The International Writers Magazine:
Nights at the YHA
Rich Cooper in Australia
wedged open the door with a chair. It was dark and we needed to
get some light into the room without rudely having to turn the light
on. Actually the room stank and we were trying to get some fresh
air into the flagging living area.
It smelt of a combination
nappies, B.O, sweat and a whiff of sewage just like that emitted from
the sewage pipes on Southend beach. We had gone into the room at 10am
that morning. We complained. They sent in the cleaners with 'heavy duty'
cleaning materials to alleviate the problem. They made it worse. It
was like going into a bathroom after a paranoid person had finished
their session and proceeded to spray the entire contents of their 'Rose'
air frenshener to 'cover' the smell. Just like spraying your trainers
with a canister of Lynx. The stuff does'nt work, it just makes it worse
and I know I'll smell your feet again. The next time I see someone going
for the 'Vanilla air freshener' I'll tap them on the shoulder and tell
them to turn on the shower on full heat for five minutes. The steam
works wonders especially if you coordinate it with some door fanning.
"You can come and stay in our room if you like" suggested
the two girls sitting outside our dorm. Never had I welcomed such a
bed smell in my life. The bag keeping the door open had proved to be
our downfall. Just like prodding a spiders web with a piece of stick
when you were younger the inevitable happened. Out of nowhere a middle
aged short dressing green t-shirted man arrived before us. He had come
from nowhere. "What you guys doing with the door wedged open?"
he challenged. "It stinks in there, we are trying to some air in
there" we protested. "Na, let me see for myself". He
marched in and without thought turned on the lights and shouted "Struth,
smells like a garbo in here, you say the cleaners came in this sarvo,
well strike me pink". He was not amused. "Which one of yous
mongrels made this smell, what yous been up to". He examined us
like a carpet stain. His teacher like questioning made us respond in
a pupil like fashion. "He was him". We pointed towards an
aging man slumped across his bed. We did not know it was him. He was
an easy target. He was asleep. Just because he acted strangely, looked
a bit strange and spoke in a strange manner it did not mean he smelt
funny. There was time for guilt later. "Can we move into the room
next door" we enquired. "NO, that is a girls dorm" he
countered. "Really?" we replied, trying to act as if we did
not know. "You can have 35, I'll let you in tonight and you can
sort it out with reception tomorrow". As he walked off he turned
back and pointed "And no going in 34, its a GIRLS dorm".
The manner of the night porter summed up the YHA perfectly. The 'Y'
stands for youth I know but it was as if your parents had sent you away
to stay with aunt Betty and in the process wanted a regular update of
your behaviour. The same night porter had called the police twice the
previous night. Was there a fight? Maybe it was attempted robbery? Could
there have been a madman on the prowl? No the girl next door had come
back with a nice young fellow and had attempted to enter the hostel
at 3am. I knew it said 'No Guests beyond this point at the door but
every other hostel said that. Every night we would come in and every
night in the corner of our eye would be the night porter.
The way in which the night porter ran the establishment after 10pm was
very much the same way the cleaners ran the kitchen after 8am. At 10:35am
twelve people and I were happily cooking and washing in the kitchen
when three cleaners stormed in. "Ok out everyone, we need to clean
the kitchen". The poor Japanese girl in the corner was so scared
she left her packet of noodles on the boil and ran out of the kitchen.
I have to admit these cleaners were slightly scary. Scary in the way
that they were bigger than you in both length and diameter, could speak
for five people and were groomed, well not groomed at all. "Make
sure you label you bags with your name, your room number and the date
you are leaving" one boomed. "We WILL throw your food out.
We have a process that works and we suggest you conform to our process
if you don't want to go hungry" she added. There were fourteen
large fridges. For every day of the week there were two, clearly marked
'Tuesday' or 'Wednesday'. The 'Tuesday fridge' would be cleared out
on Tuesday and the Wednesday fridge, well that would be cleaned out
on Wednesday. That was their specially formulated 'system'.
The YHA kitchen was similar to most other YHA kitchens. It actually
looked and felt like a kitchen unlike some other student house type
kitchens in other hostels. It actually had a uniform number of knives
and forks unlike the fifteen forks and one knives at other hostel kitchens.
It had more than one plate, a instant hot water tap for tea or coffee
and a rather grand clean looking steel work top area. Even having cutlery
was a bonus. At some hostels you have to 'hire' cutlery, forfeit a dollar
and put the other nine down as a deposit. In return you got a plate,
knive, fork and spoon, a cup if you were lucky but best of all it came
in a plastic container just like a school lunchbox. No fork back, no
deposit back! Somehow I don't think I will manage to lose that fork
making cheese on toast. At the same time it was just like any other
hostel kitchen. There was a cupboard labeled 'Left for guests to use'.
This was basically a cupboard full of things other people simply did'nt
want or had tasted and then realised they did'nt want it. You could
hardly create a meal from the unwanted cupboard contents of powdered
milk, half a packet of sultanas and a bit of nutmeg. Even the 'Ready
Steady Cook' chefs would have their work cut out. Anyhow even if there
was something in there of use like salt or pepper you felt like you
were going through someone else's rubbish bag in their home. The kitchen
seemed to be full. All the time. Part of the reason for this was this
'Youth' hostel Association venue attracted a lot of elderly people.
