Stop Glamorizing Backpacking!

Today I stumbled across an article entitled “Don’t date a girl who travels!”  Intrigued, I started reading:

“She’s the one with the messy unkempt hair colored by the sun. Her skin is now far from fair like it once was. ”  Yeah… that sounds exactly like me when I travel… Not.  

The real “girl who travels” has greasy, mangled split-ends; bug-bitten, unshaven, peeling sun-burnt legs; and a collection of ratty, sea-soaked hemp-bracelets dripping off her wrists.  Not to mention the green growing thing that lives between her toes, picked up in your average hostel shower.

When did backpacking get so glamorized?  I could not connect at all with the type of traveler that this blog was trying to procure.  I tried not to spew up my lunch when I read the lines: “She goes with the flow and follows her heart. She dances to the beat of her own drum. She doesn’t wear a watch. Her days are ruled by the sun and the moon. When the waves are calling, life stops and she will be oblivious to everything else for a moment.”

…. Seriously?

I was hoping to read something a little more honest: “Don’t date a girl who travels, because she’s probably grungy, unwashed, and hopelessly lost.”

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Too often, travel gets glamorized.  Day-dreaming adventurers read the Disney version of backpacking on blogs and begin to pack their bags, only to realize once they arrive that travelling is hard.  It’s nothing like their expectations.  As bloggers and seasoned backpackers, we need to be a little more honest and compassionate towards new travelers venturing out into the great unknown.

The Backpacker Blues

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Welcome to the world!  Feel uncomfortable?  Get used to it.  Things are nothing like home, but isn’t that why you left?  The beds are lumpy, the dishes in the hostel are dirty, the walls are dented, and the toilet is nothing more than a hole in the ground – if you can find one.  The air hurts your lungs, the food in the grocery store is strange, and it’s so bloody hot, why didn’t anyone mention the heat?  Or the massive spiders in the bathroom?!  How do they do it – how does everyone else blend in?

Surprisingly enough, backpackers aren’t born into difficult, diverse environments – they learn to endure (and even sometimes enjoy) them.  And you will too.

Chances are, you’ll be lonely.  More than once, your highly-anticipated plans will fall through and crash and burn around you.  You will cower in your hostel bunk and try not to cry.  Then, when everyone else is asleep and snoring, you will cry.

You will fall in love with a person or place and find your heart shattered when you have to leave.  Everywhere you go, you will leave pieces of yourself, until one day, you have nothing left to give.

Travelling is challenging.  You have to lug your entire life on your back.  You have to count your coins carefully.  You have to watch your valuables constantly.  You have to fend for yourself.  You have to figure out directions.  You have to meet people, form friendships, and leave them or be left.  Every.  Single.  Day.

You will miss flights.  You will have delays.  You will be afraid.  You will be exhausted. You will get frustrated. You will find yourself in undesirable (and even dangerous) situations.  You will be alone.  You will take an unfortunate amount of selfies.   You will be ridiculously unhappy.  You will get lost.

And Thank God.

Backpacking is not easy, but it is good.  It is in your moments of most intense agony that your character is revealed.  When you spend all day every day alone, you will get to know yourself.  You’ll discover things you don’t like – and have the opportunity away from home to change them.  If you are open and optimistic, you will mature, grow, and learn.  You will prosper in times of hardship.  Keep your eyes open and absorb the world exactly as it is, and you’ll find more than you ever bargained for.

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You will have days you don’t feel like leaving your bed.  Don’t.  Don’t worry about missing out, just breathe, and do exactly what you want.  You’ll have days you want to be surrounded by awesome people and party like crazy, but no one is around or willing.  Go out anyways.  You’ll waste days in coffee shops writing blog posts, damning yourself for wasting your adventure and cringing at what your friends back home think.  Soon enough, you’ll realize that this is your trip – your life.  You’ll start to realize that no one around you knows your name or your background, and you’ll begin to see that you are free to be exactly who you want to be.

The “Backpacker Blues” are natural. I cannot count the number of times I’ve cursed my decision to devote my life to travelling.  It’s healthy to cry, scream, dance, laugh, and hide.  

You will get through it.  I promise.

Backpacking is an exciting, terrifying, unpredictable, whirlwind journey of extreme highs and lows that will show you a lot more than just the world.

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So, there you have it.  The elusive, idealized “girl who travels” is really emotional, afraid, and lonely.  But she is also strong, spontaneous, and brave.  And that, my friends, is exactly who I want to be.

From Time-Shares to Rain Showers: A Week in PV

Last week, I embarked on my third trip to Mexico in under one year.  Despite my various visits, I am still learning the mysterious ways of Mexico.

