travelers-talesBy Bonnie Morris

Notes from a Woman Backpacker.

Food and drink will tempt you constantly—crepes on the streets of Paris, smorgasbord in Scandinavia, beer in Germany… —“Planning European Travel,” Harvard Student Agencies; Let’s Go Europe 1982

When I began to travel, as a young woman of twenty back in 1981, I traveled cheap. I had no trust fund, no credit card, no aspirations to Grand Tour prestige. I’d just arrived in Israel for my junior year abroad, and Israel was the first other country I’d ever traveled in, aside from border crossings to Tijuana with my parents.

My plan was to see all of Israel from top to bottom in that year, but also to backpack further in the surrounding region while a delicate peace prevailed (this was just after the Camp David Accords.) My tourism had to be scraped from the monthly budget of $100 for food and expenses I received while studying at Tel Aviv University, but $100 a month went amazingly far in 1981, when a bag of Jaffa grapefruit cost five cents on the streets of Jerusalem. As the Israeli shekel inflated wildly, with one-one-hundredth-of-a-shekel coins, thin and light as fingernails, accumulating like pirate treasure in my backpack,  five U.S. dollars bought three days’ worth of groceries.

I plotted a travel plan for that year overseas. After all, I was now based on the Mediterranean, within reach (by bus or third-class boat) of Jerusalem, Egypt, Lebanon, Cyprus, Athens, and–once one gained a toehold on Europe–anywhere served by the infamous “Magic Bus” charters. I wanted it all, and my International Student Identity Card was burning through my canvas wallet. Dismissing the potential risks for a female traveling solo, with a lifetime of family camping trip smarts behind me, I used Tel Aviv University’s generous schedule of vacation days to explore every youth hostel from the Sinai desert to the Swiss Alps. During my first week off from Hebrew immersion classes, I racked up seven countries. And through all that time, and at all of those unpredictable overnight crash pads, the strangest challenge of hosteling was where and how to eat.

Some hostels had kitchens. Many forbade cooking. Some allowed storing food in a community fridge—although other backpackers might be tempted to chow down on whatever precious treats one left unguarded. Not being able to get a meal on short notice was surprisingly common in food-centric Israel: depending on religious holidays (and whether a village was Jewish, Muslim or Christian), local groceries, cafes and bus lines shut down on Friday or Saturday or Sunday. Could a backpacker survive on apples and stashed granola? This was years before the availability of canned “energy drinks” and protein bars.

Swapping snacks, and tips on local cafes, thus became a ritual of making friends at youth hostels. As I would learn, traveling beyond Israel to other lands, there were other survival skills, too, in the subculture of youth hostels:

  1. Befriend a rock star and let her treat you out to dinner.
  2. Flaunt hostel rules by hiding perishable groceries in the snow on your windowsill.
  3. Read the hostel’s guestbook upon arrival to find out what relationships have been going on in the communal kitchen–then shop appropriately.

The Hostels of Israel

Even in 1981, when budget backpacking was a rite of passage for most counter-culturists, youth hostels weren’t for the finicky. One rolled into a bed still stained from strangers, tried to sleep while others snored (or came in drunk), and woke before dawn itching from uncalculated bedbug bites, only to fend off advances from the hostel’s leering manager. Worse still, fellow-travelers might look and smell like hippies but espouse surprisingly right-wing views–particularly in the Holy Land, where religious pilgrims made up a good percentage of all travelers. Men were not the only rigid defenders of doctrine.  I arrived at one hostel very hungry, fresh from a three-day camelback trek through the Sinai desert with Bedouin guides, and of course now it was Friday night (the Sabbath) and every grocery had just closed. But some previous guest had left a bottle of milk and a tin of Osem-brand banana powder in the hostel’s kitchen. By chopping ice into the froth, I concocted two sweet milkshakes: one for myself, and one for the other young woman staying overnight. Then I made the mistake of telling her I was a feminist—and interested in applying to rabbinical school. Launching upwards from the kitchen table, this bunkmate delivered a diatribe on how offended she was by the mere suggestion of a woman rabbi. The only meal I’d had in two days sank in my belly. And at a youth hostel, it’s never easy to avoid the one other person in your room.

