The English language has lots of words and yet sometimes we still find it lacks the exact word we need to describe what we want to say. My current area of expertise is backpacking, and just as the aboriginal language has several words to describe the different types of kangaroos and the Inuit language has more than 50 words for snow, I need more words to distinguish between the different types of hostels I stay at.
And so I am coining the word “Frostel” to describe the frosty hostel I left this morning, one day earlier than planned, but they can keep the £14.36 I paid for tonight’s bed and maybe put the money towards some staff training.
I’ve stayed at a few frostels in the past seven months. Frostels usually look pretty nice. Comfy sofas, well-equipped spacious kitchens, cosy bedrooms with colourful linen – I even had a Wiggles blanket on my bed last night. Frostels are full of happy people, cooking dinner, laughing and having fun and you’ll probably spend at least seven minutes thinking how nice it is and anticipating that soon you too will be caught up in the merry throng of laughing people happily grating cheese and chopping carrots, until you suddenly realise that you won’t.
Because frostels are only fun for the people who live there.
I have no idea how this is financially viable, but some hostels allow hoards of wild party loving 19 year olds from the UK to live there for free, and in return for their free bed they reluctantly do various cleaning and bed making jobs, and get paid a bit of money as well. Consequently the manager never has to do an early, late or weekend shift, the floor never ever gets a decent clean and all the real guests, the ones who are paying real money to stay for a few nights feel that they’ve arrived a few weeks too late to understand the jokes or be part of the crowd.
It would make sense if there were just a couple of people getting a free bed in return for work but at many frostels, the number of people living and working there far outweighs the few guests that trickle in and out for a few days at a time.
My most recent experience began when I got off the Greyhound bus at Mission Beach on Thursday and was met by the courtesy frostel mibus that would take me to my destination.
“Met by” is a bit of an exaggeration. Yes it was there, but nobody was doing any “meeting”. The two girls sitting in the front of the minibus were playing loud music and eating doughnuts.
“Hi,” I said brightly. “I’m…”
“Yeah just put your bag in the back,” one of the girls said dismissively and that was the extent of the conversation. We zoomed off at top speed, the girls in the front turned up the music even louder, dancing in their seats and singing along, gleefully emphasising every swear word that appeared in the song. They briefly turned down the music to slag off someone called James and then another expletive-filled song came on and the volume went up and the singing and dancing recommenced. The other newly arrived backpacker in the seat beside me raised an eyebrow and I gave a helpless smile.
The manager was on shift and he was lovely. The communal area looked comfy and cosy and the wild 19 year olds were busy complaining about their hangovers as they made a late breakfast. My room was full of glum people sitting on their beds, looking at their screens or reading books. Nobody returned my cheerful “hello”. I unpacked a little bit, left the glum people to it, fleetingly wondered why they all looked so sad, and headed for the beach.
The “handy little supermarket round the corner” that the manager had told me about had a little sign which thanked everyone for their custom and explained that they were closing forever on the 26th April, so I was almost two months too late to do any grocery shopping. “No worries,” said the frostel manager “because there’s a minibus trip to Woolworths at six o’clock tonight, you can sign up for that.”
So I did, and was treated to a return trip full of erratic dancing and high speed driving as the driver bopped about to sweary music and ignored all the passengers.
I thought I would cook as soon as I got back. But I was wrong. The frostel residents had taken over the kitchen. At first I thought I’d try to find a little space to prepare my food. I put a chopping board down in my little space, turned around to get a knife only to turn back and find one of the frostel residents had tossed my chopping board in the sink and was now sitting on the counter, her large bottom firmly plonked where my little space had been, drinking a beer and chatting to her mates. When I clocked that I had been ousted from my little space she grinned at me and gave a loud and satisfied burp in my general direction.
I decided I wasn’t hungry enough to cook in the midst of all the frostel residents so I left the kitchen, but not before noticing that someone had taken my bag of chilled things out of the fridge and dumped it on the floor to make way for their slab of beer.
I retreated to the comfy couches where all the non-frostel residents were sitting glumly. Nobody could make conversation because the obscene sweary music that had been playing in the car was being played even louder in the communal area and all the frostel residents who weren’t cooking were dancing to it. Now I understood why all my room mates had looked so glum earlier. They’d all been living in this atmosphere for at least 24 hours already and it had worn them down.
The frostel residents all sat down to eat their meal, bringing the loud music over to the table as they laughed and swore their way through a giant communal pasta meal which they had made using every pot and utensil available to them. Apparently James was on kitchen cleaning duty in the morning and seeing as nobody liked him, the Frostel residents had decided they would leave everything stacked up in the sink as dirty as possible for him to sort in the morning. Realising that I would have to sift through a sink of dirty things to find the pots I’d need to cook my dinner, I gave up and went to a local restaurant where I dined on steak and chips.
