I recently came across a unique kind of traveller: the beg-packer. Like the name implies, it literally means begging your way through the places you travel.
I have to recognise that as a thoroughly ordinary, middle class Indian, perhaps slightly old-fashioned when it came to matters of money, I've been surprised by more than a few travelling trends. I don't understand how tossing and turning on a stranger's couch is anyone's idea of fun and I absolutely do not get how anyone can leave their city/country/continent without enough money to see them through till they come back home safely. But couch-surfing and busking (more on that later) are raging trends, and given that millennial is the largest living generation in the world today, who is anyone to argue, or pass judgement, about how one chooses to do life?
But beg-packing, I believe, is a wholly different matter.
I didn't know there was an actual name for this kind of travel until I read this flaming criticism of white Westerners increasingly begging on the streets to travel through South East Asian countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and several others.
It's not difficult to see why the sight of Westerners begging on the roads of countries far poorer than the ones they belong to would be offensive to so many. Many people from developing countries spend their whole lives dreaming of travelling abroad, but precious few manage to afford it. The air fare alone can cripple the bank accounts of most average middle class people in India and many other countries in the world.
Close on the heels of beg-packing is busking, or performing on the streets, in the hope that passersby will enjoy the performance enough to give some money for it. While that might seem like a fairly harmless proposition, most countries have laws governing it. It is illegal in Bangkok, a popular destination for Western buskers. Busking is legal in Tokyo but requires a permit, which is notoriously difficult to get. Munich holds daily auditions for buskers and issues permits that last a day. Singapore, another hotspot for Western buskers, holds auditions and a controversial boot camp session. In Mexico City, it is illegal and punishable with imprisonment. Melbourne, Milan, Sydney, Prague, Berlin, Toronto and San Francisco all issue busking permits, but have specific laws about noise and selling merchandise. However, most passing buskers tend to simply ignore the rules and 'wing it'.
It's tough not to feel resentful of people who actually did have the money to fly halfway across the world, asking for money from you, who couldn't.
In India, due to our cultural and longstanding disdain for 'begging' in the literal sense of the word, this trend of travelling without spending your own money often manifests itself online. Many of us have encountered a version of beg-packers; people who ask for free stuff on social media, with "requests" for free food/travel/lodging plastered on our newsfeeds. Often, these attempts at crowd-sourced expeditions are justified in the name of 'radical' social experiments. As if these adventures were works of art that say something profound about the human condition, benefitting society as a whole.
It is entirely possible that circumstances or tragedies, force well-meaning travellers to have to rely on the charity of strangers as they struggle to make their way home.
None of this is to say that everyone can be painted in one broad, homogeneous stroke. It is entirely possible that circumstances, or worse, tragedies, force well-meaning travellers to have to rely on the charity of strangers as they struggle to make their way back home. Sometimes people get robbed or go broke due to sudden medical emergencies. Flights get missed, or they find themselves stranded in a foreign country due to a natural disaster.
Unforeseen eventualities aside, what makes people, who are well-equipped to earn, save and pay for their travel, choose to beg instead?
One major motivation is that it's no longer taboo to simply ask for free stuff. Social media is filled with adulation for people who live frugal and contrarian lifestyles. An alarming number of the beg-packers and buskers I've encountered aren't actually poor; they just decided to forego the necessity of paychecks and the shackles of EMIs in favour of living off people's generosity. For some, it is about proving to the world that life can be lived to the fullest without a lot of money to one's name.
Of course, life can be fulfilling without wealth, but there's something very unsettling about a world where lot of people get away with treating the universe like a wall to throw their wishful spaghetti on, hoping that something will stick.
Somewhere along the way, we got conned into thinking that travel isn't a luxury but some kind of higher calling that needs to be pandered to.
I'm fairly certain I would be ridiculed into the next year if I adopted the same wheedling attitude to get the universe to drop designer bags on my lap on demand. But somehow, we've stopped applying the same logic to travel. Somewhere along the way, we got conned into thinking that travel isn't a luxury, but some kind of higher calling that needs to be pandered to, whether it's our own or others'.
A few months ago, a friend picked up a beg-packer at a bar in Mumbai. He was on a month-long trip, during which he aimed to travel the entire state, soaking in the local Maharashtrian culture and lifestyle as he stayed with strangers he would befriend on social media and in real life, performing odd jobs, if required. His one concession to self-funded expenditure was to be the cellphone bill he'd need to pay in order to keep the Internet abreast of his progress. Through dinner, he kept "inspiring" my friend to give in to the hidden traveller in her. "Life is about making memories, not money," he told her sagely, as I wondered exactly which part of the local culture he was learning about while consuming the steak and sangria my friend and I were paying for.
All of these feelings came rushing back when I saw a Facebook post by a giddy-with-happiness beg-packing traveller. He waxed eloquent about spreading joy and smiles as he made his way through the country and crowed with pride over not having spent a rupee in seven months, across 39 cities. He was full of stories... About how he'd gotten strangers to pay for his bus and train tickets, hitched rides in sports cars, broken two-day-old rotis with a family of four in a hut in a far-flung village, and lived to tell the tale.
Amid all this, through 39 cities, somehow, not one moment was spent on contemplating the vulgarity of these 'achievements' while almost 30 percent of the country struggles below the poverty line. About why it's unconscionable to become a fifth mouth to feed in a family already struggling to provide for their own, just because atithi devo bhava is still a sentiment many strongly feel. Dozens of fellow and wannabe travellers congratulated him on this feat, proving, for naysayers like me, how one doesn't need money, just the intention to travel.
Travel shouldn't be a pleasure reserved for the rich, but why is it increasingly becoming an acceptable excuse to mooch off friends, acquaintances and strangers alike?
Far be it from me to tell anyone how they should spend their money, but I can't stop myself from flinching when I see friends footing the bills of these undertakers of adventurous social experiments, while people in real distress — the ones who didn't choose hunger or poverty or homelessness — languish on the roads. Or worse, die there because they cannot afford healthcare.
Sure, travel shouldn't be a pleasure reserved for the rich, but why is it increasingly becoming an acceptable excuse to mooch off friends, acquaintances and strangers alike? Wanting to "immerse yourself in the local culture" is one thing, but relying on the niceness of strangers to help you get by is quite another. It makes you a lazy, freeloading pain in the posterior, not an inspiration, no matter how noble one makes it sound in their motivational speeches.
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