When you get to a certain age cooking seems to be the only joy left
in life for some. Some were cooking roasts, others were preparing five
course meals for themselves and Bob. There were lots of Japanese people
cooking. Well boiling noodles. We found a three foot area to prepare
our beans on toast.
When you take a plate from a hostel kitchen you always inspect it. You
inspect it for any obvious sign of crusted food left over from Steve's
lasagna before you or Kate's Bolognese before that. Then you wash the
plate. Somehow you just can't trust that the person before you has washed
the plate to your high standards. If they were washing that plate for
themselves you felt sure that they would give it that little bit more
cloth action or use washing up liquid instead of some luke warm water.
You would also think they they would have used a tea towel instead of
their t-shirt to dry the plate. If they dried it at all. After finishing
our gourmet beans on toast meal I went to wash my plate, knife and fork.
As I was drying the knife with my t-shirt after quickly shoving it under
a cold tap I was thinking 'Na that will be alright, I won't be using
this kitchen until next week so I won't have to use that knife again'.
So the night porter was a jobsworth and the kitchen staff were scary.
So what. "Housekeeping!". It was twenty past nine. Unlike
most other hostels where the cleaners had the common sense to wait until
after ten these came in at the earliest opportunity. "Ah look at
all these sleeping boys, they must have had a late night" one plump
cleaner said to another even plumper one. Of course we were in bed.
It was nine thirty. It was if their sole purpose was to wake everyone
up in the room because they were wasting their day. It was the sort
of tactic your parents employed when you slept in past eleven on a Saturday
morning. Like your parents they opened all the curtains, turned on the
vacuum and spoke at the top of their voices to each other. Unlike my
parents they did not try and wake you from your slumber with a cup of
tea - more of a good tactic than a good gesture. It never worked anyway
- I would fall asleep with it in my hand. It never ceased to amaze me
- I could roll over but my arm would still be straight with the tea
in my hand. I never spilt a drop in ten years.
"Struth it's cold out there boys" one shouted. We knew it
was cold, that was why were in bed. "Bet it gets colder down in
Brissie though, na could never live down there" she added. We thought
she meant Britain and left it at that. "So James, when are you
going back home to Brisbane" she enquired. "I'm from Britain,
and in a month" he countered. Ah I see. So what's it like in Brisbane
then?" she replied. Unbelievable. Not only was this woman unable
to tell the difference between an English and Australian accent she
was also picking up the pants from under our beds. As one of the portly
ladies jumped up to the top bunk to retrieve the bottom sheets from
the bed she quipped "I don't need to go to the gym, I'm well fit
from doing these beds". Quite clearly had she not looked in the
mirror for a very long period of time but her sense of humour was enlightening.
Finally ten minutes after their arrival peace.
The peace was always followed by a quick glance out of the window. The
day was determined by the weather. Most people always act surprised
when they come to Cairns "What you mean there's NO BEACH?".
The look on their face always suggests that they are going to get back
in their car and drive back they way they came. There is water, its
just next to mud flats instead of sand. Just what it is about sand that
makes people rush down the beach I will never know. It gets everywhere,
it sticks to you when wet, it blows in your face, it breaks your camera,
damages your phone. And just when you think you have got rid of the
offending grains after spending thirty minutes with a towel rubbing
off the particles, it follows you home. It then decides that it's a
good time to come off you. It normally prefers a newly vacuumed floor
but it's favourite is a newly made bed. You may as well go the full
hog and eat crumbling cookies in bed. But people don't like mud flats.
So Cairns council put down an artificial beach. No that was not good
enough, it still smelt of mud. So to appease the tourists it built a
large lagoon area and it opened to the public in 2003. And it's just
as well they did build this place. Because that is the only thing to
do all day. Instead of asking people "What are you going to do
today" or "What did you do today" you re-phrase it to
"At what area are you going to be sitting by the lagoon today"
and "By gosh wasn't it warm down by the lagoon today".
You see that is the main problem with the 'City' of Cairns, it only
has a population of 120,000 people which by the law averages means there
isn't much to do. Your day is determined by the weather. A cloud in
the sky is as frustrating as seeing your inbox with ten new messages
only to find that four are from the 'King' of Tanzania who desperately
needs to borrow some money but he WILL pay you back and make you rich,
two saying they will help you become 'bigger', two from your bank saying
about the new changes to the system and the last two being 'mail undeliverable'
warning messages. To be fair complaining about a cloud in the sky whilst
it is twenty six degrees in mid winter is a little bit English.
The lagoon demonstrated all things typically Australian. There were
self-service barbeques all around the grassy knolls, park benches, live
music being played throughout the arena and market stools next to the
lagoon. The council insisted on manning the lagoon with two lifeguards
in full red and yellow gear. Just how anyone could drown in a pool that
was four feet high and without rips or sharks was beyond me. Surely
the only role of these guards were to look and warn for dangerous floating
escaped brown hostages. No wonder the woman fancy them.
© Rich Cooper June 20th 2004
Sydney to Byron
Rich Cooper takes the bus
Rich Cooper in Australia
opposite of culture
at the YHA
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