Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Scourge of Humidity

Sleeping in the open in the desert is usually pleasant. Even in the peak of summer, nighttime temperatures are comfortable. You need an air mattress but not a tent, because there are few mosquitoes or other pests. Most importantly, there is very little rain, and when there is, you dry out quickly.

The same cannot be said for other parts of the world, which are polluted with humidity. Humidity creates lush greenery to hide in, but the penalties are severe. In places like Britain and New England, it can become difficult to camp out for extended periods because the insidious moisture permeates everything. Not only is there condensate falling from the sky, sometimes for weeks on end, but once you get wet you might never get dry again without artificial help. High humidity breeds all sorts of insects, molds, odors, discomforts and inconveniences, and it can often lead to a dull, lethargic feeling that doesn't go away.

My simple advice, whether you are homeless or not, is to move to the desert if you can, at least as your base location. Life is easier there no matter what your resources are.

Humidity is worse than cold. At least you can bundle up against the cold. With a tent and several sleeping bags, you can be comfortable in temperatures well below freezing. Add humidity in the form of rain, snow or saturated air, and sleeping outdoors becomes much more problematic. If your clothing or bedding gets wet, its thermal value collapses and will never recover unless you actively dry out.

Humidity can also make heat unbearable. In a dry environment, when you drink plenty of fluids and your body learns how to sweat, even 110°F can feel comfortable. Jack up the humidity to 98% and temperatures as low as 80° can seem unbearable. It's not just the heat but the stickiness that's hard to take. When it's humid outside, you feel like you are never clean -- like there's a perpetual layer of slime on your skin. You don't have this feeling in the dry desert no matter how hot it gets.

In the desert, dogs don't have fleas and houses don't have termites. There is no rot or mold and rarely a mosquito, because there's no place for them to breed. Unpleasant odors are minimal. Dry food stays dry and doesn't go stale. Paper goods and clothing remain crisp, and any wet clothing dries almost instantly. You don't even need a towel when you take a shower, because you dry in minutes anyway.

I just don't see why people willingly live in humid areas. London or Boston are interesting to visit during the 2 days out of 10 when the weather is benign, but after a couple of days of the usual shit, you just want out. Even Hawaii and the Caribbean, which seem like Paradise from afar, may be so cursed with wet (especially on the windward side of islands) that they're suitable only for vacations, not for real life.

You can travel and camp in humid areas--I do it all the time.--but you always have to have a backup plan. If you get rained out, bugged up or sogged in, what are you going to do? Even if you camp successfully for a few days, you will probably need some time in conventional lodging like a motel to clean up and dry out.

Sleeping in a car is probably the best way to "camp" in humid areas. At least you're protected from the worst of the rain, and you can crank the heater while driving to dry out your rig. Your only vulnerability is when you open a window for ventilation at night. Then the rain and mosquitoes can intrude, and you have to try mosquito netting or plastic sheeting to keep them out.

One the whole, though, humidity isn't wholesome and should be avoided. The Mediterranean climate that is the "cradle of civilization" (Rome, Greece, Hollywood, etc.) is dry enough. Near the Mediterranean itself, most people still live without heat or air conditioning, open to the outside air. There's hardly any distinction between "inside" and "outside" because there doesn't need to be. Humidity only became an issue when civilization started inexplicably moving north, to dreary places like England and Germany. That's when protection from the elements became a must.

If you are smart, you'll do the reverse migration: back to warm and dry climates where every day isn't a struggle. If you like shoveling snow and scraping off mold, by all means do it. If you would rather live easily, simply and cheaply, then head for the dry!

Also see: Things You Don't Need: Snow

©2009, Glenn Campbell, PO Box 30303, Las Vegas, NV 89173.
Released from suburban Boston (in the rain).
You are welcome to comment on this entry below.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Typical Hostel: Lisbon, Portugal

It's about 11pm, and I am writing from the very noisy common room of a youth hostel in Lisbon, Portugal. This is a very good hostel - the ideal example of what a hostel should be - so I thought I would give you a tour of the place. This is essentially a repeat of my earlier article, How to Sleep in a Hostel, with illustrations.

