Right now, I’m sitting on my bed in a hostel dorm in Berlin. My crap is all over the floor. The girl sleeping in the bed beside me also has her crap all over the floor. And then there’s a couple of tidy guys, with all their stuff locked and zipped up. Nobody has made their bed (why would you?). It’s 4 p.m.
Today, living like this is perfectly normal for me. But it wasn’t always. It’s been over five years since I left my wildly exhilirating accounting job in New Zealand and set off on my world adventure. I have probably slept in over 200 beds since then, and on countless other couches, floors, trains, cars, planes, tents, beaches.
As this has normalised for me over the years, I tend to forget how odd it might seem to others. When people appear puzzled about this lifestyle, I often shrug it off, like it’s nothing special. But I’ve noticed this can confuse people, intimidate them almost, and make it seem like the backpacking trail is reserved for these odd personalities, who like living in dirty socks and sleeping in rooms that smell like feet.
So today I want to take you all back, to the day I checked into my first hostel. Because back then, living like this was anything but normal, and I was anything but an accomplished traveller.
My backpacking career began in South America. I flew into Buenos Aires, and was scheduled to stay on the continent for 14 weeks.
I showed up that afternoon with nothing but a backpack full of clothes, some toiletries, and the shoes on my feet. I hadn’t packed a laptop, nor a tablet, nor a camera. I didn’t have any warm clothes. Not even a jacket. I had no guidebook. I didn’t even take a cellphone.
I really just thought I wouldn’t need any of it.
Camera? The photos are in my head. Laptop? Internet cafe. Phone? To call who?
Once I was off the plane, I changed my USD at the first airport currency exchange I saw, right at the baggage collection. I’ve since learned this was the equivalent of having the word “ROOKIE” tatted across my forehead, and I remember overhearing an English couple discussing how it “wasn’t a good rate”, but at the time I wasn’t aware of how badly rates were loaded at the airport. I didn’t know of these cool little things called ‘travel blogs’ back then. I mean, I just needed to get pesos. This is the place to get pesos, no?
Once clearing customs I headed straight to the taxi stand. I saw the same English couple I’d seen at the currency exchange, and asked if they wanted to share a cab to the city. They said, “Sure”, and one of them ran off to a nearby ATM to get some cash out.
I had a hostel booked already, I still remember the name: Milhouse Avenue. Initially I gave the driver the wrong address, so we drove around in circles until I actually got the booking printout from my backpack and double-checked it. When we arrived, the driver asked for a tip. I didn’t know how much to give him, so I gave him a 20 peso bill, which at the time was around $5 USD. He grinned a huge grin and slapped me on the shoulder, and then probably took off to splurge on some empanadas.
I was in an eight bed dorm, mixed with guys and girls. Jet lagged, I slept the rest of the day, only heading out briefly that evening to eat a burger with a couple of my roommates. I thought it was so cool – making new friends like that. There were literally hundreds of people in the hostel, all drinking, watching movies, cooking, playing pool, chatting at the bar. As a lifetime introvert, I remember being a little overwhelmed by it all. I just went upstairs and lay on my bed.
The next morning I woke up and most of my dorm had already started their day. Some were out, a few were around brushing their teeth, that sort of thing. I remember one of the staff coming into the room to take some dirty sheets and open the curtains.
“It’s a beautiful day guys, get out of here!”
My heart jumped a little.
Get out of here?
I felt all this pressure suddenly, like when you were a kid and you weren’t listening in class and now everyone is working and you have no idea what’s happening. Around the hostel I could hear all these people shuffling maps and talking about buses and different places they were going to visit. But I didn’t get it. How does everyone know what they’re doing? Was there like a presentation I missed in the morning or something?
Of course it only lasted a couple of seconds before it clicked that we were just supposed to look after ourselves. But I had never been in an environment like this before. It was always catch the bus at 7, eat lunch at 12, go home, do your homework, go to soccer practice. Wake up, iron your shirt, file your timesheet. Even my two previous travel experiences were no different: On my volunteering trip in Tanzania, I got told what my job was, which bus to catch, what time to show up, what time to go home. My language course in Spain – get to class at 8, go home at 2, do my homework, go to sleep. For my entire life I had woken up in the morning and had someone else tell me what to do. And now, in this foreign country, it felt odd that people didn’t follow a programme. I mean, don’t we need to have a group meeting so everyone knows what they’re doing?
