I tried to stop him but he continued on as unrelentingly persistent as any used car salesman. “You’ve got to get to the deeper level, Sam. When you realize that, you’ll know we’re all connected.” Yes indeed. I’ve starting calling it (to myself of course, so as not to offend) Buddhism Lite. It has all of the relinquishing of material attachment with none of the requisite discipline.
“Yes, I know about the Eight-Fold Path,” I told him while forming the Diamond of the Mind mudra with my hands. He looked at me in confusion and then ordered yet another beer from the waitress.
In my book I call them the “Filthy Backpacker”, my attempt at being humorous because while they are often unkempt and scrofulous, they usually are quite clean people, bathing regularly and washing their clothes often. I don’t know whether it’s the gray, rainy weather in Central and Western Europe this summer or other factors but I have seen, met with, drank with and spoken to a lot of these wandering itinerant backpackers this summer.
The people at my table were enthralled with the Filthy Backpacker’s pronouncements on life, love and philosophy. One girl even told me that he was her “hero”. And it’s no mystery why all the fascination – our Buddhist Lite salesman was preaching the Good News of the nomadic lifestyle, of traveling around the world, seeing many countries and sights while doing as little “regular” work as possible. His way of life is a dream come true for most of them.
Their interest is completely normal. Indeed it is I, the Man Who Stays In Town, who is the odd one out here. Whether for a couple of weeks or for an entire summer or for even a whole year (or in some cases, years on end), traveling is seen as the ultimate lifestyle. Winners of lotteries invariably say they will do more traveling. Students on “gap years” and in between semesters save their money to do it. Some, like the Buddhism Lite salesman, work a regular job a month or two per year and then spent the rest of their time on the road.
In some Buddhist countries, it is a tradition for young men (and occasionally women) to shave their hair, renounce all of their possessions and don a simple robe. They wander from town to town, village to village with their begging bowl, relying on the kindness and generosity of others to live. Here in the “west”, the outward forms are a little different, relying more on expensive cameras and backpacks of artificial fibers, but the concept is about the same.
Wandering from forest to beach, city to village, crashing on sofas, train stations and curling up in airport lounges, the modern global gypsy lives largely off the handouts and generosity of strangers. Material goods are largely eschewed and it is the relationships found with other people that is what counts most.
Yet minus the hippy clothes and the occasional battered laptop, these people, this wandering crowd of semi-nomadic travelers, are virtually identical to the gypsies. True, they lack the clan identities and the ironbound rules of gypsy culture but otherwise they espouse the same ideals – it is better to be a rolling stone and gather no moss than it is to sit in an office and work. It is better to beg or to play the guitar in the street for coins than it is to slog in a full 40 hours “for the man”. Voting, taxes, civil participation and responsibility are all far less important than spending time with friends around a campfire and having a good time.
It always strikes me as incredibly telling that these “global gypsies”, these wandering backpackers, are inevitably children of the same culture they despise. They’re either in between years (or semesters) of earning a university degree or have already obtained one. Their parents are middle class (or occasionally quite rich) with the stable careers, long hours in the office and all of the responsibilities that constant traveling is specifically undertaken to avoid.
Just as “regular” gypsies have a symbiotic and sometimes parasitical relationship with the rest of society, the same with these global gypsies. The backpacker is an affable type, always up for a game of frisbee, a walk in the park or to sing a song and drink a glass of beer with you. And yet at the end of the day it is all the people whom they despise, living that hated lifestyle of the Man Who Stays In Town, who make it even possible for the backpackers to survive. The global gypsy will rally in a muddy field and shout an angry fist at corporations and then reach into their backpack made from synthetic fibers produced from petroleum to get that smart phone made by slave labor in a far off land.
Please don’t misunderstand me – I bear these people no ill will. They are generally kind to animals, supportive of my food choices, respectful of all gender and sexual orientations and are almost universally peaceful and amiable people. It is not these hippies who cause war, who staff the prisons and the police state, but then again neither are the “real” gypsies.
The other day, someone posted a link on Reddit to one of my posts on gypsies. Certainly it’s always interesting for me to “eavesdrop” on what people think about what I write. But again I keep getting the pushback, this colonial mindset that the gypsies must be forced to conform to the standards of others, particularly when it comes to mandatory education and enslavement to formal and regular employment.
I’ve written far too much about gypsies lately to want to repeat my arguments but what I find strange is that the same people who condemn gypsies on one hand are envious of (and sometimes worshipful) of the “global gypsy”, the backpacker who finds a way to work as little as possible in order to ramble from town to town.
Why is it not okay for a gypsy to maintain his/her culture and not want to be chained to a desk and work untold numbers of hours in an office but at the same time it’s the most wonderful thing in the world to hoist a backpack and turn your back on a career or a university education? Why is it okay to grow your hair long and play the guitar in the streets for coins but not okay to be a professional beggar? Why is it some kind of awful thing when gypsies set up camp in the forest but it’s nothing but complete “coolness” when the Rainbow Gathering does the same?
I, for one, have no issue with the gypsies and get along with them just fine. They at least aren’t looking for converts while some backpackers rival missionaries with their evangelical zeal. But I do find that condemning gypsies for their lifestyle while simultaneously kissing the ass of elitist wanderers who have set up camp in my town for the next four months is the height of hypocrisy. As far as I’m concerned, you can’t have it both ways.
Either you let the gypsies be themselves in peace or else it’s time to round up the hippies and get rid of them once and for all.