Far more amusing were the times I stayed in Jerusalem’s pleasant Swedish Youth Hostel, right in the heart of the Old City, and with dorm-style bunkbeds that introduced women to one another’s peculiarities right away. Here was a typical weekend. On the first night, we were all kept awake by the Jamaican evangelist, whose bedside prayers progressed to a crescendo of speaking in tongues. The next night, my bunkmate was a Brit named Susan Whitby—better known as Lora Logic, of the eighties punk band X-Ray Specs. I was thrilled to dine at the Old City’s Danish Tea House with a real rock star, and later she mailed me one of her new albums. I spent my last evening at the hostel reading Arab history while nibbling delicious Jordan almonds and garinim (sunflower seeds), until an elderly woman sat bolt upright on her bunk and screamed in a German accent, “Please tell me how long you will be crunching and spitting out NUTS?”

A typical co-ed hostel in a seedy part of Eilat, the resort city attracting flocks of backpackers to the Red Sea and coppery desert beyond, offered four beds to a room, kitchen and shower access, 60 shekels a night. First came the bus trip through the southern crescent of Israel, tidy fields bordered by graceful eucalyptus rows, then miles of sandy brown rock formations, then full ghostly moonlight over muted desert hills, canyons, all depth and shadow. No sign of human habitation for miles in any direction; but suddenly a passenger would flag our bus down in the remotest wilderness. Soldiers disembarked in the middle of nowhere. The moon glared. Plastic sacs of mocha-milk were the only snack sold at a brief rest stop near some kibbutz. When we finally reached Eilat, aggressive humanity bloomed: at the first sight of our backpacks coming off the bus, dozens of young male reps from local youth hostels attacked passengers with a hard sell in four languages at once. I’d learned how to bark, in Hebrew, “Too much!” “I’ll find a cheaper room!” and “Back off, sir!”, although this only led to further harassment: “Hey, sweetheart, where you going?” “Why do you walk away, my darling? You do not like me?” “You are so serious; you break my heart!” In Eilat I ended up having to share a hostel dorm room with eight men, who solved their dinner problem by pirating all the other guests’ cheese and fruit from the group refrigerator, whereas I felt compelled to go back out amid the wolf-whistles and actually buy my own meal. When I returned, the kitchen had been overtaken by two more religious male guests, who were vainly attempting to make a Shabbat blessing over wine just as a screaming fight broke out in the stairwell between landlords.

How on earth did I find these places? My guidebooks for locating affordable youth hostels were four budget traveler publications from 1980-81: Frommer’s Israel on $20 a Day, Frommer’s Greece and Yugoslavia on $15 and $20 A Day, and the Harvard Student Agencies’ Let’s Go Europe and Let’s Go Greece, Israel and Egypt. I still have these aging paperbacks; from their pages flutter notes and budgets, chocolate wrappers and youth hostel business cards. It never occurred to me to stay in a hotel. In listing the truly budget youth hostels, the ones where I always ended up, the authors might acknowledge “This hostel is of the no-frills variety.” But fortunately, I was a no-frills sort of gal.

From Athens to Switzerland

After weeks of exploring Israel, I felt ready to set my sights on Europe. Veteran backpackers advised taking the boat from Haifa to Athens, via Cyprus and Rhodes; one could sleep on deck and avoid paying for a berth. Then, once in Athens, backpackers could book a bus to anywhere through one of the many agencies catering to budget student travelers. Everyone assured me this was an easy and affordable way to go all the way from Israel to the Swiss Alps, if I wished; and they were right. What was not easy or possible was feeding oneself en route.

