Yes, I’m writing about backpackers on my content business blog.
Earlier today, I nearly wasted a really long breath on Facebook responding to this article on OZY. Something I’m focusing on this new year, for sure, especially since social media comprises a hefty amount of the client work I do, is learning how to breathe more deeply. And guess what? Deeper breathing is a great source for content (there’s your content-related tip of the day, and now on to the topic at hand):
Begpackers: frugal or lazy?
As forementioned, that OZY article passed through my Facebook feed yesterday, and as the shoestring travel ethic is deeply embedded in my psyche it, well, begged for some further investigation.
“Begpacking”, as it’s being called, involves Western backpackers basically panhandling in order to continue to fund their travels. It’s not a new concept – as long as there have been backpackers there have been creative ways to support the lifestyle, but it seems that people are growing simultaneously less and more sophisticated in the ways they go about this. Sites like fundmytravels.com have grown from an acceptance of what was once simply called “cyberbegging” (now generally called “crowdfunding”) but many simply choose to “fly a sign” asking for funds.
Depending on who’s doing what, I believe there’s a fine line between being an ethical “begger” and simply being just another Western nuisance. As someone who made use of crowdsourcing for a natural childbirth, a large vet bill for my beloved dog and some of the insane fees required to retrieve my Canadian wife from her side of the border, I am all about the prospect of soliciting funds from a supportive community, but I also believe in paying it forward. With every crowdsourced endeavor I created, I also took a percentage of the support I received and put it back into similar funds for other people.
A little backstory on why I’m even discussing this:
I supported my own extensive backpacking endeavors with a little busking and vending, too. A little over a decade ago, I hopped into the cab of a pickup in Santa Cruz, California, that was on its way to Belize. The driver was a then-acquaintance of mine who was thankfully also fluent in Spanish, because after cruising down Big Sur and through Joshua Tree, we’d be headed over to Arizona and then on thru the border and down the Pacific coast of Mexico, eventually cutting across to Belize when we reached the Oaxacan coast.
I had about $1300 with me, saved from some time working on top of a small mountain in Mendocino County that fall and I agreed to share half the gas expenses. By the time we reached Oaxaca, Jes and I were slightly annoyed with each other, I was feeling a little too dependent on his Spanish skills, and as I’d always dreamed of driving through Mexico and visiting Oaxaca, the idea of blazing on thru to the commune in Belize suddenly fizzled when faced with the prospect of just wandering around Mexico and learning Spanish, instead. Jes and I parted mostly amicably and I got out of the truck.
Brave or stupid? Depends on who you ask, I guess.
By this time I assume you’re wondering about my return plans. Athat point, I didn’t have any – no return ticket, no idea how it would happen or when, and pretty much no clue, either. Stupid? Reckless? Absolutely, that I don’t deny; getting into circumstances like this, and getting out of them, is pretty much a rite of passage for the modern young Westerner at this point, right?
I’d packed to live on a commune, but since I wasn’t headed there anymore I checked into a little hotel room in Puerto Escondido, repacked everything for backpacking, shipped the more important things I didn’t want to carry to my mom in the States and gave away the rest. One thing that stayed was a nesting set of boxes that fit into the bottom compartment of my backpack. They were stuffed with jewelry-making tools, beads, and a set of crochet hooks. While I originally packed those with the idea that I’d be bored to tears sitting in a hot, humid jungle, it turns out they were to become the method of feeding and housing myself and not being a nuisance to local communities or the online community that was following my travelogues at the time.
Beginning my first solo backpacking journey
Puerto Escondido was full of hardcore-partying British surfer dudes, so I soon found my way down the coast – somewhere with fewer people and more hippies (it’s since been overrun so I won’t bother mentioning it). There weren’t a lot of tourists at the time tho, so even though it was one of the most blissful places I’ve been to date there wasn’t much opportunity to make a buck. What little market there WAS at that time I wanted to leave to struggling locals and my pot farm funds were dwindling quickly. I spent about a dollar a day on food, subsisting mostly on a single daily meal of a tomato, an avocado, a stack of tortillas and a hunk of white cheese.
By this point I’d moved out of my rented beachside cabana and had hung a hammock up in the yard of a house being rented by an American lawyer. He thought I should also see the Oaxacan mountains, and he needed a little retreat to work on a case but he offered to take me with him and pay my way, an opportunity I couldn’t say no to!
While we were there I spent most of my time hiking the vast network of foot trails throughout the Sierra Mazateca in order to give him space to work, reconvening in the evenings for dinner and conversation. Soon, I connected with a pair of Mexican artisans who told me about Navidad in San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, the next state over. The Mayans would let you vend in the town market with them during the holiday season so it was a great place for travelers to make a little money (tho afterward, if you tried to stick around it was, understandably, full on GTFO).
I dropped more of my dwindling cash on a bus ticket and headed on over. By this point, I was down to about $600, and remember, there was no “return” concept in place – not a ticket, not a plan, not even an idea of where I’d return to when the time eventually came to do so. In the end, of course, it worked out, but not without a lot more seemingly-crazy endeavors.
“Desperation Spanish”, Chiapas and survival tactics
Before this particular excursion I’d already traveled extensively, but mostly to cities, which all function fairly the same. I was still pretty fresh to solo “adventure” traveling in more remote areas though, and no one had warned me that San Cris was very much a Mexican city, or that artisans south of the border operated on a much more socialist mentality than what I was used to. I had no idea what to expect.
