The Soundtrack of a Nomadic Life

No matter how long you go travelling for or where, if you stay in hostels and hang out with other backpackers there are a few sounds that I can guarantee will forever remind you of your journey.

I’ve been travelling for 12 years now, on and off, and during the off times it’s these sounds that bring back the freedom of the road and the best times of my life. But right now, as I come to the end of 16 months of solid travel, almost half of these sounds of backpacking drive me insane – especially the hostel related ones. I’m genuinely excited to get home and not be woken up by the plastic bag rustle and zip alarm.

I know, I know, I’ll miss them when they’re gone.

1.  Zips

This has to be number one. Whenever I think of my years of staying in hostels it’s the early morning zip brigade that’s so emotive of budget travel. How many zips do these people have? Apple could introduce it as an alarm sound for anyone missing the road for sure.

2.  Plastic bags    

And in a close second place it’s those rustling plastic bags. Those damn plastic bags. There needs to be law for travellers to use packing cubes if they plan on sleeping in hostels and fiddling with their suitcase before I wake up.

3.  Snoring

As soon as I hear the slightest snore I fixate on it and get so iritated I can’t sleep. Once upon a time I would’ve kept quiet, but now if they’re asleep and they’re stopping me from sleeping it’s just not acceptable. In the past I’ve shaken beds, slammed doors, shouted at people and even whacked them round the face with a pillow to get them to stop. In all my testing I’ve found the best thing to do is just say ‘stop snoring’ firmly and it’s amazing how it works. Not on my Spanish room mates last night though. They got the pillow treatment. I stay in all girls rooms as much as possible to avoid the snorers, and have requested to change rooms before too.

4.  Thin walls and toilet sounds

You’ve got to the booking stage and you think a toilet in the room would be nice – easy for showering and those midnight toilet runs, hey? Trouble is, the rest of the dorm uses it too. If you’re in with the lads those end of night waterfalls are loud enough to wake you up, the early morning showers sound like the bathroom is about to take off and the 24-hour flushing has you questioning your life choices as you lay awake at 5am.

5.  Squeaking beds

Whether your room mates are innocently wriggling around as they dream of wriggly things or actually full on getting down to it, the squeaky bed is one of the most annoying backpacking sounds possible. I always look at the hostel beds on the photos when I go to make a booking, and if it’s those shitty metal ones, jog on. Stay in them and as soon as someone on a top bunk needs the toilet in the night it’s game over for your sleep. 

6.  Snooze alarms

Argh, for god’s sake, if you set an alarm, get up! Unanswered snooze alarms going off in hostels is the main cause of stomach hernias among young people. Well, maybe not, but possibly. It drives me mad when people feel they can leave them to go off every few minutes. I recently read that if it’s your friend you can phone them and it’ll turn the alarm off, but no friend of mine would do that so not going to help here.

7.  Backpacker introductions   

It’s the only way to get to know each other and I’m (usually) genuinely interested in the answers. There’s an unmistakable dialogue that goes on between budget travellers that goes like this:

"Hi! Where are you from?"

"How long have you been here?"

"Where you going next?"

"Are you at uni or working?"

Etc etc etc.

It can start to grate, especially if you’ve been travelling for a long time, but as soon as you get sick of meeting people it could be time to go home, or at least, go to bed.

8.  The rest of the hostel partying, while you sleep    

Ah, there’s nothing like the sound of the hostel bar on the other side of the MDF wall as you try to sleep. I was in a hostel in Auckland in New Zealand and my bedroom was right above the party, the open roof club, with a window that wouldn’t close. If I was in the mood and didn’t have to get an early flight I’d have been straight in there, but I wasn’t, so I got angry instead and didn’t sleep a wink.

9.  "Do you have wifi?"

A few years ago I was making a video about hostels and the people on the front desk told me this was the first question 95% of travellers would ask. So now, even though I ask it all the time, I cringe every time I do. It’s the modern world though. Sit in a hostel foyer long enough and you’ll find this point proven in minutes.

