I must admit something straight off, today: I’m finding it very difficult to write this post. My idea was to tell you, dear readers, what it’s like to live and work in a hostel. It’s probably a fairly incomprehensible topic to those who, like my former self, are used to personal space and silence on demand and cable TV and showers they can walk to each morning without a massive bag of soaps and shampoos and a change of clothing. I’m inclined to believe most people would never dream of living where they work, or of working where they live, and when I look at it that way, I guess I’ve become a bit of an aberration without even noticing.
But here I am today sitting here, alone for the first time in weeks, in the hostel dorm room I share with five coworkers and friends. I’m drinking a Speight’s Gold Medal ale and trying not to hit my head on the bottom of my friend Lisa’s bunk bed, just a few inches clear of my noggin. I’m dreading getting up at 7:30 tomorrow to begin my early-morning hostel reception shift downstairs. And I’m trying to put into words — relatable words; balanced words — exactly what it’s like to work and live in this kind of environment. I’m trying to figure out how to express how much fun it is, how frustrating it is, how infuriating yet wonderful it is, and I can’t even begin to decide how to do it. Instead all I can think about, all I keep getting distracted by, is how shattered I’m going to be to leave all this — the family I’ve become a part of there, the curtained-in bunk bed I’ve made into my own little room, the place I’ve come to call home — when I leave New Zealand in two weeks. And as it turns out, it’s hard to write something even-keeled when you’re already starting to miss a place that still annoys you on a daily basis.
See, I work 19 hours per week at the world’s greatest little hostel in Queenstown. In exchange for my time on reception and housekeeping, I get the bottom half of a double-sized bunk, a one-sixth share of a tiny staff bedroom, and use of all the hostel’s facilities. I also get the occasional gratis free-fall, cruise, and fancy dinner for my troubles.
At least, that’s the easy explanation. The truth is much less glamorous, more stressful, and a hell of a lot more fun than it sounds.
In reality, I work closer to 25 hours a week cleaning up after guests, booking them on tours, clenching my teeth as they ask me to explain to them in detail, for the fifth time, how to get to the burger place just around the corner. I make beds. I scrub bathroom floors. I convince people to skydive. I answer phones and emails and inane questions about wifi connections while simultaneously dashing up a flight of stairs every half hour to check if the 30 sets of duvet covers, sheets, and towels I have to get through two machines that day are through their cycles yet. I fold pillowcases in the spare seconds while I wait for newly arrived guests to write down their emergency contact details or count out their just-converted bills. I update bookings and sales of everything from bungy jumps to cans of soda on the world’s most complex Excel sheet. Late at night I gnaw at my cuticles and down glasses of cheap red wine as I try to make the cash I’m counting match my sales for that day.
I attempt smiles when the pager I keep in my back pocket goes off, trotting downstairs with an armload of laundry and a tray of dirty glasses to be washed, only to find a queue of seven guests who’ve suddenly showed up to check in all at once. I mention reception’s opening hours — 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. — no fewer than 20 intentional times while giving new guests a tour of the hostel. Yet I still have to be nice to them when they see my in my pajamas at midnight and ask if I can book them a Milford Sound tour or do their laundry.
I arrive at reception twice a week at 8:00 a.m. with a checklist of tasks to complete by 9:00 — take five trash cans the same size and weight as myself down a flight of stairs to the street; check the emails for new room bookings; reset the front door lock code and spot-clean the entire hostel — and am inevitably greeted by a group of four who want me to spend an hour booking them on every activity in Queenstown at 8:01.
And this is where the truth gets ugly: the worst part of my job is the guests. I know that sounds closed-minded and harsh. I know it seems jaded. I came traveling to meet new people and experience different cultures; I’ve made so many friends for life on the road this year — but lately I just can’t be bothered with new people. I can’t stand strangers asking me for my life story while I’m trying to make myself a morning cup of coffee in the communal kitchen. I can no longer take the sound of the exact same words coming out of my mouth every time someone asks me where I’m from, or how long I’ve been here, while I’m trying to write an email in peace. If one more guest tries to relate her 2011 shopping trip to an OC Whole Foods to my being from Northern California, I might back-hand her.