In Haifa, I boarded the creaking Arion, armed with two poppy-seed rolls and an Elite Superman chocolate bar,  expecting to buy dinner on board that night. But although the small ship boasted a white-clothed dining room, several fancy lounges with bar service, a disco with live band, and duty-free shops, backpackers who had paid the low “deck class” rate to park our sleeping bags under the stars soon learned that we were barred from the better decks. Our kind were actually locked at one end of the ship, with a grilled gate between our empty stomachs and the nicer lounges. This soon caused a rebellion. The unmovable Greek stewards (three very handsome men named Asmos, Dasmos and Pagmos) finally relented and allowed me personally into the Tourist Snack Bar, where I was both overcharged and short-changed for the privilege of eating something called a Hellas Club Sandwich. After I disembarked in Piraeus still hungry and now soaked from a thunder and lightning storm at sea, I headed to 11 Amerikis Street, the Athenian YWCA–called, in Greek, the XEN. That meant women, and that was all I needed to reestablish comfort and security.

Having eaten just one sandwich in 48 hours, I found street food in Greece to be fantastic.  It was possible to scarf down phyllo-dough-based delicacies all day, every day, cheese-filled triangles and spinach-filled triangles and honeyed baklava triangles all for mere pocket change, until one’s fingers glistened with oil and tiny flakes of phyllo dough littered every inch of one’s clothing. If one tired of forkless dining, inexpensive cafes with sea views offered tenderly transliterated specials such as “Lamp Chop” and “Squeeds Wit Rice.” I sipped ouzo; I rattled with olives; I was happy. And the XEN hostel was a woman-only refuge from streets teeming with sexual harassment–Athens being the only city in the world where a policeman pinched me in broad daylight. Unlike the hostels I was accustomed to in Israel, XEN resembled a chaperoned Seven Sisters dorm, complete with marble staircases, balconies, cool white bedding, and a breakfast straight from Mount Olympus: each day began with peach nectar, chocolate, bread and butter and marmalade, goat cheese and fresh eggs. Fortified with dignified in-house nourishment, I raced off to climb the Akroplis, the temple of Poseidon at Sounion, and other tourist sights until several days later my Magic Bus left for Zurich, via Yugoslavia.

I had my “safe” hostels all picked out for Zurich and the Alps, if I ever made it to Switzerland.  Let’s Go Europe was frank in its assessment of travel and hygiene risks, right down to recommending which countries, cities, neighborhoods, and actual city addresses were best for a young American woman.  But a journey by bus across three borders presented fresh challenges: sleeping upright among snoring and sniveling strangers; packing nourishing food.

For the long bus trip, I brought every flavor of canned fruit juice available from the Greek grocery mart: peach, pear, plum. I brought a sack of almonds and a box of cookies, and I naively assumed I could buy snacks along the way. It never occurred to me that there would be nowhere to change money into local currency when we stopped at the borders of Yugoslavia, Italy and Switzerland—or that local currency was demanded to use local toilets.  And so we wound our merry way through pastoral villages in cool morning mists, sixty unwashed backpackers dying for a bathroom and a meal, drooling at the sight of tidy Yugoslavian farmyards just beyond our windowglass. Kilometer after kilometer of milk buckets, freshwater pumps, dried corn, peppers, pumpkins, eggplants, gourds, baskets of eggs and freshly plucked chickens being dressed for dinner by women in kerchiefs—and no stopping to eat.

Just before reaching Italy, we finally stopped at a roadside stand beside a farmer’s cottage, and had the dreamlike experience of exchanging Western hard currency for freshly laid brown eggs and well water. The road signs changed to “Tutto Con Coca Cola,” and one-way traffic arrows advised “Senso unico” as we roared past Venice at 3 a.m.  By breakfast time we were in Milan, but now it was Sunday, with no place open for us to stop and buy breakfast. Through the bus windows we watched overcoated Italians hurrying to church.

