From Don: Ever since we began our nomadic journey in September 2011 I have refused to stay in hostels – they were for young, exuberant, backpacker types who don’t mind scungy rooms, dirty kitchens, and bathroom floors that don’t bear thinking about. Nothing Alison said to encourage me to try hostels made any difference: that we could probably get a private room, that some hostels even have en suite rooms, that we’d meet more people, that we’d not be so isolated from other travellers, that it could be fun! Until, that is, we began looking into accommodation for our five-week trip around New Zealand. What we very soon discovered as we looked at listings on booking.com for Christchurch was that there was very little hotel accommodation available in late February 2015, due in part to some big cricket tournament that was going on at the time, and what was available was eye-wateringly expensive. So then I reluctantly began looking at hostels in Christchurch. The BBH (Budget Backpacker Hostels) online booking network provides descriptions and customer ratings of their hostels. I discovered that some highly rated hostels had rooms with en suite bathrooms – now I was interested.
I booked us into a twin room at the Chester Street Backpackers in Christchurch to give it a try. The hostel proved to be in an old, charming, well-maintained house on a quiet street. It had a large, well-organized kitchen with huge fridges plus lots of cupboard space to store other food items, and a lovely outdoor seating area. We had a good-sized room on the main floor with comfortable beds and clean bedding. All this for about $70 a night for a private room, with a bathroom down the hall.
From then on we tried to stay in hostels as often as possible, with only occasional forays back into hotel land. We soon discovered that modern hostel accommodation, in New Zealand anyway, can be just as good or sometimes even better than medium-priced hotels or motels, and at about 2/3 the cost of a similar room. Plus we could cook all our own meals in a spacious well-equipped kitchen instead of having just a microwave and a kettle in our hotel room.
Several hostels we’ve stayed in have offered free breakfast, another offered a wide range of free breads each morning, and two offered both free breakfast and free evening meal (soup or stew with bread). The only down side of cooking in hostel kitchens is the mess that other people sometimes leave behind them. As the sign in the Queenstown Nomads Backpackers kitchen said “Your mum’s not here. Clean up after yourself.” Interestingly, the greater the attention that the staff pay to the general cleanliness of the hostel, the better care the guests seem to pay. In general cleanliness was not an issue. I never did encounter a bathroom floor that caused me to flee in horror.
One of the big surprises about hostel life for me was just how friendly the great majority of our fellow hostel homies turned out to be, regardless of age. Our on-the-road social life suddenly improved immensely. I also have to admit there has been an inner shift in me since I wrote and published my Second Childhood post. There’s a willingness to be more open with others, and what you get back from others is usually a reasonably good reflection of what you put out. I guess I didn’t realize what we’d been missing out on. I’ve been very impressed with the hostels of New Zealand, and now I’m willing to try hostels in other countries.
From Alison: Call me old, and old-fashioned, and out of touch, but I honestly thought young backpackers travelling the world on a budget lived on pizza, beer and ramen noodles. I’ve been amazed and impressed by the amount of actual cooking that goes on in hostel kitchens. Plates piled high with salads, or vegetables, and not just the girls either. A couple of guys together making a meal of risotto with a side of corn on cob. I said to them that I thought young backpackers lived on ramen noodles, and they laughed and said you could only do that for so long. Another guy said it was fun to learn how to cook and to try new recipes. Lots of pasta being cooked for sure but always a great variety of things to go with it. Couples talking each other through how to cook different foods, guys following recipes on their iPads. Beef Stroganoff from scratch! Real cooking. Real meals.
I stayed in hostels a lot back in my twenties and have memories of having a great time, meeting lots of fellow travellers, partying, sightseeing, a couple of brief travel romances, and one, only one, memory of actually cooking a meal in a hostel. It was a joint effort in a place way out in the suburbs of Paris. We ate spaghetti bolognese washed down with cheap red wine. I’m sure I cooked many hostel meals in those days but that’s the only one I remember. Vaguely. These days we’ve established a morning routine of making breakfast and packed lunches before we head out sight-seeing or travelling for the day, and I think it may be a long time before I forget all the meals we’ve cooked together in New Zealand.
In most hostels we’ve met people of all ages, though definitely there has been a predominance of late teens and twentysomethings, but Queenstown was different. I call Queenstown “Adrenaline Central”. I’ll write more about it in a later post. Nomads Backpackers was full to over flowing with kids looking for adventure and the biggest adrenaline rush they could find. We were walking down stairs from our room one day and some older people walked past us on the way up. One of them said “Oh look! People over twenty!” We all laughed.
Noise! Yes, noise has been an issue, and not what you’d think, not from late night partying or generally rowdy kids. Pretty much universally we’ve experienced people to be quiet and respectful. It’s the endless radio noise that makes my ears bleed. Are people afraid of silence? Almost every hostel kitchen has a radio on all the time. Usually the volume is not so bad, but in every place it has been a commercial station, so a little bit of news, a little bit of chat, a little bit of mostly bearable music. In between that, all too frequently, come the ads. It’s the loud, rapid-fire, fake, ear-shattering voice urgently commanding me to buy something, that I find distressing. It’s early morning. I’m not really awake yet, peacefully trying to start my day with a little breakfast prep and I have this voice screaming at me. Energetically fractured. Frequently I would just turn the radio off. No one ever seemed to mind, or even actually notice. The resulting peace was blissful. My whole body would suddenly relax. The completely soulless hostel in Wellington had a TV in the kitchen-dining room. I turned that off more than once too. In the hostel in Taupo one evening we’re cooking dinner, and a guy came into the kitchen, placed a small cylindrical speaker thingy on the counter, plugged it into the outlet, plugged his phone into the speaker and suddenly there was music blasting out of it at mega volume. Wow. We were a little shocked. Not so much at the music, which varied, and some of it we liked, but at his lack of consciousness, and/or his sense of entitlement. At one time his friend turned the volume down but he turned it up again after a while. It’s the only time we’ve experienced a blatant disrespect for others.
Although I’d tried for years to persuade Don to stay in hostels, I admit that one of the issues for both of us was security. With a private room we can lock our valuables in our cases, and then lock our room, which is the same security we’d have in a hotel. I foresee many more hostels in our future. What’s a little radio screeching compared to all the other advantages like having a kitchen so we can make our own meals, and meeting people! We have something approaching an actual social life. Brave new world indeed.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.