I had been warned about not losing the shirt off my back when traveling overseas, but someone forgot to warn me about not losing the pants off my backside.
For some, part of the allure of international backpacking is living the hostel lifestyle. Hostels are generally cheap, centrally located and are a wonderful place to meet and mingle with fellow travelers.
Part of the reality of hostel bunk surfing is living with the possibility of theft, symphonic snoring by strange roommates and, not to mention, some of the crustiest showers you've ever imagined. A trusty pair of earplugs and some shower slippers are essential at hostels, but do little to provide a sense of security. I suppose knowledge and vigilance are your best resources to avoid becoming a victim when traveling.
In my three separate voyages off the continent, I have remained relatively safe, somehow avoiding becoming that easy victim that you often hear about. But there was this one time in Belgium.
I arrived in Bruges via Holland on a hot July afternoon, stashed my backpack in a locker at the train station, and found myself swept into the current of Flemish life when I walked out into a large open-air flea market. With a Let's Go guide as my only travel companion, I ventured out into the massive crowd in search of the notorious Bauhaus Hostel, which claims to be one of Europe's 10 best hostels.
After walking down a series of cobblestone streets, I reached the Bauhaus, which is really more of a hostel complex with its range of guest rooms, restaurant and renowned bar. I was quick to find out that one of its major attributes is the bar's notoriety, which draws locals and travelers alike and creates an atmosphere conducive to meeting and conversing with a variety of unforgettable characters. All operations are run through the bar, and as I bellied up and filled out my registration, a 30-something-year-old Flemish postal worker named Dirk asked me if he could check out my Let's Go guide to "see what they say about us."
Dirk and his buddy Mark the welder were proud of their region's beers, and throughout the two-hour conversation that ensued, they generously insisted on providing me with samples of their particular favorites from the region. They also provided a generous amount of information about their culture and their country. They were the ideal locals a traveler enjoys meeting.
Soon thereafter, I met Eli, a New Yorker, who claimed to be a direct decedent of a famous 16th century English explorer. As another solo American traveler fresh into town, we quickly hit it off and forged a friendship. Over the next several days Eli and I utilized the recommendations of Dirk, Mark and the Let's Go guide, touring the Belgian countryside on bikes, visiting museums, bars, churches and more.
Heeding the advice given by Dirk, I had left my backpack in the train station locker for security reasons. Over the course of my stay I had used my day-pack to carry only the essential items I would need, including socks, underwear, T-shirts, flip-flops, toiletries and a towel.
As I laid in bed on my final evening at the Bauhaus, trying to fall asleep, I thought it would become a rather precarious situation if someone decided to walk off with either my pants or my shoes. With the majority of my possessions being locked up at the train station, I had shrugged off my premonition and left my clothes, shoes and hat neatly placed next to my bed, using my day-pack as a pillow.
I awoke the next morning to the rustling of two Polish travelers packing up for their next destination, rubbed the sleep from my eyes and reached for my belongings. Sure enough, my shirt was there, my shoes were there, and my hat was there, but no pants. No freakin' pants.
I can only imagine the thoughts going through these Polish guys' minds as I frantically searched around the room in my boxer briefs, speaking to them as if they understood English. As they conferred with each other with shocked looks upon their faces, our Russian roommate, who spoke broken English, entered the room. Trying to mask my embarrassment and anger, I explained the situation to the Russian who relayed the information to the Polish guys.
I'm not sure if they were relieved that I wasn't completely insane, if they thought it was hilarious that I had lost my pants, or a little bit of both, but they simultaneously burst out laughing while avoiding looking in my direction. Realizing that these guys were going to be about as helpful to my situation as they were going to be to my self-esteem, I converted my towel into a makeshift kilt and left the room. I had plans to meet up with Eli in the bar area and to then catch a train to Paris that afternoon.
Trying to act as natural as I possibly could wearing a towel in a crowded public area thousands of miles away from home, I explained my situation to Eli - who of course laughed. His amusement only increased when he offered to let me borrow a small, tacky pair of swimming shorts until we got to Paris. Figuring it was a slightly better deal than enduring the stares while walking to the train station wrapped in a towel, I took his offer and donned what seemed at that moment to be the most hideous pair of shorts ever made.
It was a long walk to the train station that day, pride slightly stolen, 48 euros poorer, and out one fancy pair of pants that I had grown quite attached to. However, in retrospect, it wasn't a total loss.
That morning in Belgium I gained some valuable travel experience. I learned that it's important to watch your budget when traveling so that you don't loose the shirt off your back, but mainly I learned that you must be careful when and where you take your pants off overseas.
Eric Morrison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.