I was recently regaled with the story of a 19-year-old’s gap year trip. You’d have thought she and her two friends were the first youngsters to ever leave the shores of their home country. Her parents evidently want to get as much mileage out of their darling’s trip as possible because they footed the not inconsiderable bill.
The three girls flew from one destination to another, stayed in pre-booked hotels and did a bit of sightseeing. They texted home every day and got upset if there was no internet café where they could update their blog and keep up with their friends on Facebook and other social media. When they missed a connecting flight, the girl phoned home to have a little cry and ask her parents what they should do and when they ran of money their parents simply transferred more into their accounts so they could continue using ATMs.
How can this be called backpacking? It was nothing more than a three-month holiday!
At the same age my boyfriend and I gave up our jobs when we had saved enough and set off, as did hundreds of others, overland from the United Kingdom to Nepal. There were no guide books, no mobile phones (indeed, few phones of any description) no internet cafés, no ATMs.
In 1974, we were allowed to take only £25 (about $50) in cash so the rest was smuggled out, plus a few Travellers Cheques. We had booked a train to Istanbul and from there on we found our way as we went. Buses, trains, rickshaws, motorbikes, you name it, we travelled on it.
We were out of touch with the Western world until we reached India when we read about Watergate in the Indian Times (printed in English). Our parents received roughly half of the postcards we sent, knowing they had taken a few weeks to arrive. They were blissfully unaware that we endured crossing a torrential flooded river during the monsoon to leave Nepal before our visas ran out, that we escaped in a bicycle rickshaw from a shambolic attempt to kidnap us in Lucknow, spent three days living on watermelons when marooned in the desert of Helmand province in Afghanistan, and looked down the barrel of loaded revolver toted by a drunk border guard in Turkey.
We had done what homework we could, although there was precious little for us to read in preparation. We were aware of dangers and took our chances, at the same time minimising possible problems by using common sense. We steered clear of trouble spots — such as Karachi where several Westerners had been murdered — and avoided people who were hostile, which meant leaving Tehran much sooner than intended as the Islamic Revolution was beginning to stir. We were rewarded with great friendliness from locals in the rest of Iran.
As a woman, I covered-up where the locals did to avoid giving offence and the possibility of rebuke. We kept our money and passports with us at all times — even in the shower (when we were lucky enough to have a shower). We didn’t eat meat in the more dubious restaurants to avoid sickness and generally did little to draw attention to ourselves.
We knew that if we did run into trouble, we would have to do our best to get ourselves out of it. We had no travel or medical insurance, it simply didn’t exist for backpackers then. We had a first aid kit, but luckily needed little more than Elastoplast and TCP for blisters.
In return we had a wonderful trip — frequently uncomfortable, often tiring, but we met and talked to countless people, ate intriguing food, learned a little of several cultures and told them about ours, and saw incredible sights, including the Buddahs of Bamiyan, now sadly no more.
Can many of today’s gap year youngsters really say the same? In spite of the plethora of guidebooks and information online, some of today’s travellers appear so self-obsessed they are naively unaware of the cultures they are visiting.
One girl recently reported being verbally abused when she wore shorts and a halter-neck top in an area where women were covered. Although I don’t condone the local’s behaviour towards her, I don’t condone hers either. She had no concept that her dress was inappropriate and that she had offended many people. It was all about how upset she was at their reaction.
I still travel but maintain that travelling in the ’70s was more exciting. Yet there is one huge advantage today — the digital camera. We took cameras and film but inevitably not enough, and film was hard to come by locally. Too few pictures of my long-ago adventure is my only regret.