".......they're more like guidelines than rules......"
Mon 1 Mar 10
Imagine this: You’re in a nice, comfy hostel in a brand new city. You’ve snuggled up in your surprisingly comfortable bed in the dormitory, tired after a day of travelling, being alert and hauling your over-sized bag across an unknown city. Even the sheets smell fresh and you’re just drifting off to sleep.
Then an alarm goes off, at 2am, somewhere in the room.
You grunt, turn to your side, and are just about to nod off when...the alarm goes off again. And again. And again. After the fifth snooze, the bloke in the bunk bed below up gets up, yawns loudly, and starts shifting through his worldly possessions. He opens the door to go to the bathroom, letting in the hallway light, throws his backpack on the bed and swears because the ticket for his 5am flight’s missing.
And then he starts with the plastic bags. He’s obviously wrapped each of his clothes in a separate plastic bag, one crunchier than the next. You toss and turn, trying to block out the harsh halogen light of the room, since he’s now flicked on the lights to look for his missing shoe. When he finally leaves, he bangs the door, leaving the light still on.
Sound familiar? It does to me; it’s happened more times than I care to remember. If you’re thinking about staying in a dorm, remember that plastic bags make a lot more noise than you’d think.
If you’re thinking about staying in a dorm, remember that plastic bags make a lot more noise than you’d think.
Well, I’ve never travelled before; how are hotels and hostels different?
Hostels are shared accommodation, hotels private, to put it simply. Hostels being budget options, you pay a lot less, but share your living space, such as the kitchen (if the hostel indeed has a kitchen for the guests to use), the lounge area, bathrooms and sometimes the bedrooms. Hostels frequently have a bar and a restaurant, or at least offer the option of buying food and beer. Generally, hostels have dormitories, usually with bunk beds, and private rooms, with either a shared or private bathroom. The size of a dorm can vary from simple two beds to massive ones with over a hundred beds.
Right, I’m on a budget, so I think hostels are the way to go.
Just take a step back before you decide. Shared space means less privacy, security and space, and more time waiting for toilets and showers. Are you sure you can cope with that? I’ve had to skip showering on many a morning because the queues to get into one would’ve meant missing a half a day in a new town. Or buying a packet of pasta and then realising there’s not a single cooking pot in the communal kitchen. I’ve had people walk in on me while I was getting changed in a previously empty dormitory, and I’ve been flooded in a shower when the drain’s been stuffed with the hair of the dozens of backpackers before me. I’ve had someone take off with my favourite black t-shirt which I’d left drying on the headboard of the bed. If you don’t like the idea of smelling a stranger’s flatulence in the dorm, then think again.
No, I can cope with all that. And I guess hostels are great for meeting new people, right?
They certainly are, especially if you’re travelling alone. Not being cooped up in a hotel room with a TV means you actually have to get up and talk to people, possibly over a beer in the hostel bar whilst swapping life stories. I’ve met some of the most fantastic characters ever in hostel lounges.
So if I’m a girl, does that mean I might potentially end up sharing a room with a bunch of smelly boys?
Potentially, yes. But chances are that as a backpacker, you’re just as smelly as they are. Some hostels (also depending on the cultural setting of the country you’re in) have unisex rooms; some have segregated rooms. Some have unisex dorms, and one or two female-only dorms. Discrimination? Possibly. However, most men do not seem to have a huge problem sharing their space with three nineteen year-old Norwegian nursing students.
So if I would stay in a hostel, what is the proper etiquette for communal living?
Be considerate. If everyone leaves their tea cup unwashed, it’ll be a pain for the last person who comes in to find no more clean mugs. I’ve been that last person enough times to know it’s not the best start to a day.
Everyone staying in a hostel is in the same boat - far away from home, in a foreign culture, with minimal personal belongings and potentially no friends. Little bit of thoughtfulness goes a long way, such as sharing your leftover pizza or swapping a paperback you’ve finished reading. And as long as you follow a few basic rules, you’ll be fine.
Rule of the thumb- if it’s not yours, do not eat it. I don’t care if the Swedish couple in the private room have so much milk it would feed a baby for a year; it’s not yours to pinch. I once stayed in a hostel in Quito, and witnessed a few guys take about half a litre of milk belonging to an Icelandic girl, justifying it by claiming to buy more the next day, and that she’d never drink that much anyway. The girl came back, disappointed, because she’d planned on making pancakes for everyone in the hostel. Respect people’s food and drinks. Always write your name on yours, or keep it in a plastic bag with your name and room number so it won’t get chucked out in a weekly (or annual, in the case of some hostels) clean.
But I can’t start the day without any milk in my coffee!
Then ask for it nicely- I can’t remember a single time I’ve been told I can’t borrow a bit of something. It also opens a whole new conversation with a new person, and you can swap leftover peanut butters and bread rolls.
Why do I have to wash my own dishes - isn’t that the job of the staff?
Ever worked in a hostel? It’s a busy life. They already get to do all the fun stuff like unblocking toilets and changing soiled sheets, so washing your plate after using it is hardly too much to ask, right? Most hostel kitchens are fairly small considering the number of guests, and there simply aren’t enough pots and pans to go around. If you’ve finished with your cooking, and you know there’s someone waiting for that frying pan, then give it a quick wash before sitting down to eat. It won’t take long, and the person waiting will appreciate it. The few times I’ve not had a chance to wash something after using it, and I’ve had to hand it to the next person dirty, I’ve always told them to leave it for me to wash after they’ve used it.
