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December 24, 2010

What do backpacker novels say about travelers?

Party in Thailand

Backpackers at a party in Thailand. Photo: Jessica Rabbit / Flickr Creative Commons

Did “The Beach” launch backpacker culture, or instead capture it in words like no other book had before? For better or worse, Alex Garland’s seminal 1996 novel about young travelers finding and losing paradise in Thailand became a touchstone in the backpacker consciousness.

Our very own Rolf Potts along with Kristin van Tassel dive into this genre of travel fiction in a WorldHum piece: Sons of ‘The Beach.’ They talk about several books that were published in the wake of Garland’s bestseller. Rather than review these narratives, they use them as a jumping-off point for a broader discussion about what it means to be a backpacker.

At times, the article reads like a anthropological essay about the norms and practices of this idiosyncratic tribe. There’s even an actual academic article that gets referenced:

Researchers have noted, for example, that within backpacker enclaves there is a clear hierarchy based on shorthand status cues curiously similar to those of home. Whereas back home income and influence might lend to status, backpackers fixate upon travel experience and fashion.

As the article describes further, these novels nail the kind of “reverse snobbery” that sometimes occur between travelers. Back home, people might compete on who has the better job or lives in the trendier neighborhood. On the road, the debate is over who has the crazier experiences or did things the cheapest way possible.

Many of us have observed this kind of behavior in our vagabonding stints. It’s fascinating to see these behaviors dissected in fiction and research studies.

Near the end, the writers discuss the difficulty of “unplugging” from home. Now that the Internet, communications, and globalization have become so widespread, it can be harder to immerse yourself in another land.

While the piece could seem a bit disillusioning, I prefer to take it as a reminder to travelers not to take themselves too seriously. What do you guys think? Please share your views in the comments.

Posted by | Comments (4) 
Category: Notes from the collective travel mind


4 Responses to “What do backpacker novels say about travelers?”

  1. Luke Says:

    I usually win the cheapest traveler pissing contest with my story of having slept in a portable toilet (in Sweden). I wasn’t trying to impress anyone but was simply making a choice based on my own value system. Did I want to drop a large amount of cash on a place to stay, or do I want to extend my travels? That was an easy choice when I did it 15 years ago. I wouldn’t now, but that’s because my values have shifted rather than because I’m no longer trying to impress someone (or to impress someone different).

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