On Backpacking (or “Wallowing In My Own Filth”)

July 30, 2011
Oasis in the Bolivian Altiplano desert?

The following post was originally published on June 1, 2007, during a six-week backpacking trip through South America. With les vacances approaching, most of Paris fleeing the city, and travel on everybody’s brain, I thought it was a good time dig it up from the archives.


I don’t know about you, but there’s something about travelling that makes the unthinkable in everyday life become perfectly palatable when you’re on the road. Take, for example, hygiene.

This very thought occurred to me as I sat on the chicken bus to Uyuni, Bolivia this morning, munching on a stale piece of bread that I had stuffed in my pocket after breakfast, a scattering of breadcrumbs embedded in the fringed “100% Alpaca” (read: very possibly acrylic) sweater that I had picked up from a tourist shop a few towns back.  I was dressed in the same socks and long underwear that I had been wearing for the last two days.  Still hungry, I rummaged around in my backpack and triumphantly unearthed half a granola bar with a few pieces of lint stuck to the sugary outside coating.  Unfazed, I picked them off handily and proceeded to devour the bar with the enthusiasm of a dog who has unexpectedly come across filet mignon table scraps.

The thought occurred to me again as I sat squatting by the side of the road later that afternoon, behind a poor excuse for a bush, during a much-needed pee break.

Now those who know me, know that when it comes to being fastidious, I definitely rank on the anal-retentive end of the scale.  I shower daily, I brush and floss like a good little girl and I own a vast array of body washes, creams, lotions and potions all designed to keep me squeaky clean, smelling fresh and looking as dewy as an Irish spring morning.  I launder my clothes regularly.  I even own a few random bottles of perfume for that odd special occasion, or for when I’m feeling particularly saucy.  Going out without showering after my Sunday morning yoga class is unthinkable.  The worst that could probably be said of me is that I can sometimes be lazy when it comes to shaving my legs, which, as an Asian, is not as grievous a crime as it is for some (sorry my Italian friends, but them’s the breaks).  I would never be caught dead at home covered in food crumbs and wearing day-old socks, let alone squatting by the side of the road for a bathroom break.

When backpacking on the road, however, one has to make a few small concessions.  No shower for 5 days?  No problem.  And the bar gets progressively lower the longer you’re away.  Hand sanitizer?  Pffft, that’s for sissies!  A little harmless E-coli never hurt anybody!

Somehow, while travelling, all of this becomes perfectly acceptable, nay, even something one can be proud of. “You made it through South America with only two pairs of thermal underwear and four granola bars?  Wow, that’s amazing!”  The best is when the conversation turns into a case of one-upmanship: “Oh yeah? You think that’s impressive?  I travelled through all of Cambodia with only two thongs and a bikini.  That’s right – the locals were horrified and my breasts will never be the same, but I sure as hell was travelling light!”

I wonder what Johnson and Johnson, Lever Inc., Procter & Gamble and all the other companies who have built their empires by making us paranoid about the horrifying social consequences of body odour, dandruff, halitosis, yellowing teeth and all the other little peccadilloes generally involved with being human would think if they could hear some of the war stories traded by backpackers over a few cold beers at the bar.

Something tells me that they would jump right on that market bandwagon and start selling soap and laundry detergent that was guaranteed to give you that “authentic traveller smell.” Knowing them, they’d probably manage to do a rip-roaring business at it too.

Paul, Amy and Jena gratefully wash a day’s worth of hiking dust off their feet. On the three-day trek up to Machu Picchu, water was precious and real showers were a distant memory. Instead, we had to make do with a small tub of water and a bar of soap, once in the morning and once at night. Fun times.

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