Posts Tagged ‘poor hygiene’

Backpacking in the News

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

Link to article: Can you ever be too old for backpacking?

Apparently not.

Apparently not.

A few weeks ago (July 28), Kim Wildman wrote an article for MSN.co.nz saying you’re never too old to go backpacking. She’s 41. The people in the above photo are closer to 71. That’s false advertising, MSN. Come on, now.

Wildman is honest: Having gone on her first backpacking trip at 27 (across some southern African countries) and her first solo trip (to Eastern Europe) at 30, she admits to often being the oldest person in the dorm room.

“For me, age always has been, and hopefully always will be, a number,” she writes. “It’s more about how you live your life rather than how many candles are on your cake. At the same time, as the years have marched on I’ve noticed the gap between myself and younger travelers at hostels is indeed widening.”

I disagree. You can be too old for backpacking. When you can’t carry your luggage on your back anymore* or you can’t stand “roughing it” in cheap, dirty accommodations, that’s when you’re too old to be backpacking.

In spite of her surname, Kim is no party animal. She proceeds to identify the following features of the young backpacker’s landscape:

And yet, Wildman is accepting of her counterparts, regardless of their age. “No matter whether my dorm mates belong to gen Y, gen X or the baby boomers, as long as they share my independent traveling spirit then, as far as I’m concerned, they can only make my hosteling experience richer.”

Her tolerance should be commended.

*About luggage: “I’ve already traded in my traditional rucksack for a far more practical and convenient (and might I add less backbreaking) trolley backpack,” Wildman writes.

I stand corrected.

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45. Bedbugs

Friday, November 19th, 2010

Allen Brisson-Smith for The New York Times

Photo: Allen Brisson-Smith for The New York Times

Recent reports of bedbug issues in major cities (New York, Toronto, Montreal, Prince Albert — you know, big cities — etc.), stirred a faint but disturbing memory of my first run-in with the aptly named bloodsucking pests, which are as familiar to globetrotting backpackers as communal bathrooms.

It was in Amsterdam, on the last night of my buddy Mitch’s and my first backpacking trip to Europe (beenou). We were set to fly home to Canada. We’d wanted to stay at the Flying Pig Hostel ‘cuz it was recommended by an English dude we met in Prague as “the best party hostel in Amstahdaahm,” but given its bacchanal reputation, it was full. So we picked the cheapest place(1) down the street, and it was a little grimy(2), but would have to do.

Of course, we partied like rock stars that night and passed out in a fog, in our 16-bunk dorm room(1). I vaguely remember a burly, hairy orc of a man(3) drunkenly opening the dorm door to the bright hallway lights, stumbling in with a giggling wench(3) literally carrying her over his shoulder, caveman-style. Our cohabitants sneered at the light like vampires, rolled over and went back to sleep. He grunted and tossed her onto his bed, incidentally the bunk below Mitch’s. He proceeded to make it with her(3), beneath Mitch (a light sleeper to begin with), who was tossing and turning, kicking the creaky aluminum bed frame out of sheer frustration.

As white Greg Oden thrusted away, I lied there on the hostel sheet thinking: a) I hope they fucking wash these sheets well, and b) THIS is why you bring a sleep sheet — what if there are bedbugs in these mattresses?

We eventually fell back asleep, awakened by the alarm, the sunlight coming in and the disgusting stench(2) of 17 drunk people’s unconscious breathing. Always running late, we didn’t have time to shower(3); we simply grabbed our bags and rushed to the airport. On the train to the airport, I felt itchy under my t-shirt. Really itchy. I peeled back my shirt to find red little welts all over my chest. Bedbug bites. Just as I was coming home. Perfect. These were itchier than mosquito bites. It was terrible. I didn’t want to scratch them, ‘cuz I would’ve easily scratched ’til the skin broke, so I remember slapping myself constantly while checking in and going through customs.

But then on the plane, my face got mumpy and flushed. My cheeks were hot to touch. Mitch got worried, saying, “Dude, drink some water or something. You look terrible. They’re gonna think you’re an OD’ing drug mule.” It was unbearable. I asked the flight attendant for some anti-histamines(4), which she promptly brought me. I kept slapping away at my chest, arms and behind my knees. Then, my face cleared.

“Oh, the anti-histamines must be working. You look better,” Mitch said. I peeled back my shirt and my whole chest was mumpy and flushed — the rash was just moving downward. Mitch was laughing his ass off. “Sorry to laugh, man. It’s just so funny.”

Mitch later wrote, in an e-mail: “This bedbug thing is true. On our way home, Al developed some strange rash from what we think are bedbug bites, making his skin swollen and red. He looked like Woogie from Something About Mary. I was also covered in tiny bites but didn’t develop quite as painful a rash.”

