20 Feb

Catalysing love at the end of the world: The philosopher’s toilet

A little over a year ago, E&M’s Friederike Sandow investigated romance and long-term relationships that have sprung out of a backpackers’ hostel on the outskirts of one of the most isolated cities in the world. She went back to that same hostel but, this time, to speak with a crowd of single backpackers. They talked love, sex, travels and aspirations for the new year.

It’s the day before Christmas, the hostel is packed. Backpackers are celebrating Christmas far away from home. Meanwhile, a lot of families all over the world are setting one plate less at their dinner table because their offspring is currently queuing for turkey and potatoes or frantically wrapping their secret Santa present, cheering to a merry Christmas with people they have not known long, at the end of the world.

The travelling.

“I have had times since I started travelling when I felt a little homesick, sure. But surprisingly, Christmas wasn’t one of those times.” (Sven, 29)

Having left a secure job that he thoroughly enjoys, he felt the need to travel. “I think I have always been a little too scared — of what I don’t know. I just knew I should travel, I’ve always wanted to.” Joe too, 23, always wanted to go and travel. He travelled to Australia with his friend George, also 23. With a sunburned face Joe says that he doesn’t know how long he will be gone. He wanted a change, he felt bored and a little trapped in his job back home and felt the need to get out. Tim, 22, is travelling to pass the time before he can start university. Almost all of the people I have talked to plan on travelling over the span of one or two years. Some don’t plan to return home at all. 

The love.

Are you currently in love? 

The answers ranged from several “No”  – some with a smile, one with a forceful head shaking – to a few “what?!”, over to “my heart is currently unavailable for love” (ouf, I felt that one) and some “I am getting over someone back at home” and, my personal favourite, two solid “N…nooo…aaaaah…?!?” followed by a “Shit, I thought I wasn’t. Apparently, I am at a maybe. So, let’s call it half?” 

It feels like I have fallen in love three times already since I started travelling four months ago

“It’s a little different here though. Everything, even having a crush on someone, just happens at a quicker pace. It feels like I have fallen in love three times already since I started travelling four months ago,” Sven admits. “But I also worry less. Back at home when I had a crush on someone I would tend to overthink, while here I just take it as it comes.”

The view of bather’s beach right behind the Old Firestation Backpackers | Photo courtesy Sofía Barbot

The sex.

“The environment is a little sexually charged and that’s quite contagious.” (Jacky, 22.) Even though she’s not indulged in any hostel romance (yet?), she agrees with everything we have already learnt : “top bunks are for beginners.” “Between all this flirting, an endless summer and the familiarity the place exudes, there are also moments when you have to put your foot down, naturally, and tell someone to back off. That’s tricky, because you will bump into each other multiple times a day or night.” Side note: just like everywhere in the world, seeking, giving or denying consent is queen. 

But where do you go in a house that you share with 125 people if you want some sexy time? 

“Oh yeah, sex in the showers is a regular. I do think so far we were always alone. I mean yeah, bottom bunks are ok too. Just this one time we definitely weren’t alone in the bed. I am still haunted by the look the top bunk backpacker gave me when I got up…” (Torrey, 21).

The backyard | Photo courtesy Sofía Barbot

Adrianna, 30, chimes in with the cinema area, because apparently the sofas in the back block the view. Also, there’s a couch under the stairs that has deemed itself useful. And if that doesn’t sound Harry Potterish enough, there’s always the Philosopher’s toilet. It’s the toilet that is being left out when new backpackers get a tour of the hostel, as if you have to ‘earn’ its usage. It’s a magical place, that combines a lone toilet and a shower, in the far back of the hostel’s backyard. “You can poop in quiet, clean yourself and — it has a power plug,” Adrianna goes into rhapsodies. 

It’s a magical place, that combines a lone toilet and a shower, in the far back of the hostel’s backyard. “You can poop in quiet, clean yourself and — it has a power plug”

There’s a little writing underneath the mirror in the Philosopher’s toilet that reads: “some cause happiness…” and it’s probably safe to say that this toilet has caused a lot of happiness for couples in need of a little privacy. 

Rainbow over the Old Firestation | Photo courtesy Sofía Barbot

In the early morning hours, with the party still going on, a girl will go to the Philosopher’s loo and forget her bum bag in the toilet. A guy will find it there with the good and right intention to return the bum bag to its rightful owner. Somewhere in the midst of the Christmas party haze, something will go wonderfully wrong. 

The coming and not going — but staying.

Why do so many backpackers stay for such a long time, in this one hostel? 

Joe said he didn’t like it that much when he first arrived. “But then I got sucked into staying.” Why, I want to know. What made him stay? — and the answer comes barking in from the right, from Elliott, 28, who, with half an ear, had listened to our conversation: “Because of the people” and he walks away without further explanation. And Joe just nods: “Well, yeah, basically. The people.”

The backyard | Photo courtesy Sofía Barbot

Jacky says she is on the way to not only get to know herself better, but she starts to really live with herself. “Ultimately, this time away travelling means decisions. Everyday I have to make decisions for myself, on my own. For how I spend leisure time, as simple as it sounds.” It’s something she rarely did consciously before. “This place is special though. People stay longer than in other hostels. It has allowed me to find friends, because I go to party with them, see them the morning after, shower and get ready with them, hear them all the time, see them all the time, cook with them and just, literally, live with them.”

