Book Review
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Book Review

Book Review: by Lang Reid

The Backpacker

The first edition of The Backpacker by John Harris was printed in 2001, but this has now been re-released under the Summerdale label (ISBN 978-1-84024-771-8). There is the evocative photo of the long tailed boat (rua lek) on the beach of Koh Phangan on the front cover, associating the book with Thailand, though much of it is also in other locations, including Singapore, Indonesia, Australia and Hong Kong. The promise on the front cover is that it is like “The Beach”, but this one is true.
Right from the beginning, in a chapter aptly named ‘The Beginning’, author Harris shows his ability to see, record and write, describing the airport in Goa as “a London Underground station in the rush hour meets Third World Armageddon.”
The narrative begins as John and his fiancée experience the usual problems of backpacking in a foreign country, where the privations soon show the prospective cracks in the relationship. Theirs lasted around three days before she took a plane back home to the UK.
John very shortly after begins to compare his 9-5 mundane existence in the UK to the spontaneity that backpacking travellers can indulge themselves within. Inexpensive, readily available marijuana also helps the delusional state. Decision making becomes left to chance. In John’s case, the decision not to return to England was a postcard showing Koh Phangan beach.
There John finds himself in the middle of drug-fuelled parties, and still going with the flow, with no conscious decisions being taken. Immaturity and LSD make for a powerless combination. A bout of dengue fever did not help either. But being chased by the Thai mafia did galvanize John and his friend into action.
Escaping to Malaysia, with just one passport between them, saw them arriving in Kuala Lumpur, and more adventures, with many of them relating to their youthful (read irresponsible) approach to life. That leads them to stealing a boat in Singapore, with John saying to one of the other miscreants, “This is the best day of my life!” Amazing how hedonism can outweigh all other ‘isms’ when you are young.
The chapter dealing with their predicament in the yacht when they find themselves in rough weather and genuinely unskilled in the noble art of seafaring races along much faster than the wind. One of their number is swept away and eventually they are shipwrecked on Australian shores. An almost unbelievable feat of lucky navigation.
Australia brought the young men fruit picking, a time honoured method of survival for the world’s backpackers. But as John found out, it is hard work that nobody else wants to do. He also found a way to get back at the owners of the orchard, conscience not being an attribute that either young man possessed.
It is a very well written book, perhaps today’s answer to Robinson Crusoe, but remains for a me, a reflection of the shallowness of youth.
At B. 450 on the Bookazine shelves it is a good adventure read, but it is also a very good description of international travel at the lower end of the market, and of the backpackers themselves.