Posted by: Tommy | October 23, 2010

Hostel Life

Hostels.  They do exist in America (barely) but I’ve never stayed in one.  I tried to find one in Dallas for someone once and struck out 4 times with Google before giving up.  I once checked in to one in Seattle, only to discover I had a cousin living in Seattle who let me stay on his couch.  Hostels are largely a Euro creation, though my understanding is that they also exist in South America (and hopefully Asia, though we haven’t researched this).

Neither Anna nor I had stayed in a hostel since our study abroad time in 2004/2002 respectively.  We both remember there being challenges, but overwhelmingly remember the positives.  Of course, I was 21 and she was 22 when we each did study abroad, so things are different for us.  At the time, we were each in college and were used to sleeping a twin bed, occasionally “passing out” versus “going to bed” and going a month between loads of laundry.  Fast forward 8 years and our standard of living is noticeably higher.

But we were both excited about the prospect of spending time in hostels.  Yeah, the accommodations aren’t what you’d find in a hotel.  You’re staying in twin bunk beds, sharing a room with as many as 8 other people and there are community bathrooms.  To stay on budget, we’re cooking in the hostel at least twice, sometimes 3 times per day.  On a hot plate.   Anna’s used to having her Cuisinart, her Kitchen Aid mixer and countless other goodies from Williams Sonoma.  And I’m used to eating the delicacies she uses these utensils to whip up.

But for all of those negatives, there are definitely things that make a hostel a very attractive option.  In a hotel, you’re very isolated.  A lot of business travelers. Every meal at a restaurant, just the two of us.  You rarely meet long term travelers at a hotel – they are at the hostel.  One of the best things about the hostel atmosphere is that it truly encourages interaction.  Everyone is traveling, many of them for longer periods of time.  People want to know where you’ve been – on the chance that you can share experiences with them about a place on their agenda.  They are just as eager to find out where you’re going so they can share their experiences with you.  On a trip like ours, this firsthand knowledge is invaluable.

Another benefit is the company.  Anna and I spend all day together, whether it’s on the train, at meals or in a museum.  The opportunity that the hostel encourages – just getting to have a conversation with a not-my-spouse human being is really nice.

So far, we’ve stayed in 3 different hostels and already we’ve learned things – or remembered things from when we were more experienced hostel travelers- that will undoubtedly help us over the next year.  In Moscow and Suzdal we stayed in the Gozillas hostels.  The place is owned by a Brit and run by an American and they take a very professional approach.  The place is cleaned every day, with fresh towels available if you ask. There are 3 kitchens, free WiFi, 6 sets of bathrooms and showers and a luggage storage area.  My favorite amenity, and one I’d never seen before, was a 46″ TV connected to a hard drive that had 300+ Blue Ray movies.  Normally, I wouldn’t watch TV on a trip, at least not in the beginning.  But I was sick for 2 days and was able to just veg out on a leather couch and watch Hot Tub Time Machine.   They offer a range of room options – from private rooms, 4 bed semi-private rooms, 6 or 8 bed same-sex dorms to the 10 bed mixed dorm – the cheapest option.  We chose the 10 bed mixed dorm for our entire stay; again, it’s the cheapest option.

The bad thing about the 10 bed dorm is that you are pretty much guaranteed one snorer and one (or one group) of drunk morons coming home late.  But it is the cheapest option and it also provides the most opportunity for interaction with fellow travelers.  At Godzillas, we experienced all of those things.  The negatives were manageable and we came away very impressed with the place because of its cleanliness, helpfulness and professional attitude.

And then we came to St. Petersburg.  As soon as we walked in the door, it was obvious that this would not be run with as much professionalism as the Moscow hostel.  It smelled of cigarettes, the staff didn’t know we were coming (we’d reserved months in advance) and forgot to give us towels.  They showed us to our room – another 10 bedder ($15/night each) and that was that.  We put our stuff down and set out to see St. Petersburg.  One unintended benefit of a run-down hostel is that it really encourages you to spend time in the city, since there’s no particularly compelling reason to head home before bedtime.

