We are back to being backpackers, living out of a bag.

Australia has a strong backpacker industry and there are hundreds of hostels to choose from. They can roughly be divided into two kinds—party hostels and working people hostels. In the former, people start drinking around 4 p.m. and there is almost music blasting from somebody’s speakers. In the latter, people generally stay long-term and work odd jobs until their visa run out.

Hostels are chaotic places. Shared bathrooms, communal kitchen, dorms… living with perfect strangers is both surprisingly easy and quite weird. You can tell the kids who have never lived outside home (hint: they leave dishes everywhere and walk around in filthy clothes because they are not quite sure how the washing-machine works) from those who have some experience being on their own.

In hostels, the majority rule. If twenty people decide to party, good luck to sleep—and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. As I’m writing this, I’m surrounding by fifteen English and Irish who are loudly playing poker and eating pizza, seating on the floor. Yes, it’s well past midnight and they had way too much to drink.

I’m always amazed at how much crap people carry with them. We were in a dorm a few nights ago and we had literally no room to move around because the guys had four backpacks between the two of them (although we suspected they belong to some friends they wanted to sneak in), clothes all over the beds, open jars of Nutella on the bathroom sink and packs of beer in the fridge. I don’t even know how they can pack everything back.

Sleeping in a room full of strangers is also an art to master. Some catch an early 6 a.m. bus, some come back from clubbing at 4 a.m., and others are sleeping around the clock to recover from jet lag. There are always bodies more or less wrapped in a sheet lying around. There is also always someone who snores, who trip on a backpack or who wake up everyone by turning on the light. Basically, the best way to sleep soundly in a hostel is to pass out drunk.

There is a certain level of trust among backpackers. Sure, people label their food in the communal fridge, adding vaguely menacing notes such as “do NOT touch.” But the truth is, you gotta trust fellow travellers. In dorms, there are computers and cameras on each bed and very few people lock their backpack. Book exchange is offered on a trust basis (leave a book pick a new one) and travellers usually leave behind free food staples, such as salt, pasta or spices.

All in all, it works out pretty well. Sure, there are times when you bitch because you’ve been waiting for an hour to take a shower or because all the bathrooms are taken. Or because you are desperate to sleep and you just wish the party would stop. But we are only there for sleeping anyway and we get a private room once in a while just to keep our sanity.

Cooking in Sydney
A Very Packed Dorm

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  1. Cynthia December 19, 2010 at 11:29 am

    Haha I remember in Bulgaria we had a tiny room of 5 people and two American girls arrived with gigantic suitcases, there was hardly space to move around!

    I always carry around earplugs, they are super useful to sleep when people are partying too hard 🙂

  2. Priyank December 19, 2010 at 6:05 pm

    Hi Zhu! As I am getting older, these hostels are bothering me more and more. So far I’ve been peed on and puked on by random drunk kids… eww, I know. But something about them is still attractive – you get to meet people from all over, exchange stories and find travel buddies. Its a price to pay for sure.
    (btw, in your second paragraph, I think there is a typo- should be 4am)

  3. khengsiong December 19, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    I usually stayed in backpackers’ guest house, but never in this type of hostels. I wanted a bit of privacy… But I guess it is OK to try once or twice…

  4. Linguist-in-Waiting December 20, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    My experience in hosteling has been sparse, and so far I haven’t had bad experiences yet. First time was in Seattle, and I was in a 8-bed room, that was good, perhaps the only bad thing was that there was sexual activity going on for one of the 3 nights that I was there. In Portland, I was in a 10-bed room, but people kept to themselves that I actually preferred the Seattle dorm since I made a few friends there. In Boston, Priyank and I stayed in a 4-bed room, and that was harmless too, but perhaps because we ourselves returned to the hostel rather late and didn’t spend much time lingering in the building. I’ll be hosteling in Mexico City next month, we’ll see how this goes.

  5. N December 22, 2010 at 12:28 am

    I might sound old, but I’ve known this life and it seems so far away! I can’t imagine myself doing this anymore. (My “must haves” for sleeping while traveling ANYWHERE -I’m quite sensitive to foreign sounds-: sleeping mask and ear plugs)

  6. Zhu December 30, 2010 at 5:23 am

    @Cynthia – I also discovered earplugs a while ago and it saved me sleep many many times.

    @Priyank – I’m not a huge fan of drunk kids either but in Z, it’s pretty much a rule…

    @khengsiong – It’s exactly that, an experience once in a while. OZ is very backpacker-oriented so there are tons of hostels.

    @Linguist-in-Waiting – I can never understand people who make out in dorms. I mean, seriously… get a room??!

    @N – It’s not that bad! Sometimes, you have to embrace the chaos! 😉

  7. Andarin February 26, 2011 at 12:49 am

    Whoa! Now that IS one packed dorm. And you’re completely right about how people overpack. It’s kind of incredible what people think they can carry on their backs for extended periods. You can always tell the more experienced backpackers from the newbies because the more experienced they are, the less they tend to bring.

    Even through my experiences Couchsurfing I’ve seen this crowded phenomena and I’m always thankful that I triage so much of my stuff before I get to places.

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