In closing, I’ve compiled a list of reasons/red flags/considerations for possible bedbug encounters while backpacking:
1. Low budget
2. Second-rate hostel hygiene
3. Second-rate guest hygiene
4. Allergic reactions

– Nov. 22: It seems for some people, hostels aren’t all “dirty, noisy (or) packed with party hounds.” Jane E. Fraser of the Sydney Morning Herald explains: Youth hostels: how the dorm became the norm

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31. Traveler’s Diarrhea

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

This post should really have appeared earlier. Like somewhere in the top five. I guess 2. No Toilet Paper falls under the fecal category, so that about covered it for the top thirty. You can’t be writing a blog that talks about shit every five or six posts without people calling the cops (coprophiles) on you. Besides, to me, the word “fecal” represents a more solid image in my mind. And the topic of this post is decidedly far from solid. Yup, this is something entirely different.

That’s why I realize now it should have cracked the top five. Having this malevolent organism inside me was probably the worst thing that’s ever happened to me while traveling. Worse than getting pickpocketed (that’s number-two). I’m fucking serious. I was scared of it. Not scared, like I thought I was gonna die, but I was scared it would last longer. If you’re laughing and calling me a pussy, you’ve obviously never had it. It is THE WORST.

I  got my first case of real TD (they actually call it this) in Africa, of all places (beenou). Because I’m a visible minority, I like to brag to my white friends that I’m more immune to things than they are. Like sunlight for example (even though I still do get sunburnt, from time to time). I’d traveled to third-world countries before, so I was a little cocky. Our guides told us repeatedly, “Don’t drink the tap water. Only drink bottled water. No iced cubes. Make sure raw fruits and vegetables are washed in…” Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought. I can handle it. I’m not white.

I’d been diligent, though. I’d been drinking only bottled water for weeks, even brushing my teeth with it for chrissakes. But I mistakenly thought that I’d gotten some bath water in my mouth once or twice, and was unaffected, so I rolled the dice. We were in a small local straw-hut of a restaurant. No tourists in there (beenou). They didn’t have any bottled drinks, only water. It wasn’t even tap water. They were ladling it into metal cups out of a bright blue garbage-pail-sized plastic bucket. I was conscious of it too, thinking, “Is this gonna make me sick?” right before I drank it to wash down a bite.

It most certainly did. I fell into a haze. Not immediately, but I started feeling off about an hour after eating, a little dizzy. Then I had the bubbly gut, then a stomach ache. I’d had food poisoning before, so I thought it was just that – that I’d puke or shit once and that’d be it.  I was struck by the worst case to diarrhea I’ve ever had. It started running Friday, I practically spent the whole day in the bathroom Saturday, I thought it was over and it came back Sunday, and Monday was just as bad as Friday. My memory of the experience is all foggy. I couldn’t eat. I felt so weak. All I did was sleep and get up to shit. I drank gallons of water. Imodium and antibiotics had no effect the entire time. It just kept pouring out. My butthole was raw from the constant wetness of pooping and water wiping (see 2. No Toilet Paper). By Tuesday, I felt decent enough to get out of bed and try to function. All I could stomach was water, tea, bread (dry, as butter is banned during bouts of TD) and the local equivalent of animal crackers. The runs had become more of a mealy, loose paste. It took five days before I had a solid stool and  I was honestly near tears when it plopped against the surface of the toilet water.

One thing my horrific TD taught me is that you need the support of other people to endure it. My friends took care of me. They brought me water and food, if I could eat it. They checked on me and even bought me a thermometer to make sure I didn’t have a crazy malaria-induced fever. You’d think I’d learned my lesson, but I got it again about a month later. Turns out, I was less immune to it than my white friends. They didn’t get it once.

I didn’t get TD again until about three years later, in Indonesia. Due to the foolish ingestion of fish(chicken?)ball soup, made with fishballs and steamed noodles that were sitting in a lidless container at room temperature, in the sun, likely for hours. Again, I thought about the possible consequences as I took my first slurp, hoping that the steaming broth they dumped the spongy, pre-cooked ingredients into was hot enough to kill the nefarious bacterium. But my friend, a feminist, separatist gal from Quebec, was keen on the soup. She insisted it would be fine. Yeah, she was fine. Yet again, I proved myself less immune to something than a white friend. I should learn my lesson, eventually.

Thanks to Karen, for suggesting I go ahead and write this topic. She must have had it once too. Thanks to Alain and the Diaws for all the animal crackers in Dakar. Thanks also to Isa, Claudio and JP for keeping me alive in the Gilis.

