Believe it or not, I actually did quite a bit of research into the “backpacker” lifestyle before calling it quits with my “real” life. I read the blogs. I attended panel discussions led by those who’d spent the whole of their adulthoods living out of carry-on bags and campervans. I’ve heard about the importance of travel insurance and earplugs and rolling your clothes instead of folding them before shoving them into your pack. In short, I can vouch for the fact that there’s a nearly exhaustive amount of information out there to educate travelers on the joys and pitfalls of backpacking.
But you know what no one tells you about backpacking? The one absolute truth of the lifestyle that you will never manage to disprove? I’m about to lay it on you right now. Are you ready? Here it is:
You will never look classy. Ever.
And why not? For one simple reason: shoes. When consolidating the material contents of your life into one canvas bag, you must justify every centimeter of space. And shoes? Well, you know that person on the 6 train draining a milkshake and spilling out of their own seat and into the one you’ve been eyeing? That’s what shoes do to a backpack. You can roll a little black dress up into a compact little package; you can vacuum-seal the air out of your favorite sweater and cram it into bottom of your bag. But shoes are defiant; they take up exactly as much room as they like and won’t be bent or squished or otherwise coaxed into submission.
The result is that, as a backpacker, you end up with an astonishingly small footwear wardrobe; one based more on what you can get away with than what you need to satisfy convention. At the moment, I have with me exactly two pairs of shoes: one pair of black flip-flops and one pair of grey sneakers. Usually, I’m hiking or wandering or heading to the beach, so I’m pretty well covered. But sometimes – as in, whenever it’s cold or rainy or I’ve forgotten to touch up my toenail polish — this means I end up rocking a hideous faux pas of a fashion statement known in NZ as “sneans” in some borderline inappropriate situations.
On one particularly memorable occasion, my limited shoe selection meant I showed up to a candle-lit restaurant for a (spectacularly ill-fated) first date in the same flip-flops I’d worn getting ready in the shower that evening. Like I said: the main thing standing between backpacking and classiness is the shoes.
This became acoustically evident to me Monday night at the Sydney Opera House.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up to another truth about backpacking, this time one that doesn’t need any publicity help from me: there are an incredible number of bargains out there in places you would never think to look. Such as the Sydney Opera House.
Fact: the Sydney Opera House – arguably the most famous performance venue in the world – offers student rush tickets one hour prior to evening show times.
Fact: the student rush seats are not some sad smattering of partial-view and nosebleed seats, but are rather distributed on a “best-available” basis.
Fact: despite the fact that I’m verging on 30 years old and am studying nothing more taxing than my own ability to live off brown rice around the world, I managed to snag myself an international student ID card before coming to NZ.
Fact: I am really good at waiting in line for things.
Before Monday night’s performance of a Tchaikovsky ballet called Onegin, I was the first person in line for student-rush seats, meaning I was given, for AU $33, a seat that would otherwise have gone for upwards of $200. And how close was I to the action? Close enough that when the heroine’s romantic interest tore up her love letter on stage, I heard the paper ripping. Close enough that I’d recognize the chorus of dancers if I saw them walking down the street. Close enough to be distracted, mesmerized, by the bobbing of violin bows when the string section switched to pizzicato. It was, as you can imagine, a very classy affair, for which I was wholly unprepared.
Do you know what the sound of a thousand pairs of designer heels clicking through the hallways of the Sydney Opera House at intermission sounds like? It sounds like a thousand horse-drawn carriages rolling down the cobblestone streets of some stately European village. Do you know what the sound of one lone pair of flip-flops squeaking through the hallways of the Sydney Opera House at intermission sounds like? It sounds like a cartoon duck getting his animated little neck wrung.
Ah, the life of a backpacker. It can be pretty awkward. But you know what? Once you get past that, it can be pretty incredible.