When a young traveler first begins to picture a backpacking trip around the world, their mind conjures images of dog-eared guidebooks, dusty and undiscovered pathways through landscapes previously only imagined, a growing sense of the unknown slowly morphing into the known, for the more they will navigate the world, the more their viewpoints will change. There will be buses packed to the gills with locals which arrive and depart on incorrect schedules and increasingly desperate attempts to navigate from one city to another as the mystery and danger of darkness creeps closer. When they finally arrive, they'll try unsuccessfully to quiz natives on which places they can stay for the night, only to find the accomodations filled with spiders, horrific squat toilets, and cold, prisonesque showers. They imagine the feeling of staring at a menu written entirely in a foreign language and simply pointing to an item and hoping for something less than disgusting to come from the kitchen, and if they’re lucky, they’ll have something delicious they can tell their friends about. They picture Jack Kerouac. Hunter S. Thompson. Jane Goodall. This is what backpacking looks like in the mind's eye. And that was the case.
Thirty years ago.
Or maybe even ten.
But in today’s world, with the advent of 4G signal and wifi in every nook and cranny of the planet, the experience of backpacking is completely different. The travelers who used to be called “flashpackers” (check out this article that is less than six years old and find hilariously outdated statements such as “I’m amazed at the number of people with smartphones, iPhones, and Blackberries.” written completely unironically) are now simply everyone in the hostel. This totally non-clickbait-y Buzzfeed article from just under two years ago entitled “The 19 Types Of People You Are Bound To Meet At A Hostel” includes a person whose first question is “What’s the wifi password?” That person is now every person. The most common scene you encounter at hostels around the world is almost certainly an English speaker complaining about the wifi signal to a worker who either doesn’t understand or doesn't care. The days of the dog-eared guidebook are over, why would I add a pound to my pack when I can download literal travel encyclopedias on my phone? For that matter, why download a guidebook when I can just google whatever information I might be needing at that moment? The world has changed, and backpacking has changed with it. Local chicken buses which arrived hours late have given way to sleek luxury coaches booked online with WhatsApp alerts for schedule changes.
The first stop in every new country is to a cell phone store to buy a SIM card, and if you choose to forgo the SIM route, you are constantly searching for the next wifi signal, if for no other reason than to see the comforting blue reflection of Facebook or to respond to your sisters on the group GMail chat. Being in the African bush is no reason to miss your fantasy football draft.
Your travels didn’t really happen if you don’t check them in. Your pictures are only as good as the number of Insta likes you have. There is no more sense of unknown about your accommodations, especially if you only stay at places rated above 9.0 on Hostelworld and have more than 25 AirBnB reviews.
And why wouldn’t you?
Why stay on a bedbug-infested mattress when you can examine pictures of your room before you arrive and make an educated choice about the neighborhood or village because you’ve read multiple blog entries about them or even had a message board question answered from a traveler who just stayed there? Why choose blindly from a menu when Google Translate will warn you before you order goat testicles in a squid ink sauce? What is the difference between a consistently updated facebook page or blog and a handwritten travel journal besides the immediacy of the audience? Are these updates to the travel experience good or bad? The fact that you don’t have to eat goat testicles is good, but don’t you want to experience the exhiliration of finding an unknown delicacy without even trying? Don’t the mishaps make the adventure? Has technology somehow made long-term travel concurrently both better and worse?
Why does the thought of “harder” travel seem more alluring? I’m not exactly sure. But somehow it does.
Not that I am saying I don't love technology and it hasn't made our travels exponentially easier; I'm currently typing this blog on my laptop, which is tethered to my iPhone's hotspot, using a crystal clear 3G signal, and when I'm done I'll watch the Panthers preseason game afterwards via NFL Game Pass, after which I'll be researching and booking a sweet studio apartment in Livingstone for us to stay in; much like Napolean Dynamite, I love technology. But a few days ago, as we boarded our Overland tour truck in Uganda and a mutatu (a souped up van which acts as a bus/taxi between villages) sped by with no doors and almost a dozen locals pressed inside, I was struck by the overwhelming urge to throw the itinerary (and our down payment) to the wind and just grab that mutatu and see where it took us. I leaned over to a friend, “Don’t you wish sometimes you were packed into one of those vans? With your backpack on your lap, kind of afraid for your life, not knowing exactly what was around the next bend?” He looked back at me. “Not really. I like knowing exactly what’s around the next bend.”
And because he had an offline map, a guidebook and a recommendation for a street food he had to try while in Jinja, he was right. He knew exactly what was coming around the next bend. We all do. That's backpacking in the modern age, no longer Jack Kerouacs, we are all Nomadic Matt.