Eoin Blackbyrne has done his fair share of travelling, or Flashpacking if you’ll excuse the term…
“Flashpacker” is a term that can be found in guidebooks, travel websites and on the lips of every sanctimonious backpacker that insists they’re not a tourist. It describes those backpackers who can’t kick their cravings for western food or prefer a slightly comfier place to lay their temple-weary heads and end up spending a little more for the privilege. This is the world of competitive backpacking and in every hostel around the world you will find a few participants.
Basically it’s a competition to see how cheaply you can eat, how well you can haggle and how many mind-altering and life changing experiences you’ve had. These stories are nice to hear after having so recently departed from the drudgery of working life at home in rainy Ireland but after a week, two weeks, they start to morph into one.
“When I was in …” There’s always a local involved, either a maniac or a charismatic rock-star of an individual, and they are almost always the instigator of this crazy adventure. Drink or drugs or a combination of both are liberally mixed into this wild picaresque, and they usually insist on telling you how to take them or where to find the best connection. The setting for the story can be anywhere; they’re a citizen of the world you see, and by the end of the tale the protagonist is the hero, held aloft on the shoulders of cheering natives lavishing them with kisses while being carried off into the night for his next conquest. White boys with dreads seem to be the worst offenders.
I have become weary of these stories. Most people you meet while travelling are not like this and it has to be pointed out that competitive backpackers are in the minority. The overwhelming majority of people I have met while travelling have been amazing; genuine in their love of travel and culture and eager to experience the beauty of the world. They don’t feel the urge to tell you everywhere they’ve been and all their stories within twenty minutes of meeting them.
Around the competitor’s tables you hear them calling numbers at each other, the lowest the winner, the price of that evening’s dinner. This frugality in the face of abject poverty is equally hilarious and frustrating. Budgeting is of course part of any travel itinerary and any sensible traveller will try to keep costs within that budget to try and prolong their stay in the beautiful lazy lifestyle of backpacking. Understandable, but when you see a person who spends a local’s weekly wage on hair products haggling over a half a dollar it rings a bit hollow. “Culture vampires” according to Jens from Sweden, taking as much as they can out of a country while skating through on as thin a budget as they can.
This doesn’t rule out haggling of course. In many parts of the world haggling is expected and the initial asking price is inflated in the knowledge that it will come down after a round or two of good natured back and forth. This is especially true in tourist heavy areas where the local merchants, aware that many tourists are unfamilar with currency and cost, will inflate the price to astronomical levels. The trick is to discern between those who are taking advantage of wide-eyed gullibility and those trying to make a sale at a reasonable price, not the easiest of tasks admittedly.
I suppose I’m a flash-packer. I have an indomitable fondness for home comforts and western food and a few weeks of nasi-goreng is usually enough for me. I would rather have a few beers most nights rather than saving it for water refills in the hostel, although it is hard on the kidneys sometimes. I can appreciate and at times envy the thriftiness of these fellow travellers but the sport of competitive backpacking helps no one but the participants.
We as tourists take so much from these developing nations. The sheer volume of visitors places a strain on their infrastructure that the local governments struggle, and often fail, to keep pace with. Waste management is a particularly pressing issue at the moment on many tourist trails in developing nations. Places like Bali in Indonesia, where the once pristine dream beaches are now clogged with debris and the remnants of twenty years of tourism. Tourists arent solely to blame and the burden must be shared by some of the locals but with the commoditisation of the beaches came overcrowding and a viable solution is yet to be found.
Programmes are being initiated that encourage responsible waste management through recycling but they are fighting against twenty years of carelessness and a rising tide of rubbish that grows daily on the beaches.
Tourism represents a large portion of many countries’ annual income and places like Cambodia and Vietnam would lose a significant chunk of their tourism revenues without the western backpackers that flood in clutching lonely planet guides and bottles of hand sanitizer. Backpackers are the lifeblood of the tourism industry in those countries that aren’t quite developed enough for your standard family holiday, but still have a huge amount of beauty and history to offer the adventurous traveller.
When you’ve just arrived in the door after an eighteen hour bus journey and all you want is sleep the tales of wanderlust fulfilled really can grate on the brain. More than once I’ve had to rudely abandon a conversation as it begins, tired of sunrise over the temple stories and “met this amazing local” stories told by earnest faces eager to share their experiences. Competitive backpacking is enjoyable for some and I’m sure there is a heightened sense of self satisfaction as they roam the streets barefoot but it is not for me. Even if it means being faced down in the duel of prices around the common room table I will stay out of the game and leave it to the professionals.