Apparently, according to the Cairns, Australia, I’m not very interesting. If you disregard all of the diverse experiences I’ve had over my past few years of traveling, the hundreds of people I’ve met and stories I’ve shared, my university education, my keenness toward meeting new people, trying new food, and doing new things – if you disregard all of this, and base “interesting” only on whether you’re willing to go out to bars and clubs every night of the week and stumble in wasted no earlier than 4am (and preferably once the sun is already up) – I’m not very interesting. In fact, some would call me dull. It’s, like, sooo 2010 to want to talk to people (without drinking heavily), to go to bed at a reasonable hour (by yourself at that) so that you can get up and snorkel the Great Barrier Reef in the morning, to spend the day NOT complaining about how bad your hangover is. How… boring I’ve become at the age of 25, unable to keep up with all of those 19-21 year olds whose idea of vacation (which they sometimes, mistakenly, call traveling) is to settle in one sunny, scantily-clad location for two weeks and drink themselves into oblivion every night.
I’ll get back to this later – promise – but bear with me as I distract you with an interesting phenomenon I’ve been trying to codify – that of the “backpacker hierarchy.” Over the past few weeks, I’ve become increasingly aware of the fact that, in each hostel I’ve spent time in, backpackers (those travelers who carry their lives around on their backs in foreign countries), assort themselves into a hierarchy, a class system that defines who will spend time talking to whom and who will be most respected in the hostel environment. This hierarchy seems to be based primarily on a few factors – the number of t-shirts you travel with, how long you’ve been gone/will be gone from your home country, and whether you can eat ramen noodles (or the cheapest regional food) every day straight for a week without adverse effects to either health or morale.
The first and last aside, the most telling feature of your place in the backpacker hierarchy is the time you will be away from home. At anything less than a month, no reasonable backpacker will take you seriously – you’re obviously a tourist, and your opinions on any particular location – “Like wow, Cairns was sooo cool” — are not to be trusted. One to three months on the road gets you some respect, but only if you can back it up with a feasible story of either A) why you can’t possibly take more time away and when your next, much longer travels will begin or B) that, sometime in the past, you’ve been on the road for a year or more, and this trip is so short because you accepted this amazing job back in your home country helping children/saving puppies.
Anything over three months, especially a half year or more, and you’re accepted (albeit it often tentatively until you’ve proven yourself) into the backpacker elite – a group of travel-savvy individuals dedicated to preserving the ideals of responsible travel, to learning the local language and cultures of the places they visit, and to showering no more than 2x a week. Your rank in the hierarchy is positively correlated to the increasing time you will be on the road – with the number of stories and traveling advice you will be requested to share around the backpackers’ dinner table increasing with your rank.
In this elusive backpacker elite, there are a few other defining features to fine-tune your position amongst any particular group of travelers. There’s the size and condition of your bag (and what’s in it, correlating to the t-shirt factor from above) – smaller and dirtier, yet somehow containing everything necessary to live for at least a year in two or more distinctly opposite climates, is the highest scoring piece of luggage.
There’s your taste in music – no real backpacker travels without music, and your ability to name-drop your favorite artists (ideally from all around the world, as in “Oh, that? That’s just Jose Gonzales, which I picked up from a Spanish backpacker while I was in New Zealand last month”) and gain respect from others in the elite can change your placement – top scores go to any backpacker who travels with an instrument that they can play. There’s also your ability to talk about the top backpacker topics – food, sex, and politics – and offer helpful stories to accentuate your viewpoints (without blushing).
Finally, and probably most importantly, there’s the list of countries you’ve actually been to. Certain locations gain more respect than others — Nepal over Thailand, India over Nepal, Tanzania over Zanzibar, Indonesia over Fiji – the more remote, unattainable, and culturally diverse, the better you make out. And there are some locations that are likely to set you back unless you have a really, really good explanation for why you were there – any spring break location (Cancun, the Bahamas, any number of small Greek islands), major European cities (not counting Prague, Budapest, or Copenhagen, which are acceptable) and, apparently, Cairns, Australia.
Why Cairns? I throw this onto my list because I’m going to be defending my decision to spend not one, but three days here, for a long time to come. You see, based on my criteria, I easily fall into the backpacker elite, the highest section of the backpacker totem. I’ve been on the road for the majority of the past two years, with another year abroad currently underway. Nine months of this upcoming year will be spend in a remote location that I often have to site geographically even for other serious backpackers. I have a small, dirty bag, with a tent and shoes strapped to the outside, and the ability to stay warm and dry or keep cool and breezy stuffed into the interior. And I made a mistake.
Seasoned traveler than I am, I made the mistake of not doing much reading before coming to this tropical corner of Queensland, and probably ignoring the stories of some of the rowdier Australians I’ve met in the past 10 days – and arrived in Cairns to find that this is the party capital of the Aussie east-coast trail, the spot where drinking and general debauchery reach peak, accented by a lack of clothing and availability of cheap booze specials. This is THE spring break location of Australia, where all of those 19-21 year old tourists come to damage their livers and add inappropriate photos to Facebook. In Cairns, I find myself surrounded by the lowest on the backpacker totem, people who label my disinterest in binge drinking as “boring,” my requests that they keep the noise down when they come back to the room at 3am as “unreasonable,” and my relatively conservative clothing decisions (I’m in jeans and a t-shirt right now) as “prude.”
The fact is (and my defense already begins), the only reason I came here was to SCUBA dive the Great Barrier Reef – I have my advanced SCUBA certification, and wanted to visit the reef before the impacts of pollution, rising water temperatures, and human mis-use make it disappear. My diving got downgraded to snorkeling due to a horrible head cold I’ve developed over the past week – but was still some of the most incredible snorkeling I’ve ever done, and plenty strong enough of a reason for my having come all the way to Cairns.
But the rest of my experience here, hierarchy aside, offered nothing for the independent (and interesting, if you’ll grant me that) traveler – no socialization areas outside of the hostel bar, no book exchange, no communal meals or public transportation or inexpensive group field trips (beyond the bar crawl). So, backpackers of the world, learn from my discontent and be reminded – obvious tourist destinations often have the highest diversity of hostel environments and things to do, allowing each person to find their niche and people they click with – but sometimes fall short of even modest expectations, and cater to (and are crowded by) the young and rowdy, the old and boring, the all-around disinteresting… the tourists.
Jess Scott is a foreign correspondent for Pink Pangea, a travel community for women. Find more from Jess’s past travels and her current trip at jpscott.blogspot.com. And don’t take her too seriously ?.