Tim said that, usually, he travels on after two weeks in the same place. “When I started my travels on the East Coast I was a bit unlucky at first. The job was shit, my long-term girlfriend and I had just broken up and I felt homesick. You can feel lonely even if you’re in a hostel full of people. But arriving here was different, I don’t know. I felt welcomed.” Sven said that the hostel is like a “little big bubble” — its own microcosm, where world news don’t really trickle through and where no one from outside can intrude the backpackers’ land. Even though he might leave the hostel soon, he has already planned for his trip, however long it will take him still, to end at the hostel before he flies back home. “You know, it’ll be like going back home before you really have to go home.”

For Agnese, 26, the hostel is a place where she can be completely herself, without judgement. “We all have to leave our comfort zone once in a while. Travelling and being here has made me realise what my real limits are, and what limits only existed in my mind.” 

For Torrey, the hostel gives her a sense of belonging and family. 

And I do think that it makes you a better person to live in a place that forces you to socialise. It makes you feel more comfortable in general.

And for Tess, 25, it literally is family. “I am in a relationship with this hostel. And it is everything to me and my family.” She has been working in the hostel since 2017, her parents opened it in 2005. She says even though she basically grew up with the hostel, “it’s still so easy to come back to this place.” 

*Right about at this point, the conversation was interrupted by Sam being showered in beer — and showering himself a little, actually, with beer — and Jordan pointing a bottle of ketchup at people sitting around the table, trying to shoot out little strings of ketchup, semi-successfully, directly at people. 

Adrianna, who first came to the hostel on Christmas Eve 2015 and has been a regular ever since, says that the hostel allows people to be weird in a safe place. “It’s an inherited safe space. You have the same patterns of stories, soap operas and drama, only with different people. But the feeling of the place doesn’t change. In my first year here I got parented by the hostel long-termers, and now I do some of the parenting for the newly arrived.” 

A secret santa gift | Photo courtesy Friederike Sandow

George describes it as a community. “The staff makes sure to nudge you towards the people they think you’d get along with. And I do think that it makes you a better person to live in a place that forces you to socialise. It makes you feel more comfortable in general.”

The new year (and solving the puzzle of the lost bum bag.)

Resolutions? Aspirations?

Torrey wants new chapters and adventures, as well as finding her roots, finding a place where she can settle, after three solid years of travelling. Tim wants to travel more and to have a calm, slow year. Jacky plans to plan less in her coming year. And, beautifully, Adrianna is excited to form a grand plan for her life in the next year. I like that both these contrary wishes coexist in the same space, giving both women the freedom to plan or not to plan.

George wants to meet more amazing people. Joe wants to make travelling more what he really wants it to be. He says for that to happen he needs to stop being lazy and start putting himself out there more. Sven, who for years would put off travelling because he didn’t find the courage to just do it, says he feels that he has already become more confident. “Dunno what I was afraid of, really. I wasn’t necessarily wanting to come back a changed man, but it will inevitably have happened, no? And I am curious to see in what way my travels will have shaped me.” And Agnese wants nothing more than what she has now. “Wanting more would be almost voracious!” she says with the biggest smile. 

The day after the Christmas party, the bum bag girl was looking for her bag. Even though the founder had tracked her down the night before, a day later names were forgotten (or never exchanged) and the bag was still lost to her. Though the finder of the bag remembered that he definitely had the bag, he couldn’t recollect where he then put it. Being almost accused of stealing the bag and turned into an outcast by the backpacking family, the founder begged the hostel staff to trace his steps of the previous night via CCTV. The staff on duty then bore witness to the beautiful confusion playing out on tape. It showed that (after a little session of smooching in the Philosopher’s toilet) he had confidently strolled into the kitchen, beers in one hand, bum bag in the other, to then, after a little moment of hesitation, put the beers in a locker and the bum bag in the fridge. The safekeeping had undeniably worked.

The Old Firestation in Fremantle might just be the most beautiful oxymoron there can be: the backpackers can be excitable, stupid and daring like children in the safe haven that the hostel walls provide; but they are also growing up, healing, learning. And falling (adorably) in love — with people, places, and themselves. Where some people want to learn how to form a plan, others try to learn how to not plan anything. Torrey sums it up as “a place where the rules are so bent, yet strict” in the sweetest Australian accent you can imagine. 

2020: Let’s bend some rules. Let’s form a plan, maybe to not plan? Let’s fall in love, and out of it. (Falling in is, generally, slightly more fun though.) 

The Old Firestation | Photo courtesy of Friedrike Sandow

Thanks to Torrey, Jacky, Tim, George for letting me interview them (and also for interviewing me back: apparently if I had to describe myself in three words I would pick ‘kind, awkward and fun’), as well as to Joe, Elliott (he really really really wants to see a new foosball table at the hostel and was very adamant about having this mentioned), Sven, Tess, Agnese, Adrianna; and to Alex and Sofía for the special effects. 

Cover Photo: Sofía Barbot (@sofiabarbot on Instagram)