I still remember the first backpackers I ever saw. It was the first stop of my big world trip, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Arriving at the hostel after our flight, exhausted already by the sticky heat and boisterous Vietnamese city life, my friend and I spotted 15 or so bedraggled western backpackers lounging in the foyer. Even at a glance, it was plain to see they weren’t normal tourists. I wanted to say hi, but I was too shy.
They looked like they’d been travelling a while, a sun stroked bundle of dreadlocks and bangles and harem pants. When people have been backpacking for a long time, they get a certain look about them. It’s only looking back that I’ve been able to put my finger on what it is. It’s the uncanny ability to look completely at ease anywhere.
Everyone develops it after several months of buying breakfast from fly-swamped street stalls and slumping on boiling street corners waiting for long-overdue taxis as the world passes in a blur. Spend enough nights stumbling down grimy alleyways in flip flops, hopping rivers of piss in the street, slapping away bugs the size of your fist, arguing with thieving taxi drivers, and your comfort zone grows. Spend enough time out of your comfort zone, and the world becomes your comfort zone.
It wasn’t just how they interacted with the world around them that fascinated me. It was how they talked to each other; how confident they were. That’s something else you gain after an extended period away from friends, family and home. When you’re alone on the other side of the world, there are no strings, nothing to link you to your life back home. You meet new people every day. You can be a new person with every single one of them. You are free to reinvent yourself constantly, and experiment with who you would like to be. I remember walking into each new dorm room and vaguely pondering who I would meet, and who they would meet when I introduced myself.
I don’t think I’m alone when I say that who I am depends at least in part on who I’m with. My personality scales or shrinks. I once worked in outbound sales for 6 miserable months and, surrounded by monstrous egos, my own voice shrank until I barely spoke. Have you ever given someone (or an entire office) a bad first impression? If so, you’ll know how hard it is to shift people’s perspectives of you once they’ve formed their initial opinions. By meeting new people every day, you are completely and utterly free to be your honest, true, confident self without fear of repercussion. Someone doesn’t take a shine to you? Fuck ‘em, you never have to see them again.
I was fascinated and smitten after my first meeting with a gaggle of mucky backpackers. Nothing’s changed since that sweaty evening in Ho Chi Minh. I still feel that the best version of myself – the best version of anyone – is the version that’s a bit lost, thousands of miles from home, bewildered and overwhelmed, but utterly, utterly free.