Archive for June, 2009

15. Dormitories

Friday, June 26th, 2009

If you don’t know what it’s like to sleep in a dormitory, you’ve obviously never backpacked in Europe (beenou), North America  or Down Under. The reason there’s a difference is because backpacking in the developed world is expensive as hell (See 8. The Lonely Planet). Meanwhile, in underdeveloped countries, one can procure a luxurious private hotel room for the price of a Happy Meal in Western currency.

hostel-dorm1Because affordable lodging space is so limited in the former, it becomes possible to charge a premium for not only a room, but for a tiny fraction of a room (literally one-16th). There are, of course, varying levels of expensiveness. For example, North American backpackers know what it feels like to pay outrageous sums of money (after converting their meager dollars to English Pounds or Euros) for half of a bunk bed. It’s a sensation akin to non-consensual jailhouse sodomy (i.e. ass rape).

Aside from obvious disparities in global currency and real estate values, the inflation in high-traffic tourist areas is senseless. The average minimum cost of a dorm bed in Prague in July is 15 Euros (21 USD) per night; 23 Euros in Rome; 26 Euros in Barcelona; 22 Pounds (36 USD) in London; 30 Euros (43 USD) in Paris;  and a whopping 35 Euros (49 USD) in Amsterdam. Go to the same cities in, say, November and the price is 30 to 40 percent cheaper. That’s the beauty of supply and demand, folks.

Remember: a) this is for a wretched dorm bed, and b) backpackers have no money.

So what makes dormitories so awful? Hygiene is a major issue. Before going on my first backpacking trip, I brought a sleepsack (a bedsheet folded over once and sewn) as it was suggested to me to avoid using hostel bedsheets, which could have bedbugs. Long story short, the sleepsack was excess baggage and I’d overpacked to begin with, so I ditched it early on. Besides, I was too lazy to use or wash it, so I went ahead and used the hostel bedsheets. Bad idea. I got bitten by bedbugs and it was terrible – but that’s for another post altogether.

hostel-dorm2Regardless of the hundreds of online reviews you read about competing hostels, they are all dirty. It’s not the hostel’s fault. Consider their clientele. A typical backpacker’s day consists of sightseeing and heavy drinking, both of which involve perpetual movement and perspiration. Piles of unwashed and reworn clothes, especially socks and underwear, contribute to the dormitory’s signature potpourri. At capacity, there can be 8 to 16 people in a room (on 4 to 8 bunk beds), depending on its size. The room smells of other people’s feet, breath and sweat. It’s disgusting. Every morning, a sour, humid stench hangs over the place as sunlight begins to cook it through the windows.

The mattresses are uncomfortable and sometimes squeaky. The really bad ones have uneven springs that dig into your back. So, it’s hard enough to fall asleep, and then there’s the element of noise. Whispering, giggling, snoring and, God forbid, fornicating. Like bedbugs, dorm sex requires its own post. There are also the drunks that stumble in, yelling belligerently, turning on all the lights and crashing violently into their bunk… which is incidentally right beneath yours.

Because other backpackers are generally untrustworthy, there are often large lockers in the corners of the dormitory, consuming whatever residual space that would have allowed for orderly room navigation. Lockers must be large enough to fit a 90-liter pack. Thus, occupants bump into and step over each other attempting to get from one end of the room to the other. Doing so in pitch darkness, while drunk, is no easy task.

Sleeping in close proximity to foreign strangers is creepy. Movies like Hostel or Taken are not particularly inspiring cinema to watch prior to going on a cross-Europe dormitory tour. You never know what kind of nutjobs are sleeping in there – above you, under you, or beside you. Some of them are Aussies, others are Israeli – both are crazy. Sweet dreams, everybody.

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14. White sunglasses

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

white-sunglasses1I mean, come on. Are you serious?

White sunglasses should have been banned a long time ago. For people that are into them, however, I suppose they complement puka shell necklaces, gelled and frosted tips, and tribal tattoos.

I believe the Brits have a term for this kind of thing: “chavs.” From my understanding, it defines a type of style, or lack thereof. The look is pure cheese. Lame K-Swiss sneakers, Ali G tracksuits, “wigger” attire,  etc. In short, it’s bad taste. White sunglasses are the chavs of the eyewear world.

Over the past few years, white sunglasses were popularized among male backpackers by surfers and snowboarders (see 1. Aussie Guys) mainly because pro boarders are capable of scoring indeterminate amounts of women. Analagously, puka shell necklaces also flourished in the wannabe-boarder market during the late 1990s-early 2000s. While many poseurs attempt to recreate the pro boarder look, they fail to realize that Kelly Slater is a pimp and sadly, they are not.

Female backpackers, unfortunately, are not immune to the lure of a pair of ivory frames, particularly not if they’re available at an unbeatable knockoff price of $2.50 on the beaches of impoverished nations.