Because living in a hostel means you and your coworkers are the only constants in your world. It means that every few days, the entire cast of characters around you checks out, a whole new cast checks in, and you’re subject to another round of carbon-copy conversations the likes of which you’ve been hearing day-in and day-out for four months. It means that there’s always someone new who wants to small-talk you or ask you how the DVD player works or if you can change their bed sheets during your off hours, while you’re trying to eat dinner or relax on the balcony with a book or write your damn blog. It means that the same people who trash the lounge every night, so that when I arrive to clean up in the morning it looks as if a fire alarm went off right in the middle of a massive game of Kings, want to befriend me that afternoon. It means I’ve heard no fewer than nine million groups of Brits and Germans and Swedes having the exact same discussion about swimming with dolphins in Kaikoura or riding the mechanical bull at “this cool little bar they found” that every single tourist and local has been to dozens of times. It means that at any given time, there are 50 loud, slobby, demanding guests in what the rest of the staff and I consider to be our home, and they’re treating it like – well – just some hostel.
But in the end, that’s why I’ve stayed here so long: because I do consider this my home. Because when I arrived in New Zealand exactly one year ago today, I never imagined I’d feel as protective, as attached, as proud of any place as I do about this hostel.
This place has become a part of who I am; my coworkers and friends here have quickly become my motley American/British/Canadian family. There’s Lisa, the Canadian with a penchant for double vodkas and tobacco breaks, with whom I quickly discovered a mutual love of Hunter S. Thompson, the Beatles, and Christmas decorations. There’s Erin and Dave, the couple from the middle of England who speak like Paul’s grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night. Erin, in her own words, could “scare the baby off a breast” with her evil eye, but will also leave olive oil or tomatoes in my food box because she knows I like them, or clean the entire kitchen for me without a second thought if my closing shift at the hostel is running overtime. Dave’s a man of few words who spends four out of seven evenings down by the lake photographing the sunset or putting together epic mash-ups for the audio round of my weekly trivia night; the kind of guy who’ll stay silent all night up until he utters the one line that will have the room in stitches for the rest of the evening. There’s Calum, the enormous ginger ex-rugby player from Manchester who’ll spontaneously lift me up Dirty Dancing-style in the middle of a crowded room, throw me over his shoulder to airlift me away if I’m being hit on at the bar, or show up with a bear hug and a bar of chocolate if I’m having a rough morning. And then there’s Tom, who manages to weasel his way into everyone’s heart while playing practical jokes on them, introduced me to Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington, and stuck with me even through the embarrassment of frisbee golf and the Canyon Swing.
Late at night we lock the kitchen doors and sit at the diningroom tables laughing, telling stories, playing with water guns and child-sized plastic hockey sets, complaining about difficult guests, eating ice cream Lisa’s brought home from her job at the chocolate shop or shoving batches of Erin’s fresh-baked shortbread into our mouths. We take silly group pictures. We spend January evenings out on the balcony tossing pizza doughs and slapping them on the barbecue. We gather ’round the tree at Christmas and go on hikes together and all pitch in to help when one of us is working a particularly rough shift at the hostel. We go out for drinks at night; we vet each other’s dating prospects; we bring each other mugs of hot tea when it’s been an early morning or a late night.
And in the end, that’s what makes a home. That’s what makes working and living at this hostel one of the greatest experiences of my life: not the demanding guests or the early-morning wake-up calls or the small talk with strangers that threatens to kill any traces of pep or politesse I have left after four months at my other job. Those abrasive memories will all start to blur, I’m sure, mere days after I’ve left. And all that will be left will be nostalgia, smiles, and, best of all, an incredible group of people to e-mail and Skype and visit all over the world.