On privilege and travel
I was out for drinks with Henry and Keira, a lovely English couple I had met at a hostel. Many of the ideas in this essay are stolen from them. We were on the second floor of Stiefel, a trendy bar that would feel at home in Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh. It was tastefully grungy, the waitresses had the right amount of tattoos and piercings, and Lonely Planet spoke highly of their selection of cervezas artesenales.
We hip travellers sat in our hip bar when Keira shared a revelation she had in Panama. Almost everyone she had met on the road was "posh." The choice of the word "posh" was important as it reflects an English awareness of class I don't fully grasp. Posh does not imply rich. Someone who has moderate earnings but exercise worldly taste - like an adjunct sociology professor - can be posh. But of course, wealth and poshness correlate.
Is the number of posh travellers at all surprising? Keira said that it shouldn't have surprised her but it did. The image of the backpacker seems contrary to wealth. They are scruffy vagrants who find rooms for dollars per night while proper tourists stay in all-inclusive resorts. It costs surprisingly little. My flight to Costa Rica cost around $300 and I've been staying in nice hostels for $10 a night.
But I risk conflating wealth with poshness. Vampire Weekend - the embodiment of American poshness - uses world travel to characterize an ex-lover being brushed off. Ezra Koenig sings in M79:
No excuse to be so callous.
Dress yourself in flaming madras.
Charm your way across the Khyber pass.
OK you worldly waste of space; why don't you go on another one of those journeys you jabber on about and leave me alone.
Why is backpacking so posh? I think a big component is opportunity cost, what you are not doing at home. For example, I'm well-off and I plan to spend around $7500 on this trip. But that outlay is modest compared to the money I will not be earning as a full-time software engineer for the next four or five months. If I had three kids and a mortgage, picking up and leaving for half a year would be irresponsible.
So poshness can come through the obligations backpackers don't have. They're less likely to have families to support or massive student debt to pay down. They are rich in time.
If one half of the poshness of backpacking is opportunity, the other half is inclination. Once you have the time and money, you need to be convinced that the $7500 is not better spent on nicer car.
That will usually come down to how much you value education and worldliness. That's in part a personal trait, but it is also given to us by our families and schools. Indie bands find this worth mocking too, as worldliness can become another good to flaunt rather than a pursuit of knowledge. In Singer Songwriter by Okkervil River, Will Sheff sings of an unbearable lover who comes from the "right" kind of family:
You wrote your thesis on the Gospel of Thomas.
You shot reversal film in Angkor Wat.
You've got taste.
You've got taste.
What a waste that it's all that you have.
In my limited (one week's) experience, it seems backpacking is usually a luxury of the posh that rewards them with cultural cachet, making them posher. That being said, I've come across unposh folks. There are people on holiday for a few weeks, seeing the sights. There are some people who have adopted a less materialistic mindset than most of us. They bounce around, find work for a while, and keep going (cf. Vagabonding).
Still, most people I encounter are posh Westerners. Is there anything wrong with that? I don't know. But I do conclude that I must be grateful for the privilege to go on this trip. It's a privilege that many of my friends don't have. And that's just comparing my privilege to people back home. To compare my privilege against people who actually live in the places I visit is an entirely different - and more problematic - topic for another essay.