It was a good thing I was so excited to be back in Australia. Because I had booked myself into the worst hostel in the whole history of my travels so far. My only aim for Tuesday 10th April was simply to arrive in Sydney and have a magical evening of wandering around Circular Quay, soaking up the atmosphere and possibly having some chips. The next day I would be flying up to Queensland for a week of sun. So all I needed on the accommodation front was a bed for the night – as cheap and as central as possible.
The hostel receptionist was having a private phone call when I presented myself at the desk to check in and was clearly annoyed by my arrival. She put her head on one side to hold the phone between her ear and her shoulder, talking in another language to whoever was on the other end as she took my money and threw linen and a key at me. Usually a receptionist would share important information with you, such as what floor your room is on, what time you have to check out and where the kitchen is, but this one didn’t, so I made sure to ask lots of questions that I didn’t really need the answer to, just because she clearly didn’t want to be talking to me.
My room for the night was a 12 bed dorm. The door was open and the light was off. People were lying in bed, glued to their phones. One guy had hung a white sheet around his bottom bunk, but it was so imperviously see-through that it was clear to see that he was watching the Peep Show. I smiled at people in the darkness, hoping someone might give me permission to turn the light on, seeing as it was 4:15 in the afternoon, but everyone ignored me and stared studiously at their phones instead. It took a while to check out all the beds in the darkness, but I finally found the only spare one – a top bunk in the middle of the room. The bunk was surrounded. To the left, piles and piles of clothing, spilling out of two suit cases and dumped haphazardly on the floor. To the right enough produce to fill several kitchen cupboards. As my eyes adjusted to the light I could make out boxes of cereals, tins of beans and soup stacked in a pyramid, jars of jam and sauces, packets of rice, packets of pasta, an aubergine, a set of saucepans, a wok and a packet of doughnuts. My bunk neighbour clearly did not travel light.
Most bunk beds put at least some sort of cursory rung between the bottom and top bunk, but this bunk bed didn’t even have that. It was going to be one giant leap for Caroline to get up there tonight and even more of a palaver to come down again in the morning. I shoved my linen up on the top bunk, locked my stripy suitcase in a giant locker and strode out into the darkness to explore.
It was wonderful. I love to walk around London late at night, soaking up the atmosphere and getting lost in my own thoughts, and I was sure I would like Sydney just as much. I did! I walked and I watched as a perfect sunny day turned into a balmy evening, and then night time. People scurried about, boats raced across the water, and the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge stood gloriously amongst it all, begging to be photographed as the daylight faded and the night time lighting took over. I opted for ice cream instead of chips and as I sat on a bench near the Opera House to eat it, I shared a bench with a lady in a magnificent dress who was on her way to the ballet and needed to switch her trainers for heels for the last 10 metres of the journey.
I wasn’t in a hurry to get back to the hostel, so I was delighted to get lost and happen upon Darling Harbour as well, where I enjoyed plenty more wanderings and wonderings as I soaked up a new atmosphere. And then I returned to my accommodation. The receptionist was still on a private call and I idly wondered if she had been talking to the same person ever since I checked in seven hours earlier.
The light was now on in my room, even though at least two people were apparently sleeping. The guy with the makeshift curtain was still watching the Peep Show and now that the light was on I could see that it wasn’t just my bed that had a pop-up pantry, most of the beds were surrounded by a sea of utensils and ingredients. One guy’s eyes left his screen long enough to smile at me. I smiled back, grabbed a few things from my locker and went to hang out in the living room where a sign informed me that if you wanted to stay at the hostel long-term then you could get 14 nights for the price of 13 if you stayed in the 12 bed dorm. Well that explained the kitchen pantries. Most of my room-mates presumably lived there. I wondered if any of them ever actually spoke to one another or if they hid behind their screens all the time.
The living room was empty so I decided to call my Mum for a chat. Kicking off my shoes I sat down on the sofa, only to leap up again quickly as the sofa springs made contact with my bottom. With nowhere to sit, I chatted to my Mum whilst pacing the corridor, our 34 minute chat resulted in me caking my now bare feet in several inches of thick black grime from the dirty hostel floor. I rinsed my feet under the tap, but opted not to have a shower when I saw the collection of long black hairs adorning the shower walls, and the dubious carrot-like mush sitting in one of the plug holes.
