Hostels-part 2

Hostelling is fantastic. I’ve been hostelling for over 10 years. The previous blog tells how I started and got into it. I’ve never looked back and apart from camping, I would not use any other type of accommodation unless absolutely necessary.

I have used hotels-motels in America on my last trip March-July 2007 because many of the places and the States I wanted to visit do not possess hostels. I also discovered that many hostels in Malawi are not called hostels but guest houses. some of these are also hotels, or boarding on hotels. In the developing world I take what I can find anywhere possible.

There are hostels in every populated continent. It was established in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century, primarily for independent explorers and alike. Back then they were simple places of shelter. A bed and maybe something to cook a meal on and that was it. Later they developed but had rules, you could not drive to hostels and it was expected that chores would be undertaken – making your bed, sweeping the floor etc. Most hostels were away from cities and in places of remoteness and often historical or geographical interests. Many of the UK hostels are still situated in such remote areas.

However, today’s hostels have changed some what. Families can arrive, people may turn up in any vehicle they choose. The newest hostels are often found in major cities. Many of them possess rules as mentioned in the previous blog.

Although the hostel international and Youth Hostel Association hostels are sometimes stuffy and contain a sterile atmosphere, even the majority of their accommodations are individual and different. That is the beauty of hostels and hostelling; on the whole, most accommodations are different. Many of them strive to create an atmosphere, to be accommodating even friendly. The best parts about hostels is that you nearly always find a mix crowd of people and nationalities. This only adds to the flavour and hospitality. You meet people from all backgrounds, countries, races, and with a story to tell and something to contribute. for people staying long-term it is an opportunity to get another view of the world, a different option and an alternative epistemology. I enjoy this aspect of hostelling immensely. I have made many of my friends this way. Hostels are cheap and are great for budget travellers. I have never had to travel on a budget but I still appreciate the fact that hostels are usually inexpensive. Making my accommodation cheap usually means I will stay longer and can spend more money on activities and attractions. for others it means they can have a roof over their head for a night, maybe get a job to sustain their travel and use many facilities that might not be accessible anywhere else on the road. They are a vital component of the travellers information. I try to pick up a hostel guide each time I visit America. I use the internet and the travel guide books plus world of mouth and good experiences of previous hostels to obtain the best hostels. I always book my first hostel in any country I am visiting. I do not always mention my disabilities. The other item I like about hostels is that the majority of them offer tours and know about attractions. It is always good to know what is happening in a city, town, area. Hostels can give information, organise tours or know where events can be organised and this has often been their most useful asset for me when travelling in a foreign country.

I go travelling to explore, learn, make friends and have an adventure and I try to do it for as little money as possible. Hostels help facilitate the majority of this. I would not use any other accommodation until my disabilities and /or body says It is no longer possible. Being totally blind and travelling and using hostels has its own challenges. Many hostels have challenges for any traveller. Often they are difficult to find or in locations that have many steps, in old buildings, are narrow, have unusual opening and closing hours and many other anomalies. Obviously for me the most difficult event is finding any hostel building once I am in the near location. It is just a case of asking anybody I pass and hoping they know it or showing my map or address if I have one. Many locals often have no clue to what a hostel is, I have had this problem many times in America. You ask an American citizen directions to the nearest hostel and they think you mean the hospital! Young people with backpacks are usually more helpful. However, I must admit even several Americans have tried to give directions or once they know the address taken me there in their car.

I have experienced many types of hostels from square buildings with lots of similar uninteresting rectangular rooms with the customary six to eight bunk beds, white walls and no carpets. Everything is clean, there are few guests and the staff are at best perfunctory and worst uncaring. Ones I like best are somewhere in between really clean and really friendly. The more unusual and possessing character the better. You want atmosphere and liveliness, with activities and people of interesting backgrounds, with a story to tell, plus a warm friendly person to show you around and make you feel human again. Not everyone wants a hostel that rocks every night with young drunks, shouting and making lots of noise. similarly a place with no atmosphere and guests is also unfriendly. The hostel with something for everyone young and older, lively and relaxed is just right.

A hostel will not please everyone, often the best types are the ones that state what they are about and leave you to make the choice. Often all I am after is simply a bed for the night and the noise or what it looks like is of no interest. However other times I want a crowd with interesting people, events and information on tours and events. After many years of hostel international accommodation I gradually got into the independent hostels and the ones run individually were fantastic. I found hostels with relaxed ambiances, no rules, friendly staff and owners and people amazed to find one of their guests blind, but not put out or afraid of me. Hostelling is for anyone who wants it. Some of the European and UK hostels now cater for disabled guests. I have always taken things how I have found them and once I have had a hostel staff member show me to my dorm and shown me my bunk and where the nearest toilet is, I get on with it. I try to make friends with the people in my room and other hostels alike, joining backpackers in the hostel bar or lounge, garden or wherever the nearest gathering area is.