There was this guy in the bunk above me. He was from Serbia, I remember him only as Z. He came out of the bathroom and I asked him meekly:
“So, what are you going to do today?”
“Oh I’m just going to head to the train station and buy a ticket for next week.”
Just looking at me, he must have known I was a new kid.
“You can…uhh…come with me if you want?”
I nodded. Yes, I really do want.
Because I had no idea what else to do.
We got to the subway and headed to the ticket machine.
“How much is it?” I asked him.
“One twenty….” I mumbled.
“Yeah, pretty cheap huh?”
I thought about it. 1.20 would have been…25 cents? No way.
“So like, one hundred and twenty?”
He laughed at me.
“No man that’s crazy. One peso twenty cents.”
Look, guys, I’m really not a dumb guy. Honestly. This was just unknown territory. Out here in deep water my brain had stopped working. I was a lifelong academic. If I didn’t have a textbook to give me the answer, then…where do I find the answer? On paper I was probably one of the most educated guys in that hostel, but book smarts get you nowhere on the road.
I walked around with Z for the rest of the day. It didn’t take long for me to shake off the shock and settle into the whole backpacking thing. He was a seasoned traveller, so just hanging out and talking with him, seeing how relaxed he was, watching how he navigated a foreign city, I finally started to “get it”. There were no teachers out here, no parents, no manager’s office to go ask questions. You simply learned from the guy beside you.
I met some cool guys that evening in the hostel bar. I met another Kiwi in my dorm, some British guy who wasn’t shaving for a whole year, a couple of crazy Brazilians, and of course Z was there too. I did the hostel tango class that night in the bar, and sat around chatting with a few people. There was one Australian guy I remember particularly well. He had shabby blonde hair, seemed to know everyone. I asked him how long he’d been travelling.
“Eight months,” he said without a flinch.
He nodded, like it was nothing. Part of me didn’t even believe him. How does somebody travel for eight months?
He then showed off some little caps of cocaine in his pocket, and proceeded to tell us about all the beautiful girls he had sex with in Colombia and Brazil. I thought his stories were great, still unaware of what a common species of backpacker this was. On a safari, he’d be a gazelle, or a zebra. The first one is cool and you take about thirty photos. The next five hundred, you just drive right on past.
By the time I left Buenos Aires a week later, I felt like I’d finally figured it out. Backpacking represented a lot more than just travelling. In fact, much of it wasn’t about travelling at all. It represented freedom, friendship, cultural mixing, self discovery. It was a colourless, classless community, where no one cared who was rich or who was poor, whether you were a doctor or a busboy, where people sat around and did absolutely nothing as much as they explored their destinations. There was nobody to report to, no schedules to follow, no promotions, no start time and end time. You simply woke up each day and followed your own feet. Of course, I still had much to learn. But I was on the way.
Looking back, I never managed to fully embrace the backpacker lifestyle that entire trip. I spent ten of my fourteen weeks in Peru, enrolled in Spanish school, living in my own apartment. Back then I told myself it was because learning the language was the priority, and it was, but I also believe it was a case of being institutionalised in a rigid “Yes sir, no sir” environment, something I still carry remnants of today. As much as I hated the rules, living without them made me uncomfortable. I couldn’t be free without feeling lost at the same time.
And that brings us full circle, five years later, to my hostel dorm here in Berlin. Because this year being a backpacker has been a completely normal, almost tame experience. I’ve grown into it, and in some ways grown out of it too. I am now comfortable without structure, without rules. But it’s taken this long to get here. And whenever I come across yet another 19 year old Australian on their first big adventure with lots of “silly” questions, I don’t dare tell them I’ve been travelling for five years or start lecturing them about life on the road. I shut up and try to be the guy that Z was; humble, encouraging, helpful, and give them the props they deserve for doing something most people never will.
So, the moral of this ramble:
If you’re planning a trip and have no idea what you’re doing, don’t worry. Relax. And when you do hit the road and everyone around you seems like an expert traveller, chill. We all started there, and I was the most clueless of them all. Like everything else, learning to travel takes time, so embrace it, ask the dumb questions, have fun, enjoy the journey. I won’t say it’s easy, but I do know you will figure it out. And honestly, those years of kooking on the road will probably be some of the best of your travel career.
To all your adventures,