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Puerto Vallarta is a stunning sea-side town, rimmed with misty mountains and deep beige sand.  With a growing population of around 250,000 people, I visited Puerto Vallarta during the second busiest time of the year: New Years (the first is Easter).  While Cancun is known for its Spring Break party scene and Mexico City is bursting with culture, Puerto Vallarta offers a unique flavour that is still distinctly Mexican.

Puerto Vallarta was a thriving Mexican village well before it became a hot-spot for tourists.  PV’s extraordinary scenery, welcoming citizens, and mild climate attracts thousands of Canadian, Mexican, and American visitors every year.  Without the tourism industry, the future and freedom of the country would be much more vulnerable to outside influences, as it was in the past.

Having traveled to Mexico previously, I knew to expect eager salesmen awaiting our arrival in the airport.  My mother and I tried to walk past them, stone-faced, but it was only too apparent we had no idea where to go.  We were whisked away by a desk receptionist promising us free tours, tequila, and taxi rides – in exchange for a “one-hour breakfast” time share presentation.

1524694_636975349693196_1812486549_nWe were reeled in like fish on a sparkling hook, willingly taking the bait.

The next morning, we were picked up at our old but adequate resort, Villa del Mar, and whisked off to Nuevo Vallarta where we  endured a four-hour show-and-tell that we literally had to cry our way out of.  Four employees rang through us, dropping the cost of the unit by hundreds of dollars, until they finally realised we weren’t buying.

Was it worth it?  I guess so—it was pouring rain in the morning, so we didn’t miss out on any beach time.  The company followed through and we received our “free gifts”, along with a bottle of champagne to dry our tears.  But I’m in no rush to do it again.  Just like the rest of the world, everything in Mexico has a price.

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The peddlers on the beach promise you it’s “almost free”, the resorts carefully highlight and shade certain areas, and the tour guides all work together for commission.  It’s enjoyable to indulge, but look behind the scenes and get out on the streets to find the real Mexico.

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I’m going to be perfectly honest: I’m not a vacationer.  I go mental surrounded by big-bellied Americas who just want to sit on the beach all day sipping mimosas.  The Mexicans love it—or should I say, love the money—but after a couple days of paradise, I get a craving for the exotic.  And so, along with a few tours and directionless wanderings, my mom and I began to explore.

1525228_636972879693443_1023907693_nI was walking around the pier at dusk, taking snapshots of the sunset, when three giggling girls and their bashful brother caught my attention.  The eldest struck up a Spanglish conversation with me.  They were so excited that I simply acknowledged them, and grew even more ecstatic when I agreed to take their picture.  I waved my arms around in an effort to say, “Make a silly face!”  Sometimes, you don’t need words: their smiles say it all.

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An authentic Mexican circus across the street from our resort beckoned my mom and I into the grungy arena where we watched drugged tigers and under-paid acrobats impress the (mainly) Mexican audience.  One of the performers offered me his card, perhaps hoping I could bring him fame home in Canada.
On our fishing voyage, another type of entertainment ensued.  At the promise of colourful swarms of fish, my friends and I dove into an ocean overflowing with jellyfish.  We nursed our burning skin as local cooks smoked the fresh fish we had caught moments ago.

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Mexican food is spicy, fresh, and delicious.  The smartest way to find the best food is to look where the locals eat.  Restaurants full of white tourists will cater to white tourists.  (If you want a burger and fries, you should save yourself the airfare and stay home.)  My favourite Mexican dishes are tortilla soup, cheesy nachos, and fish tacos.  Local, smaller, smellier places crammed with sweaty bodies and fresh seafood will serve the freshest catch at the cheapest price.

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Never forget, you’re running on Mexican time.  Tours will start hours late, buses won’t run when they should, and a “short afternoon” can easily stretch into a long day.  Expectation vs Reality can be a hard pill to swallow, especially when you’re mulling over a pristine-looking cruise ship on a pamphlet that ends up looking like this:

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Similar to Italy and Spain, nearly everything for sale by peddlers on the beach, in the markets, and by anyone not in an established store (and even then, sometimes) is fake.  Ray bans, floppy beach hats, guitars—everything you could want (and more then you’ll ever need) for $1.  Remember, the tequila you buy in the store probably won’t be the same shot you sampled, and the souvenir you bought is likely to break on the flight home.  Know what you’re getting, haggle the price low (but don’t offend), or just shake your head and save some cash for Corona calories.

