Brisbane at three in the morning. I’ve been asleep a few hours, having booked into a backpacker hostel for the first time ever in my life. It’s already been an interesting experience. I’d walked into the room and nearly laughed at the cliché of it all – four bunk beds hidden somewhere behind a confusion of creased up clothes, battered rucksacks and draped towels, the latter the only concession to organisation. And the smell… It’s like being in Halls at university again, but worse. At least you had your own room there.
But anyway, at three in the morning myself, the grumpy Frenchman, the friendly Swede and the quiet, unassuming Asian guy (this is a world where all clichés are reality) are all woken up by two Englishmen crashing into the room and turning the light on. They slur apologies but fail to rectify their gaffe. Instead they start shouting at each other and us, possibly in a vague attempt to enlist us in their party mood. It doesn’t work. Eventually they crash out of the room again, forgetting to turn the light off as they go. Frenchman turns to Swede next to him and says, “Fucking English.” Despite myself, I believe he may have a point.
This was my first experience of hostel life; it wasn’t to be my last.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and criticise the hostelling experience, on the contrary, I’ve never had so much fun in my life. At any other time I might have found this annoying, but as a backpacker who hasn’t got to get up for work in the morning I found this amusing, slightly embarrassing that the French had got one up on us, but so unimportant that I fell straight back to sleep.
You need a sense of humour to stay in a backpacker hostel. They are full of a myriad of different people, all of different nationalities, ages and backgrounds, but all with one common goal – to have the best time they have ever had.
Plus you need that sense of humour because there is no such thing as five dollar rooms on the Australia and New Zealand leg of a backpacker’s journey. If you’re on a budget then sharing a room with seven other backpackers (they can be the opposite sex, you do get mixed rooms) is pretty much your only option.
Sharing is what it’s all about. You share your bedroom, a bathroom, a TV room, and the kitchen, where everyone helps each other out with ingredients as well. Forgot to buy some milk? No problem. But the real way to make friends is by sharing your goon.
It may sound like a sexual analogy, but goon, in Australia, is actually the more innocent (but only slightly) boxed white wine you can get from any good ‘bottle-o’, or bottle shop. That’s an off-license to us. The name goon came from the Australian habit of shortening words to one syllable wherever possible, in this case the word flagon - the large bottle that was used before flasks.
Goon is the staple diet in hostels, usually drunk out of the mugs found in the kitchen - wine glasses wouldn’t last five minutes in a hostel, quite frankly. And much as drinking does at university, goon works as an excellent social tool.
Of course it’s not as civilised as just sitting round a table sipping delicately out of your mug and appreciating the bouquet. No, goon requires drinking games for people to truly appreciate its (lack of) subtleties. One particularly memorable (and ridiculous) one I experienced was the bag of wine being taken out of its box and being passed around the table. Each person had to slap the bag as loudly as they could (it really does sound like a hand on skin) and then drink some goon. How much depended on the volume of your slap – the quieter it was, the more you had to drink.
Whether this beats wine-tasting in the Hunter Valley as an Australian cultural experience is down to the individual, of course, but it’s certainly a quicker way of making new friends. And sometimes you really do need friends in a hostel. They’re good to have around when, as is the way with hostel life, you’re hit with the unexpected.
Take for example the time when, during my tenure in a Sydney hostel, the guy on reception allowed a homeless drunk to stay in our room. He’d shown up with a plastic bag rather than a backpack, and yet here he was in our room, chewing my ear off about “fuckin’ Poms” (until he realised I was one) and how no one in the world listens to the Australians, just the Americans and the British.
He may have been making a good point, but it was difficult to discern through the slurring and the stench of booze. After he pushed a German guy out of his bed, then pissed on his trainers we decided some action needed to be taken and the police were called.
And what did we do while we were waiting? Cracked open the goon of course.