ask palinode: privilege edition

There was a time when I was known for my awesome traveling prowess. I spent a couple of years flying around the globe for work, going to places both beautiful beyond compare (south of France) and hideous to behold (Rapid City). Like everyone else who used to travel, I've become one of those people who kill conversations at the bar with statements like, "Hey, that reminds me of the time I saw a majestic snow hawk take flight from a eucalyptus branch and keep pace with us as we navigated down the muddy Adelaide River" and stuff like that. So I'm well-disposed towards questions such as these:

1. How much money does a backpacker need to get to and around eastern Europe, primarily Russia, for the summer?

2. What would be the best job for a recently-fired professional and returning college student? Barista? Retail sales? Reading books and getting unemployment? Best could be characterized by a balance of pay vs. the pain-in-the-ass factor.

Love, Margaret

Whooh-hoo! You see that sign-off? Margaret loves me! And she can't take it back because she said it with the internet.

Margaret, is this a veiled invitation on a budget trip to romantic Russia (and are you greaving/ over Goldengrove unleaving)? Because I'm married, and there's no way I could go on a trip without alerting my wife. After a few days she wouldn't buy my story about being waylaid by JW's on my way to Shopper's Drug Mart. She's a sharp one, she is. Go vote for her RIGHT NOW at the 2006 Weblog Awards. 'Milkmoney or Not, Here I Come' is up for Best Canadian Blog of 2006. And it is the best Canadian blog. Show the world the truth of that statement by voting for her.

As my cultural studies prof used to say, let's make up a bunch of bollocks and hit on grad students unpack these questions a little bit. First off, we can be sure that Margaret is not from Eastern Europe - otherwise she wouldn't asking about getting there. Second, she's probably not from anywhere in continental Europe - no self-respecting European says 'backpacking'. They call it Frischairspotbilligenrucksackfüssfahrengehen and they live off roots and local beer (Ja, das hat so viel Spass gemacht dass ich noch Durchfall habe). Which reminds me: the EU recently adopted a crabbed, half-remembered German as its official language. I am the principal proponent of this language (Arschlochdeutsch) and its most fluent native speaker. Ach na, das stimmt.

Margaret's also not Australian, because there's no indication that she's fending off platypuses in Cairns, running from eucalyptus fires in Gyppsland, or enjoying the sophisticated and energetic nightlife on offer in the King's Cross area of Sydney. And she's not from New Zealand either, because everyone knows that New Zealand is now completely overrun with orcs.

Downtown Christchurch

Truly it is a time of heroes.

I'm going to assume that Margaret is like me: a North American child of privilege, embedded by at least one generation in middle-class society, with a decent post-secondary degree and a kink for stuffies never mind. For folks like us, backpacking is another aspect of our education, a brief atavistic period in which we learn bedrock values like 'self-reliance' and 'casual sex'. From these experiences we grow as people and better learn how to behave ourselves in the office corridors and PTA meetings of our adult lives.

So what it does it cost to fuel our middle-class upbringing? According to the USDA, the cost of raising an American child born in 1999 to the age of eighteen will total $160,140 USD. Other calculators will return results of up to $300,000, depending on income range and regional distribution. Throw in college savings funds and the numbers keep ticking upward.

Whatever the actual figure may be, it’s certain that hundreds of thousands of dollars have gone in to your milk-strong bones and keratin hair, the lipids in your skin and the gas in your car. By the time you hit eighteen, you’re the incarnation of money. Given such advantages going in, do you really need to know the cheapest plane fare or the most reputable hostels?

For the children of privilege, I propose an alternative to backpacking, which I call bodypacking. This is not a euphemism for being a drug mule – although that’s an acceptable activity under my scheme. Your body is source and signal of your exalted place in the world, the vehicle of your will, and the most basic unit of currency. The use and destruction of countless bodies have been factored in to the shelter and succor of your own. Bodypacking is your chance to give something back.

Here’s how it goes. Instead of planning for off-season hostel-hopping, get up from your computer right now and walk outside. You may take only what you are wearing at this instant. If you have your wallet on you, then you’re in luck – a supply of funds and identification makes bodypacking much easier (at least in the initial stages). If you’re unfortunate enough to be underdressed, then you’ll have to acquire clothes right away. Your best option is theft. You can also assume other people’s identities if you’re savvy enough. Make your way to a port city and stow away aboard a freighter bound for St. Petersburg or Vladivostock.

Congratulations! You’ve made it to Russia. With any luck, you’ve picked up some of the language or made some friends along the way. If you’re really smart, by now you have a gun. A bodypacking purist will go without such a blunt instrument, but I recommend it for the really rough spots.

From your port of arrival you must make your way through Russia and the former Soviets. Stay off the main roads. Travel by night. Rely on the kindness of strangers, and when their kindness seems in short supply, use force. Learn the pleasures of fleeting images and sensations: the moon passing slowly across the space of an empty window; steam from a rope of hog intestines; the calls of armed men tramping through fields as they look for your trail. Become a folk legend: an English-speaking cannibal spirit haunting the barns and back roads of eastern Europe.

I also recommend a small digital camera to document your trip. Make sure it’s small enough to fit comfortably in a body cavity. Once you return, you’ll have some remarkable stories to tell. Your friends will be amazed by your new can-do attitude and your ability to assemble a Kalashnikov and cook a rabbit in your sleep.

As for your second question, I suggest that you try out: adventure tour guide, mercenary, advice columnist, MBA impersonator.

Everybody needs fine advice for troubled times. Askpalinode @ gmail . com.