It turned out that the 6 roommates remaining when we got back that day where a group of Swedish girls, traveling for school together.  And better yet, they liked to go to bed early, slept quietly and were extremely conscientious about making noise in the morning.  That’s what you are always looking for.  As a bonus, I was reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and they were very willing to answer questions I had about Swedish slang or culture.  The kitchen was very much a hostel kitchen.  You keep your food in a bag with your name and departure date on it or it gets thrown out.  There’s a two-burner hot plate and a ton of mismatched dishes and cutlery.  And they have the worst microwave ever – we know because it’s the exact same microwave we have -and hate – in Dallas – but with Russian wording below the English.

They have 2 communal computers and “free wifi (it worked once so far) and 2 toilets and 3 showers on each floor.  And towels – if they remember to give them to you (don’t underestimate the hostel-provided towel.  We have our own, but anything we can do to minimize laundry is a good idea).  Sadly, what they also have is a seriously un-hostel type of clientele.  Instead of the excited, worldly travelers that we encountered in Moscow (we met several individuals or groups of people in various stages of 6 month or longer treks), Cuba Hostel in St. Petersburg seems to be filled mostly with people who’ve come to get drunk, sleep til 3pm and repeat.  Other than the Swedish girls and a guy we met named Toby, every single person we’ve encountered at Cuba Hostel has fit this mold.

There are drunk folks at most hostels, but the interactions of the last 2 nights have been back to back the strangest we’ve ever encountered – and that includes the night in Ireland where a guy climbed in bed with Anna.  On Thursday night the hostel staff – just the staff – had a riproaring party featuring top-volume dance house music, no less than 3 bottles of vodka, 5 bottles of wine and two dozen beers – for 6 people.  This was getting started at 2, in full swing at 3 when we finally managed to get to bed and apparently just winding up at 6am when the aforementioned Toby arrived to check in.  Toby, incidentally, is considering moving to a new hostel and has been considering it since his arrival.  But Friday night was even weirder.  Anna and I went to bed about 1, and were awoken at 4:50am by 6 Finnish men, dressed as bikers complete with full body tattoos and piercings – who turned on the light, sat on their beds and yelled and cursed at each other at full volume.  I was too stunned to speak, but Anna (who is a bear when she’s woken up) asked them forcefully to turn off the light.  They declined.  And also declined to be quiet.  So there we were, at 5 in the morning, forced to change rooms.  I went to speak to the staff member on duty who looked at me confused.  It was clear he wasn’t going to do anything, so I had to tell him exactly what he was going to do.  So now we’re in a semi-private room, with 4 beds at no extra cost.  There’s one roommate, Willy, also from Finland buy very friendly.  Last night a casualty to the hostel scene.

But there was one positive – Toby, from Massachusetts, is on his way home from a 3 year stint in public health in Botswana.  Before that, he spent 3 years working with AIDS and HIV patients in South Africa.  Anna and I picked his brain for over an hour, learning the best places in Southern Africa to safari, the most interesting only-in-Africa experiences that we wouldn’t really be able to get in any guidebook.  Toby sat for the whole time, answering questions, remembering names of places and web addresses for us to check out.  He had tips on keeping costs down, places to avoid and even restaurant recommendations.  And that information, more than anything else, is why we’ll continue to frequent hostels for the remainder of our trip and why we’ll – grudgingly- continue to put up with Finnish bikers at 5 in the morning.

We have decided on one cardinal rule – one that we knew and had forgotten in our time away from the scene.  Hostels are a mixed bag so try not to book for more than a day or two at a time.  If you love it, they’ll always take your money and let you stay another night.  If you hate it – well, you’re an itinerant traveler and getting up and moving on isn’t exactly a novel thing.

Here are some pictures of the hostel environment.  I wish we’d taken some of Godzillas, but we only took them of Cuba Hostel.

Hostel Common Area

Hostel Kitchen

Hostel Shower

Best. Souvenir. Ever. I also saw one with the 2010 team, but they suck.

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Responses

  1. love the texas baboshakas..!! and im pretty sure i would have been like anna and would have thrown in some serious foul language at the ever so rude finnish bikers!!

  2. We have been away for about 10 days, so I was anxious to get caught-up with your travels. I don’t think UBE would stay at a Hostel…do you? We are going to be around this weekend, so maybe we can Skype (with Jennifer’s help), if it works for u. I keep you both in my daily prayers. xoxoxox kita


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