The Life of a Backpacker in Asia in the 1970s
Story and photos by Kevin Kelly

In an adapted excerpt from an interview on the Deviate podcast with Rolf Potts, a writer and speaker best known as a futurist talks about his early travel years in Asia, when backpacking meant cutting yourself off almost completely from the home you left.

Kevin Kelly traveling Asia

Growing up in the 1960s in New Jersey was very parochial. Before I went traveling later, I had never eaten Chinese food in my life, I had never held chopsticks. But a friend of my father's was living in Japan and I would listen to his exotic stories when he visited and his life there seemed so interesting. But I never really dreamed of going. The only other window I really had into the world beyond was National Geographic magazine.

I became interested in photography in high school because I was kind of a science nerd. It seemed like a beautiful convergence of art and technology. At that time in the sixties the only way to do photography was to develop and print photos yourself, to go into the darkroom and mess with the chemicals. Photography was esoteric in the sense that there was a lot of information you had to master. Cameras were not automatic so you had to learn the system. I really got into photography in 1970 and spent a lot time in the darkroom then.

My first impetus to want to travel was reading Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass—an ode to the diversity of geography. After that I suddenly got this urge to travel, something I had never really had before. Then a friend of mine told me he was moving to Taiwan for a while and invited me to come visit him there. So then I concocted a plan to take photographs in Taiwan and Japan because my father's friend had a contact for me in Japan also.

I knew nothing about Asia, or even travelling; I had never even been out of New England. I knew nothing about what to expect. I went to the bookstores and it was really hard to find any information. There were these Fodor's guidebooks for people who had a lot of money. I didn't have any money. They barely covered places like Taiwan, so these books weren't of any use to me. There was no internet, of course, and the libraries didn't have much. I travelled kind of blindly because I had to.

I started getting this idea that maybe I should be a National Geographic photographer so I actually called up the National Geographic office and asked for the photo editor. I was about 18 years old. I had looked at the masthead and got a name, so I called up and asked to speak to him. The guy took my call, I told him about my going to Taiwan and Japan, and asked him if he needed any photos from there. He patiently said, "Well, that's not really how it works. But show me what you've got when you get back and we'll see if any of it's worthwhile." (True to his word, he did take a look later, but I never got published there.)

Kevin Kelly Taiwan

Thinking back it's sort of remarkable. When I was in Taiwan I came across very few other travelers. Taiwan at that time had almost no English translation anywhere. This was in the early seventies and it was similar to China in that respect. It was like I had discovered a secret world.

It was very frustrating for me as someone who didn't speak Chinese or read Chinese just finding hotels because to start with there just weren't many apart from business hotels. There were no signs I could read and so I was trying to learn this character for hotel, but sometimes it was more than one character. Often they didn't look like hotels, there was just something like a garage door on the street, and then often they often didn't take foreigners. So just finding a place to sleep was actually a big deal for me as I was trying traveling around.

Eventually while I was still in Taiwan, my first foreign country, I encountered these two Swiss guys who were traveling and they were describing their recent adventures going through Indonesia and India and I asked, "Wait, you mean you can just go there? You just buy a ticket and go?

And they said, "Yeah you just you just go there." Then of course I asked, " do you get around? How do you know where to go?

They said, "You just go and ask around." Then they were raving about the Philippines, where they had just come from, because you could get by with English. "It's just a couple hours away by flight and the fare is really cheap. You should go!"

Kevin Kelly Phillipines

And I thought yes, I should go. I wanted to take a break from this struggle of trying to get around in Taiwan with the language barrier so I actually bought a ticket to the Philippines a week later. It was very cheap. When I got on the plane. I had nothing. I mean I had zero information. I had no guidebook, no contacts, no addresses. I didn't know anything about the country. I remember sitting there on the plane and there was a little map in the back of the seat and I thought to myself, "Wow, there are a lot of islands down here."

I arrived in Manila at the airport and I didn't even know where to go. There were families meeting other people at the airport and one of them threw a little garland of flowers around me. I was asking them, "Are there hotels here in Manila? Where should I go?" I didn't have a single scrap of advance guidance.

They told me to get a jeepney into the city and showed me how, so I took a jeepney from the airport and then I was walking around, seeing if I could find a hotel. I just would get a map and try to figure everything out. Well, there's a ferry here, let's see what time the ferries go.

The absence of information sounds almost unbelievable to us now but that really was the state of affairs at that time and the solution was just to ask. That's easier in a place where they speak English. Asking in places like Taiwan was frustrating, it was work. There was a little bit of anxiety every day. Will I be able to find a place? I was writing down characters, trying to translate signs. In India, Burma, places like that it was a lot easier, but in Japan it was a constant struggle to communicate and find things. Very little was in English.

Kevin Kelly Japan

The standard way to deal with money then was travelers checks. To cash them you had to go to a bank. Not just any bank, but a special bank, and those were usually in the biggest cities. It was always a big ritual, a lot of bureacracy, standing in different lines. That worked pretty well at the time. I would carry a few hundred dollars of cash at any given time and that continued through the 80s. You had to pace yourself with what you had and make sure you didn't run out.

This was way before the internet, of course, and you couldn't make phone calls that weren't prohibitively expensive. So the way you stayed in touch was you sent aerograms. These were single thin sheets of paper that you folded up a certain way after you wrote on one side and you could send a letter to someone fairly cheaply. You would then collect mail by telling people ahead of time that you were going to Burma and they should send a letter to you post restante in Rangoon. Then in the main post office in Rangoon there would just be trays and trays of mail, these long trays, full of letters from abroad addressed to different people. There were hundreds, sometimes thousands of envelopes. Often they weren't in any order, so you just had to flip through them all to see if there was anything addressed to you. You could write a letter to anyone, anywhere in the world, and send it to post restante in that city.

Japan was very expensive, even then, so I hitchhiked through Japan and stayed in youth hostels. They offered an all-you-can-eat breakfast and dinner. Granted, hostel meals were white rice, miso soup, some pickles and maybe an egg, but that was enough to keep me going most of the time. Then I'd try to find a noodle shop I could afford now and then. I was living on three or four dollars a day in Japan. In India and Burma back then you could get by on a couple dollars a day. You could really go very, very far for a few thousand dollars if you were willing to live at a level where were you stayed was in a dorm with a shared bath and no shower.

I wound up going to these communal places not because I wanted to hang out with other travelers necessarily, but because that dorm became the guidebook! Every place would have these guestbooks that guests would write in. People would post key information there. There was this very thin, rarified network of people who just came from an area. Now traveling the circuit is like a rite of passage in Southeast Asia especially, but then it was like this secret network of people who would leave breadcrumbs: which hotels would accept travelers, where you could find yogurt, where to find a bus in the northern Philippines. Because this was before Lonely Planet and Moon Handbooks, this is where you would get all your information, where you picked up all your tips.

Kevin Kelly Japan

I didn't identify quite with that crowd though. They were really there to have a good time, cheaply, but I had given myself an assignment. I saw myself as a working photographer. I was documenting the rare stuff. I was out all day taking photos and exploring, traveling hard, always moving. I went to those traveler guesthouses because they were the sources of information.

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