Once I was in Switzerland the quality of both hostels and hostel food made up for previous austerity. I first stayed at Zurich’s Martahaus, another YWCA, for 18 Swiss francs a night, or roughly ten dollars. This gave me a dorm cubicle with towels, washcloths, my own waterglass, a huge down mattress and blankets, coat hangers, and free hot showers. Breakfast, which came with the price of lodging, was enough to fill my belly for hours: an entire pot of hot chocolate, a basket of fresh rolls, and all the butter and jam I could spread. Wee travel-sized tins of honey and jam found their way from the breakfast table into my pockets for daily strolls around town, and that was all I needed for sustenance until late afternoon. When I hiked in the mountains, following chamoix and deer and rabbit tracks up to Kleine Schedigg and Brandegg, clean snowballs were my bottled water, tasting of treeline and sky, and a raspberry jam or honey packet dribbled over a snowball made for an improvised Snow-Cone as tasty as any childhood memory. When my energy flagged around 4 p.m., I’d seek out an inexpensive restaurant and wolf down the cheapest item on the menu, which was always Italian food: ravioli et salat. Once or twice I upgraded to raclette, the authentic Alpine cheese dish invented by past generations of thrifty snowbound Swiss families. Like fondue, raclette evolved as a way to use up stale bread and cheese, but improved on mere dunking by offering toasted cheese scraped onto a sizzling hot plate with chives, new potatoes and pickled onions. In this manner, surviving on youth hostel breakfasts and snowball lunches, I “did” Switzerland by dining out just one meal a day.

I moved on to visit Grindelwald, which in addition to spectacular skiing and climbing offered an Olympic-level iceskating facility (der Eis Hall.)  This arena was open to the public several hours daily, and I skated my heart out, finally mastering the cross-over while precocious child athletes whizzed around me—but I emerged very hungry at midday with my entire daily food budget blown on skate rentals.  Keeping food in the rooms or dorms of most Swiss hostels was verboten, part of an uber-cleanliness dictum, but anyone with a ticking brain could see that a ski town offered sneaky possibilities such as burying small quantities of milk, juice and cheese in certain piled-up snowbanks surrounding the dorm. For a handy, personal refrigerator, I kept bottles of milk and yogurt on the icy windowsill just beyond my bunkbed, and observed various males in the dorm using a similar method for chilling beer.

For low-cost Swiss foodstuffs, one naturally shopped where the locals went: at the Co-op grocery. There, an entire bag of croissants cost less than one chocolate bar, as did utterly delicious herbal cheese spreads. Packaged wursts and dusty Italian salamis dangled over the Orangensaft and Appelsaft juices. When the Co-op was closed, Switzerland also offered vending machines at most train stations, selling loaves of bread, tiny jars of peanut butter and yoghurt—and home pregnancy test kits.

Pregnancy kits? As the male guests at the hostel stomped in to our darkened dorm at 11 p.m. each evening, just making the curfew, I wondered how many previous female travelers had blundered into Alpine pregnancy with one of these beasts: managing to sound like a dozen instead of five or six, they lurched in on their heavy boots, slapped on all the lights, jangled their gear onto coat hangers and roared with beery laughter while turning on water full blast at every dorm sink. Finally bedding down in the dark, they’d spend the next hour or two thrashing above and below me on squeaky-springed beds, guffawing and talking in loud normal voices, blowing their noses. Then the snoring and breaking of wind began. If skiing trails were good, at 5 a.m. various members of the male snoring platoon would get up and go, but leave all the windows open, blowing der Foehnwind into our faces.

Returning to Israel, I took the train from Zurich to Athens, believing this a classier option than the Magic Bus. This left me with six dollars, 243 shekels, 53 schillings, 3 dinars, 38 drachmas and 15 Swiss centimes. After Austria my compartment filled with Yugoslav soldiers, cutting chunks of meat from a leg of mutton wrapped in brown paper. They enthusiastically offered me beer, mutton, — and pornographic magazines. When they all removed their shoes and went to sleep in a big pile, inviting me to join them, the ten unwashed socks in my face drove me down the hall to sleep sitting up beside an old woman. Out of food, out of privacy, and my whole body on alert that night.

