Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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The Road

Posted on 10/8/03

I have been on the road for almost four months now. Many things have caught my attention and I have documented these things, at great length in some cases, but there are numerous ongoing issues that go hand-in-hand with constant traveling and living out of two extremely heavy bags for long periods of time and rather than mention these details in every essay, I’ve decided to get them all out here in one massive piece of therapy. I was inspired to write this piece by a song from Tenacious D, entitled “The Road” where Jack Black waxes about the woes of high speed touring, meeting people, leaving after two days, meeting more people, etc, etc… This is the exact sensation that I have been going through, except with less groupies.

To start, there’s the total lack of privacy and familiarity with your surroundings to keep you on your toes. I have had a few cherished private rooms which have been massively helpful in keeping me sane and allowing me the chance to unpack all of my crap and fling it around the room without having to worry about other people stepping on, using or finding some way to involve my belongings in late night drinking games. Aside from these precious few moments, out of consideration for my roommates and for the eventuality that I might need to make a quick exit, I pretty much keep everything packed away nice and neat.

Lately there has been the almost daily bout of confusion as to exactly where and when I am. When you visit as many cities as I have in such a relatively short period of time, it becomes alarmingly and sometimes hilariously difficult to remember what city you’re in at any given moment. This uncertainty can rear its head day, night, drunk or sober. I have had to actually stop in my tracks and think hard about where I am while I’m awake, alert and walking the streets of a city. Waking up in the middle of the night and trying to figure out where I am and what’s going on in the dim light of a strange hostel room is infinitely more discombobulating. I have tried to train myself to just roll over and go back to sleep without getting too bent out of shape about my current whereabouts, but logic and common sense don’t always prevail at 4:30 in the morning after a whole bottle of red wine.

Only slightly less embarrassing is the inability to figure out the day or the date in short order. The date isn’t as much of a problem. If someone asks me for the date, I can just whip out my trusty Timeport and read it off the main menu page. Unfortunately, the people at Motorola didn’t see fit to include the actual day of the week on the date/time display in the upper right corner. You have to go through the time consuming calendar function to find this information. This may sound ridiculous, but when you don’t have a job or a schedule to stick to and for all intents and purposes every day is a Saturday, after a few months you lose track of where exactly you are in the week. Sometimes you inadvertently get oriented to the day of the week when you walk out the front door of your hostel and find everything closed. In these cases, you know it’s Sunday. Otherwise you don’t have any regular indication as what day it is and quite frankly, it rarely matters.

Probably more than anything, I have been impressed and frightened by the total weirdos that I have run across along the way. The great majority of the travelers that I have met are your run-of-the-mill long-term backpackers or people zipping through Europe on brief vacations of two to four weeks. But at least one time in every city you meet a serious freak that makes you take pause while you try to wrap your mind around the smaller but nevertheless perceptible cookie presence on the backpacker circuit. Where do these people come from? How do they get the funds to travel extensively and more importantly how do they get the wits together to prepare and embark on these trips? I have been on three lengthy treks through Europe and the time, energy and organization required to get things prepared for the trip, nevermind the task of putting your affairs in order in your home country in lieu of being unreachable for months at a time, can be a full time job. I have spent weeks and sometimes months getting these chores done and even in top form it ain’t easy. So how do these cookies do it? Whatever. All I know is that when they lurch into my hostel room, they become my problem for anywhere from 24 to 72 hours and I have better things to worry about.

Most recently, I was rooming with an Asian woman in Madrid. We shared a room (with several others, mind you) for two nights. Each night she had a ritual repacking process that she would perform. The woman had everything she owned packed into countless zip-lock plastic bags. Sometimes, if the item was important enough, she had it incased in two plastic bags. The repacking would take anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes. Toiletries in one bag, socks in another bag, underwear in another bag, dirty underwear inside two bags. I often tried to work during this textbook display of obsessive/compulsive nirvana, but her ritual was impossible to ignore. Trying to focus past this unpacking, repacking, unbagging, rebagging, stuffing, and the constant crinkle of plastic was like trying to overlook live, sado-masochist gorilla sex.

