Published: July 3rd 2012July 2nd 2012
The view over to Tahiti from Moorea
To die a backpacker death allows you to exit your body, to float up and see yourself from above, from the outside, to look down on what you have become from afar. This new perspective allows you to evaluate what you have become, what you have learned and where you wish to go. New perspectives are why I began my journey all those years ago.
Location: Opunohu Bay, Moorea, French Polynesia. Time: Sunrise. Weather: Fine. Speed: Cruising. Mood: Elation.
I’m at the bow of this huge ship some ten stories from the ocean beneath, as it glides into this outlandishly exotic harbor (see panorama above). I don’t feel it at the time, but as I write it now, it seems like the finale to some cheesy chick flick adventure. The scene dwarfs me, the ship and everything on it, belittling my attempts to comprehend it and forcing me to take refuge in the cliché ‘beyond mere words’. I struggle to fathom the sources of its beauty. “The most beautiful island in the world,” is how many who laid eyes on it have described it. Those mere words will do just fine; I console myself…for now
at least, as we are due to sail into Bora Bora tomorrow morning.
We’ve been anchored out in the middle of the southern Pacific Ocean some 10kms from Moorea, having departed Tahiti just before midnight. As the sun began igniting the night sky out east we commenced our short approach towards Moorea, using the twilight to navigate through a narrow break in the reef, dropping anchor in Opunohu Bay as the sun came up over Moorea’s jagged volcanic peaks. We’ll spend the day exploring this exquisite, beautiful little island, and tomorrow it will be the turn of Bora Bora, before we leave these islands and continue onwards for another week, towards our final Polynesian destination of Auckland, New Zealand.
Four years ago we embarked on a repositioning cruise from Puerto Rico to Italy; it was, as predicted at the time, The Making of a Cruise Addict
. And, back then, this flagrant backpacker taboo led to some serious soul searching. I felt I’d somehow given up some of the principles that formed my identity, leaving me feeling I needed to justify my actions to myself and my peers.
This time around we are repositioning from Hawaii
to New Zealand via French Polynesia. But don’t fret, this blog isn’t going to be a list of how great everything was.
I’m going to pitch you the rationale in an entirely different way. Contrast travel – the practicalities
Firstly, I think it is important to begin by mentioning that it costs little more for our family of four to cruise for 15 nights from Hawaii to New Zealand, as it does to fly for 15hr with low-cost airline, Jetstar Asia. If anyone ever told you budget travel is anathema to cruising, they lied to you and they’re not your friend.
Travel is all about contrasts and balance. You work the routine-filled day-to-day existence – you need play, else you’ll become a dull boy. But play itself can also become monotonous, for in and of itself, it is only play because it is not work. For many years I had no travel strategy. I would leave home and travel as cheaply and hopefully resultantly, as far as possible, until lack of funds would see me return home to wherever offered me the opportunity to earn enough freedom credits to hit
The greeting party, Tahiti.
the road again. I became very efficient at it. At times I could travel for a year, return home for less than half that and travel again for another year. Times were different then, travel was cheaper, and the balance was conducive. However there would be stages during my journey when I would feel burnt out, tired and wishing I were back to the predictable clean duveted monotony of home. At times this fatigue even gave rise to the specter of The Ripening
, but I’d work through these periods taking life as it came and charging stoically on through it to continue on my journey until the funds ran dry. At that point I’d be forced to recharge and start over. But what I really needed was a little respite or change during my journey, to tie me over.
