The International Writers Magazine: The Lonliness of the hardcore
Its Clear Im No Hard Core Backpacker
"The biblical Antioch, where St Peter did a spell of converting,
was said to be the most depraved city in the Roman Empire."
Lonely Planet, 1997
I was tired with
solitary travel in Syria. Although I had barely scratched the tip of
the iceberg perhaps a bad metaphor given the July heat I was
travelling in but it was hard travelling alone. As backpacking
destinations went Syria was not off the map. But if Europe and South
East Asia with their legions of backpackers resembled a large villa,
then Syria was probably more like a garden shed.
I thought about the moments I had enjoyed most during my time in the
country and realised it was when I was in the company of others. In
Damascus and Aleppo there were ready-made friends to share the sights
and sounds of the city, with whom I could hire a minibus and make a
journey into the interior.
As I thought about this, it slowly began to dawn on me: I wasnt
cut out for the solo, independent lifestyle. I would never be the type
of person backpackers everywhere bow down in awe to: the Hard Core Backpacker.
The Hard Core Backpacker is the one everybody aspires to be. Usually
theres at least one in every big town. He (its usually a
he, rarely a she) occupies the best bed in the dorm, has the best gear
to smoke and the most illuminating stories to tell. And what marks him
out is his discretion in telling them. Unlike the others in the dorm,
who feel the need to blurt them out to all and sundry, the Hard Core
Backpacker is usually the one sitting on his bunk bed, rolling out the
largest joint and saying little. Only when someone asks does he give
up an even bigger and better story. He plays his cards close to his
chest, revealing his experiences like the treasures they are: one gold
nugget at a time and only when necessary.
Unlike other backpackers, the Hard Core Backpacker doesnt need
people; he is prepared to go the extra distance, with or without company.
He will leave the usual route and make his own way, to the more obscure
places. He doesnt need a bed or even a roof over his head. In
fact, as we speak he is probably making the journey from the Syrian
garden shed to the foundation stone on the brownfield site that is Iraq
Anyone who has been backpacking has met him. Hes usually the one
to walk in unwashed and unshaven, yet smelling fresh. His T-shirt is
always white, no matter how long it was since he last washed it. He
stays as long as he feels like it and leaves when he wants. No obstacle
stands in his way and certainly not money. Hes already
travelled around the world twice, with £100 and a couple bags
of sweets. And more often than not, he is always surrounded by the best-looking
girls who hang on to his every word.
God, I hate him.
I, by contrast, was Backpacker-Lite. I liked my creature comforts: I
preferred to have somewhere to sleep by nightfall. I calculated the
money I would need and carried as much as possible, if not more. I needed
to wash my clothes and no matter how little effort I put into not shaving,
the results were always disappointing. As for my stories, they werent
even in the same league as the hard-core backpackers dorm jester,
let alone his lieutenant in the bunk bed next to his. Besides, I liked
the company of other people.
I needed somewhere soft and cosy to head to; and given that Turkey was
only a few hours away from the city I was in Aleppo it
seemed to fit the bill more than adequately.
Unfortunately I was going to have to make the journey alone; no-one
was heading in the same direction. I had been told that costs were slightly
higher in Turkey, so I decided I would need to save as much as I could.
This meant foregoing the three-hour intercity bus between the Aleppo
and the closest town on the Turkish side, Antakya. Instead I made my
own way by minibus to the border, in the hope I would find another on
the other side. I assumed it would be easy to find one. But I was wrong.
Antakya is the modern name for the city of Antioch. It had once been
the capital of the Roman province of Syria and served as the Mediterranean
outlet for trade which passed through Aleppo. After the First World
War the Ottoman Empire was divided up and the two cities found themselves
on separate sides of the border.
Given the two cities shared history, it therefore comes as a surprise
to learn only two intercity buses make the journey each day along a
route which at first glance appears bereft of human activity. This only
complicated matters for me, since I needed to save as much money as
possible: the intercity bus would have to be dispensed with in favour
of a minibus to the border.
Of course this wouldnt have been a problem for the Hard Core Backpacker.
He would have made light work of it all. But not for me: I reached the
border to find there was nothing to take me to the nearest town, Reyharli,
12km on the other side. I realised there was nothing for it: I would
have to walk. Alone.
I shouldering my rucksack and set off. Soon I passed some military barracks
stationed on the Turkish side of the frontier. The recruits all ran
out to stare and jeer at me as I walked past, heckling the ridiculous
sight before them. What kind of mug crosses the border on foot and with
a rucksack on his back?
I was feeling fed up and this wasnt helping. How was I supposed
to know the border wasnt well-serviced? Why wouldnt I listen
to people in Aleppo? I was angry, at them, at my audience, at me. This
wasnt going to be fun: walking 12km in the midday sun with a rucksack
on my back.
But luck was on my side that day: a car seemed to pull up out of nowhere
on that empty road. The driver had stopped to join in what was becoming
a communal stare. Was this crazy foreigner for real? I took my opportunity:
would he offer me a lift into town? He leaned over and opened the door.
I glanced back, flicked a V-sign at my critics and we were off.
Hardship: who needs it? Maybe the Hard Core Backpacker.
But certainly not me.
© Guy Burton March 18th 2005
all rights reserved