These people are memorable, bizarre and, on occasion, have forced me to change rooms, like the guy in Maastricht, The Netherlands. According to the desk staff, this Australian guy had pretty much taken up permanent residence at this remote hostel. He was not your typical backpacker. First of all, he didn’t have a backpack. Also, he was very heavy. Easily over 300 pounds. He rarely left the hostel. He would help himself to plates and plates of food from the breakfast buffet that was included in the price of the bed and would surreptitiously prepare himself a lunch and a late afternoon snack from his plunder. On it’s own, this behavior would have been tolerable weirdness, but things got much worse at night. This bastard snored like a triceratops with a deviated septum. Once in a while he would go quiet for a moment and then erupt with one of those near-suffocation, ear-splitting snorts and then fall right back into his rhythm. There were seven of us in the room with him. Two of the guys, having spent the previous torturous night with this cookie, had prepared for the evening by drinking themselves into a hopeless stupor and therefore managed to find sweet slumber in the ensuing coma. The rest of us had nothing for defense. I stuffed my ordinarily ample earplugs into my head far enough to touch brain. These babies had gotten me through the worst possible noise situations including the room that I slept in for a week in Copenhagen that housed 80 people, but they were useless against the lung shaking, bass vibrations created by this man. Several of us tried various tactics to wake the guy up and stop the onslaught of noise. Whistling, hissing, shouting and kicking his bed only succeeded in interrupting the racket for about seven seconds before he found his groove again. One guy finally conceded defeat at about 3:00AM and went out to spend the rest of the night in his car. The next morning I immediately moved to a different room on the other side of the building.

Only slightly less frightening than the cookies are the hopeless alcoholics. These people are traveling Europe under the guise of exploring the continent, but it’s really just one long bar crawl. Fortunately, I missed the worst of these cases by one day in Munich, but my thoroughly shaken up roommates told me all about her. A huge Aussie woman traveling solo was in my bed the previous night. Apparently she seemed normal and pleasant through all encounters during the day, but then at about 10:00 that night she announced that she was going down to the bar to have “a few beers.” My roommates didn’t think much of it until about 2:00AM, when she staggered in piss drunk. This woman was reportedly about 6’-2” and well over 200 pounds, so there must have been several dozen beers involved in the effort to get this messed up. Her roommates, a nice couple from Boston on their first trip to Europe, were bug-eyed awake after the commotion of her entry. After a few moments of drunken contemplation, swaying dangerously next to her bed, the woman stripped buck naked and reeled over to the in-room shower (it’s fairly common in some parts of Europe to have a shower and sink in the room, but no toilet), stepped in and closed the curtain. After a few seconds of silence they heard a small trickle. Having not used the shower yet, they initially assumed that the water pressure in the room was pitifully weak. A minute later the trickle stopped and the woman climbed out of the shower and got into bed. It was only then that the couple simultaneously realized that there was nothing wrong with the water pressure in their shower.

The next morning the Aussie woke up, stunned to find herself sleeping naked. She got up, dressed quickly, grabbed her bags and left without a word, too embarrassed to even look at her roommates.

The most annoying person that you can get hooked up with is the hopeless cheapskate. These people are harder to identify right off the bat. They can seem normal and well adjusted while just sitting around chatting in the hostel, but god help you if you get stuck touring the city with them during the day. This is a person who will think nothing of walking an extra mile to buy a bottle of water that’s 20 cents cheaper. If the price of something changes from the price on the label to the grand total on the purchase, like when the tax is added for example, a difference of pennies in most cases, they immediately assume that the proprietor is trying to rip them off somehow and storm out of the store. The worst part is trying to eat with them. Any meal over a dollar is too extravagant. They will inevitably insist on going to the grocery store and buying the cheapest bread they can find and if they feel like splurging, they might buy something to put on the bread and then eat out on the sidewalk like a transient.

