I grew up in Indonesia, alternating between Jakarta, the capital, and Bali, an Indonesian island right smack dab in the middle of what travel guides refer to as the "Banana Pancake Trail." Sure, there's more than one side to the Island of the Gods, but when you call the island home, backpackers are never too far away.
So what's it like to be from a place where (mostly white) backpackers come to "find themselves" or "experience a simpler culture." It's really fucking annoying. This seems to be the standard timeline for a lot of backpackers—graduate high school or university and then take some time off (a "Gap Year" or two) to really immerse yourself in some local Southeast Asian cultures. Except when the typical traveler says "immerse yourself," they mean sip smoothies at some Canggu cafe before flying off to Bangkok for an all-night rager on Kao San followed by, you guessed it, banana pancakes the next morning.
But here's the rub: I love to travel too. Yet when I look online, most of what I see are websites devoted to packaging my own country—and the wider region—for a cashed-up Western audience. We've got sites proposing "frugal" travel budgets in excess of what most Indonesians earn in a month. Others that explain how to deal with "reverse culture shock"—this notion that spending a month or two in Southeast Asia changes you in such profound ways that it's hard to adjust to the dullness of life back home. Maybe it's just hard to return to your regular life after spending so much time doing pretty much nothing on the road. (Drinking Bintang on the beach or looking at temples isn't really keeping busy, sorry.)
Look, I get it. You're fresh out of university, bored by the fact that you've spent your entire life in one place, and you're relatively rich (compared to everyone else in the world). Why wouldn't you want to travel? But don't pretend like it's some eye-opening thing. One blog says that backpacking teaches you to be more open-minded, because you meet new and different people. I bet you there are some different perspectives you're missing out on back home too.
OK, but tourism brings a lot of money to otherwise poor places, the backpacking enthusiasts out there argue. Well, showering some Third World country with a currency that has an uneven exchange rate doesn't improve lives; it only forces globalization on people who aren't ready for it yet.
And do you think that Westerners are the only ones out there with money? Take a day and follow an upper class Jakartan on their Bali vacation, and I assure you that they are probably spending more money than your $35 USD-a-day budget allows.
That's not to mention all places like Bali have sacrificed to pull in as much of that sweet, sweet foreign currency as possible. Backpackers love to lament the loss of realness (AKA poorness) that happens when a place dramatically develops. But who do you think is driving that development? And how are the rest of us supposed to feel when our home gets turned into a vacationer's wonderland full of food that costs way too much and shit clubs that make locals pay a cover while mobs of lobster-skinned schoolies in Bintang singlets get to walk right in?
Meanwhile, backpacker culture is all about trying to squeeze those greenbacks as hard as humanly possible. So this means that less money enters the local economy, while all the shops still feel a need to cater to Western creature comforts or a distorted sense of what Southeast Asia is all about. It's a race to the bottom where cheap, tasteless food wins because that's where the money is.
Canggu doesn't need another bar selling smoothie bowls. We don't need more beach clubs that charge covers to chill on a stretch of sand that used to be free. Guest houses and cafes must grow faster than rice in Bali's climate because every time I return home the island sprouted another guest house (or 50).
I know, it's easy to trash all the people you see spending their days drinking beach beers and enjoying their lives. But it's also hard to feel OK with the fact that your home is turning into an Instagram version of itself. It's hard to see your own culture watered down for international mass consumption. I want my fucking sambal to stay spicy.
We all have a responsibility to actually care about the cultures of the places we visit. A selfie isn't a cultural awakening. Instead take the time to learn what we're actually about. Ask questions. Listen. Don't complain.
Or move. If you really want to be a "digital nomad" or a "global citizen" or any of that other insane Millennial speak then pick a country and move there. Go through the pains of applying for a visa, of immigration queues, and learning a new language. Live outside the expat bubble, but don't try to "go native" or whatever other shitty thing people call it. Be yourself, but meet people halfway. Understand what it's like to actually be from here. Then, next time you're in Bali, take a look around and tell me I'm wrong.