What backpackers do when they stay home

It is the same thing every time. A gasp, and a look of puzzlement before they say something like, “You’re not going abroad? Aren’t you sad that you aren’t doing anything cool?”

After 5 years of traveling in East Africa, West Africa, and South America, people just can’t imagine that I would be happy spending a summer in Toronto. Well they could not be more wrong.

To me one of the great joys of traveling is that stepping outside our comfort zone enables us to look at the world through the adventurer’s anthropological eyes. We want to know: What is going on? Who is involved? When did this begin? How does it work? And, can I join?

To me, backpackers are those who can take that anthropological sensibility everywhere they go. That is why I do not view this summer as a year off from traveling. I endeavor to be an urban explorer; delving into and the sights, sounds, and secrets Toronto has to offer.

This city has so many opportunities to be a backpacktivist. This past weekend I went to the Mining Injustice Conference hosted by MISN. There, I heard panels by affected community leaders and mining justice activists. At the conference I met up with OG alumni and Trip Leaders who have become personally involved in this struggle since OG’s own Guatemala program works closely with mining impacted communities. It was great to see OG alumns keeping that connection to local partners after coming home.

I also brushed shoulders with familiar faces from Occupy and No One Is Illegal, as well as a ton of new faces from all walks of life. We discussed how Canada’s brand is changing in many places around the world from being seen as a ‘peacekeeper’ to becoming the face of environmental and human destruction. I was not surprised, but still disappointed, to learn how Canadian money meant for development projects was used to gain entrance into communities on mineral rich land abroad. The development world is a web with many knots, but we can all agree that schools and hospitals should never be bribes.

We also talked about the many issues Canadians face at home. It’s a good reminder that “development” is a process every country is working on, whether we are in the Global North or the South.

At the end of the day the difference between a tourist and a backpacker is not where you go. It’s how you treat the people and places you encounter and how you let the world shape you.

Jo Sorrentino
Program Director OGHQ, Toronto

Operation Groundswell Programs Director Jo Sorrentino, the ultimate backpacker