The gentrification of backpacking
As you may have gathered whilst reading our ramblings along this particular trip, we have been travelling before. And to some pretty exciting places as well, most of them, due to our fields of interest and budget requirements, well on the backpacker’s trail. After arriving once more in backpacker decompression zone Bangkok, we mused at the ever-continuous hordes of fresh and weathered faces, fondly remembering the first time we got on a plane to a country very far away, with our mates and not nearly enough cash.
Something this time was different. And we didn’t know how we felt about it. It seemed our safe and familiar world had been invaded, and by a force we were powerless to turn back.
Kids. They were EVERYWHERE. Not locals, not families on holiday who had by chance stumbled upon our backpacker haunts, but running, screaming, tie-dye-T-shirt wearing, Mohawk sporting, Pad Thai spilling backpacker offspring kids. And where no fried cockroaches or green-chilli-Sambuca shots could cause lasting unease, the presence of kids who could be our neighbour’s children or nephews and nieces suddenly made us feel somewhat uncomfortable.
Seemingly gone were the days of free frolicking, where you can drink as much as you can in public, DIY shave your head, wear the most ridiculous clothes locals can produce and embarrass yourself ties-free by tea-bagging your mate in that awesome Irish bar.
Suddenly, as you are mooning the hot Swedes on the other side of the room, you make the mistake of looking past them, straight at the dead pan face of an 8 year old girl in pigtails and a frilly Roxy Kids dress and (if you’re unlucky) the horrified look on her parent’s faces. After you have painstakingly escaped your own parents’, neighbours’, boss’, lecturers’ and even societies’ idea of acceptable behaviour to run free in the pastures of South East Asia’s anti-responsibility backpacking bubble, your moral compass yelps from afar that you should have the duty of being a role model to the younger generation.
If guilt tripping yourself into behaving on the streets wasn’t bad enough, you are now sharing your hostel with that lovely tattooed couple from Switzerland and their 4 middle-class feral new-age-hippy kids, all under the age of 5. The corridor outside your room has been turned into a 7am playground, and you can tell when sunscreen is being applied due to the high-pitched screams of torture reminiscent of Guantanamo that flood through your earplugs. And where beforehand you could have told your fellow bunkmate he’s an asshole for waking you up last night, there’s now nothing you can do. “Kids are kids you know, but look how cute they are!”
Gentrification has caused quite a stir in Europe’s/Australia’s/America’s real estate markets. Areas such as London’s Hackney (predominantly working class and Black African/Caribbean communities), Sydney’s Redfern (a traditionally low earning aboriginal and islander neighbourhood) and New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn (previously the largest black community in the US) have seen vast displacement of former residents. These areas have suffered a sharp rise in rent due to richer investors buying up property to let out to other richer seekers of the new trendy parts of town. Shoreditch is so 2004.
Whilst most backpackers of course come from families who have the means to invest in travel abroad, there are parallels. Many especially young backpacker are on a tight budget so having to compete with a family who are a) used to getting one room between 3 or 4 people thus splitting the cost and b) are more likely to just pay the going rate or more for better facilities rather than haggle to keep the peace (especially when the kids are playing up) can be a tough one.
After endless wondering about whether families are ruining your favourite budget accommodation and whether these kids are even taking anything in (and aren’t they supposed to be at school?!?!?), you decide to get out, have a coconut and think things over.
You probably didn’t have these kinds of memories from when you were a kid. Countries outside Europe, Oz or the US/Canada were probably a bit too much work to go to with small children back in the day, whether it was getting affordable flights, visas, jabs and dealing with lack of local infrastructure and language barriers. Many of us will have gone on easy family holidays to the seaside – somewhere slightly boring maybe, but safe, predicable and fun for everyone (including the adventurous maverick backpackers of those bygone days, who were glad you were on Malta, and not where they were).
Whilst these were fantastic times, they didn’t really teach us much first hand about the way other people, other kids live. That having the biggest, fiercest looking home-made kite in the neighbourhood is the best thing a little Balinese boy can wish for. That dried squid on a stick is quite a tasty snack for a 3 year old Chinese girl. That there are real, friendly, interesting and lovable people living in these countries and that they have just the same fundamental worries, hopes and dreams as we did when we were 6 (probably involving the acquisition of ice cream). That there are faces and souls behind what our national security officials and free market economists want us to believe are corrupt governments who simply won’t cough up their vast amounts of ‘endless’ natural resources at prices our multinationals want to decide. But don’t mention the rainforest.
The media tend to sell their wares through creating feelings of outrage, curiosity about disaster and fear. Cue stereotypes, nurturing misunderstanding and sensationalism that foster our own ignorance. And we are all up in arms after skimming that Daily Mail article about that one man in Indonesia who wouldn’t let his head-scarfed wife get a driving license, and because we know no other Indonesian people, they must all be backward woman-hating bigots. The best way to remedy a set idea of another country, culture or group (whether political or religious) is to go yourself, experience the place and its people and make up your own mind.
We still maintain that a holiday from your day-to-day life and the freedom to do so 100% is worth keeping. Go to a hostel or beach or bar that is clearly for young backpackers out for a good time. And you, dear tourism industry, make sure these places exist and that prices are kept fair for both budget travellers and locals who make a living from welcoming the young, bright eyed and bushy tailed into their midst.
Places are not just places though, to stagnate in time for you to tap into and out of whenever you chose. Places are also places in time, and if somewhere has developed since you last saw it, then appreciate the good bits and see what you can do yourself to fix the bad bits.
Consider the huge benefits of people’s lives mixing to create broader global understanding on a grass routes level, and for the sake of this interconnectedness, share your public spaces with a couple of kids who may be a little bit annoying, but who may just be finding their life’s inspiration to better the world we live in. And if not, they are having their own little first time adventure, and will later in life appreciate the impact they had on their surroundings a lot more if they remember having the time of their lives backpacking with their parents.