25 chapters, 100,000 words, 120 illustrations
 Table of Contents
On $25 a Day or Less
Art of Travel - European and World Backpacking

Chapter 1

People and Diplomacy

Traveling Alone  As a Party  Meeting People  Local Culture  Gift-Giving  Saving Face  Work  Teaching English  Europeans and Americans  Subculture  Natural Travelers  Romance  Goodbyes  Quotations

THE GREAT REWARD of backpacking independently on a low budget is the people you meet. Because all roads have not been smoothed before you, because your feathers are likely to be ruffled when things don't turn out exactly as expected, and because you are likely to be left in somewhat of a lurch now and then, you will have far greater opportunity to mix with local people, as well as backpackers from all over the world, than any tour group or first-class traveler.

Those spending big bucks for guided travel get peace-of-mind in return. They are guaranteed no worries, no hassles, an experience as close as possible to being home, without being home. They get an hour and fifteen minutes for the guaranteed-open museum, then a two-hour sightseeing ride that catches all the picture-postcard highlights. They break for lunch at a "recommended" restaurant, where the food is reasonable and ordering is easy. And as the next bus pulls in they re-board theirs to repeat the routine, ending with an easy check-in at a reasonable hotel, populated with plenty of other tourists, pretty much like themselves.

While all travel is good for the human spirit, budget backpacking is unparalleled for meeting people and experiencing worlds on their own intimate terms. There are many travelers who have the resources for pampered-class but choose to strap on a backpack and see the world via the seat-of-their-pants, because they know it's the best way to experience cultures and interact with local people.

The best travel is not about a list of monuments, museums, and landscapes. The best travel is about people, and if you travel well it is people that you are going to remember most. People that are strange, unique, foreign, similar, friendly, nice, hospitable, loving, kind, rude, outrageous, and normal. These will be the experiences that stay with you forever, that no postcard can ever reproduce.




Photo: A few kilometers east of Berlin I encountered units of the Red Army. Fighting did not break out.

Red Army Units

Traveling Alone

Most would-be travelers are nervous about going alone. They believe overseas travel is too daunting to be tackled by themselves. For many of us, however, if we don't travel alone, we aren't going to travel. It's difficult to find a travel partner who is not only compatible, but also has the same time, money, and goals. Fortunately, most travelers will find themselves constantly meeting other solo travelers, many of whom will also be looking for companionship, to have a few beers, or to exchange information. By no means is traveling alone the same as traveling lonely.

Of course, the solo traveler will likely be alone some or much of the time. This can be a good thing, however, as a companion might insulate you too much from local culture or other travelers, and the essence of good travel (I believe) is experiencing strange new people and cultures.

Furthermore, there is no better or faster way to learn about yourself than by traveling by yourself. Goethe said he traveled not for pleasure, but to achieve his full development as a man by the time he was forty. And one venerable Swedish doctor (who for good luck picked up every hitchhiker in sight while his son was hitchhiking in Asia, and who eventually--after five or ten stops--delivered me to his summer cabin to meet his beautiful wife) waxed almost mystical in saying he didn't feel he was really traveling unless he was doing so alone.

Traveling With Someone

Traveling with someone demands you know yourself and your partner. It is often said there would be less divorce if couples traveled a few months together before tying the knot. As with marriage, if you only think of your travel partner in terms of honeymoon rather than alliance, you are in for a sad shock.

Traveling with someone is an intense experience. Rarely in normal life do people spend so much time together, and make so many decisions, often based on little information. Selecting restaurants, taking buses, choosing museums, finding accommodation--all can cause great stress among couples. As a friend wrote, "Discovering you are hopelessly, completely, absolutely incompatible in a tent at 8000 feet and it's thirty-two degrees outside is not a good situation."

Just because someone is a good friend doesn't mean he would automatically be a good travel partner. Traveling with someone with whom goals, money, and even personal habits have not been fully discussed can be a relationship-destroyer and trip-ruiner. Get everything in the open before you commit yourself to a backpacking trip to hell.

