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I tried, but I just can’t get behind the so-called “flashpacking” trend. I have real problems with it.
In the beginning, when flashpacking was first named as a trend, it sounded like something the trust funders were doing: Go abroad with your laptop, your HD video camera, your iPods and iPhones, and use them to stay connected and maybe to document your trip for the people back home. It’s said that flashpackering was born of cheap budget flights, as somewhat affluent workers could now choose to sojourn wherever they wanted, and bring their goodies with them for comfort, and wear nice clothes and eat really good food. In short, they want to take their consumerism with them.
My classist assumptions aside, at the very least, I insist on traveling with the bare minimum of possessions, and the mere thought of a laptop in my pack makes my lower back ache. I also couldn’t stand having to block “recharge time” into days that I’d rather keep spontaneous.
Now things have changed, and I recognize that being a flashpacker no longer says much about your income level back home. People of all classes — except the extremely low ones, who are unlikely to be backpacking anyway — can now afford some kind of device, and many hostels offer the free Wi-Fi necessary to connect them. Four years ago, too, having a laptop in your satchel might mark you as a crime target at a hostel, but now, a significant proportion of travelers have one. So flashpacking may not say as much to your fellow travelers about your status as it did just a short while ago.
But if you flashpack, it probably says a lot about what kind of countries you prefer to visit.
That’s because it’s very difficult for a sensitive traveler to take expensive electronics out of their packs in a countries where extreme poverty is the norm. Some of my favorite sights from my travels went undocumented by me because I wasn’t willing to take out my camera when I saw them. That fascinating procession of holy men in India, that animal sacrifice in Bangladesh, the flies crawling on the open eyes of laughing children in Luxor — the list is long, and lives mostly in my journals. I kept my few electronics hidden, and not because I was trying to avoid being robbed.
No, there are vast swaths of the planet where I don’t take out my expensive equipment because it feels like an insult to the people who are there. When five-year-olds go shoeless and beg for food in the streets, I do not want to flaunt my American wealth by using a frivolous luxury item such as a camera or an iPhone. Even the cheapest, flimsiest, D-grade models are worth more than many people make in a year. I refuse, and I refuse to snatch their image and turn it into a personal commodity that forever marks the value of my trip. Sometimes, journalism and imperialism are one and the same.
There’s also something liberating about not caring if your backpack is stolen when it’s strapped to the roof of an overnight bus in India or tossed onto a luggage canoe in the Okavango Delta. Carrying gadgets around is like toting a nest full of baby birds that demand daily feeding; it’s like that assignment in middle school when you had to take care of an egg as if it was an infant. Your journey is simply more liberating without them.
It seems to me that if you flashpack, you’re probably hitting the road well traveled: Europe, parts of urban Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand, and so forth. It would be pretty much unthinkable for me, as a person with an overabundance of empathy, to use my appliances in many other places on this Earth — meaning most of this planet. I’m glad they’re traveling at all, but this mode only works in a subset of the world’s destinations.
Of course there are ways to do it humbly, and there are ways to use your culture’s clutter without rubbing it in the faces of the people who are hosting you. But flashpacking, in my perspective, limits the number of places you can effectively see — at least if you want to use that stuff you brought. I’d bet a lot of flashpackers are markedly more discreet about their swag when they’re in the Third World, and that says something to me.
About eight years ago, I got in a passively aggressive verbal sparring match with a developer who told me, the travel writer, that I’d better get on board with the Palm and other devices, because hand-held travel guides were “the future” of travel writing. He himself was throwing himself wholeheartedly behind them.
I told him he was wrong. They might take off among business travelers, because they are generally wealthy and insulated from poverty. They might even do pretty well in American, Canadian and Western European cities. But there was no chance that a sensitive traveler was going to whip out a smartphone on a street corner in Mexico City or Mumbai or Nairobi or countless other major cities on this planet, and to think so hinted at a complete blindness to the realities of the enduring worldwide inequities of class.
The open use of devices, I told him, would always be something restricted to the wealthy Western world. There is a significant portion of this planet where people can’t find clean water every day, or wood to burn, or medicine to keep themselves alive. To assume we’re all going to digital is the grossest form of ethnocentrism. We aren’t, because we can’t.
That’s flashpacking. It’s a prerogative of the rich, and often marks an indulgence in naval-gazing, and anytime I tote the burdens of my culture and my class into a place where I intend to better understand the locals, I miss out on the richness of a full experience.
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