Archive for the ‘Ireland’ Category

Memoirs of a Novice Backpacker

January 18, 2011 2 comments
Irish Castle Ruins

One of the more well-maintained backpacker hostels in Europe

Staying in a hostel dorm room is an experience quite unlike anything else. Unless you join the army or get evacuated to the local football stadium during a hurricane, It’s unlikely you’ll ever find yourself crammed into a bedroom with a dozen or more total strangers. Okay, some people might, but generally for reasons it’s best we don’t go into here (there are plenty of other websites catering for that sort of thing, if you’re so inclined).

Personally, while I appreciate the opportunity to meet and socialise with fellow backpackers, I also enjoy spending the night in places that are comfortable, quiet and free of people annoying the hell out of me while I’m trying to sleep – all things a hostel dorm room is generally not. Consequently, I was a little uneasy prior to my first ever night of communal bunking.

In an attempt to initiate myself into this brave new world of low-budget travel as painlessly as possible, I suggested to my travelling companion that we book our beds in advance; this way we would only need to concern ourselves with actually staying in a dorm room, not trudging around all day with our heavy packs trying to find one at short notice as well.

My companion, however – an experienced traveller with a distinct preference for making her plans on the fly – obviously felt this was just the cautious approach of a novice traveller and dismissed it as unnecessary. I wasn’t quite so confident this was the case, but as, a) I’d spent a total of approximately six days outside Australia at this point, and, b) it was the middle of winter (not exactly tourist season in our chosen destination of Cork, Ireland), I decided to go along with her advice. After all, what did I know.

Unfortunately, it turned out there was one very important thing neither of us knew, which was that the day we had chosen to begin our trip was also the day several thousand rugby union fans would descend upon the city for a major international. Consequently, I arrived at Cork airport to find my companion in somewhat of a fluster after having spent her entire afternoon ringing every hostel in the city, desperately trying to find two available beds.

Now, this was precisely the type of problem I had been hoping to avoid when I suggested we book in advance, but given her agitated state, I felt it was probably not going to help the situation by mentioning it…especially as, just before I arrived, the final hostel on her rather lengthy list had said they did have a couple of available beds and would hold them for us if we came down immediately. Therefore, rather than dwelling on the fact that our European tour had come perilously close to turning into an impromptu camping trip, we grabbed our packs and set off rapidly through the winding streets of Cork.

It was while making this short trip that I allowed myself, perhaps a little naively, to believe my first foray into the world of backpacking would actually be relatively uncomplicated. Although there had been an initial, very minor hiccup, I now had a place to spend the night – with no work whatsoever on my part – and life was generally looking good. This feeling lasted for all of about ten minutes however, as it became apparent when we reached the hostel that things would not be nearly as simple as we had hoped.

According to the slightly embarrassed guy at reception, the helpful gentleman who had assured us there were beds available was not actually one of the hostel staff, but rather an exceptionally inebriated guest who had somehow managed to get hold of the phone when no-one else was looking. Apparently, this unauthorised phone-answerer had absolutely no idea about the hostel’s current vacancy situation, but thought he was being helpful by providing us with the answer we most wanted to hear. In reality, the place was completely booked out – just like everywhere else in the city – and our last chance of spending the night indoors was now seemingly gone.

With darkness falling rapidly and the temperature quickly moving in the same direction, I suggested the inconvenience caused by their rather ordinary supervisory abilities should at least be worth an overnight stay in the hostel lounge, which I could see was unoccupied and contained a number of vaguely comfortable-looking couches. Surprisingly, the receptionist had no problem with this, but suggested it may not be all that desirable, considering immediately after answering our phone call, the aforementioned inebriated guest had retired there and, without warning, projectile-vomited the contents of his stomach across the entire room. It had been thoroughly cleaned he assured us, but was still, unfortunately, somewhat on the nose. Giving us the opportunity to make up our own minds though, he offered to take us in for a closer look (or, more accurately, a closer smell) and we promptly accepted, optimistically thinking, “how bad could it be?”. The answer to that, we soon found out, was “very”.

Upon entering the room in question, the horrific stench of stale, regurgitated Guiness made it immediately apparent that, without the aid of a scuba tank, there was no way we would be able to make it through even a few minutes in there, let alone an entire night. Staggering out, we gasped for breath, and stood deflated in the reception area…now left with a total of precisely zero options as far as places to spend the night were concerned.

Sensing that we were at somewhat of a loss, the receptionist thought for a moment, then hesitantly mentioned that they did actually have one bed that wasn’t booked, but it had been classed by the hostel management as “temporarily unavailable”. Our ears pricked up slightly, and we waited to hear the horror story behind precisely what had led to a normally usable bed being given such a cryptic (and, admittedly, slightly disturbing) label. Realising we were obviously expecting another tale involving the sudden, mass evacuation of bodily fluids, he quickly assured us that it wasn’t anywhere near as scary as the aforementioned incident in the lounge room. There were only two problems that he could see: One, it was a single bed and, quite clearly, there were two of us and, two, the bed had no mattress because it was being cleaned.

Now, exactly what had gone on in the bed to require the entire matress being removed for cleaning wasn’t mentioned and we decided it was best not to ask. At this point, even the thought of sleeping on the floor seemed good, so we agreed to go and have a look; an overcrowded single bed with no mattress still sounded preferable to our next best option, which was sleeping on a park bench in the middle of an Irish winter.

Following him up the stairs, we entered a large dorm room and, sure enough, there was one empty bunk which was, quite literally, just a worn wire frame with no mattress. It didn’t look even remotely appealing, but as there wasn’t exactly much in the way of alternatives, we agreed to take it at a reduced rate (saving a couple of Euros seemed like a small victory at this point). We figured that, with two sleeping bags, plus a few towels and jumpers, there might at least be a vague possibility of us improvising something that resembled a real bed.

So, improvise is what we did, and after a considerable amount of Macgyvering (not to mention the substantial redeployment of much of our luggage), we found ourselves with a vaguely tolerable – albeit exceptionally crowded – place to spend the night.

Now, prior to coming on this trip, I knew that European hostels weren’t known for their luxury conditions; crowded, uncomfortable rooms were part of the experience and I accepted that. I would never have believed you, however, had you told me beforehand that my introduction to backpacking would involve two people crammed into a single bed with no mattress.

Not surprisingly, I now always book my accomodation in advance.

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