The recent case of Eleanor Hawkins - the student famous for her mountaintop nakedness - has got me thinking about the nature of backpacking. Travelling is maddening. I can almost understand why a respectable young lady would want to disrobe at altitude. Backpacker hostels are full of people who have lost their minds. And their madness is contagious. The brain-bending conversation goes like this: have you been to the such-and-such temple? No? Well, you must. But ignore what the Lonely Planet says about taxis, get a bus. You'll get to have the real experience. Get off the tourist trail, do something different.
While it may sound innocuous, this condescending drivel actually drives people insane. The people who dispense this supposed advice are dunderheads. Anyone who's 'gone travelling' knows this - and most of us ignore them. Those foolish enough to listen, however, can find themselves in a tuk-tuk load of trouble. One minute you're chit-chatting about the price of flip-flops, the next you're taking naked selfies on some sacred hillside.
Backpacking is a sham, of course. The travellers most likely to harp on about cost and integrity are almost always well funded and insincere. This is one of the great ironies of travelling. An endeavour that once (many years ago) heralded great adventures, is now just another gap year diversion. Middle class youths collect these experiences to offset their corporate ambitions: university - travel - Goldman Sachs. Not only does travel tick a great big hippy-shaped box, but it also provides a lifetime's supply of dinner party anecdotes. Travelling is now mandatory for all nice young people, having become something of a bucket list exercise. Social media has transformed our lives into a great festival of the self, where backpacking is just another item on the great to-do list of life.
Picking on backpackers is a little harsh, you might think. The bangle wearing youth is an easy target. Fresh from the Home Counties, and swaddled in tie-dye, these youngsters can hardly be blamed for being overawed by the experience. I don't doubt their sincerity when they come home (with their newly dreadlocked hair and toe rings) and despair at our profligacy. I attribute this, partially, to the search for authenticity. Everything at home is staid, while everything abroad is dangerous and exciting. Unfortunately, this Kerouac style adventure is marred by the countless other backpackers looking for the same thing. And this is the rub - everyone wants a unique adventure but everyone follows the same path. This paradigm was best summed up in Alex Garland's atrocious novel The Beach. The quest for authenticity was a cliche in the '90s, long before we were able to document our airbrushed activities on social media.
A great many people feel pressed into these escapades - along with the need to impress. A traveller friend recently told me about a young expeditionary who, despite her chronic homesickness, still felt compelled to turn her Facebook feed into a delicately curated travelogue. There is of course something crushingly sad about this kind of boasting. Perhaps it is its omnipresence. In days gone by when people returned from travelling they simply bored us in the pub. Now, we have to suffer this information every time we check our phones.
Ultimately the ludicrous, showy nature of modern backpacking makes people do stupid things. I am sure Eleanor is deeply embarrassed, but she is far from the only young person to lose it in some faraway place. If you are a sensible student, travelling is not going to make you dangerous and exciting. Still, we all have to learn somehow. As Seneca put it:
What pleasure is there in seeing new lands? Or in surveying cities and spots of interest? All your bustle is useless. Do you ask why such flight does not help you? It is because you flee along with yourself.
And that was in 55AD. After thousands of years, it seems the myth of the backpacker persists. Think about that next time you find yourself naked on a mountaintop.