Travel Tips : Sprawl and Sweep


This is all of our travel gear (more or less), packed up and ready to go hiking from Jogjakarta, Indonesia. This is how I like to see everything, accounted for and tidy.

We had a reservation for a much smaller room and got lucky!

We have stayed in a lot of hostels, hotels, campsites, side-of-the-roads, and air-bnbs. From all that time traveling, we’ve lost hardly a fraction of our gear. The notable exception to this was in Australia where we stayed for a month and violated one of our two main rules. That rule is sprawl. We don’t do it whenever we can avoid it. We’re natural sprawlers, myself more than Natalie, but it’s dangerous when you travel. Everything should be kept in a neat pile or two, or, even better, in the bag. We’ve fared the best when we take out only what we need and then keep it piled on top of the open backpacks. Especially when the room is large and inviting like this one in Vietnam, it can be so easy to let all our stuff sprawl out.

An off season deal that we found at the edge of Jogja, right near Prambanan.

It’s especially important not to spread stuff out when there are lots of nooks and crannies like this huge room we found in Indonesia. Lots of places for things to hide under make it that much easier to lose important pieces of gear. It’s ok to spread out temporarily of course, when we’re working with our gear or packing it ready for a hike, everything comes out, gets checked, and gets put back in. This sort of short operation is ok because things don’t sneak away and get forgotten three days later when its time to move again.



The easiest room to sweep, ever. A hostel in Taipei, Taiwan.

Why is not allowing sprawl so important? Because of our second trick – the sweep. Typically when doing a final check, many people resort to a list. They tick off each item, making sure it’s accounted for. When the list is all checked, everything is safe and packed and they have peace of mind. This works super well for a few pack-ups. I do it when I’m going camping as a matter of course. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work for us on the road. We tried it briefly, in Mexico, and found it entirely too cumbersome. Checking off a list makes it hard to pack fast and go, and either we have to take out all our things to check them, or ‘check them out’ as we take them out, then check them back in later. It’s a hassle and we didn’t have the time.

Another easy room to check – Hong Kong.

Instead what we do is call a sweep every time we leave somewhere. This means we pack our bags as best we can, and then we go and check in corners, under tables, behind beds, and in the bathroom, for any and all items that have scurried to a back corner. We do a specific check for vital items like passports and some electronics, but outside of those, we don’t tick off by name. Since we made sure not to sprawl out terribly much, the sweep tactic catches the rare items that have escaped and puts them back in the bag. This has worked astoundingly well for us, except when we’ve let ourselves spread our gear all over the place.

All neat on the train. Is there a bag over our heads? It’s probably not coming with us.

The one part of travel this hasn’t worked super well for is trains. We usually are leaving them in a bit of a rush because we don’t know the route, recognize the stops, or understand the language, so our destination comes as a bit of a surprise. Our number one loss location is the overhead rack in trains, followed by the under-seat. We don’t seem to have the same issue in buses or airplanes, but we’ve lost more than one bag full of food, or a shirt, or some other goodie, to the rails. Luckily no catastrophes because we always make sure our main bags are with us, but any additional plastic or paper bags are fair game for the train gods.



How not to hostel

Part of our 8-bed hostel room in Prague.

Let’s file this one under bad hostel etiquette: yelling at the other people in the room to stop making any noise at 8 am. On the one hand, it is 8 am and anyone who was out partying last night wants to sleep in longer. On the other hand, we had to hear you come in late last night and we’ve got places to be.

We’ll call this person “Dude” and in an effort to acknowledge that dickery such as his occurs every population, leave his nationality out. We’ve known since Dude checked in that he has a problem with morning noise, since Stoytcho and I have been up early every morning to explore Prague and found him groaning and growling at any hint of noise. Even when we talk in whispers and pack up quietly, we hear him tossing in his bunk huffing and muttering angrily.

This morning we’re checking out to head to Linz, Austria, and we’re not the only ones up – more than half of the room is awake and preparing to leave, from pulling on clothes to packing away food and water for the day. This proves too much for Dude, whose chorus of groans escalates into a crescendo before he jerks his bed’s curtain open. “This is a hostel! How can you make so much noise? We are supposed to be a community and people are trying to sleep here!” he hisses furiously.