Perhaps these people are, either openly or closet, Star Wars fans. They are unwittingly motivated by a desire to look like storm troopers. If that’s the case, I’ll give ’em that. Storm troopers are pretty money.

white-sunglasses2

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13. Vegetarians

Friday, June 19th, 2009

“I don’t go around promoting beef or poultry, shoving it in people’s faces. I don’t castigate people for eating steak sandwiches… I’ve seen some of you herbivores and if you wanna argue health, y’all need to eat some kinda supplement.” – Immortal Technique, “Beef and Broccoli” (Album: Revolutionary Vol. 1)

Eschew McDonalds if you want. I don’t care. But if you go traveling and some poor local family invites into their home and they offer you some food with meat in it, eat it. The head of the household works his/her fingers to the bone at some despicable multinational factory for that protein, so you better eat it. Their family doesn’t shop at Whole Foods and they certainly can’t afford GNC supplements. Besides, if you’re so open-minded, you should check your prejudice at the door and try something new, right?

Still, if you insist on being a vegetarian, don’t tell me it’s for the damn animals. Unless you’re a hard-core, badass vegetarian living in a treehouse in the middle of a forest somewhere waiting to eat the apple that falls off the tree, you’re using animal products. I saw you eating gummi bears the other day and last I checked, those shoes aren’t hemp. Your necklace is though.

But it’s the preachiness of it all that kills me. Backpackers are huge preachers. And most preachers are hypocrites. Even Martin Luther King had a fling on the side. Just do your thing. I won’t attack you. But don’t attack me when I’m elbow deep into a rotisserie chicken.

Part of being a backpacker is being broke. Making the most of a tight budget. You don’t sleep in hostels by choice; it’s out of necessity. Desperate times call for desperate measures: I’ve had to cut down my meat intake when I was traveling and strapped for cash. It sucked. As soon as I could eat meat again, dude, I was on it.

Maybe it’s a fashion statement. After all, it goes well with your whole backpacker motif: hemp necklace, cargo shorts, Birkenstocks, dreadlocks (or even worse, white girls with corn rows – they end up lookin’ like Sprewell), book about Buddhism in your bag and Ben Harper/Jack Johnson albums on your iPod.

Here’s a story for you:  A reformed vegetarian, Jack Johnson now serves as an important role model to backpackers everywhere. Apparently there is still hope for clued out hippies. “If anybody invites me over, I eat whatever they serve,” he said. See? He figured it out. It wasn’t worth all the pretending.

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12. Tattoos About the Place

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

angelinaFew things capture the paradox of backpacker pretense better than tattoos. Every year, thousands of young travelers try desperately to be original only to end up behaving like everyone else. Getting a tattoo of a place you’ve visited is sort of like wearing American Apparel. It was cool and unique when nobody was doing it, but soon enough it got played out (see Nice but ubiquitous hoodie).

Ah, tattoos. So youthful and rebellious. Such a ballsy move to paint oneself with permanent artwork. And when backpackers sport a dope tat from their sojourn overseas, well that’s a backhanded beenou my friends. Go ahead, ask them what it means or better yet:  where they got it. Before you know it, you’ll be witnessing the eruption of Mt. St. Beenou.

A few backpacker tattoos to ponder (combinations of the below options may also exist):

  1. Plants and wildlife. Take, for example, a simple dolphin or whale tail. Countless girls have fallen victim to bad ink (see Megan Fox) and a common precursor is a fond and lasting encounter with porpoises off the coast of [Insert tropical dolphin inhabited place here]. Female backpacker Type A suffers terribly from the above Backpacker Tattoo Syndrome (BTS).
  2. Traditional/tribal tattoo styles. Thai bamboo style tattoo. Anything Maori. It looks fucking cool. Surfers rock it so it must be, right? Don’t forget that Mike Tyson has one on his face. If you wanna pull an Angelina, go adopt a kid from Vietnam.
  3. Foreign writing. I’ll be the first to admit that Sanskrit, Arabic and Farsi look awesome. But not if you’re a white boy from Idaho. You end up looking like that dad wearing the “My Sister Went to the Bahamas and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt” shirt. Speaking of t-shirts, you may be aware of t-shirts from Japan and Taiwan printed in senseless English (e.g. Happy So Much!). The meaning is lost in translation. Yeah well, that “Carpe diem” you got in Chinese characters is just as meaningless (e.g. Grab Time) to the average Chinese person.
  4. Pretend spirituality. Buddhist, Taoist and vegetarian symbols are common offenses.
  5. Carpe diem. Cliches are excellent ways for backpackers to express their originality.
  6. Nationalistic beenous. On the topic of cliches, Canadian backpackers often have tattoos of Canadian flags or maple leaves. These are as cliche as the Canadian flag patches on their backpacks.
#1-2 combo.

#1-2 combo.

