I moved to Canada in 1996. I know, that’s like, ancient times, right? I wrote letters and faxes to my friends. I remember asking my siblings to hang up the phone so I could use the internet. I used to keep tabs on people travelling to my home country so I could send my friends a video (a cassette tape, that’s right!) with images of my life here. My first big trip to a strange and far away country was only two years later, in 1998. I landed in Israel without any piece of technology. I picked up the receiver from a public phone and made a collect call to my parents to let them know I was safe. Then, I sat at the airport to wait for my friends. This was the first of many adventures.

Before I could rely on the safety of an iPhone and a wifi spot, I would have to survive things like arriving in Bangkok at night by myself and getting off the bus at the very wrong stop, missing a flight home in a teeny-tiny Spanish town, and meeting up with a friend in a London airport neither of us had been to before.

Can you imagine any of these situations without the ease of saying “I’ll find a WiFi network and WhatsApp you my location” or, “I’ll download a map of the city with directions to the hostel before flying”? Seems impossible now. Still, backpacking in the 90s and early 2000s had its wonderful moments. Here are some I hold close to my happy and perhaps wrinkly traveller’s’ heart:

I didn’t swipe right, I physically turned right.

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I had to speak to the person next to me, because I didn’t have a phone on which I could instantly strike conversations with friends back home. That is not to say that finding a new summer fling via Tinder while in a hostel is not cool also… call me old-school (or old fart), but there is something special (and rewarding) about striking up a conversation with a stranger. And less time on our phone meant more time to get out of our comfort zone.

I had to be real strong.

Think about it. Our backpacks were probably twice the size as they are today. We had to carry CD’s, batteries, books to read, Lonely Planet guidebooks for each country, maps, a flashlight, a calling card, traveller’s checks, physical tickets to trains, buses or airplanes, an alarm clock and all sorts of non-technologically-reduced-in-size-and-weight travel gear (i.e: running shoes, towels, sleeping bags, etc.).

Maps were something you folded in a pocket, filled with stories, and passed on.

I have a box with travel notebooks, all fat with maps filled with lines, x’s and notes. In 2005, I spent 6 months travelling all over New Zealand and finished my trip with a Lonely Planet filled with advice written by hand. It was one of my most precious possessions at the time and I left it behind for another traveller to pick up, add to, and pass on.

I scheduled calls to my parents.

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Literally. And it was kinda great because they didn’t expect to be able to find me at all times, so they worried much less. Besides, when arriving at coffee shops or bars, the first thing I looked for was the cheapest vegetarian item in the menu, not the wifi password.

I didn’t know what my pictures looked liked until I got home.

First I had to develop film, praying the x-rays at airport security hadn’t destroyed it. Then technology evolved and I could look at them, but I had to find cyber-cafes where I could download my pictures onto a CD, so I could fit more photos into my 4pixel digital camera. Speaking of cameras…

I trusted strangers with my camera.

No choice, if I wanted to be part of my trip’s memories. I could selfie, but it was risky…

Planning had to be more spontaneous.

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I couldn’t book online or look for reviews and pictures of a hostel. Many stories ensued! Like the time my friends and I arrived in Puerto Escondido, Mexico and slowly (but very surely) discovered our room was infested with giant cucarachas. Or when we arrived in Amsterdam at 6AM and had to drag our heavy backpacks all over the city, from hostel to hostel, until we found one that had space for us (the stories we have from that experience, are not apt for blog posts).

Cars were the cheapest option.

It was the way to do it. There were no cheap airlines, buses or Amigo Express-like sites. My friends and I traveled the North Island of New Zealand and our cheapest option was to buy a car. It cost about $500 dollars. When we used it, we lived in it and when we didn’t, we rented it out to other travelers in the building for $20 a day. Its name was Shony, it was old and beaten and we loved it and finished him off…

I didn’t make Facebook friends, I made pen-pals.

While I did not come back from my trips with 250 new Facebook friends, I am still in touch with people I met along the way. Sometimes, we saw each other halfway across the planet again, other times we ICQ’ed or Skyped or, lo and behold, we wrote each other a letter or picked up the phone.

There are some universal truths about backpacking. Mostly, however, huge changes have already happened for travellers born in the 80s or earlier and more will come to those that are just getting started. But there is one aspect I am certain will never change: travelling will be forever awesome.

2 Comments

  • its all true…thank you for reminding many of the glorious ups and downs of backpacking in the 90’s. I also remember carrying around in my backpack, waiting at a bank to get money ‘wired’ to you and applying for a job by fax.

  • I miss a lot of these aspects of hostelling, too. Conveniences of today cannot equal the more personable times of the past. Put the smartphones down, at least for awhile, and enjoy true companionship!

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