The empowered backpacker

Although backpackers often look bedraggled and like they haven’t bought any new clothes for years, it is definitely a rich man’s hobby.  To travel you have to save. You need to have the money to live, often for months on end, a lifestyle where you stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and pay entry fees to various tourist attractions. Anyone who has been on holiday knows that these costs add up. In fact, for an average American household they apparently add up to us$1,200 per person per summer vacation.

Most people do not have this kind of money. Young people all around the world desperately try and save from their pitiful minimum wage earnings so they can go “backpacking”. But many of them fail. In the end, they find it impossible to resist those Friday night calls imploring them to go for an end of the week beer or, more commonly, just feel the money is better spent at home.

Not surprisingly, the economy of the country and therefore the level of the minimum wage, heavily dictates saving opportunities. The poorer the country is the lower its minimum wage tends to be. Low-income countries count on a minimum wages of about us$1 per hour, which may just cover very basic living costs in the country of residence, but it does not go far as soon as you want to step out your front door for more than 24 hours and definitely does not allow for sufficient savings to go on holiday.

The inability of the young in the developing world to save creates a sharp disparity between those who can see the world during their post school years and those who can´t. This disparity is extremely evident in, to my experience, absolutely any part of the world. Hostel after hostel is filled to the brim with what Bolivians call “gringos”, and noticeably lacking in Africans, Asians and Latin Americans.

I have met some people who largely put this down to “the West’s travelling culture”. But personal experience tells me otherwise. Firstly, the recent rise of eastern European wages seems to have propelled Polish and Slovakians onto the travelling scene. And secondly, when asked, many young people from developing countries tell me they want to see other parts of the world “but just can’t afford it”.

For this reason modern-day Latin American youth are inspirational. In the last decade increasing numbers are using their creative initiative to empower themselves and take destiny into their own hands. They are not dwelling on the lack of opportunities that their country presents them with, but are instead figuring out a means with which they can also join in on the fun.

In Latin America, as in no other continent that I know of, there are two sets of backpackers – the usual western lot and the emerging native group.  The Latin American backpackers are distinct from the western backpackers in their easy-going, share with all, style of backpacking and the fact that they put aside a few hours each day to work.

There are a number of things that a backpacker can do top up their funds. However, the Latin American travelers’ work usually falls into one of two categories; art and/or entertainment. Those who take the art route are typically street vendors of a variety of handcrafts, and in particularly jewelry, made out of string, leather or the silver-like metal known as “alpaca”. Although, on the whole, this work covers a backpackers’ expenses it is by far the most precarious type of work that a traveler can do as it relies on just a few customers making purchases every day.

On the other hand, the backpacking entertainment business relies on many people giving small amounts of money. The entertaining act, whatever it may be, usually lasts little more than a minute, so the returns per person are small.

1 minute entertainment comes in many varieties. They play the guitar in restaurants, drums on buses, accordions at traffic lights.  They do devil-sticks, poi, uni-cycling, fire-staff, juggling and more.  And every one of them returns to their hostel with their pockets jangling.

To many this may come as a surprise as juggling is not your archetypal lucrative work. In fact, my first association with it is my troublesome ten year old brother and friends causing havoc in the kitchen with apples, oranges or even raw eggs.  However, an informal survey that I did of 20 jugglers in La Paz showed me otherwise. A juggler easily earns an impressive 80 Bolivianos ($11.57) in a good hour and about half of this in a very bad hour.

This means that the bedraggled “hippies” that you see around La Paz are earning one and half times the United States minimum wage, over twice the Spanish minimum wage and 9 times the minimum wage of a Bolivian working the legal 8hr day in a 6 day week. Just one or two hours working is enough to buy an “entertainer” a bed in a budget hostel, breakfast, lunch and dinner in a restaurant, a fairly decent bottle of wine and a pair of alpaca gloves.

Furthermore, according to the survey, this opportunity is open to all as earnings have no relation to juggling experience. Jugglers with just two months in the trade, who know few to no tricks and struggle to keep the balls in the air, earn the same as jugglers with 3-4 years of experience and have the knowhow to do various tricks, juggle with 4 or more balls and even incorporate machetes into the act.

Latin American youth have therefore found a way to overcome the stifling effects low national minimum wages on backpackers’. This in turn has empowered them to realize that they are not ruled by systems characterized by low social mobility and a general lack of opportunities and that they too can marvel at Peru´s notorious Machu-Picchu, Bolivia’s impressive salt flats and Brazil´s vibrant carnival. Sights which were previously reserved for the eyes of the wealthy west.

Can you think of any other examples of the young in developing countries empowering themselves?

Mieke Dale-Harris is working as an intern at the Institute of Advanced Development Studies (INESAD), La Paz, Bolivia. She is a psychology graduate from Goldsmiths University of London.

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