Americans are generally creeped out by sharing bunkroom accommodations with strangers, and this hostel goes even further: All of the dorms, restrooms and showers are co-ed! Get a load of this sign on one of the restrooms....It's a joke, of course, but even I was disoriented by it when I first arrived. I needed to use the toilet, and two college-age girls were primping at the sinks that are just out of view on the right. They were standing between me and the toilet stalls in the background. Where's the men's room? I toured the floor and found this was it!

In the American worldview, a mixing of the genders like this would be a recipe for some kind of porno and/or slasher film, but everyone here seems comfortable, even the 20% of guests who are American. There are still healthy boundaries between individuals, and people get along.

You can't beat the price: between €14 and €22 per night ($20-30) in the central tourist district of Lisbon. Tonight (midweek), I am paying €14, and tomorrow night €18. For this low price, I get a bunk with fresh linen and a blanket, a locker and key, free Wifi, free continental breakfast, free use of kitchen facilities, free communal laundry and all the community I want.

Here's another sign to amuse you, found on the wall of the common room....
That's right: The hostel sells alcohol to its guests - but only to people 16 years of age or older. (Those "7"s, BTW, are really European "1"s, so that means the hostel is selling beer to its guests for about $1.40 a bottle.) Here are some guests taking advantage of these resources in a photo taken moments ago...
In my home country, this could only lead to disaster: men, women and cheap alcohol. You would think chaos would result, but it doesn't. Although there's a lot of boisterousness here, nothing will get trashed and no one will get unruly. When the party winds down, everyone will go back to their mixed-sex dorm rooms and go to sleep.

The name of this hostel is simply "Home". It used to be called "Easy Hostel Lisbon," but for some reason the owner felt the need to change it. I found it through HostelWorld.com. (Here is its entry there) This is one of the highest rated hostels in a great hosteling city, but I chose it mainly for its low price and free WiFi (both in the common areas and in the rooms). As I see it, I am paying for 24 hours of WiFi and getting free lodging thrown in!

Here is what the hostel looks like from the outside....
It is located in a commercial building in the prime downtown tourist district of Lisbon. Like most other European hostels, however, it is not on the ground floor, and it can be nearly impossible to find without specific instructions. This hostel occupies the 2nd and 4th floors of this building (the middle floor with the windows open and the one two floors above - the 3rd and 5th floors to Americans). Here is the only indication on the outside of the building that the hostel exists....
On the ground floor is a clothing store and a cosmetic store, and on the 3rd floor is a public health doctor's office. If you climb two floors up the winding staircase, you find the hostel entrance....
This hostel, like most these days, is privately owned. It makes a profit by occupying relatively cheap real estate (like the upper floors of this old building), and packing a lot of people into a small area. Instead of putting 2 people in a room like a hotel would, they stack 4 or 6.

Here is the front desk and the free computer terminals for guests...
On the wall behind the desk are all the awards this hostel has won from HostelWorld for its higher user rankings. In addition to being the primary reservation site, HostelWorld is also the de facto hostel policing agency. People who have reserved through HostelWorld are later asked to leave comments and ratings on the hostel. (Here is this hostel's ratings.) These comments are read by future travelers and can make or break a hostel.

The common room is also on this floor...
It's essentially a big living room with couches, tables, beanbag chairs and a big-screen TV.

There is also a public kitchen on this floor....
Markers are provides so guests can add their own graffiti! Not all hostels have kitchens or ones as well-equipped as this. In this one, there are dishes, pots and pans, a stove top, an oven, refrigerators and lots of free food like rice and pasta left behind by other travelers. If you are tight for funds (as I often am), you can usually survive on the free food in the hostel.
This hostel, like many, provides a free continental breakfast. Here is what this morning's breakfast bar looked like...
That's typical: Toast and/or rolls, jam, cereal, milk and an unidentified orange-colored liquid. It's simple, but if you need to you can take in half your calories for the day. Here's my own personal breakfast this morning....
That dark liquid is half-mixed chocolate milk I made myself. The roll is actually excellent, the kind of fresh, hearty bread you can't get in the States at any price.

Here is an extra service provided by this hostel that I've never seen before...
It's a free laundry service! You deposit your dirty cloths in the bins before midnight (with everyone else's), and they turn up clean the next morning in the basket. It's a brilliant idea - and one that couldn't possibly work in America, where you just don't have this level of co-mingling among strangers.

