The party’s over for world handicrafts, not for lack of skill or quality, but for lack of interest, or marketability at least. The crafts that are a product of hundreds of years of cultural development can be run through the Western consumer-culture meat-grinder and spit out within a matter of a few years, if not months. The best products might have a life span of ten years or so, but more than that is very rare and at a very reduced level of activity. Ironically, while tourism can dilute traditional cultures, it can stimulate crafts production. Little by little, the product is adapted to the tourists’ tastes to the point where it actually becomes a viable product in foreign markets. Unfortunately it can seldom keep up with the demand for novelty required in Western markets and a once vital industry can dissipate to virtually nothing. Hopefully there’s still something of a local and tourist market left. Of course, by then the product has changed beyond recognition so indigenous use is out of the question. After exposure to the whole process of tourism and mass production, their tastes may have changed beyond recognition anyway. In some cases they may have jumped to a new level in society. In others, they may simply have lost touch with their indigenous culture. In still others, they might continue making knockoffs to order, generic ethnic product from the lowest bidder. It’s no accident that some of the nicest products come from the politically most hideous countries. Hopefully something is gained positively and permanently from free enterprise to more than compensate for whatever might be lost.
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Border towns of the world unite! Expose yourselves! Celebrate your absurdities! Strange flowers grow in strange places, back to back to the same fence with a neighbor you hardly know, selling tickets to an arena where reality is the only show. Tijuana, Tangier, and Istanbul define the turf long taken over by Bali, Bangkok, and Bora-Bora, pushing back the borders of consciousness to a neighboring dimension of time and space. Tourists line up to see the natives sing and dance and otherwise entertain the bored wealthy Europeans seeking novelty and succor. The world’s sunny beaches are increasingly filled with sons and their bitches occupying space once given to fishermen, and complaining about the high price of fish. We are all in the same boat, rich and poor, a ghost ship to the future. Don’t rock it, rock out. Time to shake hands rather than fists.
Tourism is the great modern gold rush, linking past and present, rich and poor, traditional and modern, in a gradual melting pot of cult and culture. The modern rich get their entertainment by viewing the past as expressed by poor traditional peoples. The only problem is that it puts itself out of business. If successful it changes the very thing that drew tourists in the first place. This is the new colonialism, tourist colonies and sunny beaches, Interzone girls and forty inch screens. The brave new world is a chicken shit travesty, a burlesque of the real world, dancing girls included. Entertainment is everything now, the real thing itself, not just what ‘holds us’ between the real things.
Okay, okay, I admit it. I like to travel; no more long-winded explanations about business, ‘raw material’, or “I like interesting places, but not the actual traveling to get there”. I like it all, okay? It’s a way of life- the spontaneity, the breeze in your hair, the new experience just around the next bend, the friend-for-life that you just might meet tomorrow. Like the hero in one of my favorite songs, it may not keep you free and clean, but it’ll keep you honest. Who says you have to sit in a little house on a little street in a little town in a little country every day for the rest of your life anyway? My Indo-European-speaking ancestors certainly didn’t. They spread far and wide with nothing much more than a herd of cattle for inspiration. Those humble herders went on to become Greeks, Hindus, Romans, Persians, Russians, Germans, French, British, and Americans. What’s the first thing those modern men and women want to do when they’re old enough to leave home and have enough money to consider their options? For many, the answer is obvious: travel. Like salmon swimming upriver, maybe it’s there in the genes somewhere. For others, maybe it’s in the jeans somewhere.
Of course if you’re a true backpacker, it doesn’t take much money. It takes smarts, and a modicum of daring. After all, luxury is not the goal. Adventure is. Or if not true adventure, then at least novelty. A true backpacker will go hundreds of miles out of his way to cross a border that’s only recently opened and the people are not yet jaded. That’s virgin territory, but we can change all that. We’re only limited by the Backpacker Uncertainty Principle (BUP)- that undiscovered paradise at the end of that new road will be altered by our very presence, and our own perceptions are only that, not reality itself. Technically, of course, you can’t measure our speed and plot our location simultaneously, either, but that seems irrelevant here. Still we persist in our search for novelty. This is, after all, the greatest show on earth, in full Technicolor, Sensurround, and Odorama. You’re only limited by your imagination and your pocketbook. There’s only one guiding Backpacker Rule and it’s simple: Travel light. Okay, you don’t have to drill holes in your toothbrush as one early travel guide jokingly suggested, but you get the idea.
For better or worse, back when I first started, there was no Lonely Planet travel guide, much less hundreds, much less Rough Guide, Moon Publications, or any of the others. Standards were the corny old Frommer books and the series based on ‘Europe on $10 a Day’. South American Handbook was the Bible for Latin America and there were just starting to be some ‘cool’ travel books coming out like ‘Southeast Asia on a Shoestring’, ‘Indonesia Handbook’, ‘Along the Gringo Trail’, and ‘People’s Guide to Mexico’. The last of these is probably my all-time favorite, simply because it told you nothing about where to stay or what to pay, but it told you what it’s like to be part of the landscape. For me, ultimately, that’s what it’s all about. I know what it’s like being a tourist, backpacker or otherwise. That’s nearly the same everywhere. Guesthouses, restaurants, and travel agencies, even mountains, rivers, and deserts are very similar all over the world. Cultures are what distinguish a place. I want to know what it’s like to live there. That’s what backpackers do. You live in a series of situations linked like a chain, neither constant travelling nor constant residence. Sure, I want to know where the temples, museums, and waterfalls are, but I also want to know what’s in the CD and video stores, movie theatres and supermarkets, also. A book doesn’t help much with that, and I used to eschew them religiously. Now I eschew them because I hardly know where I’ll end up when I start out, and extra paper violates Backpacker Rule #1 (and the basics you can get from the Lonely Planet http://www.ebsite on any computer from any Internet Café anywhere in the world. Ha!)
