Everywhere you travel, there are backpackers. You can see them herding at train platforms in Italy, or wandering past dusty tea stalls in India. They always have that look: something between yearning and exhaustion.
It’s been more than half a century now that backpacking, for many young Americans, has become a rite of passage, a Grand Tour for the masses. The backpack has long ceased to be a mere choice of travel bag. It is a declaration of one’s travel identity. Whereas the travel stories of yesteryear starred a traveler and a ship, these days, it is the traveler and the backpack. There is a literature of the backpack and literature for the backpack. There are the bibles of backpacking, usually a Lonely Planet guide. There is fiction for and about backpacking, like Alex Garland’s The Beach. The backpack has become so essential for young travelers that the very word “backpacker” has become synonymous with the phrase “young traveler.” There are backpacking clubs and blogs and magazines that link backpackers all across the globe. The backpacker has become a new form of life, prevalent on every continent, floating around each of the seven seas, exploring even the most remote nooks and crannies of this planet.
The backpack, as we now know it, is not a new invention. Its modern incarnation was developed in the mid-19th century for explorers and hikers. But its popularity grew alongside the relatively recent development of travel as a leisure activity that is open to average people: students, tourists on a budget — people who, in the past, would have only been able to travel if they were working their way through, on a cargo ship perhaps. Backpacks became truly fashionable in the Europe and America of the 1960s, and are still associated with the youth of that generation, many of whom set out to shed the bourgeois mores of the stationary life by traveling to distant lands where everything felt unfamiliar and strange. These young backpackers wanted to project a versatile, energetic attitude toward travel. A backpack meant motion, freedom, independence. Thus, the ethos behind traveling with a backpack was to pack as little as possible. Packing, like travel, was an act of abandon. The backpack should be as light as the traveler herself.
Many backpackers of the 1960s traced the paths of the Silk Road, the ancient network of trade routes that crisscrossed the lands and waterways in and around Europe, Egypt, Somalia, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Java-Indonesia, Vietnam, and China. The Silk Road was like a global, moving marketplace, a labyrinth of textiles, spices, medicine, jewels, perfume, and slaves. Religions were traded, technologies and languages, too, and many who traveled the Silk Road did so perpetually. The road, as Jack Kerouac would say, was life. In the 1960s and ’70s, these merchant paths became known as the “Hippie Trail,” filled with teenagers and 20-somethings journeying from Europe eastward, to countries in Southeast Asia and the Middle East along the Mediterranean. To this day, the legacy of backpackers along the old Silk Road is palpable, for example in Kathmandu, where a road named Jochen Tole is now known as Freak Street.
Packing was an important part of the Silk Road experience even for the ancients. They packed supplies for basic travel needs. But they primarily packed things to sell. Archaeological expeditions along the Silk Road have uncovered clothing, goods. But mostly what they’ve found is money, bronze and silver calling cards for the diverse travelers that made the Silk Road home. Consciously or not, Hippie Trailers tried to transform what was, historically, a journey of commerce into a journey of discovery and self-fulfillment. Their choice of luggage reflected this transformation.
Open a random 1960s backpack and you would likely have found the book Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. This novel about one man’s spiritual quest in the time of the Buddha was hugely influential for the ’60s backpacker generation and, in its way, is a book about packing. In the beginning, the eponymous Siddhartha is young and arrogant. He rejects the identity forged by his father and religion. So he leaves everything behind to join a band of ascetics. For years Siddhartha wanders hungrily, aimlessly through the woods, until he realizes the ascetic’s life has brought him no closer to the enlightenment he seeks. So Siddhartha decides to go back to the town. There, he meets a prostitute and a businessman, and becomes experienced and wealthy. But one day, after years of living in decadence, Siddhartha decides that he has grown sick of all his stuff — his stuff is literally making him sick — decides he must leave everything behind and go. The pleasure gardens and the feasting have come to rule him, they have crowded him out of himself. Siddhartha’s life has become an endless cycle of accumulation. So one day, Siddhartha walks out of his house and into the forest. He packs nothing. He has no money, no food, no companions. He leaves his decadent life in the city with the three things he arrived with: the ability to fast, the ability to think, and the ability to wait. And, he has the clothes on his back, incongruous rich man’s clothes that look pretty silly on a man who is emptying his life of external determination. Eventually, he sheds the clothes, too. It’s a common ascetic’s tale. Go into the forest, go with nothing, expect nothing, see everything. With his journey, Siddhartha posed a profound question. What are we able to leave behind without losing ourselves completely?
Thus the 1960s. That specific spiritual journey, and the backpacking that went with it, is over. The motivation for backpacking, however, remains. There is the desire to push one’s limits, to see something new. But the question is no longer, “What are we able to leave behind?” It is “How much can we take?” In response, the backpack itself has changed.
Backpacks today are huge. They are so stuffed they can hardly fit in luggage racks. They are filled to capacity with supplies from home. The backpack of the 1960s was roughly the size of one’s back. It had straps to attach to the back and maybe a few extra pockets. The backpack of today is the size of a small person. It is equipped with external and internal pockets, and the pockets are often custom-fitted for specific items: umbrellas, iPods, water bottles, cameras, computers. It straps to your back and also your waist and your chest. It has straps to hold a tent, compartments for sleeping bags, and fobs for watches and keys. It is padded and waterproof and fireproof. It is an infinity of zippers.
