But first: what is backpacking?
(It may seem silly to unpack (ha, no pun intended, honestly!) this further, but some people may not understand why a rolling suitcase wouldn't just be easier, so I thought I'd try to shed some light which might give the backpack itself the credentials it deserves.)
Backpacking is a lifestyle of low-cost travel, enabled by the carriage of one's belongings on his or her back. Backpacking can happen in the wilderness or between villages, cities and countries.
The backpack from which 'backpacking' gets its name is not a proxy for a suitcase or other packing vessel. It is literally, and not interchangeably, a backpack. A backpack can be carried easily (read as: worn) for long distances, as in trekking. It can be worn while traversing complicated terrain, whereas anything on wheels cannot. When the cheapest train is at 11pm, but check-out is at 11am, a backpack can be worn from morning to night, over to that Temple and straight into the next city. It does not need to be dragged. It does not need its own home -- its home is on your back. It becomes a part of you, a worn extension of you, enabling you to move freely, cheaply.
With backpacking comes the obvious necessity of living out of a backpack. But it is not my fellow backpackers' ability to live out of a backpack that impresses me. It is the other skills and habits they have assumed throughout the process of adopting this lifestyle that are truly remarkable. They are informed and informative, inspired and inspiring.
My fellow backpackers are passionate and curious but they are also incredibly responsible, mature, smart and diligent. Some have sold everything they owned -- their cars, their TVs, their beds -- to be on this journey. They have shed everything materialistic to create a more simple and yet more rich life. A life in which the weight of useless possessions (desiring them, carrying them) is lifted and the opportunities for physical, intellectual and emotional growth are boundless. They educate themselves on global affairs. They soak up everything they can about the places they visit. They ask questions. They listen. They engage in healthy, respectful debates about religion, war, culture, politics. They create and manage impeccably precise budgets. They research costs and they know whether they should pay 10 rupees or 20 rupees. (And when they're being overcharged, they gracefully and tactfully fight for the price adjustment). They track their average daily spending and they project their future costs of living. They are logistics wizards. They learn new languages. They welcome experiences that feel weird and different and uncomfortable. They care for each other, help each other and protect each other, whether new acquaintances or worn in travel buddies. They share. They say hello.
They come from all over the world. They are educated and ambitious. They have insanely impressive resumes (and insanely impressive job offers waiting for them at home -- I'm looking at you, Clark!). They have lived and worked and taught in many places. They are traveling post university graduation, they are traveling for vacation, they are traveling post-retirement, they are traveling in between jobs, they are traveling indefinitely.
They maintain strong relationships with their friends and families, politely excusing themselves when Skype calls and video chats are required.
These people are open-minded, determined and generous. They are entrepreneurs, leaders and trailblazers. They start organizations. They volunteer to rebuild homes and toilets. Many of them have even laid the backpack down in exchange for longer term stays in places where they have decided to start businesses: schools. Earthquake Safety and Preparedness courses. Organic agriculture farms. Brick-making equipment. They are not running from. They are running to.
In Nepal the volunteer scene is particularly inspiring. Many of my friends here are backpackers-cum-local who were in Kathmandu during the earthquake and decided not to leave but rather to stay and rebuild. What they've explained to me about the earthquake -- and Nepali locals agree -- is that the news media covered the damage as though the city of Kathmandu were destroyed when really there is barely any damage in Kathmandu. In fact, the disaster is in the villages outside Kathmandu, in the countrysides and the hills of the mountains, where the homes are not built with frame-supporting pillars but rather stacks of bricks with no central or quake-defying support systems... and therefore could not withstand the shaking. My friends have spent weeks out in the countryside re-making homes and researching ways to build a more sustainable future in Nepal. Sometimes -- sometimes -- their hair is ratty, their clothes are filthy, their habitations are questionable and their fingernails are dirtied black... but the clean-up will come eventually and their intentions are unwaveringly good.
Let this post not be interpreted as a comparison between backpackers and non-backpackers suggesting one is better than the other. This post is simply intended to help erode the (mis)conception that backpackers are unaccomplished, escapist, irresponsible, lazy. It is to pay homage to a group of people with a common mindset who have had a huge influence on me thus far, and whose way of being -- in my humble opinion -- seems to be emitting a big fat ton of good energy and positivity in the world :)
Hail to my fellow backpackers.