Choosing a hostel is a gamble. If you’re like me you cherish the memory of the two or three amazing hostels you’ve been too, where everything comes together as if God himself wanted you to have a life changing social and cultural experience.  The sort of hostel that functions as the UN should, with people of numerous cultures cementing their newfound friendship deep in drinks and conversation late into the night.  If you are like me you also, somewhat paradoxically, go for the sort of cheap hostels where you find yourself beyond the bus station in a cold dirty dorm with no bed-sheets and no chance of meeting a friend.  If you’re like me, in some weird way, you cherish the memories of the worst hostels too.

Hostelling in Paris
By Chris Lancaster on Flickr – Creative Commons

We’ve all been to the dingy, dark, Dickensian squalor hostel; the comfortable spotless yet unsettlingly hospital-like hostel with no character and cold social scene; the hostel with bedbugs or no heat in winter; the hostel that sold you with the words “Free Breakfast” and only delivered white bread and Nutella.   I once spent a night in an Oslo hostel where they charged me extra for everything except oxygen.  To spite the owner I used my own laundry as blankets, towels and a pillowcase.  The only other person in the dorm was a young man who looked like hobo-Jesus, arose in the night to pace circles in the darkness while muttering, and occasionally called his mother on the phone and made crying sounds.  I kept my knife under my pillow all night.

After a few nights of such places I’d think, “Screw it, I’m paying more for a better location and higher reviews on Hostel World!”  I’d research and settle on one of those places with a reputation for fun.  These usually have flashy names like “Gringo Bill’s Backpackers” or “The Purple Parrott” or my personal favorite, Prague’s “Hostel Elf”.  I’d be at check-in with wide eyes, thinking that the place seemed too good to be true, with beautiful people everywhere, drinks in hand, music blasting, only to find that they are in fact casual backpackers out for a week long trip and a mind to turn their exotic location into an endless college frat party indistinguishable from back home.  Trying to talk about backpacking or travel with people who are only interested in jury-rigging a beer pong game is disillusioning at best.  (I love beer pong but it always fascinates me how some travelers arrive in a foreign country and immediately set out to turn it into home, find the local Irish bar, or map out the local English speaker’s hangouts.)  Finally there are those hostels with the PERFECT everything except people. My experience in Dublin was one of these.

Barnacles Temple Bar House / Dublin Hostel / Ireland
Barnacles Temple Bar House / Dublin Hostel / Ireland by Barnacles Hostels on Flickr

It was my last night in Europe after backpacking for four months.  I was going home the next day, and was feeling reflective and in need of one final adventure.  So while my two traveling companions stayed for cheap in Trinity campus housing, I splurged on myself and found a hostel by O’Connell Street just across the river Liffey from the Ha’Penny footbridge.  It had the sort of hip look and perfect location that I figured would draw people like me.  It was spacious and clean and well managed.  Its common room was perfect. However, the place was frequented by anti-social, dour characters.  Most were male, all looked hung-over and reflective, and a few looked quite dangerous.  I sat for a while in the lounge, trying to mingle, incite conversation, or perhaps mount an expedition against the local pubs.  It was quickly apparent that I would spend my night alone in silence; this was not the sort of crowd that talked, mingled with others or painted the town.  Time passed slowly.

Eventually I retired to bed.  I had an early flight the next day and had arranged for a 5:30am wake up call for bed #17.  Hostel dorm rooms are an adventure in themselves.  I’ve passed nights wanting to smother snoring neighbors.  I’ve smothered myself to keep out the sounds of people hooking up a few feet away.  I’ve counted the minutes as drunks try to find their way to bed in the dark.  Heck, I’ve even been robbed by fellow patrons.  Retiring to my dorm room that night in Dublin, I discovered somebody else in my bunk.

