Are we simply self-indulgent?  Or can travelers be a catalyst for change?  Today’s guest post is by Sarah Robertson from Footprints of a Backpacker.  She asks these challenging questions and then some.  Where do you stand?

The Burning Question

As someone relatively new to the travel blogging/lifestyle redesign community, I have been avidly reading the advice and stories of those who have gone before me. I have devoured the success stories of those who have been able to leave their traditional lifestyle and create something a little more nomadic for themselves.  I have taken solace in the knowledge that there are many others out there like me; still in the dreaming stages, yearning for that departure date.  I have been encouraged and motivated by the bloggers a’plenty who suggest how you can cut down on the amount of stuff you own, cut down on the amount you spend and make preparations for quitting your job and hop-skipping around the world.

I am left with the feeling that anyone can accomplish the goal of designing themselves a life which promotes happiness and fulfillment over a vicious cycle of consumerism.  And yet, as someone with an innately overactive sense of guilt and obligation I force myself to ask…  is the nomadic lifestyle really an option which is available to everyone?

Of course, those who have stumbled upon these blogs are likely to be people who are already questioning the prescribed lifestyle and are looking for guidance and reassurance that other options are available.  But what if we were to take the concept at face value?  What if EVERYONE were given the opportunity to change their lives and not have to undertake a profession they do not enjoy?  Could our society continue to exist?  Or is it necessary for some people to do the dirty work so that others don’t have to?

In reality it’s very unlikely that everyone would look to the nomadic lifestyle as a serious consideration for them. There are some folks out there who will never, however frugally they live, have the opportunity to earn enough to fund a round the world trip.  There are those who have family commitments,which are simply unavoidable.  Or there are the people whose own physical limitations might prevent them being able to travel safely.  And then there are the many people who just don’t want to.  Long-term travel just doesn’t interest them and they are very happy where they are, thank you very much.

However, if enough people were to decide that the rat race were not for them, perhaps our society would need to undertake some serious changes to support the idea that people are not as limited by their locations as they once were.  The daily commute could be no more.  The reign of the office block could end.  We might all, one day, be valued by what we can achieve rather than how many hours we sit at our desks.

Spoiled Traveler or Giving World Citizen?

There have always been nomadic cultures and if Wikipedia can be believed there are still around 30-40million people living their lives with no fixed address.  Yet even in these cultures, individuals will play a set role in furthering the survival of the society in which they live.  In our western/’developed’/’civilised’ (hah!) societies we are now in the position where the very vast majority of people are no longer simply surviving but in fact living a life with KitKats, Twitter and Adidas. For the most part, the role each of us plays is not vital to the survival of our society.  So, does it really matter if we disappear off to the other side of the world for a few months or years and enjoy the lifestyle a bank account full of Dollars/Pounds/Euros can buy in the ‘cheaper’ countries of the world?  Will our country, as a whole, notice our absence and have to take on more work to compensate for our flights of fancy?

In reality, of course, they probably won’t.  We have a huge population living within a capitalist infrastructure, which is already employing most people in non-necessity roles.  If, say, all of the hairdressers were to simultaneously take off for Thailand, we’d probably find a way to survive it.  We already have far fewer jobs than there are people looking to work, so a couple of hundred digital nomads are unlikely to be sorely missed.

Even so, I find myself with a little voice in my ear of a nagging social conscience asking, “Is this fair?”

In order for us to hop and skip our way around the world and maintain some semblance of the way of living we have become accustomed to, we need people back home to carry on with their lives.  We need those folk putting in the sixteen hour days to work their financial magic, so that we can have such strong currencies.  Without people who are willing to work at sewerage plants, it’ll be one smelly country to come back to.  We also need people in our destinations to be undertaking some of that aforementioned ‘dirty work’. Even in the more remote countries a traveler is likely to visit, someone has to farm the food, drive the buses and shovel the shit.

Maybe it is simply that our contribution will be different to that of other people.  By luck of the draw we have been dealt a hand which has given us the circumstances to be able to choose how we want to live our lives.  Combining this luck with hard work and frugal living we can travel to some of the most beautiful places on the planet.  And possibly, in doing this, we are given an opportunity to contribute to the world in our own way.  As travelers/nomads/backpackers we act as ambassadors for our home countries; we bring our cultures to those we visit at the same time as learning about theirs.  We have the potential to help those less fortunate either by volunteering, or simply spending our money locally and strengthening an economy.  This can create more jobs for local people, enabling them to support their families.

There will always be the danger that the number of travelers to a remote location will dilute the local culture.  However, without our business many smaller communities would struggle to survive.  This double-edged sword presents a moral quandary which could be an article all of its own.  While the rich countries of the world continue to operate on a capitalist basis, I foresee that this divide will always exist.  As much as I long for a worldwide egalitarian society it will simply not happen within my lifetime.  There will continue to be inequality and so some will fare better than others.

The Lucky Few – Travelers

Perhaps, then, it is our responsibility to take the good luck we have been granted and put it to the best possible use.  We might not be the ones who will farm the food but instead we can do our part to foster good relations with other countries and their people.  We may not have to drive the buses to earn enough to feed ourselves but we can try to ensure our money is spent where it’s needed most.  And while we don’t need to be the people shoveling the shit, maybe we can contribute our skills (medical training, languages, etc.) where they are needed more than our money.

At home we are already the ones questioning our options.  We have already chosen to not ‘buy’ into the needless consumption which has left us with a shattered economy and overflowing landfills.  As more and more people begin to question what is important maybe we can gradually begin to work our way back to a society which values memories over material goods.

Throughout all of this, maybe we can harbour a sense of appreciation.  For our luck.  For what we have.  And for all the people who help to make it possible.

We may not be able to change the world today, but perhaps we can be the ones that make a start by getting out there and seeing it.

About the Author

A travel addict with permanently itchy feet, Sarah completed her first round the world trip at 18 and her second before she was 23. Currently her body can be found in London, her mind in the far East,whilst working to save for her next adventure and blogging at Footprints of a Backpacker.  You can also find her on Twitter or subscribe to her RSS feed.

Photo: VaguelyArtistic