In New York, streetside artisans were incredibly competitive, but in Mexico, if there was a foot of space to be made to squeeze your blanket in, people would scoot over and welcome you in. My new artisan friends were kind and compassionate, too: they showed me who had the best and cheapest food and how to ask for it. They taught me “desperation Spanish” (also known as “full immersion”) so that I could sell my wares and pay for somewhere to sleep, and although it was cold AF up there in those mountains around Christmas, I really loved the scene in San Cris, which was full of international travelers, hip and politically conscious Mexicans, lots of amazing live music and, most importantly, the Zapatista cause.
San Cristobal de las Casas was the heart of the Zapatista uprising, and it was exactly at this time of writing thirteen years ago that I bore witness to Subcommandante Marcos himself making a speech in the center of town on the anniversary of the initial uprising in 1994. I was surrounded, at that time, by all the aforementioned people of San Cristobal, as well as thousands of masked indigenous men and women who’d come from all the comunidads en resistencia in the surrounding towns. My stupid and brash decision to jump without a net had created the experience of a lifetime for me, and it also taught me how to take care of myself. It turns out that taking care of my surrounding community – my fellow artisans and the Mayans who shared their market space with me – was how it was done.
I worked my ass off, frankly – I spent all day in the market and during the evenings, I set up (again with a whole load of other artisans) along the pedestrian promenade where all the music venues were in hopes of making a few more pesos. That was also when I’d eat my second meal of the day: I’d wait for the plump little Mayan lady to show up around 10pm with her yerba santa-wrapped tamales and hot coffee. Amiga! she’d yell. Tamales y cafe! It was mid-winter in the mountains, and it was bitterly cold. I and my fellow artisans would huddle in a hump with our tamales, pouring sips of the local Mayan liquor into our coffee in an effort to stay just a little bit warmer.
How to do it right
Won’t lie, I definitely got educated when I stepped out of line, but with a little bit of creative and ethical thinking I was able to support myself and have a bed at a sweet little locally-owned hostel near the market, and to slowly save up money to meet up with friends in Guatemala. Chiapas and other rural parts of Mexico live on the actual peso**, and simple, happy, frugal and ethical travel was absolutely possible this way. Eventually, I came up with another hustle, too, helping a Mexican friend in the market sell his huge chunks of Mayan mountain amber. This blossomed into taking non-Spanish-speaking tourists up into the mountains to his community so they could buy chunks of amber direct from the villagers. They were kind enough to add a peso to every gram of amber I sold so that I could eat, and when I was ready to move on, I passed that hustle on to another local who could speak enough English to keep it going.
Privilege is privilege, though, even if you’re scared AF.
Mind you, I was born with survival skills and an entrepreneurial spirit, and I’m also well aware that fear can be totally overridden by bold, brash moves done with integrity. I realize, as well, that I speak from a place of privilege – I was a pretty young American woman whose dark hair and skin and enthusiasm for learning about, participating in and supporting local culture paved a fairly clear way for my survival.
Others are not so fortunate. While many articles discussing this whole “begpacking” phenomenon ask why we would ever judge, a lot of response to “begpacking” on a whole is negative. Words like “lazy” and “loser” abound in the comments section of every article on the topic, but like any sort of politics, the debate on what constitutes begging, and/or how to go about ethically busking or vending for your own survival while backpacking, needs to be a little more intersectional in its thinking.
So then is it begging, busking/vending, working, or… what?
If you’re simply flying a sign for cash, you likely standing in the way of a local who needs to panhandle; if you’re selling your wares on a sidewalk without talking to locals first, you may be standing in the way of a local family’s income. If you’ve found yourself in a financial bind far from home, put a little thinking into it. What do you have to offer? Talk to locals; ask permission to set up somewhere. Invite a local to join you so they can benefit from your ability to communicate with other travelers in a language they might not know.
So what about those folks who are out there without any kind of safety net?
There are a few very minor exceptions to this whole scenario: no doubt running out of money on the travel trail is scary AF, and not every hostel owner is going to give you a bed on credit, trusting that you’ll make it happen (mine did, but I’d already proved myself). Too, I’ve been all over the world and met every kind of traveler – there are plenty of reasons people hit the road, and not all of them are those Instagram-worthy, “follow your dreams and do what you love” sorts of reasons. Some people are RUNNING, and their trauma makes them fairly useless.
All I ask is that you examine yourself and your reasonings deeply before you fly a sign or judge someone else for doing so, and if you’re going to solicit funds to continue to your travel experience, please make sure you put some of those funds back into the places you travel – buy gifts to take home from local artisans, put some change in the case of a local busker, use some of your income to buy a local’s wares, get a bed in a local-owned hostel, contribute to an important cause in the region, volunteer somewhere, etc. Most of us can come up with creative ways to take care of ourselves and also be of benefit to the people and places we’re privileged enough to visit.
**as compared to tourist destinations like the Yucatan or Mexico City, where things can cost the same as they would in many places in the US, except the price is stated in pesos (for example, a pair of cheap plastic sunglasses in Tulum was priced at 250 pesos, which was then the equivalent of twenty-five US dollars). The only time I ran into problems obtaining anything I needed in rural Mexico (I was in the jungle in Palenque) was when it was time for a new pair of shoes. Mayans are small people and so are their feet. I’m a fairly standard American woman with a size 9 shoe, which made it nearly impossible to find a replacement pair. I had to resort to duck tape until I made it somewhere a little more tourist-ridden. I found it pretty funny, but my taped-up shoes definitely helped tourists form some opinions about me.