The three basic categories of travel friction are:

  1. One has an hourly itinerary, the other doesn't own a watch.
  2. One prefers first-class, the other prefers the back of the bus.
  3. One's makeup case is heavier than the other's backpack.

Do not underestimate profound differences such as these.

If you and your travel partner are not quite perfectly meshing, try taking turns being the chief decision-maker. The first day one chooses the restaurants and museums; the next day the other. (Me chief today, you chief tomorrow.) Also give each other time to explore alone, perhaps meeting for dinner, or next week in Paris. (But always have a standard plan for getting in touch if the original rendezvous fails, such as three or twenty-four hours later at the same place.)

Both must understand a good travel relationship requires compromise on both sides to achieve a greater whole. Whining and nagging is usually the result of one partner feeling like he or she is not being treated fairly. Listening is the most important--yet most abused--skill between people.

Interpersonal Conflict Resolver

How to Meet People

Simply by being an independent backpacker traveler you will meet many people from all walks of life. As a group passenger/tourist you will be lucky to exchange more than a few pleasantries with other group passenger/tourists.

Of course the cardinal rule is you must reach out. This can be as simple as smiling, saying "Hello!" and taking an interest. Some people will respond, and some won't, but if they don't you shouldn't take it too personally. We all have our humbling moments.

Before hitting the road ask everyone you know for addresses. These might be of business people, exchange students, or relatives in "the old country." Then write an honest letter and hope for an invitation for a few days. They will probably get a contact high from you having so much fun.

One backpacker went to Europe in 1992 with $4000 and half-a-dozen addresses. He parlayed that into ten months, and paid for only two nights accommodation. He was invited to a number of social events, and had one of the best experiences of any I know. Of course he is a gifted traveler and communicator, but you probably have talent, too.

Author gives free tennis lesson

Photo: Author, in far court, gives free lesson to local Slovak #1.

A good way to meet people while traveling is to do something. If you play an instrument well, bring it and make street music. (Personally, the market seems saturated with 60's and 70's American radio hits, but don't let that stop you.) If your art is making discordant static noises, bring your static noise makers, ask around, and perform.

If you have a hobby, go to a workshop or convention involving it and you. Some travelers sell jewelry or other items by laying them on a towel in market areas, or even on a park bench. You may make a few sales, strike up a conversation, and be invited to something. From there you will meet others, be invited somewhere else, etc.

The point is if you allow yourself the time and flexibility to get outside the broad center of the travel industry--and make effort--you may be rewarded with extraordinary travel. Dancing Across Europe
 Photo: Dancing Across Europe

Tourists, Travelers, and Local Culture

Travel theorist Stanley Plogg places the personalities of tourists and travelers along a broad scale. On one end are people who want their travel experience to be as "like home" as possible. They want to take it easy and not be faced with stressful situations and decision-making. They want everything to "go right." These are frequently (but not always) the people found at posh resorts, or on group tours.

On the other end are those travelers who enjoy new situations, dig deeply into local culture, and travel as if they were natives of the land. They find lodging where the locals sleep, eat where the locals dine, and use their transportation. They may hitch rides to get from place to place, not only as a means of saving money, but as a way to meet local people. Most of these travelers are backpackers.

These most-adventurous travelers prefer travel destinations which are not yet developed for the mass tourist trade. They often lament about an area becoming developed and losing its charm. They then push out to new, virgin areas, and unintentionally begin laying the groundwork for future tourist expansion. Of course, most backpackers fall somewhere in the middle of the scale.

As an area develops for the tourist trade relations between locals and travelers become more formalized. Locals become accustomed to foreigners, now seeing them as either a source of income, or a nuisance. No longer are they interesting new friends from far away.

