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Backpackers hostels: a place to stay, not a place to linger

Welcome to the Hotel European

​Need an escape from real life? Being on the road getting you down? Africa driving you a little bit crazy? Take a few days break at the nearest Backpackers, the 21st century rendition of stuffy old youth hostels. Run away to an expat oasis inhabited by travellers, volunteers,  school kids, drop-outs and potential new friends. But don’t stay too long, or you’ll risk damaging your independent traveller ego. Outstay your welcome and you’ll feel just like another sunburnt tourist on a summer holiday in a bad hotel at a tacky beach resort. 

As I’m writing this I’m sitting in a deck chair at the Chameleon Backpackers in Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia. The pool is steps away, and might be inviting if it wasn’t a chilly winter morning.  Plus I have to keep suppressing the feeling of western excess that comes from consuming that much water in the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa, during a multiple year drought. The photos around the walls showing the huge Namib desert, renowned for monstrous sand dunes and parched landscapes don’t quell the guilt. 

Like many Backpackers we have stayed in on our African adventure, this hostel has plenty of outdoor seating for relaxing, and a laid back bar selling reasonably priced beer (simply named, but quite enjoyable Windhoek Lager). There’s some music playing and a large TV switching between the Euro 2016 tournament, Wimbledon, the Tour De France and occasional CNN. The best Backpackers provide basic facilities and a vibe that sucks you in so you don’t attempt to leave, even to go into town just a few minutes away. 

A major draw for many Backpackers guests, beyond a cheap bed and on-tap entertainment, is the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. The bunch sitting around the pool right now are from Germany, Holland, USA and Japan. Ignoring the few loudmouths and know-it-alls there are some interesting people to chat with. Despite this, I’m not sure that I came to Africa to hang out exclusively with travellers and tourists. I could do that in almost any central London pub.

Sitting in my deck chair by the guilt-ridden pool I have time to reflect on our travels so far. As much as our time in Zimbabwe turned into a constant trek searching for cash, it was wonderful to be there. I feel like we chatted with more local people in our few weeks in the country than anywhere else we’ve been. Racially and ethically we were very much a minority, and that felt completely natural, how things should be. We rarely ended up surrounded by white Europeans on the tourist trail or sucked in to the Backpackers paradise. Sitting by this pool now I appreciate that our travels in Zimbabwe were stressful but memorable, at times annoying but genuinely African. There was nothing unreal about them, since for once the Backpackers was just a place to stay, not a place to linger. 

Have you ever stayed in a Backpackers, hostel or lodge that you never wanted to leave? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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