Anyone who has spent more than five minutes in a backpacker hostel knows how repetitive the conversation can be. For the most part, these are places where people from all over the world stop in for a few days of cheap lodging, beer and travel advice.
The unfortunate side effect of this is that relationships in such an environment tend to be short and superficial. In fact, the average first encounter at backpacker lodgings is so predictable that some travelers, myself included on occasion, will yield all of their vital statistics up front upon meeting someone new: “I’m Colin; I’m American; I’ve been in Africa for three months; I’m twenty-six. I don’t know how long I’ll be traveling through the region…”
While I was in Maputo, waiting for the sticky wheels of Mozambiquean bureaucracy to turn enough for me to register my new motorbike—it took three weeks—I met no less than thirty different people who were only in the capital for one night before heading north to the beach. It might have just been coincidence, but afterward I noticed that I started keeping much more to myself.
I always go out of my way not to be rude or condescending, because everyone has their unique story to tell, but keeping up with all the names, nationalities and itineraries attached to the stories reaching my ear can be a chore. So instead of walking around hostels with a notepad and pen, I started grouping my road acquaintances into groups, based upon the kind of travelers they were (or seemed to be):
The first category of backpacker I met was also the most common: people who weren’t interested in immersing themselves into a foreign culture, or even indulging in the basic conversational niceties with strangers from other countries. These types seemed to prefer hanging with their friends from back home, talking football and exulting about how cheap everything was, before following their guidebooks to all the can’t-miss tourist destinations the next day.
Even though groups like this were more or less the norm at youth hostels, there were many, many notable exceptions, and these travelers fall roughly into three main categories:
The adventurers, like the Swiss nurses who bought a Volkswagen Gulf in South Africa and drove it up the Sani Pass at five miles an hour. Or the two Frenchmen I met in Mozambique, after they had ridden their motorbikes south from Paris to Gibraltar, ferried across to Morocco and then traced the length of Africa’s coastline until they reached South Africa and began to round back up.
The socially aware traveler, who come to exotic locations not for relaxation and pristine beaches, but to seek out a greater understanding of the world, and make it a better place. These people, like the American artist volunteering for public health initiatives around Tanzania, or the Australian doctoral student studying ways to improve Africa’s resource distribution, are among my favorite to talk with, because their experiences have led them to understand that beauty comes in many forms.
The third type of traveler is what I like to call the LJPT—locals just passing through. These individuals are generally spending only one night in town, either accompanying a friend to the airport, or finishing up a business trip, and they can be a valuable source of information about their country. I met “Selaisse,” a friendly Jamaican citizen at a guest house in his native Kingston, and after an evening spent chatting on the patio, he invited me up to his house on the island’s wild north coast. In addition to the food and shelter that he graciously gave me, Selaisse also taught me a great deal about Jamaica’s ecosystem, biodiversity and infrastructure. He was a squatter who left the crime and desolation of Kingston’s Spanish Town neighborhood with nothing but a strong back, a few dollars in his pocket and the determination to start a new life. In the decades since he moved to the countryside, he had taught himself to farm, fish and make curative tonics from local plants and herbs. Now he lives in quiet solitude, making a comfortable living by making jewelry, and was hoping to turn his guest house into an eco-lodge for adventurous and/or socially aware travelers looking to enjoy a more authentic and rustic Jamaican experience.
So much of the beauty of travel comes from encounters with others, and for every ten loudmouth boozehounds or obnoxious, safari goers, you meet someone who makes a lasting impressions on you—older women journeying alone, locals struggling to realize their dreams against all odds and people whose travel-induced spiritual growth is reflected in every aspect of their personality.
In hostels I have met many people who were in the middle of great and daring adventures; people on motorbikes, walkers, hitchers and individuals who gave up the comfort of home to pursue more simple and meaningful existences. I was always enthused and recharged after meeting them, and it wasn’t at all important for me to know their histories or politics, or even their names. It was just good to know that they were out there, seeking understanding and self-discovery. As I write this, there are tens of thousands more, from all nationalities and backgrounds, spread across the world on similar missions. Some are seeking adrenaline, some contemplation and some human empathy, but whatever their purposes on the road might be, they’re all evolving in their own way. And each of them is contributing to the hope of a better world, one adventurous step at a time.