April 20, 2009 at 8:53 pm | Posted in not yet written, read this, wine | 5 Comments
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As some readers know, I traveled almost around the world from July 1999 through March 2000, armed only with an Arcteryx backpack. I have no pictures of that trip, only three journals, densely packed with my minuscule, typewriter-like handwriting. Someday I’ll get the nerve to look back at them and write something meaningful.

I don’t think of that trip either with frequency or urgency, but every now and again I’m pulled back. For example, just this past weekend, Little Bug and I were taking an early Saturday morning walk. Believe it or not, among the boutiques on Newbury is a Buddhist gift shop called Prem-La, and swinging over the door is a big sign with the “Buddha’s Eyes.”

“Owl? Owl!” pointed Buggy at the sign.
See, they do kind of look like owls’ eyes (isn’t my baby smart?). I don’t think I had ever really noticed that store before other than to perhaps note the Tibetan prayer flags out of the corner of my eye and wonder in passing how on earth a store like that stayed in business. But, now, those Buddha’s eyes immediately (I’m not being dramatic — the connection was intense) transported me to the wondrous and yet frightening three weeks I spent in Nepal, subsisting on garlic soup (for the altitude sickness) and staggering up some 18,000 feet to cross Thorung-La on the Annapurna circuit. Those eyes were all over Nepal — on stupas, homes, t-shirts — and were utterly otherworldly, mesmerizing to me then.

And then, tonight I stumbled upon this Times article on the revamping of European backpackers’ hostels into something a bit more upscale than the stereotype. Oh, but how I lived the stereotype for the first four months of that journey as I traipsed across Europe — in the first hostel I ever stayed in, in Amsterdam, where I was almost too tall for the stairwell and was almost electrocuted by a shower head that inexplicably shared space with the overhead lightbulb. Or at the hostel in Normandy filled with happy Brits and lots of very cheap, very good French wine, which was drunk into the 10 p.m. summer dusk as we relived the day’s tour of the D-Day beaches. Or the hostel in Sevilla, smelling like cat pee, and next door to potentially the best bar in the world, La Carboneria, where a group of Australians tried to recruit me to help them drive their ambulance across Europe (for real). Further east, the only bus or train out of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic left at 9 a.m., so travelers at the Australian-run hostel ended up staying days, weeks, or months past their intended departure because the amount of (real) absinthe consumed often made it hard to get out of the hard, wooden bunk beds before noon. (On my first night there I heard a distinct “thud” from one of the common bunk rooms. “What was that?” I asked another guest. “Oh, it must have been one of the Australians falling out of the top bunk again.”) One of my favorite hostels was the Mountain Hostel in Grindlewald, in the Bernese Oberland of Switzerland, in the shadow of the Eiger, where dinner was an almost cliched combination of cheese, chocolate, and French bread and the duvets soft and clean. One of the worst was in Budapest and was called, simply, “Back Pack Hostel.” Here, travelers slept on mattresses on the floor, seven or eight to a room. My room was in a musty basement, and I distinctly remember waking up in the middle of the night to see a random dog skulking around the floor (ugh!). (Check out the website if you have time — the pictures say it all…)

The Times article describes hostels filled with wi-fi, internet access, bars, and private baths. That sounds nice. The article, however, also had pictures of the hostels’ common rooms — much nicer than the ones I remembered — but what really affected me (and inspired this post) were the travelers themselves,  pictured relaxing over foosball, a cafe table, a drink. More likely than not, they had met only hours earlier. More likely than not they would head out together that evening for drinks and would stay up very late, sharing stories and perhaps shots of absinthe (take a teaspoon full of sugar, dip it in the absinthe, and then light it on fire; the sugar will liquify, then stir it back into the absinthe to cut the bitterness). They might even travel together for a few days, as I ended up doing with the aforementioned Australian ambulance drivers (we re-met in Tangier while waiting for a train to Marrakesh; re-meeting the same group of crazy Australians is not as random as it sounds). 

These pictures made me nostalgic — achingly so — for such spontaneous moments of camaraderie. I’ll never travel avec backpack again — I don’t particularly want to — but I also realize with certainty that neither will I stagger off an overnight train and explore the cobblestones of a new city at dawn. I actually would like to do that again, just as I’d like to drink cheap Italian (French, Spanish) wine outside, maybe gazing up at some European church steeples or some Alps, with strangers/new friends until the light fades away.


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  1. Wow. Yes, I am with you. The weather today reminded me of the early spring in Prague when I was commuting to work on the tram. I went through Wenceslas Square and took a “mental snapshot” telling myself to remember this as later in my life this would be a unique moment to look back to. It saddens me sometimes how “compartmentalized” my experiences are–no continuity between that and now, which just makes it seem all the more distant…

  2. I traveled with one of my triplet sisters for 6 weeks through Western Europe and we love reminiscing about our travels. I’m beyond impressed you did so alone. And don’t worry about the photos, all of mine from Argentina (where I did a 5 months study abroad) are in a box not labeled. In fact I don’t even know where the box is. I think if I traveled today I’d do blogging with photos to help remember it by. Instead I carried real film…:)

  3. I should probably clarify that, while I use the pronoun “I” throughout, I wasn’t traveling solo.

  4. I stayed at the mountain hostel! Museli for breakfast, warm beds, sledding down the mountains. It’s the prospect for novelty (personal, unshared novelty that doesn’t include an extra 30 pounds on your hip) that I miss. Not miss, mourn. Mourning is healthy though, it makes you appreciate what you got in return for what you gave up that much more.

  5. And on the same topic, with a French twist to boot:

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