10.  Banging lockers

I stayed at this hostel in Taipei, super plush and new with fancy lockers with swipe cards. Great, I thought, until I realised that the 9 lockers belonging to my 9 room mates buzzed and whizzed every time you opened them which meant locker sounds banging, beeping and clattering all night long.

11.  Doors slamming

Ooo, you can’t beat waking up from a good sleep by the sounds of the corridor doors slamming unnecessarily. Or even your room door as your fellow roommate wanders in at 5am determined to wake the other 11 of you up. 

12.  Accents

I grew up in a little village in the Midlands. I don’t think I even met an Australian, Kiwi or South African until I was about 20. All my world knowledge was gleaned from TV. Yes, Neighbours and Home and Away. Oh, and Shortland Street. Hearing all the different accents that surround you when you travel is awesome. At any point along the journey you could have a friend from every continent around you, although I haven’t met anyone from Antarctica yet.

13.  Broken language attempts

Shamefully, especially with all this time I’ve spent travelling around Spain and Central America, I haven’t actually got much further than about 50 food and drink-related Spanish words, so I’m not one to judge. But hearing your new found friends attempt to find the way to the party with their limited vocabulary in Mexico is always pretty funny, and a definite reminder you’re not in England any more.  

14.  Social media alerts

It’s all great fun when you’re the one receiving the messages but if you’re sat near someone with their alerts turned on it can all get a little much. And if there are a few of them sat around with alerts turned on you need to tell them to turn them off before you flip. Or just go out and see the world. Your choice.

15.  Clueless parents on Skype

"Hi Mum, can you hear me? Yes, yes, Mum I can hear you. Can you hear me? Mum, Mum, put the camera on." And on it goes.  

Skype seems to work perfectly fine when I talk to anyone but my parents. Every time we go through the same ‘does this work, does it not’ back and forth until we managed to establish that yes, it does. User error.

16.  Other people’s moaning

I’m sorry to tell you but as you go through the world picking up friends you’ll probably pick at least one or two who just do not stop moaning. They’re too hot, too cold, the journeys too long, they feel sick, the food’s not good, etc etc. Work out the pros and cons and don’t be afraid to give them a wide berth if they start doing your head in. Change your route and get rid. And then just hope you don’t see them again along the way. 

17.  Laughter from around the world

The most beautiful travel moments I’ve found have been when new friends and I are sat around and laughing over the same thing, even though our lives up to that point have been thousands of miles apart, literally. Travel has a way of bringing people together and hearing laughter from around the world confirms this.

18.  Drinking games

‘Shall we play a drinking game?’ ‘Kings cup!’ It’s been the standard way to get to know your hostel mates since hostel mates began. I’ve had some brilliant nights playing drinking games with people I’ve only actually met that day, or sometimes even that night. I’d advise you to learn a few games before you go so you can take control if the occasion calls for it.

Don't let the bed bugs bite because it will really hurt

19.  Buzzing bugs

Argh, when someone leaves the door open and the buzzing bug gets in. And then all of a sudden you come out in hives, or thereabout. No matter how hard you try, or how foolish you look, you can’t catch the damn thing either.

20.  Only the local language

You’re on a train and up until now all the local language announcements have been followed up by English, but now that you need them most, they’ve stopped. And when they start back up again you’ve missed your stop, hurrah. You need to keep all your senses switched on when you travel, if you’re going to make it back to mummy and daddy in one piece.

21.  The airport buzz

When I leave an airport my ears ring. There’s something about all the sounds and being on high alert that I make that damn flight that causes me to feel pretty exhausted by the time I get out of them.

22.  Old dodgy videos on bus rides

Why do bus companies in South East Asia seem to think the whole bus wants to hear the sounds of the Asian language film they put on at the front of the bus, full volume?

23.  Classic songs

Travel for long enough and I can guarantee you’ll hear the sounds of Bob Marley, Toto’s ‘Africa’, Jack Johnson, ‘Hey Baby’ or ‘Society’ from Wild. Embrace the cheese.