Contrast travel is a strategy we’ve been actively employing during this last trip and it works a treat. Variety is the spice of life, so why not toy with the idea; engineer that variety to produce the greatest possible contrasts. Call it the ying and yang of travel, if you’re seeking some Zen-like inspiration. If you stay in a
five-star hotel everyday you’ll inevitably get bored, if you sleep in a tent every day you’ll similarly become bored (perhaps even a wee bit sooner), if you lay on a beach eating chocolate gateaux every day, you’ll soon grow jaded, tanned and maybe even a little plump. Each person has their own limit, their own ADHD quotient, so you’ll need to find your own balance. Go ahead treat yourself, or get your ass off the coach and into the bush! On this trip so far we’ve contrasted damp nights in an RV Park, with roadside motels, with five-star-hotels (each can be a sanctuary from the daily grind), ramen noodles with caviar, and camping with cruising. It works as it accentuates and magnifies. Contrast is
the art of travel. Contrast travel – a philosophy
Twelve years ago, soon after I’d graduated, I walked into the careers office at Goldsmiths College and asked “So what now?” “Why don’t you take off a year to go traveling?” that wonderful lady said. I had already completed some independent travel around Europe and Asia during my time at University, so when I picked myself up off the
These islands are old extinct volcanoes, seen from above you can see how large the volcano once was (out to the reef's edge) and what is left. As time goes by the middle section will further disappear until all that is left is the atoll, and then one day that too will be lost beneath the waves.
(image courtesy http://www.authenticsociety.com)
floor, the idea this whimsical behavior could somehow further my career and earn any some sort of recognition, by ‘broadening my mind’ and instilling in me some ‘independence’, or whatnot, whatever the rationale was at the time. I now had my life’s plan in place, to be totally irresponsible for a while… at least for the next year, or so, before entering into the responsibilities of a steady job.
I returned home after a year as planned to complete my Masters and after its completion I didn’t need any advice from a careers officer to undertake the post Gap Year, or Gap Year #2. However, now I wasn’t doing this as something that was expected of my generation, as something that would look cool on my CV. If anything, this second trip was detrimental to any credit I would gain in the “real” world. I was, in effect, now escaping from it.
These first years of travel were superficial, yet at the same time vital; “The gap year” and everything that surrounds it: “meet new exciting cultures…drink cocktails on the beach and party all night…get out into the wild…be rewarded with spectacular sunsets and
Moorea, French Polynesia
life-affirming experiences”. By the second big trip, I had already discarded airplanes as weapons of the weak and sought out dangerously immature destinations partly for adventure and the rush, but mostly at that time because it was said it couldn’t be done. I gained kudos from my new peers and this became the fuel of who I was to become.
I was a blank slate filled with the knowledge I gained through my schooling, my upbringing, and the culture and land from which I hailed. An empty glass by no means – but in hindsight therein laid the problem, I had degrees in Politics and Economics and Masters in Business Management. This theoretical world already filled the glass and shaped my lens, but it wasn’t my own experience, it was from books and lectures and newspaper articles written by others; it was another’s interpretation of a world I had never been in. I wanted to see everything I could, to form my own opinion, and I would spend the next decade adding my own experience to that which I carried with me, constantly consulting, chastising, questioning, nudging, slapping and ridiculing what was left of that
Out for a sail
Cook's Bay Moorea, French Polynesia
become what I would become. I was about to ‘throw off the constraints that society had put on me and was free to do whatever I want to do!’ …and all that jazz.
I would begin to learn a whole collection of unwritten rules, regulations and expectations of how I should perform to be successfully entered into this backpacker fraternity, this environmental bubble which rolls around the world separate from “home”; this culture all of itself.
By trips three and four it was in my blood and it was serious. I was traveling further, deeper, longer and cheaper than anyone I knew. I was truly fasting from the life I’d left behind, cleansing myself of those toxins which inhabited my core. A crude form of electric shock treatment: a drawn-out dusty cramped mite-bitten adventure-driven diarrhea-diorama-drama to re-wild my mind. I attempted to be somebody that thinks for himself, to be innovative, and go against the trend. The very act of “getting off the beaten track” seemed to be enough. It didn’t matter what I had seen or how I processed the information, it was enough that I had been and seen that which others
Cooks Bay 2
Moorea, in the mid-day sun.
hadn’t, and this alone rendered that experience unique and worthwhile.