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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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5. Available Multinationals

Monday, May 18th, 2009

mcdonalds-russia“I just need to get away from it all” is standard rationale for departing on a long backpacking adventure. You want to switch it up. You envision exploring new lands, meeting fascinating people from all over, interacting with locals, experiencing foreign culture and at once absorbing the jarring visceral stimuli that surround you.

While all of those objectives may eventually be met, a few common hiccups occur. A few examples:

  • Coca-Cola: So charming in that timeless glass bottle.
  • McDonalds: Sushi in Japan, deep-fried camembert in France, who says this stuff isn’t local?
  • Marlboro: Even if you don’t smoke, you will. “It’s so cheap here!”
  • 7-Eleven: Everything you need. Condom labels you can read. Gatorade for that hangover. Mmm, Pringles. Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Nestle, Pfizer – only the essentials.
  • KFC: Regardless of religion, race or creed, people like fried chicken. Not just black people. All people.
  • Starbucks: Combine elements of otherwise conflicting yuppie and backpacker culture in a modern and urban setting! Also available in fair trade blends for the most delicate of consciences.

Ironically, most backpackers stay close to the herd. The beaten path is by no coincidence dotted with the above brands and companies. The convenient access to all these familiar flavors and comforts makes it nearly impossible for backpackers to resist temptation and indulge in them.

Doing so, however, runs contrary to the idealistic tenets the prototypical backpacker ascribes to, such as respect for the environment, leftist ideals, support for local economies and equitable labor practices. Sanctimonious, tree-hugging and bleeding heart principles the likes of Greenpeace, Habitat for Humanity and Adbusters want you to believe in.

marlboro-thailand

That's NOT Manny Pacquiao.

Thus, most members of the backpacking community are conflicted. It’s understandable. You didn’t drop two grand on a plane ticket to eat the same noxious crap you can buy at a strip mall in your hometown.

But you get homesick. You tire of local food or rolling the dice on substandard hygenic conditions. You just want something familiar for a change. No surprises. Besides, how could something so corporate and evil taste so good?

So you swallow your pride with a super-sized Coke to wash it down. You resign to the notion that globalization is an inevitability in our forever capitalist, commoditized world. One little purchase can’t hurt…

Globalization is a bitch ain’t it? It’s like the atomic bomb – somebody else invented it. Not your problem. Enjoy your Bic Mac. We’re no holier than thou. We all savored ours.

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2. No Toilet Paper

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

cpsYou don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. You won’t appreciate the luxury of a good, delicate shit ticket ’til you sprint into a foreign stall, turtle head popping out, and proceed to unleash hot fury, only to discover you’ve got nothing to wipe with except your imagination. Spare me your advice. Sure, you ALWAYS remember to pack your own roll. But even packaged Kleenex gets forgotten at times of urgent need.

You’ve never hit rock bottom until you’ve had to reach into the bowlful of feces to hunt a clear patch of water to draw from. That’s when you begin to appreciate the in-stall hose attachment. And you used to wonder what it was for. Now you know.

Now you appreciate the ol’ bucket and ladel (sometimes a small pail or yogurt container) within arm’s reach. You try not to let your mind wander as to what insects may have already laid their eggs in the bucket water. You’re way beyond that. This is all business.

You’ve mastered the art of the Water Wipe. You cup the water in your hand – always the left hand, mind you – and deftly reach and splash your underside in one, sweeping motion so not to lose a drop. The ends justify the means. Like Kerouac in Big Sur, you realize your butt is cleaner than it would be from toilet paper. Your anus is enlightened. It remains wet, though. No paper. That’s the perplexing part…

Still, your ass-wiping apprenticeship is going great. It’s even curbing your bad habits. Southpaw nosepicking and nailbiting are ancient history. You haven’t kicked cigarettes but now you smoke (and eat) exclusively with your right hand.

After hundreds of unpleasant encounters with ill-equipped thrones (soiled, cracked or absent seats being the norm), you develop a respect for the Classic Porcelain Squat, or CPS. A seeming anachronism in many of the world’s most technologically advanced nations, who knows how many ingenious ideas were born upon it over the centuries? As the CPS’ moulded, corrugated foot grips hold your suspension steady, you get it. You figure out proper technique – with your hamstrings pinned to your calves, your heels planted – and the turds roll out like Cosby kids in a chorus line. The angles are sound. You barely need to wipe.

You’ve seen it all. Wet floor? Hang up your pants and underwear. No coat hook? Just clutch your pants and in a ball with your right hand (You’re not wiping with it anyways!). You’ve learned that keeping baggy shorts off the floor in mid-squat becomes an uncomfortable hammock building exercise, so you go bottomless as a rule. No stall door? Whatever.

No toilet paper. Ha! I’ve got hand sanitizer.

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