There’s a particularly gruesome horror movie out there called Hostel. Some of you may have seen it already. Like most movies featuring gratutious torture, I refuse to watch it (severed achilles heels—sounds like a lark!). But from what IMDB tells me, it’s about a small group of backpackers travelling throughout a Slovakian city “with no idea of the hell that awaits them”. Needless to say, the film deeply upset the Slovekian tourism department.
Besides the senseless violence—severed fingers, brutalised corpses—my main gripe with the film’s premise is this: Aren’t backpackers’ hostels horrifying enough already? Do we really need to imagine guests being cut up and left to bleed, when most of us find giant bloodstains on our sheets upon arrival anyway? Do we need to see someone disembowelled in a hostel, when Balinese food poisoning does the same thing? Is there not enough horror already in backpackers hostels without making it worse?
Whether we’re in South East Asia or South Africa, it’s every young traveller’s rite of passage to stay in these godforsaken hellholes modest budget accommodation options. We book them while we’re still brave, young and poor, reminding ourselves that every cent we save on beds means more money for day-trips and booze. Plus, if you’re really travelling properly, we tell ourselves, you don’t need anything fancy. Just somewhere to shit, shower and shave at the end of the day. That’s it.
We take the good with the bad. In the heritage-listed Malaysian city of Melaka, I stayed in one hostel that smelled like damp cats upon entry. (Bad.) The next day, while working in the open-air common room that overlooked a canal (good), I met the little guy responsible for the smell. He was the cutest kitten I’d ever seen and proceeded to stick his head over my laptop nervously as if to say, “Hew-wo?” (Good!) Adorable. You just don’t get this shit in hotels.
That said, you don’t have a say in what sentinent lifeform you end up sleeping with either. All manners of things manage to find their way into hostel rooms, from virus-infected rats to syphilitic Frenchmen. In one hostel in Kuala Lumpur, I turned on the dingy shower only to have startled baby roaches crawl out of the walls. The room’s floor was so dirty, my bare feet turned black. There was hair everywhere. Some of it may have even been human.
Because when things get bad at hostels, they get really bad. You don’t have to wake up in a tub of ice with half your organs hanging out to know you’ve hit a new low. There is one notorious hotel in South East Asia that has been described as “an absolutely disgusting experience”. Online reviews describe other people’s cigarette butts floating out of the shower because of blocked drains and toilets that required “manual flushing with your hand in the tank to drain your waste”. Sweet Jesus.
It’s all trial and error. But all the errors are worth it when you finally luck on a good place with decent hot water, clean rooms, helpful staff and a location impossible to beat. It’s in these places that we meet our new best friends from countries we’ve never visited, and isn’t that what travel is all about?
On one of my last nights in Malaysia, I shared a roadside market dinner with a Pakistani guy from Lahore who hadn’t slept in 48 hours. He worked horrible hours for little pay in a remote shipping dock and was only in Kuala Lumpur to get his working visa renewed. The process was taking longer than he thought and he couldn’t afford a bed. For five Australian dollars, I scored him a spare bunk and a shower where I was staying.
Moments like that remind me hostels can actually be some of the best places in the world. They’re reminders that all any of us need is a clean bed, a shower and a lockable door, and everything else is truly a bonus. We meet strangers change our lives, and though we eventually go our separate ways, we carry them—as well as their tinea and plantar warts—with us forever.