It was now 1am and I decided to go to bed. The room mates were still glued to their screens, the Peep Show was still going strong behind the makeshift curtain. How many episodes of the Peep Show are there? I decided to Google it later, but promptly forgot. My bunkmate was absent so with no ladder, I used his mattress as a step for launching myself up to the top bunk. The door was still open and the dormitory lights still shone brightly which had been great for navigating my up to bed, but I hoped someone was going to turn them off soon.
As I set about making the bed, I realised that the mattress had a noisy plastic waterproof cover on it. But even worse, the pillow was made of PVC. And it didn’t work like a real pillow. Instead of making a comfortable indentation in the pillow with your head as you go off to sleep, the pillow fights against you, crackles noisily and goes hard, providing no comfort at all. When I checked in I had been given a blanket along with my sheet and pillowcase, a blanket that I had no intention of using, given how stifling hot it was, but now I was grateful that the blanket could double up as a pillow.
Shoving the useless pillow to the bottom of the bed, arranging the blanket in a pillow-type shape behind my head and pulling the sheet over me, I was about to attempt to go to sleep, and that’s when I realised my top bunk had no safety rails. Nothing to keep me safely within the perimeters of the bed. If, despite the bright light and the blanket-pillow, I actually managed to fall asleep, then there was nothing to stop me from rolling. Rolling left onto a relatively soft landing of someone’s dirty clothes, or right onto a collection of tins and saucepans and jam jars.
“Great,” I thought. It’s the first night of my precious last three months in Australia and by tomorrow morning I could be in plaster from falling onto a pyramid of Baked Bean cans. I thought back to the Dangerous Sports clause of my insurance policy and wondered if I would be covered for sleeping in a top bunk without safety rails. I wondered how long I’d have to lie there, on a bed of broken eggs and washing powder before one of my room mates tore himself away from his screen long enough to notice what had happened.
I have rolled out of bed before. It was at Grannie and Grandad’s house a few years ago and it was a double bed so I must have been sleeping restlessly. My Grandad cried with laughter the next day when I explained how, just like something out of Tom and Jerry, I had woken up and realised in slow motion that there was nothing underneath me, before thudding and hitting the ground. I had only hurt my elbow then, landing on the soft carpet of the spare bedroom, but falling from a top bunk onto a hard floor strewn with pots, pans and cooking utensils was bound to do a lot more damage.
I used my arms to measure the mattress to check that I was in the very centre, wondered if I could stay in this position until morning and tried to block out “there were ten in the bed and the little one said, roll over” which was now playing on a loop in the back of my head. I contemplated going to sleep on the sofa with all the springs poking out. I contemplated getting up and getting dressed and spending a nocturnal night exploring the streets of Sydney and Skyping all my friends back home. I contemplated all the ways I could usefully spend the next few hours, because what I absolutely wasn’t going to do was lie here and fall asleep for risk of rolling over and falling out.
And then it was 6:17am. Five hours had passed and I was still in tact on the top bunk. Despite my fears of falling out, despite the fact that nobody had shut the door or turned out the light all night, I had somehow managed to stay still and sleep soundly. The PVC pillow had taken a tumble and joined the condiments on the floor at some point in the night, but I had survived. Not that it was a brilliant amount of sleep to have had, but the fact I had slept at all and not ended up impaled on a tin opener and rushed to Casualty was a huge achievement.
It was far too early to get up and leave for the airport, but that’s exactly what I did. The hostel had one tiny kitchen to serve three floors of dormitories with only one cooker and one sink. During my short stay I visited the kitchen three times to fill up my water bottle and every time I had to wait for the same guy to finish doing an excessive amount of washing up before I could access the tap. I couldn’t believe it when he was there again at half past six in the morning, washing up after having made some sort of early morning stir-fry. I retched at the smell of fried onion that early in the morning and decided I would treat myself to a hot chocolate at the airport rather than wait for Stir-Fry Boy to finish his washing up.
The receptionist – a different one to yesterday – didn’t ask if I’d had a nice stay, and I didn’t tell her that I hadn’t. Instead I escaped into the fresh Sydney air, enjoyed walking down the bustling street with all the early morning commuters, the dirty feet, the PVC pillow cases and the fear of landing on a pyramid of tins quickly dissipating as I looked forward to the next adventure.