The things they carry—backpackers then and now

A former backpacker muses on the differences and similarities with the new generation of backpackers

Volcán Concepción dominates the entire northern end of the island. It rises dramatically out of the lake, conjuring those iconic images of Mt. Fuji, but with a cotton candy tuft of cloud permanently affixed to the peak instead of snow. Maderas, its smaller, extinct cousin, sulks to the south where it sits, shaggy, neglected and looking generally forlorn.

Ometepe Island is an out-of-the-way place and though it really doesn’t qualify as being remote, it is a lovely backwater by most standards—off the grid and the beaten path as well. Places like Ometepe are often described in guidebooks as pristine, unspoiled and majestic—and for good reason.

On the last leg of my journey out to the Hacienda Merida, a popular backpacker hostel located close to the southern tip of the island (two chicken buses, a taxi bereft of shock absorbers, a rather sketchy ferry, another overloaded taxi…), the minivan traversed a bridge that spanned a lazy, shallow river and I caught a glimpse of women standing thigh-deep in the dense green water. They were beating their laundry against the rocks. While we continued to lurch down the road I realized that it had already been close to 30 years since I had last witnessed an identical scene, half a world away in India. I soon found myself musing about the passage of time and the tremendous changes the world has seen during my lifetime alone. Standing in a river beating laundry against rocks, happily hasn’t changed even a bit.

Ometepe’s Hacienda Merida (photo/ Tim Rogers)

During my short sojourn on Ometepe, I uncovered one seemingly small and insignificant detail that actually reveals a lot about how we live today. It has something to do with the size of knapsacks. I know this may sound trivial, but everywhere I travel now I see young people laden with truly enormous knapsacks on their backs, plus a second, smaller pack slung backwards across their chests. The first time I saw this technique, I was sitting in the Parque Central in Granada eating vigorón and I thought it was a rather clever innovation. But what in the world, I wondered, could everyone be toting from place to place?

When I was a footloose budget traveler in India and elsewhere decades ago (yes, it pains me just to say it), we always took pride in how little we carried. It seemed to add to the freedom and luxury of travel to be able to live out of a modest knapsack, barely burdened for months on end as we traversed great distances with only a few essential items. Sitting there in the shady park, I proceeded to take a mental inventory of the items that once seemed essential to me; a stub of a candle, a notebook, several pens, the smallest Swiss Army knife they made (a single blade, a minute scissors, a toothpick and a tweezers), a needle and thread and some minimal items of clothing.

I traveled the world with the self-imposed rule that for every item I acquired during my travels something else had to be left behind in my wake. Now I found myself wondering what the new generation of young travelers found so important and why they went from place to place like two-legged pack mules.

The paved road on Ometepe abruptly ends and the driver of the dust-covered minivan motioned down the boulder strewn path with a lazy sort of hand gesture that I interpreted as an indication that my destination lay somewhere down the road. I started to walk the last 12 kilometers of the journey under the midday sun with the looming presence of Concepción rising above the tops of the leafless saba trees. I didn’t know that at the end of the road I was about to unravel the mystery of the dual knapsacks and, as an added bonus, be given a rare peek at what the future of the world would probably look like.

As far as the dual knapsacks phenomenon goes, that turned out to be pretty easy to decipher. Once I had settled into the hostel, I noticed that these days nearly every backpacker carries a laptop computer, a cell phone, a digital camera or video camera, an iPod and—increasingly—a Kindle or some form of electronic tablet. Then there are all sorts of rechargeable lights and other assorted gadgets and gimcracks that can be lumped together into a single category since they all require a steady diet of electricity. They don’t take up all that much room in the backpack, but they do require their own cables and recharging devices.

Given all these new necessities, I was surprised that even with two knapsacks these young travelers weren’t also pulling little red wagons behind them heaped with a tangled mess of electrical cords.

Some pertinent comparisons loomed large. I once relished the thought of arriving in a place where I had never been before so I could set off to the General Post Office the next morning to pick up mail waiting for me at Poste Restante. Now I found myself sitting in an old banana plantation turned hostel listening to the laconic drivel of backpackers talking on Skype to their friends a world away. The seamless ability to remain “in touch” constantly and without pause regardless of geography had trumped any notion I once might have had regarding content or what had once comprised the hallmarks of a valued correspondence. People no longer had to write letters to one another regardless of how far away or removed they happened to be. And the bittersweet feeling of waiting and anticipating a reply had suddenly been lost forever.

I didn’t even attempt to explain to them what it felt like to arrive in some sad, flyblown town as a lonely and dejected traveler, and then, minutes later, be sitting in a café drinking sweet tea, nearly moved to tears, not by the pungent smell of burning dung in the air but by the handwritten words penned by someone you missed terribly. I’m sure I seemed like a dinosaur to this new generation of backpackers, especially the young woman in the hammock across from me who was filing her nails by the light of a rechargeable lamp she wore on her head like a coal miner. 

I wanted to find some common bit of ground with my young companions, so that evening a few of us walked down the road to where a local rodeo was taking place. A makeshift corral had been set up and some impressive displays of horsemanship were going on despite the fact that everyone, including the horses and the bulls, seemed to have had too much to drink. Later, as night began to fall we wandered back down the road lined with enormous mango trees to the hostel and collected on the crumbling dock where years ago workers had once loaded heaps of plantains onto lake steamers. The open water shimmered as the daylight seeped from the sky. Clearly visible on the mainland shore, nearly 10 miles away, you could make out Nicaragua’s Amayo wind farm and the slender white blades of the turbines gently moving against the darkening sky.

I sat with the group of young travelers who had bewildered me earlier that day, but now I could feel our differences began to fall away as the last of the day drained from the sky.

Across the water was a symbol of a new, emerging world and I became less smug, less sure of my age-weary wisdom and less critical of their world. The one thing I knew for sure was that one fine day the world would appear vastly different to their eyes and they too would  lament the loss of their youth and the things they once held dear no matter what they once carried with them to far flung places.

Robert Skydell is a retired architect and restaurateur. He lives in Granada and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts



  • Devry Armitage

    That was a nice piece, especially the part about the tangled electric cords. It is so true and not just for the younger set. I have my own little Suzuki Swift full of them and giant backpacks!

  • Kevin Shea

    Nice piece. Is their a link to the how to post-modern backpack? Images would be awesome.

  • gunner

    What a lovely piece. I find the convenience of email and cell phones eclipsed by a sense of intrusiveness. But I am just an old fart who laments the passing of the written word.

  • Chris good

    Great writer, I forwarded your post about the realestate ” porn” to many friends, I’m sure I’ll do the same with this one.


  • Mike

    All this stuff is like Linus’ blanket. Jack Kerouac wrote that a man who owns a rug has too much. It’s hard to figure how rolling the rug up and taking it with you on the road is going to help you uncover something new.