Travelers and the travel industry may both benefit and harm a local economy and culture. Locals may gain from jobs, taxes, and contact with democratic cultures. But severe disruptions also occur. Crime may increase as crooks congregate to prey on rich visitors. The tourist area may rapidly rise in population as villagers from other parts of the country migrate to get jobs, which may or may not be available. Sanitation and medical facilities may be overwhelmed, and housing may become a short commodity, with land prices unaffordable for the local population. One example: few native Hawaiians now own any part of Hawaii.

When tourist culture meets local culture, a clash is inevitable. Locals may decide their own products and way of life are no longer desirable. In the 1960's there was a popular campaign in Europe to donate used clothing to "poor, naked Africans." It had such appeal many kind-hearted souls donated new clothing. The organizers failed to understand, however, that Africans had been beautifully dressing themselves, as necessary, for thousands of years.

Consequently, as Western clothing poured into Africa and came to market (which is the natural outcome of such a program), prices were driven far below normal. Africans eagerly snatched up the bargain Western styles they had seen or heard about. Many local clothing makers--pillars of the African economy--were driven from business as their hand-made products were now perceived as inferior. Africans became more reliant on imports, further weakening the economy, further increasing unemployment.

That said, tourism as cause of culture clash is a distant second to electron-conveyed information, and both are only going to increase as Earth truly becomes a global village over the next century. Moreover, information--via television, HDTV, satellites, fiber optics, ubiquitous Internet, and unknown means--will exponentially increase until world culture eventually becomes one well-stirred bowl of alphabet soup.

So go now while the traveling is great!

Accepts and adjusts to local culture.
Makes local culture meet his or her needs.

The Art of Gift-Giving

Gift-giving is an often overlooked aspect of traveling. Backpackers in the developing world, and hitchhikers everywhere, are likely to meet locals who show great kindness by giving you a lift, buying coffee or lunch, or even putting you up for the night. They are very appreciative if you can give something in return.

When hitchhiking I like to offer to buy coffee or drinks. Even though I'm a low-budget traveler I have money, and I can think of no better way to spend it than on someone doing me a good turn. The money doesn't matter; the gesture does. But the gift I usually give is a postcard of my hometown or state. On my last tour of Europe I gave away about fifty postcards featuring various Texas themes. They were a big hit. People really like mementos they can show to their children or friends as they say, "Guess who I met today?"

Other gift ideas are business cards, bookmarks, imprinted pens, photographs, and Kennedy half-dollar coins. Always available gifts include smiles, fun, laughter, jokes, sharing, recognition, and appreciation.

In some cultures gift-giving is serious business. Japanese fully expect small but good gifts from invited guests, and will probably give one as well. Many indigenous peoples also expect something from visitors they have been kind to. While most of the modern world no longer expects gifts from travelers (Japanese may stomp around after a giftless departure, but there won't be hara kiri.), indigenous peoples may be offended if an honored guest doesn't leave a token of appreciation. Gift-giving is as natural for them as the moon rising.

For example, when taking leave of your new Tarahumara Indian friends who have invited you into their hut for tortillas and a gourdful of homemade corn beer (which will shortly ignite an epic intestinal war, but that's another story), it would be greatly appreciated if you could reach into your pocket and pull out a butane lighter, a pen, or a postcard. You can then tell your host how much you have appreciated his hospitality, and that while you don't have much, you would like to leave something. When he later talks about your visit he can pull out the lighter or pen to show. Neighbors may come over to see the fantastic scene on a postcard.

Saving Face

In many cultures the concept of honor, or saving face, is carried to an extreme far beyond what we are accustomed in the western world. The classic example is when a traveler asks someone on the street if this is the way to Timbuktu, and the person answers yes, even though he has never heard of Timbuktu and has no idea where it is.

Since not knowing the answer would cause him to lose face, he sends the traveler in the wrong direction. In some societies when a member "loses face," the society shuns or lowers the status of that person. It is not primarily that egos are so fragile they cannot say they don't know, or back down from something, but that culture dictates they do not.