A random investigation of backpacking websites list the following items as today’s backpack essentials:
water purification tablets
2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner
notebook and pen
pack of cards
extra memory chip and battery pack for camera
small garbage bag
sandals (for the beach and to protect against hotel shower fungus)
Other suggested items include: a sleeping mask; money belt; hand sanitizer; alarm clock; two photo copies of passport and plane ticket; blister patches; important phone contacts such as one’s embassy, credit card companies, and family; condoms; sewing kit; Swiss army knife; matches; bottle opener; Band-Aids; a first-aid kit; a sink stopper plug for washing clothes in a sink; a string for drying clothes.
It is always recommended that one should be careful not to over-pack.
The backpack of today is like a mobile home. Backpackers move through foreign lands with the hunched-over gait of mad scientists’ assistants. The backpack was once meant to suggest the romance of an itinerant’s carpetbag, or the sack on a stick carried by a hobo hopping onto a freight train. But carpetbags and hobo sacks held everything a person owned. The backpacks of today hold everything a person can take.
On a recent trip to Sri Lanka’s hill country, I came across a middle-aged Spanish couple who were taking a yearlong adventure around Asia. They had large backpacks for their overall travels, but inside these backpacks were smaller daypacks that, for a daytrip in Sri Lanka’s hill country, contained floppy hats for light rain, umbrellas for heavier rain, windbreakers for potential wind or rain, a microfiber blanket that could double as damp ground and wind protection, several sandwiches (“Sri Lankan food is not for me,” the Spanish woman told us the previous evening), water bottles, and several bananas. They were dressed in trekking gear — hiking pants and sturdy boots. This was all for the purpose of a three-hour walk.
Backpackers are not about to travel unprepared. It is this thorough preparation that makes backpackers look absurd — and unexpectedly hostile. For, when we pack too well, we are telling the world that it isn’t good enough on its own, that it makes us uncomfortable and scared. We don’t know if we can depend on anything or anyone, and we’ve decided it’s better not to take the chance. We will take our own umbrellas, our own bananas.
This attitude is equally expressed in what contemporary travelers pack on their bodies. For thousands of years the question, “What is your country?” would have been easily answered by the traveler’s mode of regional dress. I think of the travelers along the Silk Road — Kazakh men wearing deerskin qiapans meeting up with saffron-robed Buddhist monks and Chinese women in silk brocade. The contemporary travel outfit makes a traveler’s nationality often impossible to know unless you ask. Could you tell a New Yorker from a Walloon if both were wearing hoodies and cargo pants?
Today, the approach to travel dress is to be comfortable, which is to say anonymous. Shorts, baseball caps, rubbery shoes. A few months ago, I met a young German woman in Batticaloa on the eastern part of Sri Lanka. She had been traveling alone throughout the country and by the time I met her she was feeling distressed. When she was a baby, the woman told me, she had been adopted from India by a German family. The German woman had never known India, and considered herself a German person through and through. Yet everywhere she went, people mistook her for a Sri Lankan. They would speak to her in Sinhala or Tamil, expecting her to understand. Some people thought she was Indian, but that came with its own set of expectations. She wanted everyone to know she was a German person through and through, and she wanted to be treated as such. She had even tried to dress as much like a German tourist as possible, she told me in her thick Werner Herzogian brogue, and pointed to her baggy tie-dyed T-shirt, her casual shorts, her Birkenstock sandals, and the big camera she wore on her chest. It was to no avail. Perhaps my German acquaintance didn’t know how many Sri Lankan tourists look equally casual when they travel. What would the experience of the German traveler in Batticaloa be like, though, if she wore lederhosen? I suspect what this woman craved wasn’t to be identified as German but rather to be left alone. The sweet solace of urban anonymity is the first thing that goes when we travel.
There is an unavoidable truth about traveling: To travel is to make oneself a figure of potential ridicule. Travel makes us vulnerable. Most experienced travelers know their basic needs can be met wherever they may be. You just have to ask for what you want and accept what you get. This is not as easy as it might sound. It takes confidence. It takes faith. It is usually easier to bring your own stuff.
This is not the backpack’s fault. Anyone who has experienced being dropped in the middle of a Warsaw winter with nothing but a giant suitcase on wheels that must be dragged over bumpy old cobblestones as it careens and falls over and over again into the snow knows the so-called comfort of this kind of luggage to be a farce. Wheeled-luggage travelers are like an army of Queequegs who strap their sea chests to their wheelbarrows only to carry the whole bundle up the wharf. The very act of packing is a confrontation with who we are at home and who we can be when we are away. It’s never easy to leave home and harder still to make oneself temporarily homeless. This is true if you are traveling with a carpetbag or a steamer trunk. But no luggage more bluntly — or more honestly — expresses the fears about packing than the contemporary backpack.
We can see our souls in the contents of our baggage. Pack too much and we risk being weighed down by the place we’re trying to leave. Pack too little and we risk losing ourselves.
In the 1960s, backpackers left as much as they could behind in order to release themselves from the burden of self. Now backpackers take as much as they can take in order to be self-sufficient. In the ’60s, the backpacker’s quest was to remove everything — often one’s self-understanding, one’s identity — to access something pure. Today, backpackers want to assert their identity across national boundaries with the help of the things they own.
Maybe the two lives of Siddhartha are the two sides of backpackers. The 1960s generation, it seems, was replaying the first part of Siddhartha’s tale. They followed the young Siddhartha at the beginning of his journey of self-discovery, leaving everything behind in order to find their true selves. Contemporary backpackers are like the Siddhartha who goes back to the city in order to acquire as much as possible to fill the emptiness left by his ascetic life. Interestingly, Siddhartha only finds what he’s looking for after he has possessed everything he can, becomes completely self-contained, creates for himself a fortress of belongings, and then lets it all go. • 23 May 2012