The living room/ lounge/ sitting room/whatever you want to call it, is a place for socialising and relaxing, reading books, watching TV or simply staring into the space with a cold beer after a day of sightseeing. If you’re not feeling even remotely chatty or sociable, then steer clear. This is the one place in the world where it’s socially acceptable to start a conversation with a stranger without an ulterior motive. Remember that if someone else was there first, then you must put up with their choice of music or TV channel. Alternatively, if you were there first, it’s good manners to offer the remote around, unless you are watching the most amazing, life-changing film ever.
I really want to make friends and meet people, but I don’t really know how to approach people in hostels.
Don’t worry, most of the time they’ll approach you, especially if you’re alone. Guidebooks are a great icebreaker, by the way. Ask to have a look at theirs, and before you know you’re off on that whole long “where did you come from and where are you going next” conversation. Smiling and saying hello whilst sitting down in the same table works just as well.
But what if everyone else is a couple or a group of friends - they might not appreciate me joining in?
Trust me, they will. As someone who’s travelled alone, with a friend and with a partner, I always welcome new people. Sometimes my boyfriend and I would spend weeks without talking to anybody but each other, and that can get a bit claustrophobic - and a lot of the time no-one would approach us, thinking we wanted to be by ourselves, when really we were ready to talk to a tree at that stage. And if you do encounter a particularly tight group of people, not willing to make new friends, then they’re probably not going to be that interesting anyway.
Oh, the joys of a shared bathroom - if you can make it through the queues of people waiting then rest assured the hot water will run out just as you’re rinsing the shampoo off your hair.
Why does the hot water always run out when it’s your turn?
Why does the hot water always run out when it’s your turn?
Because there is always someone who takes over an hour to shower. I once timed how long it took an American girl called Ashley to shower in a hostel in Budapest - an hour and 40 minutes. The steam was coming out from underneath the door whilst the rest of us sat around in our grime, plotting to kill her. Keep it short. Do your makeup or comb your hair in the room afterwards, and keep the time in the bathroom to a minimum. Accept that if you leave your soap and shampoo in the shower, it will get used, and boys, please clean the sink after shaving. I never want to find another facial hair in my toothpaste again.
Dorms are for sleeping, and for solitary time. Although I’d always say a quick hello to the guy scribbling frantically in his journal with his headphones on, it’s pretty clear he wants to be alone - otherwise he’d be in the lounge. If you spend the night partying, then be considerate of the people sleeping when you stumble in at 4am. This is not the time to rummage through your toiletries bag for a toothbrush - leave it till the morning. Similarly, if you’re sleeping off a hangover or simply recovering from an overnight bus journey, you cannot get mad at people coming and going at midday - the dorm lives according to an average person’s day - if you have a problem with this, consider a private room.
Is it ok to make myself at home and spread my stuff around?
Sure. Just understand that if it’s left out in the open, it’s more likely to disappear. Fellow travellers can be pickpockets too - I’ve lost a few items of clothing and a fairly expensive facial cream. I’ve also seen other backpackers carelessly leave their phones, mp3’s and even cash lying around. Use the lockers in the dorms or leave valuables in the reception. If you do make yourself at home, make sure you don’t take up the whole space or block the door with your bag. Also, smelly towels or shoes don’t often get the warmest of welcomes.
What if I arrive really late or have to leave really early?
If I arrive late, expecting everyone else to be asleep, I usually pull out my pyjamas and toothbrush in the hallway and get changed in the bathroom, so when I actually get to the dorm, it’s a matter of putting my bag down and crawling to bed. Alternatively, if I’m leaving early, I pack my bag the night before, leaving out only the clothes and shoes I’m going to wear. There’s no excuse for not getting your stuff ready the night before if you know you have an early start. There’s nothing more inconsiderate than turning the lights on to pack your things in the middle of the night, rustling one plastic bag after another. I also tend to tell people I share a room with that I might have an alarm going off at five in the morning, and apologise beforehand. It doesn’t really keep anyone from waking up, but your fellow travellers will be a lot more sympathetic towards you.
But I really did lose my shoe and need to flick the lights on to find it!
Really, you should have a torch on you anyway - or use the light on your mobile. If you really, really need to turn the lights on, then do it quickly and don’t keep them on for any longer than you absolutely need to, and be prepared to receive a few murderous glances from the light sleepers.
What about the snorers?
Well, they’re people too. It might be worth carrying a pair of earplugs in case you do find yourself in a dorm with a snorer. However, if you know that you’re a loud snorer, please seriously consider a private room. I’m fairly used to snorers and sleep pretty soundly, and even I couldn’t sleep in a same room with an Italian guy in Namibia, who made the windows rattle. I ended up knocking on the door of a very nice Zimbabwean couple in the middle of the night, asking to sleep on their floor.
What if I find an attractive member of the opposite sex and want to take them to my dorm for an, um, nightcap?
No. No, no, no. Never. Similarly, couples in dorms should keep their hands off of each other. This is not your private space - everyone in the room has paid the same to have a decent sleep, and it’s unfair to make them uncomfortable or lose on sleep. I’ve been in too many such situations - once a couple actually used their towels and sarongs to create a little closed space on the bottom bunk - just a shame they forgot to soundproof it too. If you’re adult enough to have a passport, then you’re adult enough to wait till the next day to book a private room for you and your new-found love.
Ok, so I’ve booked my first hostel for two nights and I’m off! Any last words to prep me?
Yes. Be prepared to repeat yourself. The first thing people will ask you is where you’re from, followed by where are you heading next, and where did you just come from. How long have you been here? What have you done? How long are you travelling for? Occasionally, I feel like stapling a piece of paper to my forehead with my name, hometown, current length of my travels, total length of my travels, and next and previous destination, current bowel movements, expected bowel movements and past bowel movements. It’s amazing how much you find out about people before you even know their names.
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