I considered this shadowy figure silently for a bit, checking and rechecking my bunk assignment before deciding to assert myself.  Starting with a polite poke in the back, and finding it ineffective, I then graduated to the sharper jab in the spine, which had always worked wonders in the past.  The man was a stone.  I withdrew, scratched my head, and tried a different tack.  Laying hands on his shoulders, I shook him, pleaded with him, and with a final flourish for the benefit of anyone watching, kicked the mattress.  He did not wake.  I seethed with anger.  This drunk in my bed had clearly been too lazy to climb up to his top bunk, and now I had no bed to show for the 22 Euro I had shelled out for 5 hours of what would no doubt be shitty sleep anyway.  In some places, where concepts of order and assigned seating border on fanaticism (Scandinavia, Northeast Asia, et al.) I may have complained to the night watchman and had the man taken away.  But being tired, I simply threw his things on the floor, stole his bed for my own, and quickly passed out.

Paddy's Palace Hostel
Paddy’s Palace Hostel by DraXus on Flickr

Going to bed early in a hostel often proves pointless, and I wont begrudge people for staying out late or coming home a bit tipsy.  But what happened on this night bordered on torture.  I will remember that night’s “sleep” for the rest of my life.  During the first hour drunken Spaniards continuously came and went from the room, always slamming the door and leaving the light on (the light was 2 feet from my face).  Then, just as I had entered the stage where I could feel myself rapidly slipping into sleep the door flew open and two French drunks crashed through the room, one yelling loudly, the other whispering loudly, telling him to be quiet.  A torrent of “fuck fuck…. (insert inaudible French)…fuck” flew from the kid’s mouth. I imagined that it probably translated loosely as “Fuck those people and their sleep”.  This was followed by a disgustingly audible gulp of wine.  In the end he belched loudly, threw the bottle in the trash and climbed into his bed.  Seemingly this was the end, but then he pulled out his cell phone (which was turned up to maximum volume).  He harassed his girlfriend, mother, or some irate woman for a time, before finally passing out on his back, which in my hostel experience is almost always a portent of the snoring to come.  These guys of course left the light on, so it was left to me to jump down turn it off and climb back up to my bunk.

For the next 2 hours I slept in 20-minute increments, woken by snoring, the light going on, and a group of American girls who sat outside the door and discussed how they like getting stoned.  People speaking in loudly in any language are bad enough, but when it is your own language, no matter how stupid the conversation, it is often impossible not to listen. Theirs went something like this:  “Sometimes I put smoking a bowl on a list of things to do for the day” one said.  “Oh my God!” said another, “Me too! It’s like, take the dog for a walk, go to the store, smoke a bowl!”  An hour after this, my French friends sprung into action again, whispering loudly, throwing on the lights, and fumbling with zippers and crackly plastic bags.  As I waited them out, I angrily considered how I might be the only person on earth who uses a mini-flashlight, or tries to muffle his motions while in a dorm at night.

Backpackers Bar, Pentonville, N1
Backpackers Bar, Pentonville, N1 by Ewan-M on Flickr

I concluded that hundreds of people across Earth owed me some sort of thanks.  Perhaps a small plaque or medal with the words “Most Courteous Hostel Patron, Europe 2007” chiseled in brass, to be awarded in Brussels by an official in a sash.  I lay there grinning inanely, lost in my fantasy.  The BBC would be there of course, a sharp dressed junior correspondent perhaps.  I could see her steadying her microphone; “Mr. Quinion how ever did you manage, in over 30 countries, to not wake up a single patron, or slam a single creaky door?  What tips do you have for our younger readers seeking solutions to the problematic ‘top bunk with no ladder’ quandary?”  I’d reply modestly; “Well its an old Iroquois trick you know, you walk on the balls of your feet…”  In my delirium I imagined these very French kids bowing and acknowledging my thoughtfulness while respectfully admitting that such behavior was, lamentably, far beyond them.  Needless to say, two hours later the French engaged in another one of their drills, and while they frantically went through the motions I opted to take the opportunity to relieve my self of several pints of Kilkenny.