My bunkroom is similar to the one show at the top of this article. There are six beds to a room, and a locker for each. When you check in, you get an electronic key-card for the room and an key for your locker. Here is the view from my window....
There is no heating or air conditioning in the rooms, and this being Portugal, none is really needed. The room does have a ceiling fan, though...
Whether by design or accident, most of the bunkrooms in this hostel are two floors above the floor with the common room, so the sleepers are not disturbed by the partyers. This is not the case in every hostel. In fact, there can a huge variation between hostels. Each one has its quirks and takes some getting used to. Even for an experienced hosteler like myself, there is usually an initial shock factor: "I'm going to be staying HERE?!" But you get acclimated in a few minutes.

Sleeping in a mixed gender room and using mixed gender restrooms also seems normal after a while. For the record, I have never seen anyone, of any gender, naked in a hostel. Where do people changes clothes? In a mixed gender environment like this, the only places you have any reliable privacy are the toilet stalls and shower stalls, so it has to be there. (Most hostels do provide the option of at least female-only rooms. You'll see it when you make your reservations on HostelWorld.)

As the compromise for the low price, you have to expect a loss of privacy. You are virtually forced to be part of a community, which I think is good. You don't meet many locals here but you do meet travelers from all over the world. Tourist guidebooks seem superfluous, since you can simply ask your fellow travelers where they have been and how to get there. If not for hostels, my visits to Europe would be very sterile and isolated. I think I would prefer hostels even if I could afford standard hotels. (If I could afford a rental car, though, I might prefer to see the countryside and sleep in the car.)

No matter what country you are visiting, the standard language between hostelers is English. When you meet, the first question is, "Where are you from?" The conversation usually flows naturally from there. At a hostel, you have a chance to experience the best of people, because before anyone has a chance to get on anyone else's nerves, people move on to the next city.

My roommates last night were 3 friendly Brazilian girls, a fellow from Norway and an Asian woman who speaks to no one. (I don't know if she is standoffish or her English is poor.) The night before there was a group of three from England (two men and a woman), an Australian chap and the same silent Asian woman. This is a common mix. You can bond instantly with your roommates or have virtually no contact with them.

The term "youth hostel" is roughly accurate in the European sense, where they consider people "youths" up to the age of 26. Most people are in the 20s. At age 49, I am often the oldest person in the hostels I visit (apart from the staff), but I try not to let on. Except for a few non-profit hostels, there is rarely any age discrimination, and I have sometimes seen retired people use them. Even if I could afford to stay in the Hilton, I would probably still prefer a hostel when available.

It's now almost 2am in the common room, and the party has dispersed. The nine people who are still awake have all settled down to watch the Sex in the City movie. (It's better, at least, than the violent American flick that was playing earlier.) Time for me to go to bed.

BTW: The total cost of my 3-night visit to Lisbon, including lodging, food, sightseeing and ground transportation: €60 ($85).

Also see my other photos from Lisbon and How to Sleep in a Hostel.

UPDATE: 7 July

Before I left the hostel, I had a chance to chat with the proprietor, Jorge. This is the only hostel he owns. He says he is a former backpacker himself, and he designed the hostel based on his own experiences. He started on only one floor several years ago (I think he said 2004.) and later expanded to two.

This appears to be an example of a hostel that couldn't exist without HostelWorld.com. The website allowed him to start a new hostel and get it noticed by travelers with very little marketing cost. (Compare this with the struggle of starting a small hotel.)

Jorge says the free laundry service was his own idea and that no other hostel is doing it. (He recalled that when backpacking he began to stink after a while because he had no place to wash his clothes.)

I think the fact that this is an individual owner rather than a corporate one is reflected in the quality of the hostel and the enthusiasm of the staff. This is someone who obviously cares about his business and isn't just a hired hand. He seemed to indicate that he was making money, which is good. It's nice to give people value for their money while still doing okay for yourself.

©2009, Glenn Campbell, PO Box 30303, Las Vegas, NV 89173.
Released from Lisbon, Portugal.
You are welcome to comment on this entry below.