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Speaking of Cervesas, the Mexicans pride themselves on their alcohol abundance.  They will give it to you for free, anywhere, however much you want, anytime—if they think they might make some money off you in the end.  It’s a brilliant sales tactic—get them drunk, take their money.  Keep your purse zipped up and indulge!  It’s always five o’clock in Mexico.

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Unfortunately, the sun can’t shine everyday—not even in Mexico.  The constant drizzle made my favourite city in the country – over Los Cabos and Playa del Carmen seem drab, grey, and rusted.  I was lucky I brought a rain jacket, sweaters, and endless books to keep me occupied.  Even still, the crying skies couldn’t keep my mom and I inside—we managed to meet some Americans and have a good time!

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After all, this is paradise!

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The Ten People You’ll Meet at Hostels

There are all types of travellers.  Some prefer luxurious balconies, spa massages, and goose-feather pillows, while others sleep on ratty cots and metal bunk beds.  Backpackers know that every hostel comes with ups and downs.  Someone will most likely steal your food, at some point you’ll get bed bugs, and if you don’t have twenty concert wristbands and hemp bracelets at the end, you’re doing it wrong.  One thing you can be sure of is at any given hostel, anywhere in the world, at any time, you will meet these ten people:

1)      The Guy With The Guitar

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The guitar is kind of ratty, and chipped, and the wood is a little warped.  Still, it’s the Guy With The Guitar’s claim to fame.  He wears band shirts and is constantly growing his hair “out”.  The guitar lives in the oddest spots around the hostel, and if you want to play it, treat it like gold.

2)      The Girl Who Makes Everyone Get In Her Photos So She Can Show Her Friends Back Home How Much Fun She’s Having

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We’ve all been there.

Despite all the Skype-dates, text messages, and Facebook updates, young travellers seem to feel like they’re not missed back home, and the only way they can convince their friends (and themselves) that they’re not homesick is by making them ridiculously jealous.

Notice how they always sit by the hot foreign guy when the camera clicks.  That’s what I call an authentic souvenir.

3)      The Guy Who Spends All Day Watching Movies On His Laptop

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This guy’s been here a week and hasn’t left the hostel.  Or showered.

Seriously, what better way to spend an entire week on the other side of the world than watching American television shows on your laptop.  Culture, who needs it.

4)      The Italian, Spaniard, and French Chefs

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He lathers the frying pan in olive oil, summersaults crepes in the air, and fills the communal kitchen with organismic aromas.

You kind of hate him, but mostly because he’s not cooking for you.

5)      The Guy Who Kind Of Looks Homeless And You Actually Think Might Be

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Although he smells kind of funny, eats your leftovers, and makes you cling to your belongings in fear, this guy is my favourite.  I guarantee you he has the best stories.

6)      The Really Cute Couple Who Look Lovingly Into Each Others Eyes and Remind You That You Will Be Alone Forever

I used to be you.  I kind of loathe you.  I mostly try to ignore you and get drunk with the Aussie.  Just please, please don’t be in my dorm, because I like to sleep without the intrusion of an earthquake.

7)      The Aussie.

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Aussie’s are everywhere, and I freaking love it.  You can guarantee a fridge full of beer and a full fledged party is lurking near by.  He’s always grinning—and why shouldn’t he!  He’s Australian, his accents make all the girls swoon, and everyone automatically assumes he’s a world class surfer.  He has shaggy hair, ratted bracelets from every country he’s been to, cannot lose his tan, and is always found with a beer in hand.  Everyone loves him.

8)      The American Eurotriper’s Who Just Want To Get Laid

Don’t let their bleached blonde hair, gel nails, and layered make-up fool you.  They are REAL backpackers.  LOOK!  They even have backpacks. They’re nervous to be away from the states for a few weeks, so they pre-booked a bus tour.  Please don’t be offended when they call Europe a country and South Africa a state.

9)   The Girl Who’s Alarm Clock Goes Off At Three AM

I understand you have a bus, plane, train, or tour to catch.

But three mornings in a row?  Get out.

10)      The Hostel Hipsters Who’ve Been Everywhere You Have—And Haven’t

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We all know this person.  And unfortunately, most of us end up being them a little bit.

They’ve been everywhere you have and more, before it was mainstream, in their thrift-shopped onesies.  They’ve dated all the foreigners, speak 17 different languages, find underground bands, and can’t sit through your story without interrupting, because theirs is always better.  They’ve been there, and done that, twice.  The best way to deal with them is to smile, nod, and space out.

After going through and smacking a label on all the backpackers you’ve ever met, it’s time to ask yourself – how would other travelers label you?