Rule number one when writing a travel story: never speak in the present tense. And for God’s sake don’t open with it (“The dying sun is spilling its boiling blood on the icy peaks of the Andes. I recline beneath a rough wooden portal, a notable Argentinian shiraz in hand.”)
But I’m going to break that rule. It is now 10:22 a.m. on the morning of January 19, and I have just determined that I truly fucking hate backpackers.
My wife and I climbed into this tourist shuttle with the promise that we will soon set out from our current digs — Coban, Guatemala — for the old capital city of Antigua.
Strewn about before me now are a dozen and a half of these pack rats, all wearing the same dazed look that I see so often in my travels. Their weary, empty eyes are the result, I know, of the lifestyle they choose when on the road: They awaken for the free breakfast, then lie about, as dreamy as last-days residents of a Chinese opium den, as the previous evening’s hangover slowly leaks out of their ears.
In order to make these invertebrates as comfortable as possible, lounging pads are now ubiquitous in youth hostels the world over, allowing their posture and manners to be as lazy and louche as what we can call, in a mixture of horror and laughter, their clothing.
The drearies that necessarily follow such nights of merrymaking lay low any idea of stepping outside to investigate the strange cityscape and clime they now inhabit. Rather, this is a waiting game, one in which eyes are kept half-lidded to avoid accidental eye-capture by the stranger you fucked the previous evening. The rest is silence: wasting away the day until the sun declines. It is the dying light that announces the agreed-upon beginning of the evening’s planned enterprise, which is certain to bear a strong resemblance to that of the previous night, and the one before that: to get drunk and fuck strangers, with pharmacological assistance if possible to ensure you are deluded into believing you are having an awesome good time.
Backpacking, then, can be roughly defined as doing what one does at home, only in a cheaper place.
And then there are the bragging rights. “I am a traveler,” they tell themselves and others, though in their travels they cling like-to-like, moving about in packs that provide safety in numbers against the intrusion of the ambient culture.
Churches, for example. Backpackers quickly poke their head into each notable structure, glance around, then leave.
Here is the difficulty: It can be said without likelihood of contradiction that the most important cultural events in Guatemala occur each Sunday when most of the locals attend either a Catholic service or an evangelistic one. As we speak, there is a fascinating battle for religious supremacy taking place between the two sects. This conflict, which defines the current climate of this nation, and will play a major role in its future, interests backpackers not at all.
If, on the other hand, they can locate someone who continues to practice pre-Columbian rituals, they will gather en masse. This is true, of course, because they believe they know Christianity, and they know the old ways were better and more authentic. Things that aren’t mentioned: the former religion was an astonishingly cruel belief system, with a blood lust that makes Hannibal Lecter seem like an agnostic about the whole murder thing.
But I digress: as I gaze over the dead-eyed shuttle-bound assemblage, I note there are two seats that remain unoccupied — at least by human passengers. Both are taken up, however, by backpacks. These backpacks aren’t moving because, I can only assume, the owners are somehow hopeful that if their eyes don’t meet my wife’s and mine, we will be content to stand for the next five hours of our journey.
My rage increases. What kind of person, age 22 or so, can see a 60-year-old woman standing there, waiting for a seat for a long journey and do nothing?
These people. Backpackers.
In the end, I am required to take matters into my hands. “My wife is going to sit there,” I tell one young lady who, like her many companions on the shuttle, is sporting greasy hair. “And I’m going to sit there,” I tell a young man whose greasy hair is augmented by a greasy two-week beard. It is the universal style among backpackers.
They sullenly lift their backpacks, chuffing at the effort and intrusion, which provides me with a momentary flush of pleasure.
As it happens, my wife and I often stay in hostels, which we formerly enjoyed for both their economy and their social life. But something has happened, something terrible, in the past 20 years.
For example, the Hostel Los Amigos in Flores, Guatemala, where we stayed four nights ago. The place is brilliantly designed and spectacularly well run. The common area consists of a partially-roofed great room with profuse flowering vines providing a dazzling display of color. Moreover, the artwork is local and accomplished, the bathrooms are clean, and the price is right, including buck-fifty Gallos at the cozy bar. Indeed, one can only level one serious criticism against the place: It is infested head to toe with backpackers.
They lie about like sunning lizards, too enervated to rouse themselves for a smile or a nod, which would be weird, I should admit, because they aren’t actually here in Los Amigos, or for that matter anywhere within shouting distance of Guatemala. Instead they are immersed in the electronic world, their fingers flipping through pages on their phone or pad, their eyes never glancing up. Each has white ear buds inserted or a set of Beats clasped.
It is true that on occasion one of these backpackers may be roused into conversation to share his adventures. While this may sound pleasant to the uninitiated, it is sadly the case that most of these children failed to learn conversational skills, passed over as they were by that nice family of wolves that considered, then abandoned the idea of adopting them, leaving them instead to the tender cruelties of their birth parents.
“I was just in Nicaragua, man. Went to Granada. It was awesome!”
“You didn’t go to Leon? Dude, you missed it!”
“Yeah, we stayed in a great hostel in Cartagena. Right outside the old city wall for U.S. 12 a night.”
“Dude, you got screwed.”
There is redundant piped-in music in the air in Los Amigos. It features — because international law makes it compulsory in all hostels — Bob Marley.
(I should pause here to deliver some kind words for Bob. He was a joyous fellow, and, I should add, it is in my nature as a libertarian to feel a certain affection for anyone whose religion consists of worshipping a failed head of a failed state, plus ganja.
But then there is this unfortunate fact: Bob is almost certainly the only multi-platinum recording artist about whom it can be literally said that if you’ve heard one of his songs you’ve heard them all.)