My last and favorite character was Mr. Disaster-Waiting-to-Happen. Whatever could conceivably go wrong on the road, it had happened to this guy. He’d been robbed at knife point. He’d lost his passport. He’d lost his credit card. Had his debit card spontaneously stop functioning and he subsequently had to live for weeks without a money source, because every supposed effort that he had made to get money or new cards had failed. At first we pitied this guy because it just seemed as if he had had one ungodly string of bad luck. But as he expounded on these stories, it became clear that he was all but inviting these misfortunes. The knife-point mugging happened as he was spending the night in a park in one of Madrid’s worst neighborhoods during one of his numerous droughts of cash-flow. The debit card stopped working only after he had washed it three times! His passport inexplicably disappeared when he left it totally unattended on the beach during a 30 minute swim in the ocean. There’s a difference between bad luck and a complete lack of common sense and this guy just didn’t see the connection, even after several of us tried to gently break it to him that perhaps just a little more forethought could have probably prevented just about all of his calamities. Near the end, I started to suspect that he was an attention-starved, pathological liar and perhaps most of these things never even happened. He clearly just wanted to keep talking and be the focus of the social circle. I noticed after about two hours that this man talked incessantly and if someone else would try to contribute or if the subject suddenly changed during the rare moments that he stopped to take a breath, he would quickly recover, take over and launch into a yet another story, wrought with nonsensical tangents and seemingly without an ending. The others caught on to these tactics as well, because eventually people started cutting off into smaller, sidebar conversations until the only one left listening to Mr. DWTH was a hopelessly stoned chick that was still hilariously hanging onto his every word.

One of the more unpleasant parts of staying in hostels is that every once in a while you get a couple who feel the need to, er, “make the beast with two backs,” several times a day. This is especially offensive to me, mostly because I haven’t gotten any in so long. Usually these couples try to be quiet, but hostel walls tend to be thin and the rhythmic pounding of the bed frame (or possibly the back of someone’s head) against the wall that you share with the lucky couple is a dead giveaway. For some reason, if the couple is not overly concerned with the noise, it always seems to be the female who is the most vocal. Talking (“Oh my God, oh my God...!), encouragement (“You are soooo hard!”) and breathless moans and grunts (“Uhh! Uuuuuhhhh!”) are fairly common and I don’t even want to go into the moment of climax. Oh all right, I’ll go into it, you perverts! Roughly paraphrased; “Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! Ohh!!! Oooohhh!!! OoooooohhhhhaaaaaaaeeeeeeeuuuuuhhhhhOOOOO-MY-GOD!!!” I should really be writing for Penthouse, shouldn’t I?

Finally, there is the small matter of meeting people on the road every day and repeating your story for the 10 jillionth time. You see, every time you meet another backpacker, you basically go through the same gamut of questions and answers with each other, which are, in no particular order:

· Where are you from?
· How long have you been traveling?
· How much longer will you be traveling?
· Where did you just come from?
· Where are you going next?
· What are you studying? (This is usually the point when my young guy cover is blown)
· What other countries have you visited?
· Do you know where I can buy some weed?
· Why are you traveling with a laptop? (Obviously this one is me-specific, because
no one else is crazy enough to do what I’m doing. This is also the longest answer I have to cough up. I’ve got the whole speech totally memorized, honed and timed, even down to the pauses to let laughter from the punch lines die down.)

Depending on how social your day is, you may have to field these same questions anywhere from one to 10 times a day. It’s gets tedious to say the least. I think backpackers should be required to fill out a detailed questionnaire and pack 200 copies of their responses before departing on their trip so that we can all just exchange information sheets upon arrival at each hostel. We can read all about each other, so precious social time isn’t wasted on getting to know a clueless, homophobic, stoner, dillhole. Just like with internet dating, you can see all of someone’s stats before you even say ‘hello’ and make an informed decision on whether or not to invite them out to dinner with you. This approach would save us all an assload of time and, more importantly, signal to me who is single and available and who is foolishly trying to hold onto a long distance relationship with their boyfriend for the 18 months that she’ll be away from home and can’t shut the hell up about the guy and how he doesn’t write enough and what he said that pissed her off in his last email and how he might be fooling around with his ex-girlfriend. This is all hypothetical, of course.

Well, there’s ton of other shit that I have to deal with on a regular basis, but I’m sure you have better things to do than read about my various roommates with alarming gastro-intestinal problems, etc. I hope I’ve succeeded in shedding yet more light onto the world of European backpacking. Needless to say, it’s a non-stop parade of wonders, fun, occasional unpleasantness and whackos and if it was anything less, I probably wouldn’t be here.


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