When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes. – Erasmus
I first happened upon this quote in a Borders bookstore (sadly, now closed) in Austin, TX, printed on a wall near the cafe. It struck me as somewhat synchronous with an aspect of my behavior I had never paid particular attention to: while looking for ways to save money on most day-to-day items and reading sites on how to pay off debt quickly, I never balked at the price of books, feeling that every cent spent on a book would be worth it in the end. Sometimes I’ve spent too much on a book that ended poorly, other times I’ve found a cheap book at a garage sale that I’ve read many times over. At a hostel two days ago, I freely exchanged a copy of Dean Koontz’s Breathless for Frank Herbert’s Dune (some would say I’m too old to have not read this before) and feel like a bandit king on that trade!
And speaking of bandits, this post is about the second half of this quote, specifically obtaining food. A certain topic sneaks its way onto the conversation wheel of every hostel in Australia and that is: Damn, it’s expensive here! At the time of this post, the US and Australian dollar are just about neck-and-neck, but America’s federal standard minimum wage is shockingly dwarfed by Australia’s ($7.25 compared to $15.51, respectively). If you make $40k/yr in the US, your effective tax rate is 15.08%. Make the same amount in Australia and your paying 12.63% in income tax. Knowing this, it’s understandable why there aren’t riots in the streets over $12 lunch specials and $15 6-packs of Toohey’s New beer (roughly the equivalent of Keystone).
The trouble for travelers is you’re living off the money from back home. So you save a few grand, hitch up the wagons and head West…and suddenly, that job you once worked and felt decently compensated for becomes a pale, shriveled joke of a memory. The Work-Holiday Visa becomes a must for anyone but the passing tourist. I’ve met guys who call an agency daily for day-labor work and when they get an assignment, they’re ecstatic. At $20 – $25/hr for picking small rocks out of a garden or moving office furniture, a 5 – 8 hour day pays for another week’s accommodation.
But what happens when you can’t get work? You’re strapped for cash, your phone inexplicably stopped working a few days ago, and your flight home is scheduled for 2 – 6 months from now. Along with the regret for buying those Jell-O shots for the young ladies at Gilligan’s over the past few weeks come thoughts on where you can skimp. Clothing doesn’t get washed as regularly – that’s a given – and buying new clothes is simply out of the question. Food is the second (if not the first, for those foodies out there) largest expense and shortcuts must be found. Instant noodles, pasta, and rice become staples and can even be found on the free food shelves in many hostels. But I can attest to how quickly these items lose their charm. Dinner becomes a dreaded chore of choking down carbs and fooling your inner-connoisseur with the smoke and mirrors of high-fructose spaghetti sauce, teriyaki sauce or MSG-riddled spice packs. Tuna with chili sauce and frozen vegetables give you a bit more of what you need, but stores here are designed for impulse buying like anywhere else. The marketing pulls you into desperation.
Talk to a few destitute backpackers and you begin to see the “creative” ways they make their money last amounts to little more than good old-fashioned stealing. These aren’t hardened criminals who’ve been raised in the underfunded travesty of juvie, but university graduates who’ve picked up a few tricks of the trade along their trek. They hit bars for one free promotional drink before bouncing to the next watering hole. They use Q-tips to jerryrig coin-op washers and dryers. They cram into corners of a hostel where free wi-fi signals can be obtained from neighboring businesses. But the real key is self-checkout lanes at Woolworths or Coles – without these, this post comes to a screeching halt. 6 dinner rolls get tossed in a bag while only one is reported during checkout. The weighted scales have guys buying steak for the price of watermelon (1 kg of watermelon costs around $1.80 and weighs the same as 1 kg of unscanned beef, saving the shopper $5). Working in pairs, I’ve heard tales of full rotisserie chickens being dropped in the plastic bag which a friend holds over the scale, but doesn’t actually allow it to touch the scale. Without being scanned and without an added weight, the nice meal is on the house.
These tales around the table have everyone in hysterics, but after the smiles fade, the questions of whether or not they feel bad about what they’re doing surface. I’ve heard responses varying from, “Yeah, a bit,” to “There was no way I could’ve planned or saved for how much everything costs over here, so no, I don’t care”. One guy said, “It’s not really any different from downloading music for free.” Heh. It really isn’t. But he might be missing the point of his own comparison.
As for me, for now, I will eat my dressed-up gruel, think fondly on the times of greedily devouring Rudy’s BBQ at work and appreciate the exchange of paperbacks at hostels for the free adventures which they offer. Or should I just join the ranks of the traveling thieves guild?