After checking in, my wife and I, breaking with house tradition, step away from the hostel to explore the little island, which is modestly (its modesty being one of its pleasures) quaint and picturesque. Because it sits on its own little island in the middle of Lake Peten, it provides a lovely 360 degrees of vistas.
Moreover, it has a singular history. This tiny island, which can be traversed on foot end to end in ten minutes, is the site of the only native settlement in Central America never conquered by the Spanish.
These facts go undiscovered by our hostel-mates, who have, we discover upon our return, begun to juice themselves up in preparation for the nightly rituals.
The air resounds with the sound of bad electronic music, predominately a bass beat that is so monotonous, so ponderous, that no human mind could imagine creating such a painful din, which is why it is left to machines.
Through the noise can be heard the chiming of wine glasses and the steady finting of released carbonation as the Gallos come out to play. Occasionally a blender is called into service: sex on the beach on the way.
The sound of dissolute youth “partying” comes banging along too: ping pong balls cracking, the occasional suspicious laugh (suspicious in its lack of mirth), and of course, neighs and whinnies, and hooves pounding impatiently on ancient timbers.
I can see a slight mist, a fog in the air, and the Christmas lights strung throughout glow dazzlingly. I think at first it is cigarette smoke, but no: smoking is disallowed because, as the West’s New Puritans know, it is hazardous to your health. Instead, I realize, it is a cloud of pheromones, the funky exudate of more than one hundred strangers who hope to soon find another stranger to fuck.
After watching this scene for a few moments, my wife and I retire to our plywood room, which reverberates with each downbeat. We lie awake, reading and listening to the expanding bedlam. Eventually I speak up. “I don’t get it,” I say. “What happened?
”She shrugs. “We’ll go somewhere else tomorrow.”
Before I drift off, an odd thought occurs to me.
Do these strangers, I wonder, ever realize the inherent comedy of sex? Lacking the lubricant of affection and the expertise that arises with familiarity, they must each time grapple awkwardly toward making the beast with two backs. Do they ever laugh? Or is that too great an exposure? Is shared laughter too profound an intimacy?
But for the moment, let’s return to the present tense. I’m still aboard the shuttle and I’m feeling something new now, two hours into this trip. It’s another unpleasant and unwelcome emotion, largely so because it’s nudging away the anger I have cheerfully been cultivating.
I’m beginning to feel sorry for these kids. After all, they are millennials.
Yes, I know. Millennials are widely regarded as the worst generation in American history (and by extension, western world history). But they aren’t, of course. That honor goes to my generation, the Boomers, who have made a huge mess of things and are now departing the scene, leaving the millennials to clean up behind us.
(Please don’t talk to me about the “participation trophy” generation. They didn’t demand trophies. Their parents did.)
But enough of that. I don’t want to get political. In fact I now just want to provide the world’s backpackers with a little advice. I hope you understand I’m not moralizing; I’m providing some points on style.
First: I don’t really care if you get drunk. I’ve got no business lecturing anyone about overindulging in drink. Drink has provided me with many, many hours of enjoyment. Indeed, I agree with Baudelaire: You should always be drunk. But note that he listed wine as just one option for intoxication, adding poetry and virtue as possibilities. I would also add the self-indulgence of curiosity satisfied.
And yeah, that whole stranger-fucking thing. About that. Perhaps you should consider the possibilities surrounding the art of seduction — and the art of being seduced. (Are they the same thing? I’ll have to think on that.)
My point is simply this: “You’re hot and you’re drunk. I have a condom” isn’t quite up to Rostand:
“And what is a kiss, specifically? A pledge properly sealed, a promise seasoned to taste, a vow stamped with the immediacy of a lip, a rosy circle drawn around the verb ‘to love.’ A kiss is a message too intimate for the ear, infinity captured in the bee’s brief visit to a flower, secular communication with an aftertaste of heaven, the pulse rising from the heart to utter its name on a lover’s lip: ‘Forever.”
See the difference?
Now, as to your lack of manners … .
Well. That is a problem. Get your shit together. You’re embarrassing yourselves. And sit up straight!
Most importantly, here’s what you need to do. You need to develop your curiosity, which will provide immediate positive returns. You will naturally and effortlessly become a much better conversationalist. The greater your curiosity, the better you will be. This is important because conversations aren’t just a nice appurtenance of travel. They’re largely its purpose.
Toward that end, don’t just seek out one hostel after another. Yes, it’s fun to have drinks with fellow travelers from Russia, Sweden, the U.S. and Spain, all in one setting. And it’s altogether worthwhile. But they are backpackers like you. For the most part, you share the same culture. Comparatively speaking, the people outside the doors are aliens from another planet.
So here’s what I’d like for you to do: Get off the backpackers trail. Stop kidding yourself into thinking you’re having adventures because you went ziplining. Ziplines are the Princess Cruises of the skies. They’re fun, yes, but not much else.
Learn about the culture into which you have placed yourself. That should include a good book or two. (Here are two excellent suggestions for Guatemala: “I, Rigoberto Menchu” and “The Long Night of the White Chickens.” The former is the oral history of Menchu, a Queche who learned Spanish in order to share her culture, while the latter is a brilliant novel about a Guatemalan girl, an Indian, who is sent to serve as a maid for a family in New York.)
The point isn’t to have less fun, but more. It’s as I recently told a young friend of mine (who rolled his eyes, much as you are likely doing now): Intoxicants are very good things. And girls? Well, girls are, hands down, the best the world has to offer. (Some men are treasures, too. Their declining reputation reflects trends, not individuals.)
But even these two marvels — intoxicants and girls – are insufficient unto themselves to create a full life. For that, you need to wonder about things. And then you need to discover the answers.