After spending several weeks visiting family and friends in the U.S., England, and Norway, I’ve once again left the people whom I love most in the world to hang out with strangers in strange places. Well, not exactly, but I have left, and I have to wonder: am I just being selfish?
It’s something I’ve talked to a lot of other backpackers about, and it seems that many of us wonder if spending so much time on the road is a bit of a selfish choice. We miss important milestones in the lives of our family and friends (I’m really sorry I missed your wedding, Ann) and leave them to worry about us while we casually tell them we won’t be able to keep in touch during our three-week trek through the jungle. And in the places we visit, it often feels as though we take much more than we give.
When we were backpacking through Central Asia last fall, Danielle often voiced her guilt at leaving her aging grandparents, who kept begging her to just come home. Now, I don’t really have to worry about that, as my only living grandparent travels more than I do, as do my parents, but it’s still maybe not the nicest thing for them. Especially since now when I am home, I’m so unused to it that I spend most of the time sulking in my room browsing Wikitravel for my next escape.
I guess a lot of people grow detached from their childhood homes as they grow older, though. Especially when those homes are in America. Wait, sorry America, that was mean.
But, while I was a little apprehensive about visiting loved ones back in the U.S., I didn’t hesitate to book a return ticket to Chiang Mai to hang out with my friends there for a month or so before getting back on the road. Except oh wait, I just decided to ditch them for a couple of weeks to go to Laos with a boy. We leave on Thursday.
Yes, a lot of travel-addicts are impulsive and a little flakey, and you probably won’t see them all too often. But that’s part of who they are, right? I think so, and in fact that’s not the part of traveling that really feels selfish to me.
It’s not as much leaving loved ones, but the way that I travel when I’m gone that rings selfish. First off, I’m clearly not contributing anything to my economy back home, and have actually been living the past couple of years off of money I saved while working in Japan. And while backpacking, I live so simply that I can’t take much credit for stimulating any economies abroad. Like, Tajikistan maybe made $200 from me during my two weeks there.
Keeping a small budget has allowed me to travel for this long, but it also has made for some pretty selfish moves on my part. Like that time Danielle, Sasha and I were by the Kyrgyz-Tajik border and our driver had parked his van outside of a small guesthouse. We had spent far too much money on the ride over (confirmed by some Russian tourists who paid a quarter of what we had) and decided to make up for it by sleeping in the van that night.
But when the guesthouse manager heard our plan she was so concerned we would be cold outside that she called the owner to see if he could give us a special student price. She kept asking how much we were able to pay and we kept hesitating and looking at the van, so finally she said we could stay for free. She even had her nieces bring us dinner that night. The next morning we left them a thank you note, but… we definitely could have left them some money as well. I mean, $5? I spend that on
hot chocolate coffee all the time.
Or that time, and this makes me physically ill just to think about, we were in a market in Khorog trying to bargain for Pamiri socks and the two Tajik guys we were with slipped the vendors some money to cover the difference in price we were asking. They claimed they were just annoyed the vendors were trying to rip of tourists and they wanted us to pay the fair price, but I don’t quite believe them. They could just have easily been trying to cover our shameful stinginess by giving the vendors the rest of the money they deserved. And I am a horrible, horrible person.
It’s tough to find a good balance between avoiding getting ripped off and just being an obnoxiously stingy tourist. I certainly haven’t come close to mastering that balance, as usually I’ll find myself paying too much one moment, and then trying to make up for it by denying the next person the money they deserve.
But what makes that even worse is that they are often the same people giving me such a rich travel experience.
While traveling I am constantly relying on the hospitality and knowledge of locals, who usually welcome me as a guest and do everything to make my time in their country amazing. They’re like the best teachers ever, except they aren’t getting paid for it.
And what do they get from me in return? Some nice comments about their homes? A photo with a blonde girl? It’s definitely not a fair exchange.
I can hope that, while I don’t feel like I’m contributing much to anyone right now while on the road, maybe the things I learn traveling will help me to do Awesome Things in the future. But who knows if that will work out, right?
Until then, I guess the best I can do is try to have the best interactions I can with people while traveling, and show them the appreciation they deserve for everything they do for me.
It sounds like a weak plan.