by Phoebe Blyth
In Spain, I learned that while in theory it seems carefree to sleep in the sand, romantic to cuddle up in a hammock, and cheap to kip in a car, it is better in the long run to invest in an air mattress and sleeping bag.
Ok, so firstly I should establish that it takes a certain breed of traveler to end up in the kind of situation which even necessitates this particular piece of advice. A sane and stable response from your average or 'garden variety' backpacker would be "Yeah. Hostel beds are the worst. But they mostly give you blankets and pillows. What's the big deal?"
The kinds of travelers I am referring to however, are those who tend to get overly excited about some specific aspect of the great outdoors (be it forests, mountains, beaches, or, in this case, limestone and granite), who are simultaneously traveling on such a whim and a budget that they may just overlook some of the more superfluous details of their trip: such as where they are going to sleep.
I came to Mallorca to sample the world class deep water soloing (dubbed psicobloc by the Spaniards): climbing without protection on sections of sea cliff above deep water (preferably free of sharp rocks), where every wrong move precludes a screaming fall into the ocean, and a soggy return to the start.
I had been traveling with a scruffy New Zealander who I had met through couch surfing, and two Americans who we had met through climbing, and we had inadvertently fallen into something of a competition to see who could survive on the smallest possible amount of money, something in the ball park of €5 a day. Needless to say, this did not cover hostel rooms, and so my kiwi friend and I had planned to sleep in the car. He at least, was better prepared than I, having a sleeping mat and sleeping bag. I had bought an €8 sleeping bag from Decathlon, which provided approximately as much warmth as a damp piece of toilet paper.
The four of us made our way to Cala Barques: a tiny cove, where the climbing was amazing, the water was sparkling blue, and camping was illegal. Nevertheless, when we arrived, we found that the woods behind the beach were full of discretely equipped havens, where surreptitious squatters cooked their meals on makeshift stoves, and slept in shabby tents camouflaged by the spiky shrubbery.
At the end of our first day of climbing, we had new friends, bellies full of camp food and cheap wine, noses full of seawater, and nowhere to sleep. The distance between the car park and the beach made our original plan of sleeping in the car rather impractical. Will set up his mat and sleeping bag under the trees where our new friends were camping, and I opted for sleeping under the stars on the beach. Very adventurous. Making memories and all that.
Let me tell you now, sand gets cold. What's more, sand feels soft, but once you wriggle into it and make yourself a snug little egg cup shape to sleep in, it sets like concrete and gives you aches in joints you were previously unaware of. Sleeping in sand is a no-no. I went on to experiment with sleeping on dirt in the boys' campsite; complaining about my sore back until one of the boys let me sleep on their mat; and then finally giving up and trekking back along the dark, dirt trail each night to sleep in the car. Assuming you are short, flexible, and don't mind sleeping with one leg over your head, sleeping in the car is officially better than sleeping on the ground.
After a week of back pain and insomnia, washing everything (including ourselves) in seawater, and being terrorised by the neighbourhood cows (who conducted nightly raids on our food supply), we had a chance encounter with a local climber who took pity on our predicament and offered us his couch. As luck would have it, it transpired that his neighbour was in the business of selling travel hammocks: seemingly the perfect solution to my conflicting desires to travel light and sleep for more than an hour at a time. No more sleeping on the ground for me!
I left Mallorca after two weeks, sunburned, smiling and silly with excitement about my next destination. Anyone who has experienced the irrational giddiness and spontaneity that is travel romance will know how thrilling it is to be flying to meet your paramour with the express intention of being somewhere strange with someone new. This is the part of the plan where the hammock came in.
Picture a glorious Mediterranean sunset, a hammock, with two pairs of feet dangling over the edge, strung up between two trees, as the waves gently washed across the sand, the only other sound a barely discernible whispering from the owners of said feet. Pretty damn romantic.
Except, as it turns out, it's not.
That sense of romance is significantly diminished when you realise that a hammock affords you very little privacy to be (ahem) romantic. They also offer no security against thieves, small children, inclement weather, or hungry cows. If you happen to be in a place where all this is of little import, there is still the issue of physics. Hammocks are fantastically comfortable for napping, but somewhat less so for the good old eight hours, particularly if you are sharing. We eventually settled on a position which roughly resembled a pretzel, and managed to sleep one at a time.
On our last morning at the beach, my paramour awoke with a highly decorative pattern of bug bites on the right side of his face. This was the last straw. The hammock was not the solution.
A few weeks later, my hammock mate and I went to a large music festival in Valencia where the accommodation was camping only. After weeks of ill-prepared, uncomfortable, rather public sleeping arrangements, our first mission was to get ourselves properly kitted out for camping. Blow up mattress. Tent. Deck chairs. Hell yes. The hammock proved wonderful for those afternoon naps, and we managed to find a camp site amongst the trees, thus avoiding the fate of so many others who were baked in their tents by seven am, or trampled on by drunks in the middle of the night.
The point I'm trying to make is this: buy a blow up mattress and a tent. It's worth it. You will still be intrepid and adventurous, but much better rested and with more energy for the fun things. It is still cheaper than a hostel (at this point I was living on about €1000 a month). Needless to say, a month later I found myself once again sleeping in the back of a car, having ditched the tent in favour of a lighter bag, but what can I say?
I'll get it right next time.