I visited Australia’s most famous beach the other day, and felt like I was overseas, albeit in an odd country where diamond-shaped kangaroo warning signs and keyrings of little thongs with “Bondi” painted on them seemed to be the major currency.
While maps show it as part of Sydney, the reality is that Bondi belongs to the international community. Like Khao San Rd in Bangkok and Arambol in Goa, it’s been utterly colonised by backpackers and the businesses that sell them cheap phonecards and crappy souvenirs.
Backpacker enclaves have common features the world over. There are always tatty cafés offering fry-up breakfasts accompanied by banana milkshakes and Bob Marley. There are always odd little travel shops offering cheap prices on a hand-written board that seem a total bargain unless you know how to search the internet.
And there are always shops selling t-shirts that nobody would wear except backpackers, every single one of whom will be wearing the exact same wacky one. “Same Same But Different” and the fabulously witty “iPooed” were one-time favourites, as was the Red Bull logo before it became available here and we realised it was nothing more than an odd-tasting caffeine drink.
Still, backpackers are friendly and cheerful, and it’s one of the few areas in life where people from many different countries can genuinely gather together and share their common goals and aspirations, like finding untouched surf spots and discount ganja.
In a sense, the backpacker world is a lot like the UN, if it had ended up with France, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Australia on the Security Council.
But as charming as I still find backpacker culture, there’s one aspect where I’ve realised I have to draw the line – the accommodation. As I wandered around Backpacker Central the other day, I looked up the staircases of the hostels, and it brought back unpleasant memories of sweating under a slowly-rotating fan in hostels too dimly lit to facilitate a proper inspection for stains.
The bunk beds are invariably uncomfortable, of course. Some have slats which are placed so widely apart that part of the mattress sinks between them, leaving the edge of the board to jar into the small of your back. Others have wired bases that have inevitably developed permasag. The mattresses are generally designed for children, and if they’re ever more than an inch thick, it’s because they’re swollen with a bedbug colony.
While the beds are either metaphorically or literally noxious, for me it’s the sharing that is truly uncomfortable. As a relatively self-conscious person, I didn’t much enjoy having to bunk with strangers even in my early twenties, but nowadays the idea’s unthinkable. I do love my fellow man, but I don’t love having to sleep in the same space as him (seeing as dorms are usually gender-divided), or hear him snoring.
And yes, I snore myself, and yes, that’s a bit hypocritical – but I don’t have to hear myself, do I?
And the shared bathrooms – wow. They’re permanently in a condition that’s somewhere between a terribly negligent house party and the portaloos on the final day of a music festival. Even if mud and urine aren’t caked on the floor – and they will be for several hours of each day, at least – there’ll be a constant risk of tinea. What’s more, while I concede there’s no definitive scientific evidence (yet), I’m still convinced that communal showers transmit Ebola.
Proper backpackers don’t care about any of this, though. On their travels, they’ve already survived far greater health challenges, like cholera, dystentary, those parasitic fleas that burrow into the soles of your feet and prolonged exposure to Goa trance.
Of course, what backpacker accommodation has going for it is that it’s cheap. Which is great, because it lets backpackers stick around for months at a time before going and picking more fruit up north. And I have to confess that there have been times when I’ve browsed through the Sydney rental guide and seriously considered taking up permanent residence in a hostel just to pay non-astronomical rent.
But unlike backpackers, most of us who travel are relatively time-poor and travel-budget rich. I don’t mean we have lavish budgets – I certainly don’t. I just mean that if we’re only travelling for a week rather than quasi-indefinitely, we can afford to get a place where we have at least a bed and bathroom to ourselves.
Because let’s face it, “communal” means “like a commune” which means “acceptable to hippies” and therefore means “unacceptable to everybody else”.
And that’s why when I plan a holiday nowadays, I would rather spend fewer days travelling and not have to risk a sleepless night listening to some Bulgarian dude snoring/scratching his mosquito bites/listening to phat beats on his massive but non-enclosed headphones/picking up.
But all of that said, when I looked at those Bondi backpackers sitting at outdoor cafés and pubs, blissfully carefree expressions on their faces, laughing with mates they probably just met the night before, I couldn’t help being a little jealous of those who have lives where their only responsibility is not working through their savings too quickly, or doing a spot of bar work to eke out just a few more months of travelling. Of lives spent far from mortgages and careers, with the promise of a near-endless procession of lazy days ahead.
No wonder they’re happy. Even despite their living conditions.
I never spent more than a week or two backpacking while I was the right age, and nowadays, I have responsibilities I’m not really willing or able to neglect.
But perhaps that means that I don’t understand a truth that all backpackers know as intuitively as they know the Oz Experience timetable. That when some random dorm-mate shouts out loudly in Czech at 3am during a frenzied, chemical-induced dream, what you actually hear is the sound of true freedom.