Our current time zone: GMT +8 (We're home in Singapore!)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Hostel Life (Again)

Hostelling is THE thing to do throughout South America.

For one thing, hostels are cheap accommodation here, costing about US$7 for a bed, compared to US$30 for one in New York. Unfortunately, the Hostelling International (HI) membership we got in Singapore (S$22) wasn't put to much use in the USA, where prices were relatively high. It didn't make sense to pay US$25 to US$30+ (even with the HI card) for one bed, when we could get a motel room, with breakfast, for US$50 on the average.

It is unlikely that we will be able to leverage on our HI card in South America too - most of the hostels here don't seem to be under the organisation. It doesn't matter anyway because there are plenty of hostels, all usually clustered in one part of the city and competitively priced.

In Bogota, we stayed in a dorm at Posada Del Sol (PSD) for COP 15,000 (US$7.50) per night. We had originally booked 2 beds at Platypus - the no.1 hostel listed in Lonely Planet - at COP 18,000 (US$9) but opted for the cheaper option instead.

PSD is run by a Korean who has travelled South America extensively and has been in Colombia for a few years. Needless to say, the hostel is immensely popular with Koreans. According to our new Korean friends, PSD is absolutely famous amongst the Korean travel community.

Posada Del Sol - don't be fooled by the tiny entrance (just the door next to Dan)

Far beyond the deceivingly narrow entrance lies a huge house, with approximately 10 rooms (both dorms and double rooms), 3 large courtyards, 2 kitchens, 3 bathing areas, a laundry area, patio, a reading room, an office and a movie room. Although covered, the roofs of the courtyard let in an immense amount of natural light, which is great, and the occasional chilly draft (which is not so great.) There's no heating at all throughout the house, which makes most of the days in Bogota's chilly weather rather unbearable.

The sitting area just outside our dorm

The rooms and beds were decent, albeit messy and noisy when full. When the hostel is not at full occupancy, the staff set aside one of the dorms as an all-girls dorm. We didn't think it was a viable or practical option for us, given that we only had one set of toiletries and our stuff isn't neatly divided into His and Hers bags (After JetBlue misplaced my luggage on our flight into Nassau, we decided to split our clothes between our 2 bags, in case either one gets lost in transition again. At least for me, I can wear Dan's clothes, but I'd rather the reverse not apply.)

I literally slept with 6 different guys every night, without my husband by my side. A Korean couple decided to move out of their comfy double room one night and into our dorm, just to try it out. The girl moved out and straight into the female dorm the next day.

Dan slept on the upper bunk with the yellow bedspread. My backpack and I slept on the bunk below him. Picture taken on a quiet night with only 4 occupants.

Except for the very finicky flow of hot water, the bathrooms and toilets were generally okay. In fact, I discovered that the plumbing in PSD was actually above Colombian standards - you could flush down toilet paper without any problems. I only just realised that throughout Colombia, people dispose of toilet paper in dustbins provided instead of flushing it down, as the latter would cause the toilet to choke. I have to consciously stop myself from flinging toilet paper straight into the bowl every time. The thought of throwing used toilet paper into a wastepaper basket is pretty icky, but it must be a thousand times worse for the housekeeping staff who have to clear the bins.

Using the communal kitchens and bathrooms reminded me very much of hostel life throughout my 3 years in Temasek Hall at NUS. I enjoyed the privacy of a single room in Temasek Hall but similar to TH, I tried to keep the use of communal toilet/bathing and kitchen facilities in PSD to a bare minimum. Of course, living conditions in both PSD and TH cannot compare to my 4th year of hostel life spent luxuriating in the airconditioned comfort of condo-style hostelling at the then newly-built Prince Georges Park (PGP) Residences, complete with floor-to-ceiling windows, an en-suite bathroom and housekeeping services!

Be it PSD, TH or PGP, housing facilities are only a small (albeit important) part of life in a hostel. Neighbours are a big factor in communal living. I don't know whether it's a cultural thing or what, but we clicked quite well with a group of Koreans and a Taiwanese guy. The Koreans were incredibly nice - they arranged for a farewell lunch and even threw some sort of a farewell party for us (beer and snacks) the day before we left Bogota! We felt so loved! They even told me that I resembled one of the Korean actresses. Until one guy added "...before she went for plastic surgery" What the...!!!!!

So here are our Top 5 Good and Bad things about life in a hostel (in this case, for travellers, although some points could apply to undergrads staying on campus.)

Top 5 Good Things:

1. Sharing of information: hostellers are all coming from and heading to different places. Whatever your next destination, someone at the hostel would have already been there. They will be more than happy to tell you if the hostel they stayed at was good, what they did/ate and places to avoid.

2. Safety in numbers: with the Koreans, we took turns to snap photos and withdraw cash from the ATMs, while watching each other's backs and keeping a lookout for snatch thieves. They were very amused when Dan and I struck kungfu poses around them, pretending to be on high alert for thieves. The military police on duty were also very amused. I caught one of them stealing glances at us and trying not to laugh.

3. Friends in other places: paths are bound to cross again. We've already made plans to meet 3 of our Korean friends in Quito and are looking forward to seeing them again.

4. Lost in translation... not: with so many people hailing from different countries and speaking an array of languages, you're bound to find someone who can help you communicate with the locals even if you can't speak in their native tongue. For example (yes, this 3-way translation really happened!):
- Step 1: Colombian guy speaks to Korean girl (who can't speak English) in Spanish
- Step 2: Korean girl speaks to English-speaking Korean couple in Korean
- Step 3: Korean couple speaks to us in English
Today, a Bolivian girl helped translate Spanish instructions from our caving guide to English for the whole group. Muy bien!

