Thursday, November 25, 2010


Rolf Potts and Kristin Van Tassel review a slew of novels whose "fictionalized backpackers ultimately function as ironic agents of mass culture," and whose "actions hint at the dull inevitability of consumer culture, as well as latent anxieties about the uncertainty of status and authenticity in an increasingly globalized world" — Sons of ‘The Beach’. An excerpt:
    Contemporary sociological and anthropological tourist-behavior studies underscore how these backpacker protagonists are influenced less by their exotic surroundings than the social dynamics of home. In a 2002 study of independent travel communities for the journal Ethnography and Social Anthropology, tourist scholar Christina Anderskov identifies independence, frugality, and acceptance of the locals as central tenets of backpacker culture. But as novels like The Beach illustrate, these values are largely a self-directed rhetoric within the insular confines of indie-travel social circles. As Anderskov acknowledges, backpackers seek each other out, and the travel communities themselves—not the host cultures—ultimately become the focus of travel. Instead of looking for nuances and complexities within the host culture, independent travelers frequently cling to signs of subcultural authenticity in each other.

    Researchers have noted, for example, that within backpacker enclaves there is a clear hierarchy based on shorthand status cues curiously similar to those of home. Whereas back home income and influence might lend to status, backpackers fixate upon travel experience and fashion. Anderskov’s research subjects assert that “real backpackers” travel at least three months, and they demonstrate their credibility through their clothing, spending, and storytelling. Backpacker novels confirm this ideology, frequently using such markers to communicate experience and travel savvy.
I backpacked but once, from Buffalo to Guatemala by land, in 1991. La Ruta Maya, I found, was clogged with young Europeans wearing fake Indian garb. I stood out like a sore thumb as an American sharply dressed with short-sleeved shorts and slacks from Goodwill and Salvation Army, which was how Mexicans, Belizeans, and Guatemalans really dressed. These Europeans for the most part weren't bad people, just really silly. Many Europeans commented on how few Americans they found among the backpackers. In my experience, Americans tend to go abroad for the longterm, and actually try to learn a thing or two about, and from, the host cultures.

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Blogger Enbrethiliel said...


This backpackers subculture is interesting, especially the difference you note between Europeans and Americans. I never thought about it myself, but I'll admit all of the backpackers I met in New Zealand were from Europe. The Americans--among whom I count the Canadians--were also there for the short-term, but as exchange students at the university, not as backpackers.

(Given the reality, I wonder why "Backpacker Horror" movies tend to be full of American tourists. Perhaps it's just for the target audience?)

On the other hand, I remember the columnist Fred Reed reaching another conclusion. He seems to think that the paucity of American backpackers reflects the average American's lack of curiosity about the rest of the world, which he seems to regard as a bad thing--especially since American interventionist policy directly affects that "rest of the world."

9:43 PM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

I guess by long-term, I also meant medium term. When I was an exchange student at the University of Chile, the majority of my fellows were Americans (with a huge contingent from Texas). There was a Korean guy, two Japanese, but no Europeans.

The only time I encountered Europeans there was when I traveled. I remember one older British fellow, who, when I told him I was there studying Latin American literature, said, "I would never have guess that such a thing existed."

We Americans tend to go abroad for a purpose: to volunteer, to study, to work, to overthrow democratically elected governments, etc. We don't have the European luxury of months of vacation at a time.

My time in Latin America left me with a very healthy anti-European Americanism. Travelling in Mexico with my buddy, "Our ancestors adapted" became a kind of mantra between us when ever we encountred some particularly laughable European foible, like the time two German guys were utterly incapable of stepping on stones to cross a an increadibly shallow stream.

I confess to having very little concern or respect for contemporary Europeans (though those of the past continue to fascinate me), and find Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans far more interesting.

Getting back to your comments, I agree that "'Backpacker Horror' movies tend to be full of American tourists... just for the target audience."

I love Fred Reed, but think he's wrong on this one. I regard "the average American's lack of curiosity about the rest of the world" as a good thing, and wish our government would follow suit.

1:06 AM  
Blogger Enbrethiliel said...


We Americans tend to go abroad for a purpose: to volunteer, to study, to work, to overthrow democratically elected governments, etc.


As for Asians, we seem to go abroad with a mind to settle where we end up.

1:23 AM  

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