THAILAND -- All you folk of the backpacker nation heading out of North America to sample the delights of the vast world beyond, take a leaf from a planet-weary budget traveller and watch where you lay your head.
After 10 years of earth-roaming in 70 countries, I have come to the conclusion that young explorers are a despised lot and mere exploitation material for one of the biggest rip-offs in travelling -- youth hostels.
I thought of all this last week when 15 backpackers died in a hostel fire in Childers, Australia, near Brisbane. Police say arson is suspected, possibly the work of an aggrieved fruit picker, one of many who shared the premises of Palace Backpackers with travellers.
While Gary Barwick, investigator for the Brisbane fire department, says the Palace was "set up reasonably well" and that he "does not want to be quoted as saying the place was a fire trap," one wonders if a drifter with a grudge would have been able to burn so many guests to death at the Ramada Inn.
When Muslim extremists abduct yuppies on a diving holiday in Malaysia, international diplomats get involved. But when backpackers die in a youth hostel, few question the travel industry's exploitation of young people's ideals of communal living.
Days after the tragedy in Childers, the management of Palace Backpackers is still unavailable for comment. At Youth Hostels of Australia, a wing of the International Youth Hostelling Federation, an organization that enforces standards on its members, spokesperson Rols Duelks points out that their establishments are very different from the Childers hostel. "We have very, very stringent safety measures and controls in all our hostels worldwide.'
In general, however, youth hostels and similar guest houses make a killing off young travellers. Bed bugs, lice, scabies, blood-stained mattresses, cockroaches, mosquitoes, filthy toilets and thieving staff are all part of the allure of budget travel.
The longer one travels, the weirder the hostel and budget youth-guest-house scene gets. Unprotected by the hotel security, chauffeurs, tour guides and local business and diplomatic connections of the wealthy, shoestring adventurers are preyed upon by scammers, muggers, whores and horrors. Here are a few memories:
Bangkok, Thailand -- At the P.K. Guest House (price about 250 baht, or $10 Canadian), the manager was in cahoots with an outsider who broke into my room, with a key, and stole my wallet. I caught them and got the motorcycle taxi drivers outside to call in the police, who dragged the two to the station.
Kota, Bahru, Malaysia -- My money belt and passport were stolen on the beach because the guest house had no safety deposit box.
Nairobi, Kenya -- I acquired giardia from filthy guest-house water.
Mazaar Al Sharif, Afghanistan -- I was detained on suspicion of spying and put under a form of house arrest for a week while staying at a budget guest house.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil -- A guest-house blanket gave me scabies.
Sydney, Australia -- The Lamrock Lodge in Sydney has rude staff who are persistently annoyed by their clientele. A sign at reception reads, "Limit: one question per guest per day."
Mean owners The fact that these kinds of accommodations are cheaper than regular hotels, doesn't mean owners aren't making big bucks. The hostel on Jericho Beach in Vancouver, BC, one of the world's best, can make around $200 per room if 12 stay at a rate of $16 per night. The dorm-style rooms require no investment in the air conditioning, cable, bathrooms or fresh mattresses expected in proper hotels.
The Young Women's Christian Association in Singapore charges $45 Canadian for a dorm bed and $110 for a single room. In Singapore, hostels charge between $14 and $22 per night to sleep on a back-wrenching bunk bed in a stuffy room.
Meanwhile, fancier hotels catering to yuppies, vacationers and package tourists often earn less on similar-size rooms. Hotels must provide services and creature comforts in order to be rated by industry regulators. Older folks expect and receive cushy treatment, while youth expect and receive dirt-box cockroach palaces.
It's not due to dodgy management alone. On a shrinking planet, backpackers are increasingly treated badly. Thai xenophobes dis backpackers for wearing T-shirts and shorts and smelling unsoapy, and call them farang ki-nok -- "birdshit foreigner." Foreign workers in China label them LDTs -- Loser Dropout Travellers. Sydney residents complain of backpackers "taking over" the trendy Bondi Beach area.
There's a stereotype that backpackers are stinky, trashy cheapskates contributing little to the local culture on their narcissistic sojourns. Bollocks. According to Australian government statistics, 400,000 backpackers (about 10 per cent of all visitors) stayed an average of 66 days in 1999 and spent 4,245 Oz dollars, about double the amount spent by other tourists.
So much for the stingy myth.
Local markets While older, wealthier travellers tend to spend their money with Hilton, backpackers give their money to family-run businesses. They buy food at local markets, albeit at rip-off rates.
In exchange for their contributions to local economies, backpackers are rewarded with near-death experiences. Here are some more entries from my diary.
Nairobi, Kenya -- Mugged at gunpoint, I was beaten by six men and strangled until unconscious.
Romania -- I awoke after being drugged on a train by thieves stealing the watch from a fellow Japanese traveller.
Tokyo, Japan -- I was detained by police after finding a bicycle stolen by a previous tenant of a guest house
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil -- Three joggers mugged me at knifepoint on the beach and took my wallet.
Research assistance by Tabassum Siddiqui