Once there I get my bearings using my cane, remember my directions and make friends with the hostel staff. I ask for help with directions to places, booking tours, help with the internet and purchasing food. I tell people I am independent and only need guiding once or telling information. This technique has tended to work all over the world. You get the occasional person who does not want to help or cannot handle my blindness. This occurred once in a hostel in San Francisco, America. I was travelling with a female friend; she went to her room but when I entered my dorm, I was met by a rather rude guy from Portugal. He was very put out about sharing with a blind person. I just shrugged and asked the hostel staff to move into another dorm. they obliged and all was well there after. I have been refused a stay in a hostel in Savannah Georgia, America because the hostel manager was not prepared to have me. He said there were lots of stairs and it was dangerous. When I said I had travelled around the world and it was not a problem. he replied ‘There are other accommodation for people like you’ and closed the door in my faced. I decided that he just did not want to help me. I felt it was his loss and spent the night sleeping on the bus station floor. I stayed in a hostel in Key West, Florida America with very rude staff who told me I could not check in until after 2.00 pm and then shouted at me when I asked to use the toilet. These things happen all over the world. However, this is by far outweighed by the helpfulness and generosity in other hostels. I have had hostel managers collect me from transportation stops, given me lifts to bus and train stations, given bottom bunks when none were available, helped with cooking and also had much assistance arranging tours and excursions. Not to mention several hostel managers and staff allowing me to stay for free on account of my amazing adventure and challenge.

I have been immensely lucky. There are to many hostels to mention in any blog or book. Some of the most interesting places are mentioned in each of the three travel books. However, probably the best hostels I stayed in were in Canada. Although many of the hostels in this country are not disabled friendly, being in old buildings. I found the ones I did attend homely and welcoming. The best hostel was Canadianna Backpackers, Toronto. It has an international flavour from its staff to its guests. People from all five continents, from India, Israel, America, Germany, Belgium, Australia and many other nationalities. You can get free tea or coffee any time day or night, and there is plenty of breakfast food for a small price. The hostel has all the requirements, internet, laundry machines to organised tours. There is a wooden back porch to sit and have a drink and/or a smoke and enjoy the hostel banter that exists among young travellers. There is always an activity occurring; whether it be a drinking night or some silly game on the back deck – anything from darts to ping pong!!! There is a continual buzz that hints that something is about to happen even when it is not. I have been there three times and each stay was memorable for the way the staff accommodated me. I was made to feel part of the furniture an had all kinds of people running round for me; making me cups of tea, fetching me food, taking me to events, organising tours etc. An absolutely fantastic and well worth visit to this hostel.

My other favourite hostel is Jolly Boys Backpackers, Livingstone, Zambia. Livingstone is a lively town on the bank of the Zambezi river with Victoria Falls as its main attraction falling nearby. The hostel Jolly Boys is a main part of the scene. A wild enclosed complex run by two lovely ladies, it is just the place to relax or party after arriving into Zambia. It has its own bar and swimming pool, internet and games tables. there are numerous tours and attractions on offer from rafting the river to bungee jumping the bridge, animal parks and African trible village and cultural displays. It is a hostel for all. though it caters mainly for the young and the wild. The boos cruise is one of its main events. I loved the place and stayed three times. One of the hostels main attractions for me was that if you stayed three nights on your arrival you got your Zambian visa for free. If you did not organise your accommodation this way or with one of the other hostels you could end up paying $50 US for the visa. Some of the people I met there have become great friends while others were friends for a moment. They made the stay memorable. A fantastic croud, we lay about in the sweltering heat round the pool, buying each other drinks from the nearby cheap bar and telling stories and enjoying each others banter and company. Life was blissful and easy at Jolly boys. The natives that worked there were funny, friendly and helpful. I often got taken to the bank or to go for a tour anywhere I wished to go it was no problem. When I ran out of money and my credit card stopped working. The owner just told me to pay for my accommodation when the money came and not worry. She was really cool and relaxed about it all. There are several other places in Africa similar but different to Jolly boys, but none of them quite live up to the mark. I would recommend this place to anyone who wants a bit of fun, nature, relaxation, adventure and mystery. You are guaranteed to make life long friends and have a blast doing what ever you desire. Rock on Jolly Boys.

