Ethnology of Backpacking

I haven’t done much backpacking in my life, or international travel for that matter.  My backpacking has been of the studious girl-with-too-much-to-carry variety.  But having visited India and now Costa Rica, I have begun to familiarize myself with the other side of backpacking–that of the budget travel explorer.  Although budget traveling can be exhilarating at times, I must also acknowledge certain issues one faces backpacking while black. 

It has been an established Western privilege, even expectation among some, that students, especially college students and graduates should take a “grand tour”, a long journey to the far-flung parts of the world.  While I was a student at an elite college, I witnessed this tradition in action, as my friends took their junior year abroad trips to Scotland or South Africa.  After graduation, a friends spent over a year in India traveling by herself, despite the challenges women sometimes face as “unescorted” travelers there.

As a student, my family and I didn’t have the money to send me around the world, by any means.  I found a scholarship for domestic study in Washington DC during my junior year.  I even felt that that opportunity was an extravagance, to some degree.

Now, I’ve learned how to dream a little bigger.  Albeit late blooming, I’m finally adopting the travel log of a true global citizen.

However, many insecurities still arise in me as a woman, an African American, a low-budget traveler.  For one, The affordability question always looms large.  How will I pay for a ticket half way across the globe?  Where will I stay within my budget that won’t be over-run with pests?  What supplies will I have to buy?  In addition to the logistics, will I be safe walking the streets (or just leaving the airport)?  How will I communicate?  And then there’s the ever present, ego-bursting, how will they perceive this Black body, this American accent?

The Black-thing is an issue that’s not easy to talk about with other backpacking travelers, because chances are (Warning:  Gross generalizations about which I could be entirely WRONG):

A.) They’re not Black and therefore are not aware of the consequences of traveling while Black (similar to “driving while black”), such as police or military profiling

B.) They don’t have many Black friends who have done the backpacking, globe traveling thing, or

C.) Black folks are unlikely to be backpackers, because if they have the money to travel, the ideal is to luxuriate, not struggle against our environment.

I don’t like coming back from my travels with stories of how, yet again, I was marginalized, belittled, or disrespected because of racial profiling or pure ignorance.  But it happens.  And that is one big ego-buster.  I think, here I am, with the privilege of American money in my pocket, a classical education that puts me in an echelon with the world’s intellectual class, and a sense of inherited prestige (whether real or imagined) that comes from growing up with middle-class values in a Catholic Creole family.  I’ve come all this way to be the next international BAP–Black American Princess.  And here I am in a country town in Costa Rica being asked for my ID by police who must assume I’m either a Colombiana or Jamaican drug runner.  Not the Beyonce-in-paradise moment I was hoping for…

Traveling is certainly a privilege, that Black Americans and anyone from poor family can achieve.  Traveling provides one with the opportunity to make connections not otherwise possible, to learn things about other cultures that cannot be absorbed from books, to gather tales and lessons to share for posterity.  But it requires dissociating traveling from luxury.

Traveling is an expense, yes.  But it is an expense that can be planned for and controlled.  The backpacking travel technique–taking only what you can carry and nothing of value, sharing rooms in hostels, volunteering for your accommodations, cooking your own food when possible, bringing along natural remedies, and being open to a change of plans–allows one to save money and extend the trip.  Assuming you are not traveling with small children, it’s truly a winning situation.

However, it is not always a pretty picture.  These treks are not about the level of luxury and isolation you can achieve.  Although I’m a proponent for tasting a little luxury on any trip if possible, backpacking is about diving headlong into the experience of learning life anew–learning to do things according to your host culture, getting (and sometimes staying) dirty, knowing what it’s like to live without the sure sense of safety we are so accustomed to in the US.   And ladies, perfect hair and nail care may be hard to maintain, so one must set expectations low, and learn to love the head-wrap, if necessary (and for hygiene purposes, in rural or hostel beds, I recommend it.)

Ironically, in this way, backpacking can actually be an ego-booster.   Along the way, you realize you’re capable of living, surviving, enjoying, even falling in love in environments and cultures that challenge you.  Backpacking has helped me realize I’m quite a resilient, resourceful person, open to more adventure than I would have allowed myself during my college years.

And that’s an invaluable lesson to learn at any age.  Want to post a travel story with me?  Send me a line!

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About C. Sala Hewitt

C. Sala Hewitt
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