How Pokemon Ruined Backpacking
Many thanks to Heather for letting us repost her interesting take on modern day backpacking. Here is a little bit about her:
“Canadian by birth, nomad by choice. Currently living in England (scratch that – Spain) and making a go at this blogging thing.”
You can see Heather’s blog here: www.transplantingheather.wordpress.com
When I went to Thailand last year, I met dozens of backpackers with virtually the same itinerary: to spend a few months tanning on every major beach and drinking in every major city in Southeast Asia, with a side order of Buddhist temples. I’m not much of a beach-and-booze vacationer myself, but I respect that some people like to spend their trips relaxing and partying instead of doing the cultural (read: nerdy) things that I enjoy. That’s ok.
What really upsets me is that most of the people I met in Asia really didn’t seem to like where they were, or even care. They were on the trip of a lifetime, but they would rather spend a night in the hostel bar than go out to explore the streets of an unfamiliar city. These wayward souls had been to so many places that travelling had lost its sheen, and adventure had become monotonous. In the immortal words of one traveller I met, they were “just Buddhaed out.”
What does this have to do with Pokémon, you ask?
I grew up in the 90s, as did all of the twenty-somethings currently “finding themselves” in the bottom of a bucket full of rum punch in Bangkok. We grew up watching Ash follow his dreams of catching every single Pokémon. It wasn’t enough that he already had Pikachu, his best friend and badass extraordinaire. It wasn’t even enough to collect a team of Pokémon capable of defeating any opponent. No, Ash needed to collect every single goddamned one. Pokémon taught us that in life, as in a pan-Asian buffet, quantity is more important than quality.
I believe this “gotta catch ‘em all” mentality has seeped into our lives, and especially into our travel plans. Many of us feel the insatiable need to see all the countries we can, even when that means spending only a day or two in each place.
I myself am guilty of going to Cambodia just to fit Angkor Wat into my Pokédex. It wasn’t until I got there that I felt a sense of guilt creep over me. I was simply one of thousands of tourists who had tacked an extra country onto their trip to Thailand just for the sake of it. Angkor Wat was incredible, and well worth seeing, but my experience there was not at all special. Without any historical or cultural context, the largest religious monument in the world was reduced to an exceptionally pretty pile of rocks. Worse still, my conception of Cambodia was reduced to a single historical site and a youth hostel with a pool.
If you have the money and the freedom, taking a long trip through as many countries as you can sounds like the perfect thing to do. This is especially true in cheaper regions like Southeast Asia, where travelling can actually be less expensive than staying at home. If you’re so inclined, you can easily roam through countries until you catch ‘em all… but what will you have to show for it? (Besides a gorgeous Instagram portfolio and a selfie with a monkey, of course.)
When it comes right down to it, travelling is 90% walking around and looking at stuff. Walk through a museum. Look at stuff. Walk into a temple. Look at stuff. Walk through a market. Look at stuff. Sit on an elephant while it walks around and you look at stuff. This is bound to get tiring after a while, no matter how good the stuff is.
If your entire trip consists of jumping from city to city and country to country just to walk around and look at stuff, you will soon start looking for absolutely any activity that will let you sit your ass down and look at nothing. Why do you think people love spending vacations drunk on a beach? They get to lie down and watch the ocean become more of a blob with each sip of their mojito. No walking, no looking.
So how can we rid ourselves of this Pokémon mentality, you ask? How can we experience a place instead of just walking around and looking at it before moving on?
My advice is to pick a single country and get to know it really well. Visiting eight countries in six days instead of forging a connection with a single place is like the difference between speed dating and falling in love. Speed dating may be fun, but it’s not something you’ll treasure for the rest of your life. Here are my tips for getting the most out of lengthy travels in a small area:
- Pick a home base. Getting to know one city really well can give you insights into its culture and lifestyle that you could never get by rushing around and trying to see it all. You’ll also be sure to find hidden treasures that other tourists have missed.
- Go somewhere you’ve never heard of. Try heading to a lesser-known town to see what a country offers beyond the brochure. When you get off the beaten trail, you may just find a gem like this rather curious rock formation I discovered in southern China.
- Find something to do. Get a job, volunteer, or take a class. It will give you a taste of daily life in a new country and help you meet locals. Bonus, a job or a volunteer position can help offset travel costs so that you can spend more time in each place you visit. Sites like Workaway and Woofing will give you room and board in exchange for volunteer work.
- Learn the local language. Not only will you have an easier time getting around while travelling, you’ll have something to be proud of by the end of your trip. Plus, people tend to be much nicer to tourists when they make an effort. (Except in Germany. Germans speak English better than you do, and they have no patience for your miserable attempts at German.)
- Entertain yourself like a local. Watch a TV show or movie made in the country you’re in, read the local news, or pick up a novel by a local author. This will give you some much-needed down time from sightseeing and show you aspects of culture you won’t find in a museum. If you’re a pretentious jerk like I am, you’ll also get a smug sense of satisfaction from doing things like reading Kafka in Prague.
Sometimes the Pokémon effect is fuelled by lack of vacation time. If you’re trying to see a lot in a short time, you can still do a crash course in culture:
- Delve in to what the area is known for. Whether it’s learning to cook in Italy or taking a taekwondo class in Korea, doing a hands-on cultural activity will be a highlight of your trip. Better yet, the skills you gain will be better than any physical souvenir. Colosseum t-shirts may fade, but my homemade panna cotta will always be delectable.
- Visit at least two places in each country you visit. Oftentimes a country’s most visited city is the least representative of its culture; my British friends agree that London is the least ‘English’ city in England. A visit to London, while never dull, will be made all the more interesting by a more typical English town to compare it with.
- Stay with locals along the way. By staying in hostels or hotels, you limit your social circle to other travellers. Try finding accommodation through Airbnb or Couchsurfer (or using Workaway! Ed) to meet locals and to get a window into their lives. While staying with a local in Paris, I found out how much Parisians sacrifice to live in a great area. My host lived in an apartment so small that it didn’t have a bathroom door, and she needed to stand on the bed to cook. (I never said the local life was better than staying in a hotel—but it is always more interesting.)
- Get out of the city. Throwing some small town charm or an outdoor excursion into your trip will help break the monotony of city sightseeing, and you’ll see a side of your destination that most tourists miss. What I remember most from my trip to Thailand was heading into the jungle to stay overnight in a small farming village. Going from the bustling streets of Bangkok to a town where water buffalo have the right of way let me experience two very different facets of Thai life in just a short time.
So… in conclusion!
Next time you plan a trip, try to forget about all the things you want to see. Focus on what you want to do, and what you want to learn about where you’re going. You won’t make it everywhere you want to go, but you’ll have a lot more to show for it.