Backpackers: a community that's always on the go

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

At age 29, looking at what lay beyond his third decade, Lars Berg knew things weren't quite right. The San Francisco software product manager itched for something more. His cubicle, he says, had become "both too much and too little," and he couldn't shake the growing feeling that he needed to make some serious changes.

Three months later, with about $7,000 in savings, Mr. Berg packed a bag, bought a guidebook, and caught a plane for Australia. There he met a friend from college, and for the next 10 months, the two joined the largest and fasting-growing seminomadic community roaming the globe today: backpackers.

Berg traveled through Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Italy, Denmark, Norway, England, and the Netherlands before heading back to the US. He stayed in low-priced guest houses, slept in hammocks, traveled in the backs of pickup trucks, and ate cheap food on the streets. And along the way, he met thousands of other travelers doing the same.

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Over the past two decades, this kind of travel has become increasingly popular with young people from countries with strong currencies, who, instead of taking a vacation from their lives, decide to turn their life into the vacation.

They need relatively little money to move through the developing world for long periods, provided they forgo a few comforts. Most travelers interviewed for this story reported being on the road anywhere from six months to two years. Some mix work with their fun, such as picking fruit in Australia or teaching English in Korea, to earn money to extend their travels.

Statistics on these independent travelers are hard to track, because most travel off the radar. But judging from the huge growth of the segment of the guidebook industry aimed at backpackers, the numbers are large.

Lonely Planet, the most successful budget-travel-guide company, started with one book, "Across Asia on the Cheap," published in 1972. It now releases more than 650 guidebooks in 14 different languages. Rough Guides started in 1982 with one guide to Greece, and now covers almost 200 destinations.

Today, in places such as Bangkok, Thailand; Katmandu, Nepal; and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, backpackers have commandeered entire streets. In cyberspace, sites like BootsnAll, World Hum, and I Go U Go address the nuts and bolts of such travel, as well as the more ethereal side of long-term travel. BootsnAll reports a quarter-million visits each month, and the Lonely Planet's site gets 1 million.

As the numbers have swelled, a kind of culture has grown up around these travelers. There have even been a slew of backpacker novels that followed Alex Garland's 1997 novel "The Beach," which was set among the backpackers of Thailand and made into a movie. (That film did not do well at the box office, despite Leonardo DiCaprio's leading role.)

Riding the crest of this tide come two new books by writers who have emerged from this wandering generation. "Vagabonding: an Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel," by Rolf Potts, attempts to put long-term travel into a kind of existential perspective. In an age when backpackers are too often seen as hiding behind a faux authenticity while looking for the next party, this is perhaps overdue. Meanwhile, "First Time Around the World," by humor writer Doug Lansky, takes a more hands-on approach.

Mr. Potts, who has been on the road in Asia and the Middle East for the past six years, would like to change the subculture's nomenclature from the piece of luggage it carries to the experience itself. Vagabonding, he says, "is like a pilgrimage without a specific destination or goal - not a quest for answers so much as a celebration of the questions, an embrace of the ambiguous, and an openness to anything that comes your way."

Drawing on the history of wanderers, Potts includes quasi-inspirational quotes from Aristotle, Lao Tzu, and Ibn Battuta, as well as more recent comments from Emerson, Steinbeck, Thoreau, and, the minstrel of the open road himself, Walt Whitman. But Potts also gives advice on the practical side of the trip and, more important, on attitude.

He admonishes travelers to avoid the pitfalls of ideology, especially the antiglobalization vogue, and put aside their guidebooks to just see what's out there.

Mr. Lansky is light on philosophy and heavy on logistics (as well as his trademark one-liners). There are chapters on cost and savings, documents and insurance, even "hanging out," with sidebars on McDonald's, giving to beggars, and how not to use your guidebook and the Internet.

Recently, backpackers were caught up in the war between terrorists and the West, with the deaths of 202 mostly young travelers in the Bali nightclub bombings in October 2002. But Potts notes that, at least anecdotally, backpackers were the main group who kept traveling after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. After the incident in Bali, most left Indonesia for other countries, such as Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia.

Two who remain unfazed by terrorism are Nicky Dunnet and Andy Wareing, who hail from London. The two taught scuba diving for several months in the Philippines before they moved on to Sarawak, East Malaysia, on an 18-month trip. To save money for the trip, Ms. Dunnet worked for three years as an accountant, and Mr. Wareing more recently quit his job in offshore oil exploration in order to travel. Between them, they managed to save about £25,000.

So far they've been through the Philippines, Malaysia, and Hong Kong, and they plan to go to Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand, and then move on to South America and up to Mexico.

"It's hard work," says Ms. Dunnet. "People think you're always going to be sitting on a beach, but you've always got to get somewhere." She says the hardest things are doing laundry and figuring out transport in strange places. If you can handle those and not harbor too many expectations, you get to see a world of new people and new things. But it can be "addictive," she warns. This is her third time around the world.

Berg, who has now returned to San Francisco, looks back fondly on the slow, delightful time he spent overseas, reading novels by Nabakov, taking a 10-day meditation retreat on an island in the Gulf of Thailand, and ambling through the ruins of the Angkor kingdom in Cambodia.

During his time traveling, Berg had time to sort out the doubts that he had about his previous life. In the course of his travels, an idea about his future took on a growing resonance. Now he is applying to art school.

"Seeing so many folks working hard just to exist," he says, "made me see how lucky I am, and made me think I should take a chance on smiling."

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