New Musings from an Old Backpacker
05.11.2013 - 04.12.2013
I’m getting older. Not old, but older. Generally, when I’m in a hostel, unless some old creepy guy is hanging around (which possibly could be me—I don’t know) or there is a family, I’m likely the oldest person there, sometimes somehow by about a decade. The age disparity is usually enough to either make me keep my distance and say a small prayer for a little quiet when it’s bedtime, which for me is often early enough to hope no one notices me slip off. Or, it puts me in the position of being discovered and immodestly distributing facts in sage-like fashion, siting how things were “back then” or “when I was there”, like an out-of-date Lonely Planet.
Just before Emma and I left Guatemala this autumn, we spent two weeks helping out around Earth Lodge, which the owners Drew and Bri have generously let us consider home. The crop of reception volunteers there at the time were amongst the youngest we’d seen, with two of them fresh out of their teens. One of these two twenty-year-olds regularly developed crushes on local bad boys (tatooists and musicians), and the other kept making reference to Emma and I being like the parents of the bunch, so far as to say that she wished we were her parents. It was horrifying to calculate that it would have been a shotgun situation but entirely possible.
This place I’m in, reaching mid-life and having not yet settled on much beyond not settling anytime soon, is precarious. It’s a spot that often makes me paranoid. Maybe my peers—old friends back home or expat business owners—look at me and think this lifestyle, the constant resistance to adulthood, has gone on far too long. Maybe my fellow backpackers are looking at me and are thinking the same kind of thing: What the hell is a middle-aged (Emma says 35 is not middle aged anymore, but for our generation, it was. Life expectancy was 72.) man doing working for room and board on an organic farm in Nicaragua? Either way, I have no excuse for myself: I love traveling, love coming and going, and love not having a career, not having a house, and not having bills.
In other ways, it’s a spot that often makes me proud. Rarely do any of our peers not express some degree of envy over the fact that another trip is on the horizon. No matter how happy they are in their current lives, they know the days of doing what I do are over for them, and in some sense, it makes me feel like a wild animal coming in for a visit then jumping the fences again. As for fellow backpackers, I usually feel fortunate to be done with the wide-eyed insanity of what they are doing, happy to not be in that small space of time that requires me to get it all in before giving it all up. I’ve managed to hold too long to need to worry about getting caught on the career path, so what’s the rush? I love being a traveler whose not exactly traveling, not worrying about the attractions necessarily, and being the guy that’s been around for a while, knows some how-to about the place.
Setting out on this backpacking trip, what will be the longest outright length of time I’ve gone without a final destination, has been both scary and exciting, just like the trips of old. Where it’s been different is in my confidence to let things ride a little softer, the willingness to plan to stop and simply soak, as if bathing in the atmosphere of a places rather than slathering myself in as many activities as possible. I’m happy “working” in a garden on a tropical island for a couple of months as opposed to spending a few days in different spots all over Nicaragua. I’m happy knowing that I’ll quickly stop, out of necessity, in one or two spots in Costa Rica on my way to my next farm, this time on the Caribbean coast.
When Emma and I traveled Southeast Asia in the 2000-naughts, we never stayed anywhere more than a week. We had a great time: three days wondering markets and temples in Bangkok, three days in the Malaysia jungle, four days clambering around Angkor Wat and its accompaniments, a two-day rain-soaked trip to Singapore. Other times, we hopped Easy Jet-style around major cities in Europe, spent two weeks in scooting across Panama, car-camped up and down the Pacific Coast of the US, skipped around northern Vietnam, eastern China, southern Mexico… Amazing things to do, places to see, ticks to tick, but everything happened so quickly that my memories now (let’s pretend not due to my middle-aged mind) are fewer and farther between for these places.
On the other hand, we settled for a while in other places across the world: Korea for two years, Guatemala off and on for five years, Istanbul for 10 months, Palestine for three months, Moscow, long visits to the States and to England. These were times when we developed routines, when we had regular haunts, habits particular to availability and location, where traveling and life became a joint experience and cultures merged and bowels moved regularly (for some time sometimes). This is more like the traveling I want to do now, where I just am somewhere and I’m there long enough for making friends I might keep in touch with and finding spots I might return to for a while and adjusting my insides to the local fare. I’d rather give myself the time for that than to see another colonial town or traverse another jungle.
And, so far, despite my expired place around the backpacking beer funnel or my unreserved spot on an expat barstool, that’s the biggest difference I see this time, being older, more settled to the fact that I’ll either be around again or that I’d rather experience one thing well than twelve things half-assed, I’m happy seeing a specific part of country and traveling as if I’m going to settle everywhere I go, and I’m happy not to be truly settling anywhere for a while.