The tidy corner of an 18-bed dorm.

On a recent trip overseas I entered the world of backpacker hostels and returned to tell the tale. With their cramped rows of metal bunk beds, basement food halls and quiet air of paranoia, these establishments bear more than a slight resemblance to low security prisons. Whether you’re in Paris or Potsdam they smell the same: a pervasive odour of mould and cheap chemicals, finished with a lingering top note of unwashed feet. In hostels, you will never be more intimately acquainted with a stranger’s hair. This guide is for the uninitiated.

Let’s face it, nobody stays in hostels who could afford a hotel. The result is that your dorm’s likely to be heaving with liquored up youth embarking on a gap year, Antipodeans doing the big O/S, or locals who would otherwise be staying in a homeless shelter. Mostly 18-30, there are a few middle-aged exceptions. These folk tend to be afforded novelty status, like found objects in a shiny new art gallery. My first ever hostel was in a grungy street off Hollywood Boulevard; walking apprehensively into the eight bed dorm I found, perched by her walker, an octogenarian Australian resplendent in pearls. Her carer glumly confessed later that even at her age she was too stingy to fork out for a hotel.

Then there are the inevitable long term residents, the hostel mascots, who can be found wherever there’s a free breakfast and captive audience. These self-styled ‘characters’ police lights-out with the furious zeal of a camp commandant. With no discernible source of income, and a daily routine that consists of hanging around the common room and annoying the staff, how they manage to pay the rent is a mystery. Even they don’t seem to know why they’re there. What they do know, however, is the best time to get a hot shower and where to find a power outlet. Cultivate with caution.

Closely related is the flaky but enigmatic lone female traveller. After becoming your seemingly lifelong friend, these girls suddenly disappear, checking out of hostels with no warning and often in the middle of the night. Almost exclusively American, these poignant Jamesian heroines once set out to discover Europe’s ancient treasures before becoming corrupted by the Continent and interminably waylaid by the coffeeshops of Amsterdam. But these lost souls can be found on native soil too. Like the woman named Adrian I once met in a New Orleans hostel in low season. We became wary friends; she told me she’d found a snowboot left behind in the room by a Swede. Days later, a departing guest told me about her lost boot. A chance to put things right! My people-pleasing mania went into overdrive. I excitedly told Adrian that I’d located the boot’s owner. She glared at me for an eon, and then turned to the other girl, saying quietly, dangerously, ‘I’ll get your boot’. It was, evidently, a betrayal of some kind. Half an hour later Adrian returned, flinging the muddy boot at its rightful owner. That night, in the otherwise empty dorm, I clutched my bag to my chest and cowered under the covers as she stomped and muttered and cried in the bathroom. Why hadn’t alarm bells gone off when she’d told me she’d moved to Mexico to expand her reality? By the morning she’d vanished. Someone told me later they’d seen her digging the snowboot back up from where she’d inexplicably buried it – under a tree in the vacant lot next to the hostel.

However, like daal through the belly of a Western tourist, most guests in hostels are just passing through; therefore, they have little stake in maintaining any level of cleanliness. These fragrant holding pens for budget travelers are also the only place I’ve ever heard a phone ring for 10 minutes straight. The cacophony of beeps and alarms going off at all hours can sometimes trick you into thinking you’re spending the night in the African jungle surrounded by exotic birds; however the snuffling of the surly tracksuited Russian in the top bunk will quickly remind you where you are. The sheer range of snores you hear is astonishing – some are abrupt nocturnal reminders of their owners’ presence, and others sound like the perpetrator is trying to tunnel through wet cement with a blunt shovel. Most infuriating is the person who crashes into the dorm at 3am and instantly falls asleep, sending nasal postcards even as they ensure your exile from the land of nod.

Despite the international camaraderie, when inside a hostel’s damp walls it’s almost impossible to avoid indulging in sweeping generalisations based on nationality. The French travel in packs, colonizing the kitchen and enjoying sit down gourmet meals with their countrymen, somehow managing to resist the pizza and fried chicken that are the staple diet of everyone else. Italians can’t do anything quietly, and Australians chew their vowels and swill their beer with even more vigour than at home. Adding to all this fun are the hostel booking sites that have proliferated on the internet like padlocks on a bridge.

In a maelstrom of capital letters and mangled English, these overwhelmingly unflattering reviews range from the blunt – “DO NOT STAY HERE!!!!!!!!!!!” – to the Gallic – “terible eCXperience! 😦 I don’t come back” – to the obviously exaggerated but nevertheless alarming – “this place was so bad that even the toast gave me diarrhea!” Sometimes there’s even evidence of that most heinous crime committed against the intrepid modern traveller: a lack of free WiFi. In between writing passive aggressive responses – “We really appreciate guest feedback here at hostel X! But the bedbugs you so kindly have informed us, and everyone else of, were in fact brought in with one of our valued guests and management has taken every effort to eradicate them! Hope to see you again soon!!’, those poor souls tasked with responding to criticism on TripAdvisor obviously amuse themselves writing patently false reviews, such as the feedback I saw by one Brian of Latvia, enthusing that the hostel’s free ‘continental breakfast’, which consisted entirely of Coco Pops, was ‘better than the Savoy Grill!’ Reading these reviews is like being a kid anticipating their first horror film, but without the thrills and a very real sense of trepidation. Oh, there are upsides to hostels – making friends, cultural exchange, etc, etc, but I’ll let someone else document that.

Postscript:

Okay, so all up I did one month and 15 days in a hostel, which edges me uncomfortably close to lifer category. I endured the sounds of bunk rattling 3am sex, sensitive and squelchy Canadian lovemaking, and even once surprised an older gentleman, illuminated only by the flickering light from his mobile phone, in an *ahem* intimate moment. I also met loads of cool people doing their best to survive in a strange city far from home. Hostels are actually really fun when you’re travelling and don’t have anywhere in particular to be the next day. When it becomes trying is when you’re no longer in holiday mode and the rest of your dorm is – working and trying to get established in a new city when the people sharing your space are just intent on getting drunk is, needless to say, challenging. But for funny stories and occasional international bonhomie, viva la hostel!

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