The most unusual hostel I’ve ever visited was Venice Beach, Monkey Bay, Malawi. It was a hell of a place in many ways; malaria carrying mosquitoes in their thousands, ripped mosquito curtains, water everywhere in the bathroom, toilet doors that would open outwards as you were going to the toilet, wet and unusable toilet paper, and useless showers to name but a few. It was hot and humid, a hostel in a sand beach. Wooden chairs and benches on a concrete island with locals who played the same music of reggae constantly. When you were able to escape to the silence of the beach and Lake Malawi, it was beautiful. I spent twelve days there in between xmas and New year, 2004-05. It was unique. There was a bar and a small kitchen where you could get cold beverages and good food. This consisted mainly of chips and eggs if I recall. The hostel staff consisted mainly of young African boys with an owner in his mid thirties – he was drunk for the most part. He was a dangerous combination, especially when he drove us into the main town, over a bumpy and dusty trail with large pot holes all the way. It certainly was an experience. The worst hostel? A hostel-hotel in Montevideo, Uruguay. It cost $10 US per night, had no staff who spoke any English and no guests that I could find. You had your own room with a television and nobody to talk with. I stayed because every other hostel in Montevideo’s capital city seemed to be full. It was poorly placed with few food outlets and far from any city attractions. I spent my time walking the streets. The manager even tried to charge me for an extra night because I failed to leave before the allotted time of 10.00 am. It was terrible but an experience.

The countries with the best hostels are Australia and New Zealand. There are plenty of good hostels and plenty of choices in all major and small cities and towns. The best way to get to the hostels in New Zealand is by way of the Kiwi Experiences buses, which give you a discount. The hostel staff in Australia often book each hostel for you as you travel and even help with booking activities and events. Their staff are often very friendly and relaxed. North and South America varies. I found South America to be very cheap with hostels scattered about in most of the large cities and near the tourist destinations. The US can be good for hostelling depending on what State you choose and region for that matter. The mid west does not have that many. If staying in New York city, avoid the hostel international. I suggest the Jazz Hostels, there is a selection of them. Use the website for your search. The Green Tortoise are also good if you want lively, fun and drinking-party travelling. Avoid the Santa Monica hostel in Los Angeles, it is very good but expensive. The best hostel in the US is San Diego’s Ocean Beach Hostel. They pick up from all transport destinations, are moments walk from a beach and are near to all San Diego’s main attractions. The crowd is lively and the hostel is relaxed with no major rules.

In Europe I have stayed in the cities of Vienna, Austria, ok hostel, staff slightly unfriendly, cold atmosphere Bruish, Belgium, out of the city, not very good, no food outlets near by. Prague, Czech Republic, very cheap hostel, large dorms with eight beds. Paris, France, good hostel out from city, near plenty of food outlets, on a good transport line with the metro, friendly helpful staff, reasonable price Germany, stayed in several cities, all hostels ok. Ireland, Dublin, fantastic, for drinking and making friends, friendly staff in most hostels lots to do. Cork, hostel out of main town, on a bus line, friendly staff does breakfast Netherlands, several cities, Amsterdam, very lively, Hi has to many rules and big, has its own bar. Other cities more interesting. Arnhem, cool large hostel in the country, worth a visit if you like history of World War II.

Hostels in African continent. South Africa most brilliant, Cape Town has the most, hostels in Johannesburg, I would recommend Backpacker Ritz, they pick up from airport for a small fee. Friendly staff organise many tours as do most of the hostels in South Africa. Garden Route has plenty of good hostels. Once in SA a guide book can help you with this. Most staff are friendly and engaging. Bloemfontein has a hostel but not very good, difficult to get a bed, closes early. Hostels in Mozambique up the coast on the beaches are all good. The country does not contain that many. Zimbabwe, still has some hostels, 2004, don’t know if many still open. The ones I visited were mainly in the central and south. Vic Falls was the main tourist spot with good hostels. Zambia has good hostels, many variety for all kinds of travellers in Livingstone, one or two in the capital. Malawi, has some hostels, mostly called guest houses, they vary alarmingly so have to be careful.

Hostelling is not easy as every place is different and you don’t always know what you are going to get. It is an experience, like a box of un-opened chocolates. I love it as expressed. for a young person travelling the world it is ideal for a rest for a night or a base to explore a city/town for several days. They can cater for all. I have listed some of the best and unusual. Each night in a hostel is an experience, something different happens each day, someone arrives, people go the circle of friends changes the party takes another twist. Hostelling is fun, it is what you want it to be. for anyone reading this website in a hostel, hello, I hope you are having a grand time and making the most of it. For anyone reading this and thinking about using a hostel, go on have a go. I did and I was blind!!! Tony Giles, backpacking nutter.

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  1. Hi Tony,
    I totally agree with Linda. People like you give bad names to cool tourists. Please don’t go travelling when you are really on the “cheap”.

  2. Tony,
    That is so crap. Venice beach is excellent. The guys who run the place rock! Did you write this because you are one of those “cheap mzungus” who could not even afford a plate of nsima?

  3. Tony,
    I recently visited venice beach in Monkey Bay, malawi. What you’ve written is completely opposite to what I experienced during my two weeks’ vacation on the beautiful beach. There are also many people in the littel village that depend on the backpackers for their well-being. It would be great o either remove your negative comments or modiry them.