As a practical matter the traveler can ask, "How do I get to Timbuktu?" as opposed to, "Is this the way to Timbuktu?" Then he or she can confirm directions by asking again along the way.

To resolve a disagreement, the traveler should provide a step for the local to move back to. This might be done with a compliment, or by giving-in on another point. The traveler should also strive to be gentle with local people, as our sometimes gruff or rude western manners--which we may interpret as honesty--can be a harsh affront to face in other cultures.

While face is rarely a problem for the traveler, a Chinese proverb illustrates its importance: "As a tree lives for its bark, a human being lives for his face."

Finding Work

Some travelers earn their lodging at certain hostels and backpacker hotels by volunteering a few hours of cleaning, cooking, serving, painting, or fixing per day. This is also a great way to meet people. If you are under twenty-seven it may be possible to get a student work visa for six months or a year in some developed countries. Holders of British Commonwealth passports often qualify for legal work in other Commonwealth countries.

Regardless of "the law" there is work for the persistent traveler in high-turnover jobs in bars and restaurants, teaching English, and in fields picking. Ask everyone you meet for leads. Make sure the hostel managers know you are looking for work. Employers sometimes call them for casual labor.

I've landed two short-term jobs that way: one picking apples and pears, the other packing boxes in a video factory. Also check noticeboards at hostels and universities. Any kind of work settles you into a place, and makes you something of a temporary citizen.

Work Your Way Around the World by Susan Griffith is the bible for finding work overseas. It contains over 400 pages of concrete information and anecdotes by travelers. The Council on International Educational Exchange's Work, Study, and Travel Abroad: The Whole World Handbook is another good tool for finding work, both paid and volunteer. CIEE also publishes Volunteer! The Comprehensive Guide to Voluntary Service in the U.S. and Abroad. See the bibliography for details.

Do not dismiss the value of volunteering. I've met quite a few backpackers whose volunteer work--such as building huts in Fiji, working on small farms in New Zealand, and directing weaving projects with Mayans in Central America--highlighted their tours. They go on and on about the friendships they made, and how they saw and understood the culture from an intimate perspective.

Food and lodging is usually provided, and the work is not too difficult. Volunteer work can be found for two weeks to two years.

Work and Study Strategies

Teaching English as a Foreign Language

The TEFL (pronounced "teffle") is a certificate stating you have been trained to teach English. It originated in Britain after WWII. TESOL--Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, is a newer U.S. professional organization. Certification from either is not absolutely necessary, but more necessary if you don't have a degree, or want to teach in Western Europe where high standards are expected.

Call the language department at your local university for information. Courses are often advertised in college newspapers. Some programs are long and expensive, others are only a few evening sessions and relatively cheap. Since most English teaching is conversation or following a workbook as provided by the school, you might take take the cheapest and shortest program, if not skip it altogether.

Of course you should have the desire and ability to teach English well as clients will be paying good money to learn from you, and in some cases investing hope for a better life. On the other hand much English teaching in Japan is entertainment for the after-work public.

Demand and pay for English teachers is relatively great in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. In many cases sharp dress, professional manner, enthusiasm, and a briefcase are more important than a certificate. This is according to conversations with "tefflers," though finding work is never guaranteed anywhere. See the bibliography for a book with 100,000 words on the subject.

Europeans and Americans

While I have been honored with great hospitality in Europe (invited into homes three times in three weeks in Great Britain, in 1991 treated royally by Poles just for being an American), I also immediately recognized that many Europeans are not quite like the folks back home. At their best they are among the finest peoples in the world, of course. But at their worst Europeans may seem cold, aloof, contemptuous, cynical, and overly-refined. Some Americans who encounter this develop a chip on their shoulders about America and Americans, while others try to Europeanize themselves with a sophisticated front. Neither is pleasant to see or be around.