Being a hostel, even a simple piss is not guaranteed to go smoothly.  In my case, the bathroom door would not open more than a few inches, and seemed to be butting up against something soft and heavy.  After a few hearty shoves I gave up on a traditional entry and instead sidled through the small gap I had created.  There on the floor behind the door was a man sprawled on his back asleep, or as it appeared, dead.  As I switched on the light and first considered calling for help, his eyes opened and struggled to take stock of their surroundings.  They spun in their sockets.  His face contorted.  He blinked once, tried to focus again, and took on that peculiar detached look Daffy Duck used to have when hit on the head with a blunt object.  He looked at me.  I looked at him.  Not a word was spoken.  I mouthed the words “are you alright” but I am pretty sure I did not say them, such was my shock.  Suddenly one arm shivered and rose up, its hand opened towards me, and a low and heartbreaking groan echoes across the tiles.  Have you ever seen a possum caught in a trap?  It looked like that.  I didn’t know whether to help this poor creature or call the Hostel manager to get a gun and put it out of its misery.  I looked around the room, finally noticing the vomit streaked walls, and slowly backed out through the crack which I had come.  Nothing but time could help him.  After this I slept reasonably well for a few hours, the night had apparently settled into its routine and all seemed quiet.

An alarm exploded into my dream and I awoke somewhere in the darkness.  Remembering where I was, I noticed the wall clock, which read 4:50am, just 40 minutes shy of my wakeup call.  It was a phone alarm.  For the longest time, I was the only person seemingly wakened by the blaring noise, and I sat up trying to find the source.  It was the French guy.  Eventually he, his friend, and 3 never before seen kids got up, switched on the overhead lights and started pulling zippers, dragging furniture about and talking loudly.   I noticed one or two other people, staring groggily down at these oblivious and inconsiderate fools.  Eventually a full out argument broke out in their group and two of them stormed out of the dorm, slamming the door upon exit.  They returned twice more to shout a bit more before they all left for good.  At 5:10 the room once again went dark and I fell into thankful sleep.

I woke for good at 5:30 to the sound of the night watchman imploring and thrashing with somebody to wake up. A flashlight beam danced across the ceiling.  Rolling over I watched with glee as the night watchman shook the kid in bed 17 (my bed) and advised him: “Your wake up call sir.”  There was silence from bed 17.  The watchman tried again:  “You ordered a wake-up call?”  He leaned over and began handling the kid a bit more roughly.  Finally a low voice pleaded mournfully: “uhhh…stop…what…no, no…I didn’t”.  I lay there smiling.  Once I judged my revenge over the bed thief sufficient, I sat up and cheerfully interjected “That’s me thanks!” to the astonishment of both.  The kid stormed off to the bathroom, and the watchman, annoyed and confused, shuffled out, turning at the doorway to exclaim: “you’re in the wrong bed” before disappearing back to his post.  As horrible as waking up at 5:30am is, it was worth it to see a lazy jerk get his comeuppance.

Once I accepted the absurdity of the night’s events, my mood lightened.  I had booked a hostel in the hopes of sharing one last interesting experience with people of different cultures.  I had certainly gotten that.  Hostels are always a gamble.  They are unpredictable.  You never know what you will get, and in that is the fun.  When I am older and find myself (God forbid) in nice, clean, quiet hotels, I know I will miss even the worst of my hostel experiences in some way.  As with other adventures that seem terrible at the time and gather idealism only in retrospect, even a simple terrible night sleep can begin to take on the characteristics of a good memory.  As I stumbled out into the rainy, cold, Dublin morning with a cumulative 2 hours of sleep in me and the prospect of dragging luggage through bus stops and numerous airports, I found myself smiling.


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Greg Quinion

When not traveling, Greg Quinion works as a technical writer and analyst. Since being bitten by the travel bug he has backpacked, lived in, or visited over 45 countries in Latin America, Asia, and Europe. He currently resides in Northwest Connecticut.
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