At home among some of my friends I’m affectionately (at least I like to think so) known as Granny Annie on account of my love of afternoon tea and cakes and hanging out at old lady book clubs and yoga classes. I was therefore slightly anxious about going back to staying in hostels when I went on my first solo backpacking trip in a while to Colombia last year. Was I going to be too old to hack it? Fortunately during my three weeks there I met plenty of people my own age and fell back in love with the ease of moving from place to place and the pros of staying in cheap accommodation in a central location.
So I had no reservations about travelling solo again on this trip, albeit for nine months. And so far it has all gone really well. I haven’t had to endure many of the horror stories I’ve heard about dorms over the years. A lot of the hostels I booked into in South America were actually amazing and in New Zealand people of all ages bunk down for the night in a cheap spot. But suddenly I got to Australia and I feel old.
Maybe it’s because I’m only doing the East Coast route, which is popular with gap year students from just about every European country, or maybe I’ve just been unlucky with the hostels I’ve stayed in. But in the last couple of weeks I’ve found myself queueing up to use the only frying pan supplied by a hostel or stepping over people who have passed out outside my room and thinking: “I’m too old to do this”. When I see girls in the kitchen eating instant noodles with a slice of processed cheese melted on top of it I literally want to sit them down and give them a proper meal. In Sydney I stayed in one of the notorious party hostels and the girls in my room could barely contain their giggles when I told them I was going to the opera as they slipped into their short skirts and high heels.
It doesn’t help that in many hostels in Australia you have to pay to rent your sheets and leave a deposit for a cutlery set, which means you have to walk about clutching your bowl and mug so that it doesn’t go walkies. Honestly, at one place I almost got into a fight with a guy who stole my knife until I thought ‘what am I doing?’
But the best one so far was a hostel I stayed in in Brisbane. Fortunately I’d met two other girls round about my age who were also feeling the same as me and we’d started to travel up the coast together. When we were booking into our next hostel we chose one which described itself as a “flashpackers” (for flashy backpackers – yes, a bit pretentious I know, but at least they usually give you sheets!) We’d decided to treat ourselves by paying a little extra for a triple room rather than a dorm and had already got ourselves excited by saying we’d put on our fanciest dresses (a little bit pushed when your whole life is in a backpack) and go out for a nice meal.
So we were so disappointed when we opened the door to a room which was so tiny we could barely fit our three backpackers in it, let alone get ready for a night out. It also smelt so bad I had to check whether there was a body under the bed and when we opened the sheets they were covered in stains. I honestly nearly cried. In the end I marched downstairs to complain, slipped into conversation that I was a journalist and eventually got us moved to a slightly bigger, although still very basic room.
The thing is I’ve stayed in some pretty basic places in my time – the 50p a night shed in Vietnam which had a hose pipe as a shower springs to mind – and even on this trip in South America some of the places have been pretty rustic. But on the whole they’ve been quite clean and I think I’ve realised that’s what I’ve grown out of. I don’t like dirt. Now I can’t turn a blind eye to piles of dirty dishes, I notice when a shower is blocked full of other people’s hair and I find it difficult not to roll my eyes when a hostel receptionist hands me some filthy cutlery that I’ve just had to pay a $10 deposit for and says “obviously you’ll need to wash it”.
And I know I sound like an old lady and I am rapidly fulfilling the Aussie stereotype of a whinging Pom but suddenly I know exactly how my mum used to feel when she came to visit me in my student house at uni.