Having traveled through more than a dozen countries and countless terrible sleeping situations, I’ll have none of his accusations. “We’re all on different schedules and some of us get up early. We try not to make noise, but we’re not going to change our plans for you.” He shot back with another retort, and I pointed out that more than half the people in the room were already up. “Look, I can give you earplugs if you want them, but otherwise deal with it. I countered. Rebuked, Dude let out a hiss and yanked his curtain shut again, muttering profanity under his breath.

I would’ve liked to have defused the situation a little less bluntly, but dealing with discomforts like this one are a part of hostel life and you have to adapt. If you get cold easily, you carry an extra blanket or you ask the hostel for one. If you must have tea in the morning, you carry tea. If you can’t sleep with noises, you bring earplugs. And if you can’t adapt, you probably shouldn’t stay in hostels.

There are definitely best practices when hosteling, such as not carrying on conversations late at night or early in the morning, throwing things, fighting over the temperature or whether the window should be closed or open. You should work to make it a liveable space for everyone, sharing outlets to charge phones or computers and trying to keep it clean, because you are a community. Sometimes there will be disagreements or someone will do something that bothers you. In that case, it’s okay to politely ask if they’ll stop doing it. But getting upset and yelling about it is pointless and seriously not cool, Dude.

After all that unpleasantness, here’s a bumblebee.

Hostel, Brothel?

A street on the outskirts of Tokyo.

Our first night in Tokyo, we stayed on the outskirts of the city in a makeshift capsule hotel/hostel. This was one of the most bizarre, uncomfortable nights that we’ve ever had, partly because our room looked like this:

Stoytcho stands in our ‘room’, which has barely enough space to fit our packs and ourselves.

And partly because, well, I’m pretty sure our hostel was also some kind of brothel. Stoytcho fell asleep early, but I huddled on the lower bunk for several hours writing for the blog, with our room’s accordion-screen door cracked to get some airflow into our tiny crevice of a room. Around one in the morning, I heard some shuffling noises outside and low voices speaking Japanese, and two figures drifted into view through the crack in the door. They stopped at the empty room across the hall, where they seemed to be having difficulty turning on the room’s light. Minutes passed, and their talking grew louder, probably because they were drunk, and the smell of cigarette smoke started drifting into the room, probably because one (or both) of them had decided it was ok to smoke indoors. I found it unlikely they could have missed the no-smoking signs in the well-lit reception area, but, Japan.

After the cigarette smoke smell permeated the air of our room, I’d had enough and mustered my broken Japanese to do something about it. I poked my head out and called to them to please not smoke. 「タバコを吸うあないでください。」I could make out two figures in the dim light, a man and a woman, in front of the doorway across our narrow hall. They stood surprised. The man fell silent, and did not speak again. The woman, holding the burning cigarette, stared at me for a second before crying out softly 「ああ、ごめん!」She looked around for a way to put her cigarette out, but found none.

I stared at them for a few seconds longer, but I could feel the man’s growing discomfort and so I returned to my writing. After a minute, I heard the woman call out to me, asking if I knew how to turn on the room’s light.「あのう、どう電気をつけますか?知っていますか?」I set my computer aside and crawled out from the bottom bunk, squeezing myself into the narrow space between our beds and the wall, and then through the narrow crack of the door into the hallway. To avoid embarrassing any of us further, I kept my eyes toward the ground as I reached into their room and flipped a light switch. A soft yellow light flooded the room and spilled into the hallway, illuminating the three of us, with at least one of us no longer wishing to be here.

I have no idea what happened after that, because I closed the door and went to sleep with earplugs. There was no sign of the two in the morning and the reception was unstaffed when we checked out. Even if someone had been there, I have no idea what I would have asked because my Japanese wasn’t up to snuff to ask about prostitution, and I have no idea why I would have asked beyond sheer curiosity. Prostitution is quasi-legal in Japan, and I hold no particular sense or desire to pass moral judgements. But the incident felt like a glimpse into the private life of the Japanese, a peek behind the veil into something deeply personal in a culture obsessed with hiding one’s private feelings and thoughts.

The room in question, the morning after. No sign of anyone remains beyond the faint smell of cigarette smoke.