Two years ago I started a six month long backpacking trip in Saigon, Vietnam. As I flew into the city I finalized the plans I’d been making in my head. I’d travel North to South and then wiggle my way into Thailand somehow, or Laos, or maybe Cambodia. I hadn’t actually given much thought, attention, or respect to the fact that I was visiting a part of the world I’d never been to. A few hours before landing I realized that Saigon was not in the North, it was in the South, that Hanoi was in the North, that I had no idea what I was doing, and that I was an asshole. I was in good company though—over six months I met many Australians and every time I mentioned that I’d always been interested in coming over they took it as an opportunity to brag about how well they’d made it through the Global Financial Crisis
It didn’t matter if it was Hanoi, Siam Riep, Kuta, or Bangkok: Australians kept wearing flip flops, kept drinking beer, and kept telling me how awesome they did through the GFC as if they personally had accomplished something. I don’t really trust people in Bintang tank tops and my ever-present sense of impending doom made it hard to believe that their economy was so bulletproof. But having been in Melbourne for two years now, and seeing how much money flies around down here, I almost had to give it to them. It seemed the bogans were right.
Recently however, impending doom has been winning out. Freakouts in China and the US mean the Australian dollar hasn’t been looking so good. Society isn’t going to fall apart but it certainly takes some of the spit off the shine of a country that boasts twenty-one years of economic growth.
Reading all this, I couldn’t help but think of all the poor backpackers, happily destroying Asia one drink at a time and haggling over two dollar cab rides with workers who made less in a year then their flights cost, who had been suckered into coming to Australia with the promise of a strong dollar they could hoard here and then wire back home. I’d heard that some such yokels were parking vans off the Yarra and dirtying it up with their trash and smelly armpits but when I went down to chat with them I found they had all vanished. Maybe the cold got to them.
I zoomed over the first hostel I found with the idea to ask some backpackers questions about the economy and work. The hostel was above a cop shop on Flinders lane. The list of rules clearly stated on the elevator panel: “No Guests that have been kicked out will be granted reentry.” Most people had tired foamy hangover eyes and there was a weird, docile feeling in the air, like the fuzz you hear in your ear just before a phone disconnects. Of course there was. Travelers are pod creatures, going to countries to engage but always away from “real life.” I interrupted a cluster of people playing Monopoly.
Blake, a fleshy American with a beard that sprung out in patches, told me he was “leaving with about five grand,” after having been here for only six months. He was thunderous and liked to talk in full sentences—I could imagine him getting settled quite fast. The Londoner I was sitting next to, Graham, had been here for a year and half and confessed to finding it quite difficult at first. “Once I got to Sydney I really struggled to find work. Just doing bits and bobs—anything, really.”
Anna from California had worked with Blake selling LED lights door to door. When I asked her how it paid, Blake cut in, “That’s a very long story. We started out at $800 base wage a week.” and then they slyly half confessed that it might have been a bit of a scam, which makes sense because making $800 a week for a door-to-door job is absolutely bonkers. Who buys LED lights?
Everyone at the table said they would have traveled regardless of whether the start of their working lives coincided with the recession, but Anna admitted that it was rough back home and impossible to save anything; the dollar drop bothered her because she was “hoping to go home with a little extra cash.” It’s hard to feel bad for someone when travel is such a luxury but hearing stories from North America you wonder if putting your Young Adult life on pause isn’t such a bad idea.
The Europeans had had it the worst. Graham had been laid off twice, having lost his job once to us conniving Indians in 2005, and then to general downsizing in 2007. He was getting close to thirty and this would be his last chance to travel and work at the same time under the regulations of the Working Holiday Visa. He was getting ready to go to New Zealand for another year.
The most pragmatic was the salt and pepper haired Italian to my left, Andrea, who’d been here for two weeks and was already working as a web developer. He said he’d never be able to get the same pay in Italy. Here he was thankful, “It’s a wonderful contract and the place of the work is awesome. People are friendly. You know, the CEO, everyone, are all kind.” I asked him if he wanted to stay forever and he looked at me like I was a moron, “If they’re going to give me a sponsorship, why not? If I have the chance, why not?”
Italy might be the land of big booty babes but without steady coin to take them out and treat them right, what was the point? I’d tried to live my whole life without letting money have too much importance, but because I never have much, it was on my mind constantly. It was the one part of my life that had infiltrated all others. I started traveling and working in 2007 as the recession rumbled into town and, because I’d jumped around so much, I’d dodged most of its consequences. Eventually everything catches up and I can only hope that impending doom doesn’t lay me out.
Follow Adnan of Twitter: @whotookadnan
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