Now it’s been more than a year since the world unlocked post-pandemic, budget travel is a possibility again. Hostels with ten-person dorms are open for business; maskless travellers merrily pack on to crowded airport buses instead of cautiously ordering a taxi. I, too, have started travelling on a shoestring once more. I have never quite bought the idea that the best things in life are free – or, at the very least, cheap. I am partial, for example, to central heating and my iPhone. But I am increasingly wondering if travel is my one exception (at least, once you take flights out of the equation).
It often seems as though the objective of hotels in far-flung destinations is to divorce guests from the hot, sticky reality of the country beyond the “safe”, air-conditioned compound. I once visited Bangkok on a swanky package deal and found my only interaction with Thai people was the bowing women who came to fetch our fluffy white towels. Luxury resorts position themselves as a “home away from home”: a satellite city, with a satellite TV in your bedroom; tune in to the familiar comforts of home, and tune out of your destination.
My love of backpacking is a little unexpected. I’m usually fairly “girly” and high-maintenance – I’m not sure that I own a pair of jeans. Stuffing my belongings into a rucksack means there’s no room for my hair straighteners, and the idea of doing my four-step skincare routine in a mixed-sex dorm is laughable. But it forces me to realise I am just as much – perhaps even more – a person when my hair springs into its natural curls and I’ve nowhere to hang my clothes.
I have to let my guard down in other ways, too, when I share a room with several strangers – I must assume that someone will not steal from my bag while I’m out, or invade my privacy while I sleep. Hostels work because backpackers depend on each other’s unsaid goodwill and reciprocity. I now understand why Nordic co-housing arrangements, where neighbours share common kitchens, dining spaces and play areas in a way that encourages community, make the Scandinavians so happy.
On pre-booked tours, the destination is set, and the generic spiel is pre-approved by company headquarters before being delivered by a guide over a microphone. Instead, I go to the biggest square in the town I’m visiting and look out for “free walking-tour” guides, stood under large umbrellas. Rather than a deluge of dates, battles and invasions, people who work for tips often have their own special story of what the city means to them. A place is defined by others’ experiences of it.
Eating at an expensive restaurant catering to tourists with a vantage point over the harbour is like a date who’s a little too attractive: they feel less of a need to make an effort. Such restaurants cook what they think Western foreigners want, which can mean less authenticity and less spice. In Portugal, I found the petiscos were far better in the crooked, diner-style joints with laminated menus and tacky red-green knick-knacks. In Vietnam, £1 pho simmered in front of me by street vendors tasted far better than that from a café; chefs often benefit from an audience. And sharing a bench with other customers means I can see what the locals order.
I wonder if we miss out by opting for sanitised modes of transport that cater to tourists, such as taxis or coaches. A country’s public transport system can reveal much about its sensibility. The punctuality of Germany’s public transit network is emblematic of its people’s orderliness. At the other end of the spectrum, India’s trains represent to me its bizarreness and “anything goes” mentality. Despite the country’s relative conservatism, I slept in a bunk above a stranger, and woke up to the sight of men grinning as they performed their morning excretions on the tracks.
When travelling in Medellín, Colombia, I stopped ordering Ubers after I realised that taking the Metro helps you understand a little more of the Colombian psyche. Since it opened 27 years ago, after years of drug wars and bombings, Colombians have been so proud to be entrusted with a modern urban railway that they keep it spotless: there’s no graffiti on the walls or chewing gum on the floor. And of course, there’s nothing like hairpin bends to make you appreciate the humanity we all have in common. The Laotian man sitting next to me on a bus across his country did not speak English, but he knew enough to smile comfortingly – and pass me the sick bags his wife had packed in his satchel.
So often when we travel, we pay for the luxury of privacy. A room, a table, a carriage for one means we can be shielded from native people. The pandemic has made us realise what a privilege human interaction and closeness is; it’s a shame to pay to be deprived of it.
Tracey Thorn is on sabbatical
This article appears in the 05 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed!