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She Teaches Hostelling 101


Canadian Journeywoman Jse-Che Lam planned a five-week trip to Australia that turned into a three-month journey that reacquainted her with 80+ members of her Chinese-Australian family. Between visits with family, she fell in love with the Outback, rediscovered the art of cheap travel, and learned about life from some incredible travellers on the backpacking routes of Oz and New Zealand.

As a short-term backpacker, I have come to admire the strength and resolve demonstrated by the many budget travelers I have met and befriended during my time in Australia. Many of these travelers have been away from home for several months to a year. Hostelling was their most economically viable way to do this. It was mine as well.

Picking your hostel...

Picking a hostel requires strategy and networking. If you happen to be coming to Oz, “BUG (Backpackers’ Ultimate Guide) Australia” is key for checking on safety and security as well as bed bug alerts. ( A broader resource is (, also anecdotal and highly informative. Backpackers share anecdotes about hostels they have loved and hated. Read with a grain of salt as some of the reviews were probably done by wannabe hospitality managers.

A picture might be worth a thousand words but don’t fully trust the photographs that you see on websites. Several years ago, I was in charge of choosing accommodations in Seattle, WA and ended up choosing a hotel that could have been used as a set for a David Lynch film. Next door was a detox centre for intravenous drug users. None of this was mentioned on the gorgeous website that mentioned its proximity to the market and to various local sights.

I was taken in by the reasonably priced rates and a gorgeous looking art deco lobby with its pristine white marble floors. The actual room contained a mysterious hole right below a painting that could have only come from an art therapy class for trauma victims. I've found that If you want something that is gimmick free and offers good quality and standards, you cannot go wrong with Youth Hostel Associations around the world.

Listen to other backbackers...

Other backpackers are a wealth of information about both good and dodgy accommodations. Because of the kindness of others, I was lucky enough to have side-stepped a pre-booked accommodation that was offered as part of a travel package. I will only refer to this accommodation as “McSkankers.” It offers backpacking accommodations but is best known as a party bar that runs audience participation games amusing only to frat boys and cattlemen who’ve escaped the Outback for a weekend of freedom and civilization.

I later found out it was also a favourite drinking hole for the local chapter of a motorcycle club and the preferred bar for army recruits. But hey, this might actually be a selling point for some. A German whom I met early on in Oz declared it to be a hellhole (language modified). If he couldn’t stand it I knew that I certainly wouldn’t be able to get any rest. Another journeywoman, at least a couple of thousand kilometers away, also had to stay there as part of her tour package. She too declared it a public health war zone with toilets rivaling any third-world latrine and no shower curtains for any sort of privacy. Asking questions and listening to others certainly paid off for me.

Every hostel has it's own culture...

very hostel has its own culture. Any place that declares itself “not a party hostel” is definitely a frontrunner for consideration. Greenhouse Backpackers in Melbourne remains my favourite backpackers’ place. The selling point was location and it had Journeywoman’s seal of approval! This accommodation is a terrific introduction to hostel-living, especially for those who are new to it. Greenhouse is located in historic Flinder's Lane in the heart of Melbourne, one of Australia's most vibrant cities. The cheerful and spotless hostel provides lots of organized activities, free breakfasts, a pasta night, and numerous discounts to local attractions such as Australian Football League games as well as the Neighbours walking tour. And, best of all, it certainly doesn't hurt to be next door to a police detachment. Website:

Of course, if you are intent on finding an instant party, there are plenty of hostels that attract free-spirited souls who will happily accompany you to the pubs for a pint, or several. Regardless of the character of the hostel, every hostel has to be an environment that is conducive to social interaction.

Backpacker interactions...

Backpacker ingenuity means networking to find the best deals in internet cafes, pairing up to share in the cost of coin Laundromats, and checking on each other’s emotional and physical well-being. The best part of budget traveling and hostelling is most certainly the people you encounter. But as with anything, there are pitfalls in backpacking circles. Consider yourself lucky if snoring is the only obstacle that prevents you from a good sleep. Living in close communal situations can mean a dorm room becomes a public confessional.

While I always considered backpackers to be solid and self-sufficient, not everyone who presents herself to be low-maintenance and easy going is such. There are always some exceptions who will test your mettle and extract your energy. But hey, if you can hack it, you’ll come away with lots of material for your next cocktail party.

Unless you happen to be traveling in groups, the loneliness of hostel living can really be worse than any challenge on 'Survivor'. You really need to know how to set boundaries, develop a thick skin, recognize the need for alone time, and know how to unplug from the world. Floating these cues out to the world at large isn’t always successful and this is where pure determination and clear communication has to take over.

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