24.  That one song

There’ll be that one song that you hear everywhere and from then on until your dying day you’ll be reminded of your backpacking days with just the intro notes. This summer in Spain and Cuba Enrique Iglesias’ Bailando has followed me around, while my first summer at camp it would have to be Dontcha by the Pussycat Dolls and for my time travelling in Australia it would have to be Land Down Under by Men at Work.

25.  The mobile phone drop

You’re in all kinds of difficult situations travelling. You’re up, you’re down and you’re probably drunk. This can lead to a certain amount of clumsiness. That unmistakable sound when you drop your phone on the floor, especially when it’s tiled, is sure to make everyone around you recoil in a way that I’ve only seen when men see one of their brothers suffer some sort of groin-related injury.

26.  “Oh my god, that’s so cheap!”

You absolutely cannot beat Asia on price. I went to Vietnam for two weeks and spent $400 – brilliant! The currency there is so low you’re a millionaire on arrival. It’s why South East Asia remains so popular with travellers.

27.  “Oh you should’ve been there 5 years ago...”

You’ve got to love a traveller who tries to out travel you. They sound like a dick. If you run into someone like Ben from The Inbetweeners, “Oh Burma is just so commercialised now” – that kind of thing – just wind them up. I’ve known at least two guys who were most perturbed that I’m a travel writer and have been to almost 60 countries, especially when I said the number was over 100. Muhahaha.

28.  The poorly played guitar

Travel Asia or South America and there’s always one who decides it’s a good idea to bring a guitar along. In fact, in Spain last week there was a lady in my hostel who didn’t even know how to play it but carried it around with her – wtf?!

29.  Songs by the campfire

I’ve had many a campfire while travelling – on a beach in Zanzibar, on Bondi Beach, at camp in America and on the beaches in the Philippines too. This is when it comes in useful to have actually made friends with the douchebag with the guitar. There’ll always be someone in the circle who can actually play and you get to relax, drink beer and request a song or two. 

30.  "I love you" / "Te Quiero" / "Je t'aime"

Ah, you’ve got to have a travelling romance, if only for a night. Someone telling you they love you in their language as you stroll the beach during sunset can’t be topped. Even if you never see them again.

31.  Beach waves

If like me you’re from England, and not by the sea, the sounds of waves lapping at the beach are music to your ears. Lying on the beach and having the time to enjoy the moment as it is, is one of the most beautiful things about travelling. Enjoy it while you can!

32.  Car traffic

You haven’t heard traffic until you’ve heard the beeping horns and zipping motorbikes of Asia. There are actual online tutorials on how to cross the road in Saigon, Vietnam, it’s that crazy. If you get off on that kind of thing you could try New York too. Remember to shout “Heyyy I’m walking here” in your best Brooklyn accent (from the Midnight Cowboy film).

33.  Bum toots

You’ll get sick when you travel, it’s pretty much guaranteed. I still can’t describe the full trauma of what happened when I accidentally ate chicken in Delhi. I couldn’t be away from the toilet for a week and there were bum toots aplenty, to give you a brief overview.

34.  Spewing

Would you rather it be yours or someone else’s you hear? The good news is you don’t really have to decide as you’ll hear both if you travel long enough. Too many buckets, too many magic pizzas and too much booze makes for a spewy Stuey.

35.  Toilet chat

Chances are that never again will you have such an insight into the bowel movements of your fellow man. Travel India and within a few minutes of meeting people I can guarantee the conversation will be well on its way to whether you’ve managed to have a solid shit for a while or not. Go with it, and learn what you can.

36.  "Welcome to London"

Touchdown and all too soon you’re back in England. You’re ready to see mum and dad, your best mates and your family, but as soon as that shine is gone you’re planning your next adventure. You’ve been bitten by the travel bug, my friend.

37.  "How was it? You have fun?"

It’s the question everyone wants the answer to when you get home, but it’s too hard to describe in so few words the incredible experience you’ve just had in the world. And if you talk too much about it – that one time you were in Nepal... – you just sound like a show off.

And then everything goes back to normal but all it takes is the sound of a zip, or of someone with a foreign accent asking where you’re from, and all of a sudden you’re back on that beach with your 50p cocktail in hand and the sun in the sky.

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