Hostels are nothing like Hotels. Hotels are neutral. Magnolia in both colour and personality. It’s hard to hate a hotel, and you will never know whether the hotel hates you because the staff have been told to smile.
Hostels are the opposite. They don’t all smell like the same air freshener or have abnormally long, empty corridors. Often they’re smaller and structured like a house, perhaps with a few bedroom doors opening onto a landing that is filled with bean bags and a book exchange shelf.
A sticker on the shelf will ask you nicely to replace any book that you take, not that anyone can force you to. Hostels rely on a level of human decency. One which is upheld by the close community they foster.
If the hostel gives something to you, you want to give something back, because you’ve met the other guests, and the person at the front desk doesn’t have to check a computer to remember your name. You feel compelled to at least leave the rest of your packet of pasta in the communal basket.
With informality comes intimacy. There is no protocol so a kind gesture feels deliberate. When I was sick in Bolivia, the owner of our hostel clocked my hurried trips to the loo and arrived at my door with a cup of coca tea to settle my stomach. I felt as though I had acquired a grandma for the evening when she proceeded to tut that I shouldn’t be eating the takeaway chips at my bedside.
The guests want to become acquainted. Sharing a room with strangers makes it common practice to introduce yourself. This is always the preferable option to going to sleep next to someone who’s name you don’t know. However the bedroom often isn’t the place you will be. Once awake, you abandon your windowless dorm because the bottom bunk, where you have to crook your head every time you sit up straight pales in comparison to the communal area.
At dinner time the kitchen comes to life. I enjoy seeing what everyone else is cooking. The default is pasta but sometimes it’s more inspiring. I’ve heard talk of one girl using a microwave to singlehandedly produce a shepherd’s pie from scratch. Other times it is quite clear that these dishes are the result of limited funds or access to ingredients, in which case it is interesting to see what people prioritise.
There were a couple of boys who’s plate, one evening, consisted entirely of meat: a roasted chicken leg with a side of steak fillet. Nothing else was apparently necessary. We’ve seen a man sit down for dinner with a glass full of juice and empty out a packet of cookies onto a plate. In this instance, his plate seemed to take on more of a symbolic role, it was an indication that he was now eating dinner.
I came to appreciate the power of symbolism after staying in hostels. There is a simple pleasure in drinking your wine out of a wine glass. The same could not be said for a mug. Every hostel which provided a wine glass made a radical difference to my evening.
Hostels are colourful and quirky, so are the people within them and the dinners that they cook. If you are not the type to find amusement in assembling a plate full of cookies for dinner then you may easily become disillusioned by the trials of imperfect accommodation. One reason why I have become so attached to my favourite hostels is because a good one can feel like a rare gem.
If, like me, you have been travelling between hostels for a while you may have experienced shower insecurity. It is stressful ferrying yourself from one shower to the next. Just when you begin to trust one you must leave it for another. The showers can be difficult to navigate, hot and cold taps aren’t always labelled, one microscopic shift of the handle can render you either freezing or scalded.
In the past I have made the mistake of placing too much trust in a new hostel shower. Never again will I undress before turning it on. Imagine yourself at your most vulnerable, naked and shivering waiting for the water to warm up so that you can step in… but it isn’t happening. You are left powerless with no way of telling whether it ever will. You begin to doubt the way that you turned it on and lean in to desperately tinker with the dials while your arm takes a battering in the freezing water. Still nothing.
How long are you willing to wait? Do you have the patience and determination to put your clothes back on and hunt for alternatives? Or the grit to face the cold water head on with nothing to protect you but your own goosebumps? If you are going to be disappointed you at least want to be wearing clothes. A seasoned hostel goer soon learns never to so hastily undress again, not until they can see steam.
You learn a few widely applicable life lessons but you also get a feel for each individual hostel. You learn how to arrange a mass of plastic gym mats so that you can watch movies in a comfortable position. You work out what extra ingredients might go nicely with the free breakfast. You finally remember to check whether there’s a toaster. You develop an affection for its shortcomings due to the pride you feel for knowing how to navigate them. Sometimes you get an irrational attachment: if a shower treats you well you may never want to leave. Hostels are flawed but they can become yours in a way that a hotel never could.