When I got back, the smell of weed had got much stronger, the music was still playing but not quite as loudly as before. Two of the non-frostellers were watching an episode of Friends – the one where Joey speaks French, so I sat down to join them and just as I was getting better at tuning out the music to hear the TV, one of the frostellers sauntered over, picked up the remote and changed the channel, then sauntered back over to her table of friends, taking the remote with her, leaving the three of us on the couch literally Friend-less.
The television stayed on all night and at one point another frosteller changed the channel and a different Friends episode – the one with a chick and a duck – came on, but the music was cranked up as loud as possible and the frostellers were dancing again, so there was no point even trying to watch it. Instead one of my room mates and I had one of those conversations you have at loud parties where you shout, smile and nod a lot, and come away with no idea what the other person has just said. Although I did catch the bit about how she was leaving tomorrow, and I wished that I was too.
The next day it rained. And when it rains in Australia, it really rains. Mission Beach is literally just that – a beach, so after 30 minutes of looking at all the sarong and postcard shops I found myself back at the frostel, sitting on the comfy couch, writing postcards, catching up with emails and sorting out my photos whilst listening to the frostellers slagging off the poor infamous James again. They really don’t like him.
I used the benefit of yesterday’s experience to jump into the kitchen insanely early to cook my tea, before the frostellers took over the space and used all the pots and pans. The frostellers emerged soon after and began their routine of dancing, cooking and saying horrible things about James.
The rain hammered down outside. My glum room mates continued to sit morosely in our room, looking at their books or their screens. I thought I was having a nice chat with the two new arrivals, but then it emerged that they thought I was Swedish and got absurdly annoyed when I told them I wasn’t, so I left the glum atmosphere of the bedroom and returned to the comfy couch where I played another round of shouting to be heard above the music – with another new arrival who probably couldn’t even hear me well enough to notice what my accent was, let alone get in a strop about it.
The frostellers disappeared to sit outside on the deck. The non-frostellers started taking themselves off to bed. And I stayed on the comfy couch, using my laptop to plan some more of my trip and write some more stories.
“What the F*** are you doing?”
I looked up in surprise. One of the frostellers stood in front of me, holding a beer and glaring accusingly.
I decided that what I was doing wasn’t any of his business, especially if he was going to talk to me like that, so I ignored him.
“Why aren’t you outside drinking? You’re a F***ing psycho sitting in here.”
I continued to ignore him. He stood there for a while, looking for a reaction, then gave up and stomped back outside.
They all came back a bit later and continued their loud dancing and drinking. Then abruptly they all decided to go to bed. The one who’d picked me up in the minibus the previous day was clearly in charge of shutting down for the night because she suddenly started telling everyone to be quiet and went around turning off all the lights, including the one that was helping me to see.
“Could you turn that back on please?” I asked tentatively, as she stropped off to bed in the darkness pretending not to hear what I’d said.
And so I decided that was enough. No more sitting around waiting for the rain to stop, listening to people slag off James, call me a psycho and control the lights and television when I’m using them. I brought up the Greyhound bus website and booked myself on the first bus out of Mission Beach the next day. And then I went to bed.
Three times in my life I’ve walked out of a theatre in the interval because I haven’t been enjoying the show. Every time it has felt incredibly liberating, the freedom of snatching back the rest of the evening totally outweighs the money wasted on paying for the ticket. And that’s exactly how it felt the next day when I walked out of the frostel. The bus took me to Cairns, where it was also raining, but I went on a shopping spree and bought all sorts of things that I’m really going to struggle to fit in my case when I have to try and bring everything back to England later on this year.
My new hostel was tired and old. The couches were probably older than most of the backpackers sitting on them. The walls were dirty, the carpets were covered in dubious stains and there was absolutely no way I was going to be setting foot in the kitchen, beyond apologising to my bag of chilled goods as I abandoned them in the incredibly smelly fridge and promising them I’d rescue them in a couple of days when it was time to leave. BUT – none of that mattered, because everyone I walked past smiled back at me, people said hello, people chatted and nobody plunged me into darkness or got the hump with me for not being Swedish.
My trip to Mission Beach was supposed to be all about the beach, but instead it turned out to be a mission that I wasn’t been expecting. But mission accomplished, and game over – I won’t be going back there again, this grotty non-frostel hostel in Cairns (Grostel? Grotsel?) has so much more life and character.