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Nights at the YHA
Rich Cooper in Australia

We 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
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Cairns the opposite of culture
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Nights at the YHA
R. C
photos, stories and diary

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