At 2 a.m. we arrived in Athens, and I took a taxi to the airport, where I slept on a fly-covered bench for four hours before boarding the short El-Al flight back to Israel. Typically, El Al offered an enormous meal, although the trip to Ben-Gurion airport lasted less than 90 minutes. I wolfed down warm rolls, chicken and potato salad, mocha-flavored mousse. “Are you going to eat your apples?” I asked the Israeli couple next to me. “What about your desserts?”

Backpacking New Zealand at Forty

That was my first year as a world traveler; and I’m glad to say that my use of quirky youth hostels didn’t end in 1982. Even during my thirties and early forties, when I had clearly ceased to be a “youth,” I returned to some of the same old fleabags in Israel and Greece, and I made cheerful use of “backpackers” throughout New Zealand. There, no one aspired to pretentiousness; and jolly hostel names reflected this mellow Kiwi vibe: The Mousetrap, The Pickled Parrot, The Missing Leg, The Ebb and Flo, The Lazy Hedgehog, The Stray Possum, The Funk House, The Melting Pot, Southern Laughter, Bad Jelly. During my travels in New Zealand I stayed at Just The Ducks’ Nuts, The Pipi Patch Lodge, and The Brown Kiwi.

“Be a Good Kiwi: Don’t Litter,” advised every trash can, and Intercity Bus rules warned “No Eating! No Drinking! Backpacks GO UNDERNEATH!” But hostels had enormous kitchens and one could eat and cook in them. This camaraderie was encouraged by the Budget Backpacker Accommodation guide: “We no longer need to hunt our own meals or grind our own grains, but we can still explore the local market, discover some local food, learn what to do with it, and share all that in an international communal hostel meal.”  Lounges burst with friendly travelers sharing their Marmite, Sanitarium Brand Fruity Bix, Lemon & Paeroa, canned sliced lamb’s tongues, apricot muesli bars, and canned hot something-or-other with a sketch of a schoolgirl in fierce field hockey uniform. At the Pipi Patch Lodge in Bay of Islands, I took a hot tub under the stars (in this case, the Southern Cross) with carefree young Brits on open-end round-the-world tickets, and we sipped hot Milo and fed the gulls banana chips right from our hands. Though I was twice the age of these other backpackers, they invited me to join them in front of the telly. Would I like some candy? Sprats? Pinky? Moro? Cherry Ripe? Banana-toffee pudding, self-saucing pudding? Everyone kindly, everything shared. My days of eating snow-balls were well behind me.

Near Mt. Manganui I stayed at the Duck’s Nuts hostel, which turned out to be full of kiwifruit pickers—big men in muddy boots, and, briefly recalling Switzerland, I opted out of the dorm and (now a salaried grown-up) took the big double front room with bay views all to myself, for a whopping $13 a night. The men were in the kitchen toasting bread, drinking beer and rolling joints, so I dined at the big motel just across the park, which offered Sunday dinner for $5: roast lamb, kumara, carrots and peas, cabbage, potatoes, beets, rolls, then rice pudding and chocolate bread pudding. I needn’t have avoided the fruitpickers, though: when I came in, they were lying before the fire watching telly, absolutely silent and then emotionally choking up over an American soap opera. They offered me pickled onions in rum and honey, and when I begged off to go to sleep wished me “Cheers” and “Good on ya,” making sure the next day that I got safely to my bus.

I’ve just turned fifty-three, and my enthusiasm for world travel hasn’t faded a bit. I’m staying in more bed and breakfast inns, true. But I’m not afraid of road food/hostel food, the great cuisine of travel and adventure. I travel with the grapefruit spoon packed too.

Bonnie Morris is a women’s studies professor at George Washington University, and the author of twelve books, three of which were finalists for the Lambda Literary Award. Her two most recent books were Women’s History for Beginners, which won second prize in the New England Book Festival; and The Schoolgirl’s Atlas, which won the Finishing Line Press prize for a first volume of poems by a woman writer. Her work has appeared in more than fifty anthologies of women’s writing and in the Washington Post, Comstock Review, Memoir, Gastronomica, Chatauqua, Del Sol, Lilith, and the Gay and Lesbian Review. Learn more here.