Your flight home is tomorrow and your tourist visa is about to expire. No more €1 shots. The only way you’ll remember backpacking across Asia is from revisiting blurry drunken-night selfies and the tan lines on your hips. “It’s winter at home and nothing is happening. Why would I leave when I can stay and work here?”, former hostel worker Eric O’Callaghan reminisced. “I woke up the next morning in the hostel I was staying in, soaking wet and a foggy memory. My clothes were in a different room and one of the staff said I told the manager I would have an interview with him that morning. I couldn’t get to my clothes so I had to borrow clothes off a guy in the room who was a 6ft islander from New Zealand who looks like he should play for the All Blacks. His t-shirt was like a hammock and I wore it tucked into a girls pair of denim shorts.” Somehow Eric got the job. If you regularly stay at hostels, these kinds of tales probably sound very familiar.
Hostels are budget accommodation geared towards young people who like to party. They are particularly popular for frugal students backpacking around Europe and South East Asia. My first hostel experience was in Budapest, Hungary. I arrived at a psychedelic rooftop party hostel that was right above a bass pumping nightclub. After a pub crawl, we ended up at the nightclub below my hostel where nobody believed that I could see my dorm from the dancefloor. The hostel had a really casual, close-friend atmosphere — unlike most stuffy, impersonal hotels. Instantly other people staying there invited me to drink with them after I checked in (Remember, it’s 8 pm somewhere in the world) and the staff joined us too. The international staff told us about how they worked in the hostel in exchange for a free bed and basic food. Being able to travel cheaply and meet lots of new people always intrigued me so when I wanted to stay in Seoul, South Korea for a month, working in a hostel seemed like a really fun idea. Turns out, it was more fun than I’d anticipated.
We all shared a staff room of three bunk beds beside the reception and our duties were checking in guests, hiring cleaning services like the air duct cleaning specialists serving The Dalles, serving drinks and making sure everyone was having a fun time. There were always interesting characters coming and going from around the world. One night, an American guest stripped down to his American flag printed underwear and danced on top of the pool table. Another time, the CCTV footage caught a couple getting too friendly at the bar. One of the most interesting characters was our boss. He loved bringing all the guests out for Korean Barbecue where he’d drink so much. It was rare to catch him sober after 8 pm but that’s what made him such a fun boss. At night we’d all go out clubbing, return to the hostel at 6 am and sleep for one hour, ready to start a 7 am shift. No clue how we did it but it’s not called a “party hostel” for nothing.
Legally hostel volunteers work in a grey area depending on the country they’re in. Some governments view a free bed and food as a form of compensation which should be done on a non-tourist visa. “Visa hopping” is a common occurrence for work exchangers who want to stick around a hostel for a prolonged time. A British lad in the Korean hostel would fly to Japan for only one day every three months so that he could renew his South Korean tourist visa. He’d been doing it for more than a year and we never knew how he made an income while volunteering. Eric was able to stay at the hostel in Cambodia thanks to his friend’s advice, “In Cambodia, you can get anything done if you know the right people. My friend was telling me there’s this company who you give your passport to and they drive to the border, get it stamped and a new visa added, then bring it back to you”. The night Eric sent his passport away to get stamped, everyone was too drunk to remember the company they used so Eric didn’t have his passport for two months. By chance, he found a scrunched up envelope while cleaning a room and the address of where to find his passport was inside. A lovely Cambodian family had it and they even renewed it for him because they knew he was still in the country.
Sharing a room with lots of fun people is exciting at first, but a lack of alone time can start to wear on a work exchanger. It’s not all fun. Cleaning, performing administrative work and handling aggressive drunk guests is a tonne of hard work. Although the endless parties were enjoyable, the hostel in Seoul made us work six days a week with a shift lasting seven hours on average leaving little time to sightsee. When new guests asked for recommendations it was hard for all foreign staff, with little time to sightsee themselves, give experienced advice. Every hostel is different though. I worked at a hostel a few years later where I only worked ten hours a week. Eric knew too well how exhausting non-stop partying can get. “It was great seeing people leave in groups knowing you introduced them and helped that along, but for them, it’s a holiday, for me it was work. The friendships I made were great, but every day people are in party mode and ready to go out and live it up. This all sounds fun but try doing it every day”.
2020’s vicissitudes of fortune meant that we couldn’t travel this year and 2021 is still uncertain although a vaccine is providing hope for summer travel. Whether it’s next year or the year after that….or the year after that, working in a hostel is an unforgettable experience worth trying out. Send e-mails to hostels in the area you want to go or search for openings on Craigslist or hostel job websites. “I had people come to the hostel we were staying at and when I would check them in and show them to their rooms, they would ask, “Are you Eric?” And I’d be like, “Well that depends, are you here to kill me?” They would then tell me that other people they met while travelling told them to come stay at [my] hostel and make sure to find me. That’s a nice feeling”. What advice does Eric have for someone who wants to do a work exchange in a party hostel? “Just make the most of it. When you come back to the real world and realise that your new job doesn’t start with a tequila shot each morning, it’s nowhere as fun”.
Have you ever worked in a party hostel or have any crazy hostel tales? Leave a comment below sharing your best stories.