5. Free food: I really don't know why, but people kept giving me their food - biscuits, chocolate, Dunkin Donuts, etc. I must have looked half-starved all the time!

Top 5 Bad Stuff:

1. Lost sleep: I'm not usually a light sleeper but I found myself waking up almost every night to some disturbance in the dorm, especially from inconsiderate neighbours:
- 2 Australian guys talking at normal volume in the middle of the night, not bothering to lower their voices to a whisper;
- People who had no qualms about flicking on the fluorescent lamps when everybody else was asleep instead of using a torch;
- Snorers/ noisy breathers (who can be excused, cos their noise-making is unintentional);
- Australian guy yelling across the room at Dan (snorer) to shut the hell up. The snoring didn't wake me - the shouting did. I was so mad that I continued to let Dan snore (instead of getting him to turn onto his side) and irritate the guy throughout the night;
- The Plastic Bag Man who wraps every damn item in his backpack in a plastic bag and rustles away like he's playing in a Plastic Bag Band at 6am in the morning.

2. Mismatched expectations: some hostels market themselves as party hostels and target young (often Western) revelers who like loud music, pretty girls and cheap beer. PSD was not a party hostel but a large group of 11 Australian guys somehow thought so and were sorely disappointed, announcing that "this is the most boring hostel I've ever stayed in." Seriously, do us all a favour: go somewhere else. Please.

3. Cultural clashes: the same group of Aussie guys were running down the corridors, shouting and screaming in their underwear or bare bums, holding strategically-placed bathmats, and delighting in stripping one another down to their birthday suits. Dan had to tell them to please respect the women in the hostel and to stop all that juvenile nonsense. On another occasion, I was innocently sitting on my bed and the ang-moh guy across me decided to suddenly model his tighty whities right in front of my face. I'm not so prudish as to find it offensive but I thought it was really quite rude to assume that a lady would be happy to see you walk around in your undies. At least ask whether she minds if you do a quick change or if she could excuse herself from the dorm for awhile.

4. Smoked out: at both the hostels that we've stayed at in Colombia so far, smoking is allowed in the common areas because the smoke can escape through the open roofs. But some people have no qualms about puffing away in the dining area while others are eating. Other times, even though we're holed up in the reading room, the smoke wafts through the house and our clothes and hair reek of cigarette smoke after that. And some people are plain assholes to insist on smoking in the shower cubicles or while lying in the shared hammocks. I start wondering whether it's me who is being too intolerant of cigarette smoke permeating my life or whether smokers should be more considerate of others.

5. Selfishness & rudeness: PSD has a really good movie selection and a large-screen LCD display in the "cinema". Most hostellers, when they wanted to watch a movie, would inform other guests what they intended to screen and invite them to watch it together. Knowing that some guests would be having Spanish lessons during the day or studying Spanish at night, they would be mindful not to blast the sound system to the max. Then along came the Aussies who hogged the movie room 24/7 and played movies at maximum volume until the walls shook. When a Brit asked if he could watch a movie after they were done, they replied "No. We're going to watch another show now." Don't get me wrong - I've nothing against Aussies. Anyone can be rude - as emulated by the Brit girl who pounded loudly on the bathroom door when we were using it. When I opened the door and asked her what was the matter, she simply replied "I just wanted to use the bathroom." What?! Can't you wait in line like everybody else, or use another bathroom? Or can't you politely ask whether we're going to be done with it soon and politely let us know that you really want to use this particular bathroom? Don't have to act like it's your royal birthright and evict others on demand. How RUDE. I just replied "Well someone's still using it", glared at her and made her wait till Dan was done (all she had to do was wait just 10 seconds more.) I regret not showering her with a mouthful of unmentionable phrases in Hokkien.

It seems really unfair that in a communal setting, whoever is the noisiest, rowdiest, smokiest, and rudest of all is King of the Hostel, and everyone else has to either waste energy telling them to behave or simply bear with it (or both.)

It is also the responsibility of the hostel owner to step in and manage the guests' unruly behaviour when necessary. For PSD, the owner wasn't always around and the local staff made no efforts to tell noisy guests to quieten down (in fact, we were told off twice for watching a movie too loudly - which was nowhere near the level that the Aussies' were blasting movies at.) At Macondo Guesthouse in San Gil, where we are at now, we are very impressed with the Australian owner's hands-on management style, especially when he personally told visitors from other hostels that they had to leave by 11.30pm, and people who were playing board games to quieten down (us included... blush) so as not to disturb sleeping guests.

Let's hope that life in the hostel over the next 6 months can only get better!


Tracy Su said...

Hahahahahaha! Don't worry, if they threw you such a huge bash they must prefer the korean starlet BEFORE surgery.

Ugh, I hate loud noisemakers. I once had this group older than us coming back from some festival in London. They were chatting loudly and the girl sat behind me had this revolting spitting guffaw! Keep your spit to yourself please, and you really should know better. And no no, smoke should be kept to the smoker. If they want to kill themselves that's fine, just don't do it to anyone else. And if they're also the loud noisemakers, that's GREAT! *thumbs up*

Carol Mei Mei said...

hahaha, the 'bare his undies' episode really reminds me of my backpacking days in italy, where i was also hostelling in shared dorms.... =)

Yi Lin said...

Carol - why ah? Is it because Western women get really excited to see strange men in their undies or what? I was really quite taken aback.

Trace - gawd, flying spit is the worst! Do you think ppl who talk very loudly eventually deafen themselves with their own voices and thus talk even louder cos they think they can't be heard? There was this Nepali guy who would relate his entire life story every single night for hours at top volume to whoever would listen - and there was usually only ONE person in his audience.

Tracy Su said...

Hehe, the one who couldn't get away ;)

singaporeshortstories.blogspot.com said...

Hostels are very great places for lodging as these are very cheap indeed!

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