lost it: I am now the traveller spending big bucks for peace-of-mind, an experience that largely feels like being at home during the downtimes, and most of all for everything to "go right".
Combined with an impressive shift towards efficiency in travel markets in the last 25 years - the almost complete loss of the hidden little travelers restaurant or hotel - that makes traveling as a tourist a turnkey pipeline that flows money in significant denominations into the local tourist economy, this is getting really expensive, and often simply feels wasteful.
I'm wondering: Could I somehow shift back on the scale, revert towards if not to budget travel, be ok with things not always just going right?
A reasonable question to ponder on the eve of another trip. On this one we'll spend close to a month in the UK and Iberia. On the way, I think I'll write here and there about the places I'll visit, but mostly about travel, how travel works, why even still travel in 2023 when we've condensed towards a monoculture, and what I think might happen going forward.