B(L)ackpacking: Traveling the World and Not Ending Up in a Ditch
The last few years saw a BOOM in Black [American] folks trekking the planet and it’s simply amazing! Especially since so many of us were raised in households where “don’t do that or you’re gonna end up in a ditch” so often poured from the mouths of our mothers, grandmothers, uncles, great aunts, and godparents. That ditch kept many of us close to those fearful folks. Lucky for us, we realized that ditch doesn’t really exist and the world is a magical place, waiting for us to experience it.
The strange thing, though, for me at least, is that even with the numbers of Black [American] travelers increasing, I don’t see many of us out there when I’m cooking in the hostel for my newfound friends or backpacking through South American jungles, pitching tents in fields with llamas and machete wielding women in overalls.
Sitting on a bunkbed in Bogota, it hit me: Let’s get the folks b(L)ackpacking.
I became a backpacker by default. When I began going into the world, I absolutely wasn’t gonna spend money on frivolous things like resorts or five-star hotels or Michelin-starred restaurants. I wasn’t interested in shopping for lotions I could probably also find at home or getting dressed every night in my finest threads. I was there for the adventure, the experience, and the views I’ll remember on my deathbed. I’m undoubtedly the poorest (read: cheapest) person in my circle, but I’ve made a way to make my just about 80 countries (and counting) — backpacking.
What is backpacking, eh? Backpacking is traveling to experience culture, life, foods, winds, suns and moons as they should be: up close and personal, and on a very small budget, because you know money isn’t as important as your “rise and grind” friends would have you believe. The best things in life are very close to free. Do not mistake me, though. You don’t need to live in a shoebox to be a backpacker. Just be smart. After all, this is your chance to find out who you are as a traveler and as a human being (again, speaking from my experience).
But what is B(L)ackpacking? Nearly identical, except some of our motivation comes from proving to our folks that the world is 1) not going to kill us, and 2) the world can be an amazing place if we’re open to it.
Here are my tips for all backpackers, but especially For Black backpackers Who Have Considered Hostels When Hotels Are Too Much:
Taking risks will be a requirement. If you’re not a risk-taker, give up now and contact your local travel agent. Sometimes you will need to hop on that unmarked bus just to see what happens. Everyone isn’t out to get you so accept that invitation to that basement music cipher, eat those pastries from that roadside cart, kiss that beautiful soul you met at that Couchsurfing meetup. You’ll probably be alright.
Two pair of shoes is pushing it. Get a pair that serve as walking shoes, running shoes, and look half-decent with the pants you’ll wear when you go to a better-than-average live music lounge someplace. And if you must — and they fit — bring slides.
You’re not a people person? Again, call that travel agent or those friends who are also not people persons and go someplace with them and practice being standoffish together. Being a people person makes it easier to eat, find free places to stay, get free tour guides, and more. I’ve been fed, housed, clothed, and shipped off by many kind strangers all over the world because I gave enormous amounts of compassion and kindness.
No, these people don’t want to learn your language. You’re in their country, learn theirs. Simple, hey? At least learn the necessities. “Where is the bathroom,” “I’m lost, can you point me to…,” and “Is that a dead body?” Don’t assume everyone speaks English and run to them immediately trying to solve your own problem. Lead with, “I don’t speak ________ well. Do you speak English?”
Even when you’re not traveling, one of the most unattractive things in life is someone who refuses to try new foods. Well, when traveling, it’s multiplied by 10. UGH! Get over it and fuel your body. I’ve stopped eating with folks who don’t want to try new things. God knows where I’d be if it weren’t for the baby goat pancreas and thymus glands in Peru, the cow brain in LA, the heart in Morocco…you get the picture.
Be Open to Abandoning:
1. Comfort. In Marrakesh, I slept on a wooden plank, under a thin blanket, and woke up and took a cold shower because the hot water was all used up for the day.
2. Fear of the Unknown. Embrace the mystery, the excitement, the possibility that the greatest things are coming.
3. Your Devices. Wifi is scarce in the jungles, international calls can be rare, and when possible, it may be expensive. But honestly, who cares about what’s happening elsewhere? You’re here because you need to be. Be present.
4. Agendas. Be flexible. Sometimes when you’re on your way to lunch, you bump into a group of dope travelers who ask you to come with them to a beautiful waterfall 5 hours away. Go see that waterfall. Live a little.
5. Believing Nothing Will Go Wrong. What’s that old cliche? “Life laughs at our plans?” Flights, busses, Ubers get delayed. Things get stolen and lost. People are rude and disrespectful sometimes. It happens. Know this. Deal with it appropriately.
Oh yes, the budget I mentioned. Every now and then there will be those moments when you can splurge on a steak in South America, but that’s rare. Backpacking money is held with a gorilla’s grip and stashed away in a secret pocket in case of emergencies. Eat cheap (think Freshman year in college), take public transportation, buy the cheapest flights, hitchhike if safe, rent a bike.
Home is forever away. You’re in the world alone, or perhaps with just one other person, and unplugged from the people you left. Leave them be. But if you absolutely must connect for just a few seconds, find wifi at Starbucks, McDonalds, or some strange coffee shop and let them know you’re good. Leave them be.
The backpack! In the words of international poet laureate, Ludacris, “What’s in that bag? What you got in that bag?” I recommend you pack no more than 22lbs.
A. Plain white tees (not the band).
B. 7 pairs of underwear | 5 pairs of socks (one pair of compression socks for flying)
C. 4 bottoms (joggers/yoga pants, 2 jeans, shorts — depending on weather).
D. 1 pair of shoes.
E. Slides (if necessary)
Other Items I Recommend Packing:
A. Hair grease (I prefer oil, but TSA does NOT!).
B. Heavy lotion.
C. Fragrance oil (because you may step out on the town).
D. Condoms (Read: How To Hoe Safely When Traveling).
E. Washcloths (because most of the world is fine with rubbing raw soap directly on their skin, pretending all the dirt is gone)
F. Tissues and napkins.
G. Deck of cards.
H. A journal and a few good books.
A. Reassure your mother you won’t die.
B. All happy people who speak to you aren’t out to hustle you.
C. You don’t have to buy a gift for everyone.
D. You deserve these experiences.
E. Your charger (and adapter if necessary).
What I Learned B(L)ackpacking Around the World:
A. Most people are genuinely good.
B. How to survive and smile and not get upset when things go horribly wrong.
C. Flames are amazing and burn bright, but heartbreaking when it’s time to fly home and you must leave that person behind.
D. There is no such thing as mediocrity in nature.
E. My mother, grandmothers, aunts, father, cousins, friends, and coworkers were all wrong: terrorists didn’t kill me, I didn’t go to jail, and I didn’t end up in a ditch.
F. I can go 13 days with absolutely no money in a foreign land.
G. We are never alone if we’re open to being vulnerable.
H. Lifelong friendships can be built in a matter of minutes.
I. I’m not even close to reaching my physical, emotional, and spiritual limits.
J. My high school worlds studies teacher was wrong about so many things.
K. When you leave America, you are in the rest of the world.
L. There’s only one way to have an opinion of the world.
Now forget everything I’ve just told you and go discover what works for you!