Is backpacking or first class the best way to travel?

There are things that money cannot buy.


We had just finished our sandwiches for dinner, lovingly prepared by me by spreading mustard with my finger and throwing a few ingredients on top. Not the most convenient dining option, but definitely cheaper than the sets sold on the Bangkok to Chiang Mai train. Sitting under our crudely made cubby house on the lower bunks with the kids asleep on top, Mr.Blab and I got to chatting.  Old stories of travels and experiences started floating in the air to the background music of the metal clunking underneath us and the rhythmic tick-tock of our small $2 clock sitting on the table overlooking the darkness outside. Warm under the blanket we had spread over us, listening to the memories that were bringing smiles to our faces, I realized that there is a certain similarity to them. Hardship.

Mr.Blab’s drive along the west coast of the US with a few friends and a plenitude of misfortunes, and my epic flight from South Africa to Australia with two suitcases and all of my belongings are vintage. What has become legendary on this trip has been horrible car rides, sleeping in a shack in Bali, walking in the melting heat to a turtle sanctuary that is “around the corner and a bit”, only not, just to save $10, and from tonight “finger mustard” has been coined and will undoubtedly stay with us for a long time.

Giggling and discussing my first car, the White Swan – a plexiglass covered motorbike on four wheels aka a Trabant – I knew that my thoughts are onto something. I have had a Mercedes, a lovely beast of a car with seat warmers and the most luxurious drive only beaten by the bite that  came in from pressing the gas and zooming through the streets of Cape Town. Yet, when I remember the old days, what brings a smile to my face is that ugly little car with a falling exhaust pipe I had to fix from time to time. It lacked heating, which meant that I didnt have any respite from the freezing European winters, but it was ok because I always had a plastic bag handy to put under my bum, so I could get to work without getting wet from the frost on the seat. Even now, just thinking about it, I am grinning.
Who is the real traveler? Backpackers or well-off tourists? Yes, apparently this is one of those topics.  A little while ago I read a blog post about it and found myself torn. I do not think that those who move around in comfort are not worthwhile travelers. On the other hand, I couldn’t quite agree that its all the same. It cant be. Eating wonton noodles in a porcelain bowl while resting on a plush chair with the breeze of the air-conditioning flying the very few unruly hairs of your do, has nothing to do with eating the same noodles prepared in front of you at a street cart on a dim street, tossed in a plastic bowl – washed earlier in the lined up buckets with water on the curb right there – which you can enjoy while sitting on a plastic chair, watching the bustle of the street from underneath your heavily sweaty brows.

Both are genuine experiences of a place, lets not kid ourselves, just from a different perspective. The important difference, I think, is in the value added extras. Dealing with some kind of hardship makes us feel strong and capable. Crossing lands with little money, finding ways around tourist traps and exercising your creative mind is hard. Some days it can be exhausting. But there is little doubt in my mind that the memories of it will forever bring a sense of pride and achievement. It delivers that hard to get shot of self-appreciation and awe. I made it!

Stepping on top of Everest from a helicopter ride (if possible) would let one experience the feeling of being there, but it can never compare with the feeling of accomplishment and pride that comes from getting there the hard way.

Hardship teaches us a lot about ourselves and our ability, often showing us of how much more we are capable of than what we give ourselves credit for. Most likely this is the reason why sitting in the darkness of our train, it was those stories that were filling the air – they just make us feel good about ourselves, as simple as that.

For today, on the cheap or with a bag of cash, travel is travel, moving from one place to another. But for the invisible extras and the moments in the future, when I am reminiscing about life that has past and telling stories from my well worn spot on the couch, shoe-string world explorations win hands down. Hold back the porcelain, throw at me that scratched up old plastic bowl, fill it up with noodles and lets go. And yes, I will have some finger mustard with that.