As a bloke in my 30’s who has done some backpacking before, graduated to hotel travel, swimming pools, resorts and expensive holidays, I wanted this trip to be different. For one, I want it to last as long as possible and as such, needed to spend as little as possible for as long as possible!
To do that, I decided to stay in hostels and couch surf around central and eastern Europe. Many things about backpacking are quickly forgotten when you’re working and taking short holidays, here’s what I have been reminded of in no subtle terms.
1. You will never have a good night’s sleep
Even if you think you will, you won’t. There will be the snorer (probably multiple) the loud mover, the creaky bed, the drunk arriver, the early leaver, the cougher, the traffic noise, the daylight through thin curtains. If jet lag or a week of restless nights isn’t enough to help you sleep then your body generally wakes you up on its own accord, usually with a jolt as it wonders where you are and who that weird old guy is standing next to your bed.
2. You will make and lose friends quickly
Hostel living also has its plusses. You meet people and make friends very quickly and easily. Like the Australian guy who was 4 months into a 9 month trip who I took to eat elk soup at a mediaeval kitchen in Tallinn, or the girl from Cyprus who I shared an evening chat about life with, or the German girl who showed me to an awesome burger bar in Riga.
Its easy to bond through common experiences of hostels, busses, cities and nights out, but alas, these bonds break just as quickly as they form. People are moving in different directions, some you only meet for a night, others a few days, but none of these relationships last very long.
Facebook is great for keeping in touch and learning about what new adventures these people are up to, but you never get to really know them like you do your friends back home. In some ways I think thats sad, but in other ways, it is what it is and maybe its perfect that way?
3. You lose all concept of time and space
I couldn’t tell you what day it was yesterday. Or today, or tomorrow. When you have no structure around your day, all your days seem the same. When you’re backpacking in big cities with other travellers there is always somewhere to go out, people party every night of the week so you often wake up thinking its sunday morning when in fact it’s wednesday.
Personal space no longer exists. You’re either in a crowded dorm, jammed on a packed train, plane or bus, or carrying your luggage down a busy street. You really get to cherish that 2mins the shower in the morning where you have a few seconds to yourself.
4. You will miss your washing machine
You will eventually miss your washing machine, and so will your clothes! Some hostels will actually take care of your washing for you which is great, but a lot of the time you end up walking down the street to the nearest run down laundromat, like the the one in Sorrento that took half my money, washed for 30mins longer than it said it would and didn’t drain any of the water! Leaving me with a bag of wet soggy clothes that I tried to wring out in the basin and dry in the dryer, which obviously took 4x as long, and 4x as much money than it should have.
I guess I could have just taken it back wet and tried to hang it up and dry it, but most hostels are stuffy enough without some bloke’s wet clothes hanging around.
You also can’t just put your washing in and go do something else – you need to be mindful of when its finished so someone else doesn’t grab your stuff or just throw it on the ground when they put theirs in!
5. Everyone is an alcoholic
Some more than others, but at least 80% of backpackers objective seems to be to get as drunk as possible in as many cities as possible for as many days as possible. While I understand having a drink here and there is a great way to bond, see parts of a city and relax in unfamiliar surroundings, smashing a bottle of vodka, gin or tequila before hitting the town at midnight every night of the week seems a bit much! It is however easy to get sucked into this whirlwind lifestyle. And it’s where a lot of great traveling stories are made.
6. Cooking your own meals is the only way to stay healthy while saving money
In Europe especially, its really hard to find cheap, healthy food. Everything is bread, pasta or rice based that is cheap – meat and veggies can easily be found at most restaurants, but it always comes with a price! The only way you seem to be able to travel cheaply on a budget is to go to the local market (which can be some good authentic experience in its own right) and grab some veggies.
Of course once you have your food, you need to fight everyone else at the hostel for the one available hotplate!
7. Having a car is overrated
Back home, I drove everywhere, to the local store, the city, the beach – everywhere! And ok, so the public transport back home is nowhere near as good as it is in Europe, but still I find myself walking much greater distances around European cities than I’d ever walk back home, and I don’t mind a good walk!
In Scandinavia, everyone rides bikes, London too has a lot of bike riders. Berlin as well, in fact nearly every European city has a large population of cyclists. Even though I’ve mainly walked and taken public transport in even the most foreign cities to me (Budapest, St Petersburg) I think when I get home, I will try t walk, public transport and cycle to more of the close by destinations and save the car for necessities (rain, heat, long distance, requiring to cart larger items!)
8. Uncomfortable becomes comfortable
What would normally be really uncomfortable for me: Sleeping in a room with 12 people, sharing showers with 50 others, living out of a bag, walking with all your luggage in 40 degree heat, wearing the same clothes for days, getting lost in a place you don’t understand, meeting new people, asking for directions, going out for a night on the town by yourself! It all seems to become second nature after a few weeks and now I barely notice that I’m doing any of it.
At home I had my own house, my own shower, my own space and my own comfort zone. The point of this trip was to push that comfort zone to extend my limits, test myself and grow as a person. I think this has obviously happened so I’m waiting for my next test, to feel uncomfortable again and see how long it takes me to get used to it!
9. You are the exotic one
Its easy to forget when you’re travelling Europe (or anywhere for that matter), surround by foreigners of varying cultures and countries that to them YOU are the exotic one. I’m always constantly surprised by the number of “Oh WOW!” comments I get when I tell people form Australia. Mainly because I know how many Australians travel to Europe, but obviously we’re not that prevalent as people seem genuinely shocked that someone from so far away would travel half way around the world to see Europe. Unless of course you are somewhere like the UK or Tallinn where there seems to be half of Australia living and travelling.
So its good to remember that you are the exotic one, and people want to talk to you – which makes striking up conversation with random strangers a little less daunting when travelling solo.
10. You have no idea, nor do you really care about what is happening back home
This isn’t entirely true. But it still has validity. My sister is about to give birth and I clearly miss my family and friends back home. No matter how many people you meet on the road, you never get strong friendships like the ones you’ve forged over many years with your friends back home. They’re your friends for a reason.
But what I’m talking about here is other things from home – I have found that I couldn’t care less about the weather, even though everyone on my Facebook seems to comment on it. EVERY DAY. I don’t like the cold either, that’s why I left.
I couldn’t care less about football scores, politics or current affairs. Local government decisions or “Thank god its friday” updates. Every night is friday night for me and every morning is monday morning but I don’t need to harp on about it!
It has been two months since I read a newspaper, watched TV (other than an episode of The Simpsons in Russian) or read a news website. I’d rather be out learning about the world first hand than from some old guy in a suit on my TV.
Its one of the joys of backpacking – ignorance can sometimes be bliss, all you need to worry about is where your next meal is coming from or what time your bus leaves. Of course it does pay to research your next destination before flying into a danger zone!
So there you have it, this is what I’ve learned in the last 2 months of backpacking, and I’m sure there will be a lot more lessons to come, but for now I need to go and book my bus and hostel for tomorrow…
Take care, LJ.