Backpacking at 30: Thoughts From an Inbetweener
I’m in the hostel common area and they’re all here. There’s the German solo traveller in sensible outdoor clothes; the bubbly Scandinavian girls who embarrass you with their perfect English (and French, Spanish, and already firm grasp of the language from whichever country you’re in); the perhaps unfairly labelled, perhaps not, weird older bloke who stays in the mixed dorm; some Sydney lads on tour in beer-brand singlets; English hippies with harem pants and posh accents; and a guy working on a laptop in the corner whilst pre-drinking for a night at the strip clubs. The world-famous Guy With a Guitar was here, but he left to go and meditate.
Then there’s me. I just turned 30 whilst travelling for a year in Latin America. What do they think of me? Do they roll their eyes and smile at me cooking healthy, balanced meals in the hostel kitchen, which I then put into Tupperware for tomorrow’s lunch?
Do they think I’m a good yarn, but there’s no need to talk about how different it was without Google Maps when I went backpacking 10 years ago in Thailand? Do they wonder what it’s like to be able to have half a bottle of wine and then call it a night?
I’ve got an alright job, and I’ve found a decent boyfriend, so I’m not staying in the 18-bed $5-a-night dorm, but I still want the social kinship of hostel life, so I when I sigh and stretch and say, “That’s me done!” I head up to our (pre-booked) private double room. I’m proud of my achievements, but I’m not quite ready to arrive at the comfortable and steady destination where I take off my bags and put them in the basement of the nice house I own to look back on fondly back on the years when I need to remember who I was.
I am toeing the line between young and free and kind-of-can’t-be-arsed with roughing it any more. I’m still only able to afford budget travel, and my desire for real experiences and connections takes me on the DIY travel path anyway. I left my job because I was no longer content with the “work, save, go on a 2-6 week jaunt, come back skint, repeat” existence of my 20s. It wasn’t, and isn’t, enough for me, but where do I go from here? Most working holiday visas close their barriers to you when you hit 30, 35 if you’re lucky, and aren’t I supposed to have a baby soon? Maybe I could be one of those travelling families with a tribe of kids with sun-bleached hair, living on fruit, but I think they all fund their lifestyles with pyramid schemes, which is somewhat beyond me.
I want to stay up and talk about music, sexual mishaps, current affairs, the pros and cons of voluntourism, the time you got food poisoning on a 12-hour bus journey, but I’ll probably pass on the all-day boat party tomorrow. I want to share my wisdoms with you, but I definitely don’t want to add ‘Traveller Who Thinks They Know Everything Because They’ve Been, Like, Everywhere to our motley crew on the roof terrace. But yes, you can borrow my travel sewing kit.
I’m not searching for something that I can’t find, because I know where it is; it is everywhere, in landscapes, in one-night friendships with people I’ll never see again, in spiritual experiences at Frida Kahlo’s house, in rich food, in markets, jungles, cantinas blasting reggaeton, and tiny vehicles on pot-holed roads.
I suppose the question is how do I find more of it? The lifestyle I have chosen is leading me somewhere – so as long as I can find my pocket in the world and co-exist with the younger versions of me I meet along the way, I guess I can find peace with being a 30-something backpacker.
Cover by Greta Schölderle Møller