I had become an expert in my new trade, an effortless consumer of people, places and experiences. I was entering into a new culture, a new sense of belonging. I had, in effect, now moved from one master narrative to another: that of student to backpacker, and again from backpacker to traveler. Moving from one culture to another I was eager to learn from those who inhabit this world, to do as they do, and once familiar I strove to go beyond, for it was expected…trips five (where this blog begins, back in 2004, Sunny Zurich to singing in the rain.
) and six, I drank deeply from the Kool Aid. Down through the years I became a “traveler”. I ticked all the boxes and then I ticked them again.
When I returned ‘home’ now (and this itself was a transient destination all its own) it was this new ‘other’ world and culture that pulled and tugged, and influenced and shaped the way I began to think and feel. Bitten by the ‘travel bug’ I’d experience a perpetual insatiable wanderlust. Those people back home now seemed increasingly to lack the
same motivations, standards and dreams. In this old world to which you have returned you may be seen as eccentric at best - somewhere in between perhaps, depending on your peers - a dropout at worst. You’ll doubtless receive none of the kudos you have achieved on the road whilst back home, for you have now entered into a different realm; the world has been flipped on its axis, the world to which you have returned is
the foreign culture.
Looking back on those days, it was like I was sitting on an aircraft cocooned in the fuselage, traveling at the speed of sound without realizing I was moving, or taking the time (or having it) to analyze that which came before. It was as if I had some massive "to do" list that needed to be completed before I died. I had traveled virtually full-circle. Having shed much of the intellectual baggage of a previous life, I was living so in the moment, or worse still – the next destination, it was detrimental to my development and defeated the object of the exercise (unless that exercise was simply to escape, which, if I am to be
honest, at times it had).
“In expanding the field of knowledge we but increase the horizon of ignorance” Henry Miller.
Travel broadens the mind by exposing you to another reality, but if you evolve to think and be like everyone else in this new culture, this broadening soon ceases, as surely as does the happiness.
Have you ever learned something new about a person or place and then subsequently replayed previous experiences in your mind in this new light and drawn new conclusion, igniting a rich new vein of perspective on this and other peoples interactions stemming from this revelation. The past twenty-four months spent analyzing the tourism theory, as part of my graduate thesis, on a subject I had immersed my entire life in, resulted in a new pathway for expansion of perspective as well as for my intellectual development. Now as I travel, I draw on a rich catalogue of theories put forward by a new peer group, reviewing and revaluating a lifetime’s travel experience in a new light. Wherever you go, there you are
To understand something you need to rely on
your own experience and culture. Once you are fully integrated into a culture you can predict what people will think, say and write. To break free from this is not some arduous journey into the unknown, as cathartic and logical as it may seem. You may be stood at the end of the world in a place you’ve convinced yourself nobody has ever seen, yet the lens by which you see this has been shaped by everything that has come before. Whether this be your first trip or your fortieth, whether you be seasoned traveler or package tourist, you have been conditioned to interpret and translate everything you see in a particular way, through the lens of your culture, whichever that may be. You always have to take yourself along.
“Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought”
Albert Szent-Gysrgyi, Hungarian Nobel Prize winner in medicine.
Culture is shared meanings which help people interpret and make sense of the world. No matter what country has issued your passport, the pan-global backpacker/traveler culture has its own identity and forms its own culture. It filters ideas and beliefs from where
Sharks, Bora Bora
We don't have an underwater camera, but fortunately the water is pretty clear!
we’re from, and affects those that feed into where we travel.
We leave home having probably already decided that which we are going to see, how we’d like it to be seen when we get there, and that which we’ll share with the world, to paint ourselves in a particular pre-ordained light: the ‘reality’ we want to project, whether package tourist on the banana boat in Cancun or the backpacker surrounded by orphans in a Mexico City slum. This little paradigm has been shaped for us by the internet, TV, travel literature, the Lonely Planet and such like, and this view is then reinforced when we come into contact with other travelers, whether physically or in cyberspace. Those traits or ideas considered undesirable to that culture are filtered out, whereas those ideas deemed acceptable are reinforced.
