Expatting vs Backpacking

Disclaimer: The following post is tongue in cheek.   I don’t have any prejudices against back-packers, it was rather a specific comment, by a specific person – known henceforth as Pinhead –  at a specific time, that inspired this little piece.  IMG_6164

An old uni acquaintance (and I use the word acquaintance loosely, I knew him mostly from a distance and by his nickname) was bragging about his post-uni backpacking adventures to a group of us.  Most of my friends were wannabe post-uni-backpackers and were hanging on his every worldly word of experience.

He’d been away for 6 to 12 months and as far as he was concerned had “done the world”. When asked by an enthusiastic wannabe-backpacker what the big bad world with it’s glittering temples, untouched beaches, bustling cities and foreign foods was like, he shrugged nonchalantly and said “Yeah, it was nice.”

Nice? NICE?? Pinhead.

This is aimed at that particular Pinhead and anybody else who shares his blaze mentality to travel. Backpacking has its merits. In terms of a rite of passage it IS both horizon expanding and character building. However, the misconception going to a full moon party and doing a bit of touristy stuff while finding your inner hippy and getting a tattoo and/or dodgy massage in a back street parlour in Bangkok, constitutes “doing Asia or Africa or any where blooming else in the World” is pretty ridiculous.

If when ticking off your list of places you’ve “done” you assume an entire country, culture, language and population of several million can be translated to a 3 hour stopover in said country’s transit lounge, then I’m not quite sure I know what to say to you.

If somebody said they had been to London, stayed in a dingy b&b, dined at all the local greasy spoons and threw in a trip to Big Ben, would you be impressed and count that as “doing Britain”? No, I didn’t think so.

As expats we often encounter individuals who are under the misconception that these youthful carefree backpacking jaunts can be compared to living somewhere full time. I frequently hear, “I went to X (insert country where you are living/have lived) during my gap year. I was there for 2 weeks. I know EXACTLY what you’re talking about.” Only, you don’t.

I realised this when I was about 14.  I was earwigging in a department store changing room. There was a woman telling her friend that her son had just returned from Bangkok.  “It’s a dreadful place, filthy and full of prostitutes.  He came straight home on the first plane as soon as he realised.”

We were living in Bangkok at the time and my 14-year old self wanted to tell her about the amazing food, the friendly people, the saffron-robed monks and all the other things on offer in The Land of Smiles, but she didn’t sound like the kind of person who would listen somebody younger than her oh-so-worldy son. Her mind was made up, based on her second hand experience of his entirely limited experience.

Expats generally don’t claim to have “done” anywhere or if they do there has generally been a bit more blood, sweat and tears involved. Landing up somewhere new you absorb as much of the language and culture as possible.  You meet a wide cross section of the population, you may be invited to their homes, will certainly deal with their bureaucracy, buy a car and drive on their roads. Then there is the emotional rollercoaster of raising a family, finding your way around and the sheer stress of an international lock stock and barrel move, knowing full well that in the coming months or years you will probably have to do it again and again.

I say to you Pinhead, Backpack shmackpack. I’ll see your backpack and raise you a 40 foot container.

Although, having said all that, did I tell you I have “done” Portugal. It involved hiring a car in Spain during my student years with 3 student friends and crossing the border to the nearest Portuguese village one wet and rainy Sunday afternoon. We walked into a cafe-bar. Just like in the movies, the entire village was congregated and the entire village fell silent and stared (glared) at us foreigners. It was pretty intimidating. We ordered coffees, drank our coffees quickly, all went to the loos together and then scarpered back to Spain.

Crossed border. Drank coffee. Had a pee. Left. Portugal: “DONE”.

IMG_6160
This is how relieved we were to escape from the Portuguese cafe.
IMG_6161
Portugal, “done”.

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