Home Sweet Hostel: Living Long-Term in Temporary Housing

Wellington, New Zealand

During my travels, I’ve stayed in an infinite number of hostels, pensiones, guesthouses, and any other synonym for budget accommodation.  Whether good, bad, or ugly they were, for the most part, predictable and forgettable.  But a few were downright memorable.

The summer that I backpacked through Europe, a Viennese friend of my travel companion was interning in Bratislava, Slovakia. Curious to know what Communism looked like, we agreed to spend a night there partying with him and his coworkers. After an evening of drinking Absinthe and dancing on a houseboat, we retired back to the cement block university dorms where they were staying.  We found an unlocked room, and even though the mattresses were bare and the doors were riddled with what looked like bullet holes, my friend and I immediately passed out in a drunken stupor.  The next morning, we heard the door creak open.  Terrified, we waited for members of the KGB to rush in and shoot us for being spies.  Instead, a four feet tall Russian maid in a fur rimmed jacket peeked in, turned around, and walked away without further incident.  We immediately dressed and treated ourselves to a McFlurry to calm our nerves.

When we arrived in Prague, Czech Republic, we accepted a strange mans offer to lead us to housing because there was no way we could navigate the subway without him. He left us at the home of an old, shrunken, dusty Czech woman who rented out spare bedrooms to travelers.  In her hand, she held an old, shrunken, dusty book.  She searched determinedly for a particular page and pointed to a specific passage: the English translation of the Czech word for “to pay.”  The other room was clearly inhabited, as evidenced by the cigarette smoke and the sound of the Crowded House song “Don’t Dream It’s Over” which wafted incessantly from under the door.  However, we saw our neighbors, two young German men, on only one occasion: when they emerged from their room accompanied by two scantily clad Czech women whose company had no doubt been included in the price of the room.

Because all of the hostels were booked in Florence, Italy, we followed an old, Italian man home from the train station.  He rented us a room adorned with a four-posted bed and decorated with cheap copies of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus in his luminous, airy apartment.  In the morning, we were serenaded by the sounds of he and his wife screaming at each other. Tensely, we listened for one of them to throw the other down the stairs. Our money was on the wife.  Thanks to my Spanish, I understood enough Italian to eventually determine that they were discussing the weather.

On a trip to the Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica, two girlfriends and I stayed in a hostel owned by an expat from the Northeast, USA, who moved to Central America because he suffered from bad circulation.  My friend tactfully pointed out that he could have just bought gloves.  There were no beds available the first night, but the owner kindly offered to let us sleep in his room (while he would sleep on the couch).  There, we discovered his collection of Playboys from the 1970s, and the fourteen year-old Tica, with lips painted in the unmistakable hue of Wet & Wild watermelon lipstick, who lived in a room adjacent to where we were staying.  It suddenly occurred to us that the climate wasn’t the only reason why the owner had migrated south.

Finally, in Antigua, Guatemala, my friend and I stayed at a hostel that shared its diminutive space with a bar/restaurant.  Every morning at 10am, we opened the door of our room to find the 7-foot tall, dreadlocked bartender/cook from Belize preparing breakfast while the bar owner divided a substance that was not oregano into plastic bags.  Sitting at the table outside our window were a Spanish teacher and her student, conjugating verbs and getting high.

Some of these hostels were actually trip highlights.  But regardless of how comfortable the accommodations, how cool the other guests, or how hospitable the staff, I have never felt compelled to stay in one long-term. Personally, I got my fill of random roommates, communal bathrooms, no privacy, and crowded kitchens during college. I hate keeping my valuables locked away, worrying that someone will steal my groceries (whoever ate my last two granola bars, I’m after you), and listening to the incessant commentary of the elated Chilean who happened to be vacuuming the hallway when I returned to my room from the shower, dripping wet and in a towel.  And yet, I find myself going into my second week at a hostel in Wellington.

The hostel where I am staying has a large number of long-term occupants.  In fact, they offer discounts for longer stays and allow guests to work for housing.  It’s always a little awkward when the person you were drinking with last night is cleaning your bathroom in the morning.  I used to envy long-termers.  They were the ones who knew how to work the stove and turn on the hot water.  They had all of the insider information about the coolest cafes, bars, and restaurants.  And they controlled the remote control and took over the couches in the living room.  I used to look at them like they were part of an exclusive, invitation-only club.  Now, they seem a lot more like fifth-year seniors than members of a secret society.

Many of them suffer from failure to launch syndrome.  They came to Wellington with the idea of getting a flat and a job, and integrating into local life.  Instead they got comfortable staying at the hostel, taking advantage of the free dinners and 2×1 drink offers at the adjacent bar and living vicariously through the backpackers passing through, unable to let go of their travel glory days.

Still, in my current situation, living in a hostel is the best, if not only, option.  It is my halfway house, the place where I am staying while I’m transitioning into a new life.  Plus, in addition to temporary housing, the hostel provides me with temporary friends.   As much as I enjoy and need my alone time, spending all day talking to myself can get boring and lonely, not to mention that it’s a good way to develop a borderline personality disorder.  Even though I dread fighting for pots and pans and making small talk after a long day, I secretly love coming home to friendly faces that understand what I’m going through, even if we’re going through it separately.  So even though the search for a flat and friends outside the hostel is definitely still on, there’s no immediate rush.  Because, who doesn’t love going out on St. Patrick’s Day with Irish guys, playing cards with a Swedish couple, and watching Tango & Cash with a group of Dutch, Spanish, and French kids?

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2 Responses to “Home Sweet Hostel: Living Long-Term in Temporary Housing”


  1. 1 aleflyNanisee May 20, 2009 at 9:47 pm

    Outstanding writing:) Will come back.

  2. 2 Navit Robkin May 25, 2009 at 6:49 am

    I started following your blog and I am loving it! It would be awesome if you had pictures or videos to add. I am loving this.


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