I like to think of myself as one of the ‘originals’, but actually I’m not. I started in the mid-70’s, what I would call the ‘belated Hippie’ era. That was probably the Golden Age, when many places in the world were still inexpensive, still culturally distinguishable, but developed enough, and globally aware enough, that accommodations catering to this youthful group quickly sprung up, almost overnight in some cases. A Westerner could simply hop on the bus and cross on over to the other side. For an American, that meant Mexico and South America. For a European, that meant Turkey and Africa. For an Australian, Indonesia and Southeast Asia were obvious choices. For all, India was like the jewel in the crown, prized equally for its guru-laden culture and long-time facility with the English language. India, indeed, was one of the favorites of the previous generation that started out as beatniks in Goa, Tangier, and Ajijic. The next wave surfaced later smelling the roses in Kathmandu, Marrakesh, and Panajachel, and ending up on the beaches and bitches of Samui, Kuta, and Mallorca. The scene changed from the Beatnik characters portrayed in On the Road and progressed to the post-hippies of Video Night in Kathmandu to the modern-day slackers of The Beach.
Of course the backpacker scene changes all the time, by definition. The overland route from Europe through Asia now goes north through Russia and China, rather than south through Iran and Afghanistan. Who could’ve guessed that thirty years ago? Of course, back then the highest goals of any traveler were India and Nepal, now both a bit smudged in the public eye. Old places lose their charm and new places open for business, many times due to political considerations. Laos was in, out, now back in, ditto for Peru, but give Kabul a little more time. Vietnam still lures, Yangshuo and Dali in China still maintain their charm even after the novelty’s gone, and Prague’s the rockingest spot in Europe, long after Western Europe priced itself out of the backpacker market. Sometimes an area or city remains popular, but the center for backpackers drifts to new neighborhoods. Kathmandu’s Freak street has moved across town to Thamel, as has Bangkok’s Soi Ngam Duphli to Khaosan Road, while Bali’s Kuta merely extends itself endlessly down the same street, first to Legian, then to Seminyak, like growth lines on a tree.
Rising prices have decreased the attraction of Latin America, along with increased crime, but there are still adventures to be had, especially in the South American Andes. The threat of violence also affects perceptions of Africa and Muslim countries, but persevere. If you don’t mind being the only backpacker around, then every place is a potential trip. You don’t really require banana pancakes, do you? Asia is clearly ‘Easy Street’ for today’s backpackers, what with former Communist countries not only cheap, not only time capsules, but now allowing multiple entry and exit points so that one can loop back to a starting point without re-tracing one’s steps. This is Backpacker Rule #2 (Okay, I lied earlier): Backpack, don’t backtrack. Novelty is worth the long hard bumpy ride through uncertainty and digestive distress, but reruns only excite when they’re nostalgia runs, like time travel, same space but different times. But that takes a few years to be effective.
Yes, things have certainly changed since that day some thirty years ago when I first put thumb to the air and the rest was history. Gone is the Culture Shock. Gone is the thumb, as a rule of thumb. Gone are the days of ‘going native’, when you’d trade your jeans, Vibram-soled boots and down-filled jacket for the local handspun and go live in a hovel with the Indians. I suppose that is a testament to the increasing globalization of world culture, but probably also to the increasing luxury of the backpacker scene. Backpackers now have got it easy, what with all the centers of cheap accommodation competing for your dollar, all the cafes, all the guidebooks, all the Modern Standard Pidgin English gone worldwide. But I’m not complaining. I got a glimpse of a past they’ll never get. I became a self-taught linguist out of the necessities of world travel. I became a self-taught anthropologist to try to make sense of everything I saw. I even made a career out of travel, dealing in handicrafts when they, too, had a novelty value and a Golden Age which is now in decline. I’ve even had the opportunity to live in several foreign countries (and still be my own boss).
Internet makes travel much easier and knowledgeable nowadays. E-tickets mean you don’t have to worry about losing that handful of tickets that link you back to the ‘real world’. Improved transportation means that formerly inaccessible areas are now open for business, notwithstanding the fact that what attracted you in the first place may change in the process. Life is good. I’ve visited forty-eight countries (and counting), worked in ten or twelve of them, and lived in two or three of them. AND THEY’RE CREATING NEW ONES ALL THE TIME. I figure if I visit five or six new countries a year, then I’ll see them all before, well, you know. I still hardly know Africa or the Middle East, and now Central Asia’s game. Forget those obscure land borders, though. At fifty years old (and counting), I start looking for airlines from exotic countries that allow free stopovers at no extra cost. I start looking to see which airlines make fuel stops in Cape Verde. I start weighing the options of flying from Bangkok to New York via the Pacific or Atlantic. I start seeing the world not as a random collection of countries, but as Hispanic or Germanic, Francophone or Lusophone, Slavic or Semitic, Uralic or Altaic, Bantu or Manchu, Sino-Tibetan or Uto-Aztecan, etc. according to the historical ebb and flow of peoples, religions, languages, and power. I stop counting the years and start counting my blessings. Unfortunately, I still need to count the money once in a while. See you in Mozambique.