Americans should have faith in themselves and their culture, and, to a point, be their natural selves. Stuart Miller's Understanding Europeans is an interesting discourse on the differences between European and American personalities and cultures. This American Tocqueville destroys many illusions Europeans and Americans have of each other. Miller maintains European cynicism and hardness are due to many centuries of rigid class structure, as well as the horrifyingly violent and hate-filled history of Europe. 

He says Americans are a most unusual people, that our optimism, idealism, and openness come from the original Puritan ethic, in which all were simply friends before God. I would add that these delicate qualities, which many Europeans foolishly perceive as naïveté, when writ large through liberal foreign policy and trade are partly (if not largely) responsible for the current bloom of democracy and human rights around the world.   

See the bibliography for Miller's book, The Ugly American Syndrome for further theory on population density and boobishness, and Top Ten America Defenses for ammo. 

Photo: Germans love to laugh (and they're good at it). Two Germans

Backpacker Subculture

Since the 1960's advent of cheap air travel budget travelers have mushroomed in number. Almost anywhere you go you are likely to meet brave travelers from all over who are more like yourself, more interesting to you, than most of your compatriots back home.

Certain places around the world have become a haven for backpackers. This is where they come to meet, to talk, to drink, to romance other travelers, and to hide. Mostly they are there because the beer and accommodation are cheap, and the cultural and physical landscapes retain interesting flavors.

You will undoubtedly come across some of these places, stay for awhile, and have a really good time with new friends. To you, the place will always be special, and the people you met there will stay in your heart for a long time. Bon voyage, traveler!

Natural Travelers

On my fourth backpacking tour I met a twenty-eight-year-old American backpacker from Wisconsin on his first trip into Mexico and Central America. In an evening of revelry in the Coyocan section of Mexico City I learned something very important about travel.

This long-haired and hippyish backpacker had an extraordinary sense of playfulness and fun, evident in his voice, manner, and movement. He had a profound sense of connectedness with his fellows on this small planet, and they immediately sensed it. He wasn't shy about talking the weather with shopkeepers, telling funny stories to children, commenting to attractive women. Travel for him was like a dance--his partners were the many friendly people of the world, and they were attracted to him by his good spirit. He was completely happy to be traveling, and probably the most natural traveler I've met.

A few days later it occurred to me that if you perceive the world as a friendly, hopeful place, and act accordingly, you are likely to have more interesting experiences than someone who carefully measures his distance from the world, who regards minding his own business as meaningful art.

Romantic Relationships

Cultural and power differences should be carefully considered and great care taken--you may be unrealistically seen as manna from heaven or become a slave! Most other travelers, however, are fair and plentiful game.

It's a simple fact that romance is a conscious or unconscious lure for many. What could be more fun than meeting a new friend in an exciting place with similar interests in travel and exploration?

Of course great care must be taken in this age of AIDS and other diseases. People are not always who they seem, and some visual and verbal clues which assist in determining the character of compatriots may be absent with a foreigner. On the other hand Emily Dickinson assessed the world best: "Oh the Earth was made for lovers."

Where to Find Romance


To really appreciate the present you need to grasp something of the future--namely that we all move on, sometimes after just a while, sometimes after decades of love and trust, sometimes unexpectedly, but always.

Literary Quotations

Travel is not about getting from point A to point B. At best that's tourism--at worst transportation--across a more or less sterile landscape. Real travel is about soaking up the local flavor, getting a sense of other people's lives, and their history.

Never overlook the local people. They are always proud of their town, their county, their country, and their heritage. And every little town has a little something somewhere that's interesting, that you can only find through the local people. If you recognize them by being friendly and saying, "Hello, I'm not from around here," you'll be surprised what you get back in return. They'll often bend over backward to help, simply because you're not a typical Joe Blow tourist blowing through town. Shaun, Bandera, Texas


One of the many paths to enlightenment is the discovery of ourselves, and this can be achieved whenever one truly knows others who are different. Edward T. Hall, USA, from The Dance of Life


Travelling is almost like talking with men of other centuries. Rene Descartes, France

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