The tourist will begin to “act the part” effortlessly. It is this person the local meets, this is the person the host and his country must serve and please. Locals willingly oblige and meet their expectations to continue the lucrative cycle of tourism; thus the travel experience is, more often than not, merely a reflection of our wants
and desires – a virtual hall of mirrors. Die a Backpacker Death.
Once you have achieved a certain amount of the ‘right kind’ of travel experience your esteem amongst fellow travelers means that you need to conform less. You can start to breathe your own air, start to unpick some of those boxes, to tease at the fabric of everything you have become - do things that would be the death knell of any newbie would-be wannabe backpacker-cum-traveler.
Looking at yourself in the mirror may help you to understand what you have become. Yet, to discover how
you got there you need to study your own culture: that which made you who you are. To do this you need to take a step back, to see it from an outsider’s perspective adept with an insider’s knowledge. Becoming the antithesis of your former you will allow you to view your life with the hindsight of twenty-twenty. At first as dogged as a dogma you will be pained to challenge any of these foundational beliefs you have built up over time, but as you challenge and tease out more of these
Trying to be camouflage
beliefs – you’ll gradually deconstruct that edifice until it comes crashing down like a house of Jenga. Taken and viewed in their individual elements, those building blocks render clarity.
Simply stepping away is not enough; many people do after their first trip, never to look back. Some decide to scratch that itch and go and give it another nostalgic shot, some go three, or even four trips. Yet, to really understand what you have become, and how, you need to enter back onto the stage as a different
character in the play, to be able to view it and yourself from an alternative perspective.
I never planned to break free. I met my wife and we became a couple traveling and certain invisible walls began being thrown up between us and our peers…we then got married and became a permanent couple traveling… we had our first child and became couple with kid, traveling. By the middle of trip eight, I had decided to quit blogging,The Carretera Austral (The end of the road...)
; as never the most prolific blogger, the extra responsibilities matched with a refusal to compromise our travel momentum meant a bloglag of monumental proportions was forcing me to juggle
a situation for which the travel would win every time. And now we have two children; we are a family of four who travel. Each step taking us further to the fringes of a culture in which I was once at the core, physically and metaphorically. These days it doesn’t matter where I am in the world, or our style or mode of travel, we will never be considered backpackers by those who inhabit the core (I know their modus operandi). For even though we may be physically present, backpacks and all; culturally we are now traveling off-the-backpacker-beaten-track.
I adore travel as much now as I ever have done, it excites, intrigues and enriches me just as much as the first time my passport was stamped; I’ve just taken a forced hiatus from one of the cultures that surrounds it, and I’m richer because of it. Wish you knew then what you know now
When the US president leaves office he places on his desk a note for the next president. On that note is everything he wished he’d known before taking office. One day I’d like to write
that same note for my kids before they embark on their own travels. As well as perhaps a list of books, and while I’m on the subject, a list of clichéd travel quotes which are banded about and eulogized, yet bear little if any relation to reality as I’ve experienced it.
“The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance - it is the illusion of knowledge”. Daniel J. Boorstin
The backpacker culture, as any, is constantly changing and evolving, to the extent that I don’t doubt the advice I impart on my children will result in them returning from their own forays with a smirk and shake of the head.
Regardless, I’ll encourage them to travel as soon as they can, as it is a lot harder to re-learn with a mind already filled with experience. Go, travel, and gain a new perspective on the world, due to cheap fuel, advances in technology and globalization this is the golden age
of travel, an age which has never existed in history and will never
But for now they can just tag along with us and eat cheesecake,
at least until we reach New Zealand and climb back into our soggy sleeping bags.
There are more photos below