July 08, 2003
Returning to Sydney after two months of vagabond travels around Australia, my flat mates Ed and Rick and I decided to take a little weekend getaway to wine country – the Hunter Valley and surroundings. Having traveled in backpacker mode for the past two months, I convinced the guys to travel my way – booking us into a hostel instead of a hotel. As neither of them had ever stayed in a hostel, both were a bit hesitant, but I assured them it would be great – and an adventure. They were warming to the idea when I reminded them to bring towels and said that I would check into bedding. I could see the look on Rick’s face saying, “What are we getting ourselves into?”
As I usually prefer length of travel over luxurious travel, I’ve mostly traveled the backpacker or budget way. In accommodation terms, this means sleeping in hostels. Though hostels vary from country to country, in most westernized nations they are communal living situations with anywhere from 4-10 people sharing a room with bunk beds and a bathroom. Some are great, some are average and a few are really horrible – but as a general rule, I don’t mind them and they are a great way to meet people – especially when you are traveling alone.
My flat mates, Americans working in Australia, are both travelers. However, they are corporate travelers – more accustomed to high end hotels and room service than communal bathrooms and bunk beds. I was more than a little apprehensive about how they would respond, especially since you never know exactly what you are going to get with a hostel until to arrive.
We spent Saturday cruising through wine country, visiting a few wineries before lunch and a few afterwards. Being winter, the vines were bare – but the tasting rooms were still full of tourists and Sydney day trippers. The Hunter Valley, like most wine regions in Australia, does not charge for tastings – a refreshing change from California’s Napa Valley. By 4 p.m. we’d had enough and turned the car toward the coast and our lodging for the night.
As budget accommodation was tough to find in the Hunter Valley, I chose a YHA-affiliated hostel in Newcastle, Australia’s sixth largest city. Newcastle, New South Wales’ second largest city (after Sydney) was the site of the second European settlement in Australia and, like most of Australia’s early settlements, was originally a penal colony. Known these days for its great surf in the summer months, the town was incredibly quiet when we arrived.
All of us were a bit cranky after the long day of driving and wine tasting, so we were thrilled when we made it to the hostel. We were placed in a five bed dorm and selecting our bunks just as one of our roommates arrived. “Susie” (not her real name) was a non-traditional hostel visitor and a non-backpacker. In her 40s, she explained she was in town to see her daughter play netball, but as she was only able to come last minute, all the traditional hotels were booked and she decided to give the hostel a try. She was very friendly and chatty and we spoke a bit more before the three of us left the room and headed out to dinner.
We ended up at a café around the corner where we had a leisurely dinner. It was still early when we decided to return to the hostel, but since all of us were tired it made sense to make it an early night. All three of us curled up in front of the fireplace in the common room and read, with Star Wars: Episode Two playing in the background.
It couldn’t have been more than 10 p.m. when Rick and I went upstairs (Ed had gone up about 20 minutes earlier). Opening the door I could see our roommate Susie, jeans halfway down, struggling to keep from falling on her bed. I was about to suggest that Rick wait when I realized Ed was in the room and Susie could care less. We walked inside just as she fell backwards onto her bunk (thankfully, she had the bottom one). She continued to struggle with her pants while Rick made a quick escape to the bathroom. I stood there slightly confused as she made suggestions regarding who I should share a bed with that night. Just as I was about to make my own escape, Ed popped his head up from the top bunk and made a gesture of holding a bottle to his lips. Suddenly, the situation became clear.
In the bathroom I told Rick what Ed had communicated to me, just as two young guys walked in. “You two aren’t in room 12, are you?” one of them asked. When I said we were, they responded, “Oh man, sorry to hear that – you’re in the room with the lady who’s pissed.” They went on to tell us that she burst into their room an hour earlier, already drunk, and brought tons of alcohol with her. They drank with her for a while, but she became too much for them to deal with so they kicked her out – which is right about the time we got back to our room to find her struggling with her pants.
Just as I was leaving the bathroom, I heard a thump on one of the stalls and saw Susie, in her pajamas, stumbling through the bathroom. She was hardly able to walk, and I am amazed she was able to find her way this far from the room. I watched as she maneuvered herself around the bathroom and finally into one of the stalls.
Back in our room, Ed was giving Rick a play by play of what had happened before we arrived. Ed, in the bunk above Susie, had been feigning sleep and was thrilled when Rick and I first came upstairs.
A bang just outside the door indicated Susie was back from the bathroom. As she walked in she mumbled, “You can stop gossiping now.” We all looked at each other and were silent. Pausing in front of her bunk, she made a comment about all of her clothes being strewn about and started to pick them up. I suggested that she would have plenty of time to clean them up in the morning, worried she would bang her head on the bunk or the wall trying to collect her things. Satisfied with that suggestion, and happy to hear that I was setting my alarm for 8 a.m., her preferred wake up time as well, she either fell asleep or passed out – with only occasional snoring breaking the silence of the room.
The next morning, as we were getting ready to check out, Susie came into the room bright eyed and energetic, collected her things and cheerily said goodbye. There was no sign of a hangover, at least one I could detect, and it was as if the night before had not happened.
Walking to our car and still talking about the evening’s events, I turned to the guys and said, “Look at it this way – you’d NEVER have gotten an experience like this if you’d have stayed in a hotel.”