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11. Sightseeing

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

Backpacking and sightseeing are supposed to go hand in hand, but they don’t. Lugging a heavy pack all over a foreign metropolis is great fun. Doing so with an implosive hangover is even better. The Lonely Planet is mostly to blame since it conveniently lists off, under “Sights” of course, the must-see attractions of every place on earth. And because the LP is the infallible gospel of backpackers, failure to cover a respectable majority of listed sights is greeted with clicking tongues, shaking heads (i.e. judgement) and lifelong guilt. “You went to ____, and didn’t see ____?! (tongue clicking).”

sightseeing3

Cue "The Imperial March," from Star Wars.

We’ve all checked off our share of sights, beenou. Seriously, that’s what it feels like: a checklist. Big Ben? Check. Machu Picchu? Check. Taj Mahal? Check. The LP and our adherence to it have reduced an awe-inspiring list of ancient and modern wonders to an everyday grocery list.

If I see one more museum, gallery, cathedral or temple, I might just go insane. I went to the Louvre and actually liked two paintings and one statue. The statue had no head, by the way. That was out of 7,000 works I made a point to see because it was a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” It took the whole day and I only saw a third of the place. I also bought a $20 sandwich for lunch that day. Awesome deal. I went to the Vatican at 8 a.m. to beat the line-up and when I arrived, it was already snaking around two blocks. It, too, took the whole day. Is it even worth it?

Sometimes, the sights are so spectacular they’re worth it. You’re glad you saw them. That photo of you pushing over the Leaning Tower of Pisa with your index finger is indeed a priceless memento. Very funny and wildly original. But most of the time you’re left thinking, “That was IT?”

sightseeing2The crowds often ruin the experience. Massive throngs of Japanese tourists, although cute (the Tilley hats get me every time), are not people I care to hang out around. Their tour guides are inches away from committing suicide. People are jockeying for position to get the best photo and you’re avoiding collisions more than you’re actually enjoying the sights, exhibits or landscapes around you. Even when you say excuse me, they either don’t understand you or can’t hear a thing ‘cuz they’re knee deep into an audio guide. Besides, Asians (especially old ones) have no concept of personal space.

Some backpackers genuinely enjoy sightseeing. They will bypass boozing nearly every night so they can get up at dawn and see EVERYTHING. Most of these backpackers are women. The sightseeing female backpackers make up one of the two types of lady road warriors – more on that later (see 3. Where are the Hot Girls?).

The rest of us are too busy struggling with our packs or nursing hangovers to care about sightseeing. Or we’re male. Men (especially straight men) are lazy and wonderfully apathetic travelers. Which is why we have so much fun and don’t remember much of our trip. Oktoberfest? Check.

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10. Anti-Americanism

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

If you’ve spent any time overseas, you are either familiar with the widespread Anti-Americanism being perpetuated on the backpacker circuit or guilty of contributing to it. It’s such a big problem that it’s truly inescapable.

anti-americanismAlthough the prevailing Anti-American sentiment has taken the form of distrust-under-the-guise-of-acceptance since the election of President Obama, it is not genuine. “Giving Americans a chance” is simply trendy right now. As much as they’d like to deny it, backpackers love trendy.

During the George W. Bush era, it was far too easy to hate on Americans. Since backpackers also love stereotypes*, any American they met while traveling was categorized as a redneck agent of capitalism, war and ignorance – three things backpackers openly codemn. Any possibility that said American could be an open-minded, educated Gore voter (which most young backpackers were) was promptly disregarded.

Keeping on the theme of stereotypes, Europeans are without a doubt the most condescending people on the planet, so it should come as no surprise that they are the most active Yankee bashers as well. The French, for example, have a long history of hating the United States (see Why do the French hate us?). They are quick to overlook, however, their known affinity to several pillars of Americana: Hollywood movies, cigarette smoking, blue jeans and black music.

Contemporary Anti-Americanism has led many Canadian backpackers to mistakenly believe their shit does not stink. This notion is the product of an overwhelming national inferiority complex, similar to that of Kiwis to Aussies. A vast majorty of Kiwi and Canadian backpackers are convinced that because everybody seems to hate their more powerful and cooler neighbors, it makes themselves superior. Consider renowned Kiwi movie director Peter Jackson for a moment. Dude is talented. But he is by no means cool.

It’s about the accents. Canadians and Kiwis will tell you their accents are markedly different from those of Americans and Aussies, respectively. The foreign ear, however, can detect no such differences. Thus, a common scenario takes place across the globe:

  1. Canadian/Kiwi speaks.
  2. Foreigner assumes speaker is American/Aussie, expresses dislike.
  3. Canadian/Kiwi freaks out.
  4. Foreigner apologizes, retracts and feigns approval for Canadians/Kiwis.
  5. Canadian/Kiwi feels awesome, purports to being cooler than Americans/Aussies.

About 10 years ago, a nasty rumor surfaced that American backpackers, so fed up of being vilified at every turn, were sewing Canadian flag patches onto their backpacks. These allegations were no doubt a smear-campaign-under-the-guise-of-a-beenou-campaign created by a smug prick Canadian. Or maybe it was a Kiwi…

*Note: This blog is riddled with stereotypes.

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