Every year when we return from our holiday people ask interestedly about our trip, the ins and outs and ups and downs and then almost all say some variation of “I couldn't what you do”, when pushed as to exactly which bit they couldn't do, it almost always comes down to the hostel.
I admit 20 years ago hostels could be terrible places. In many the walls we're merely partitions that often only reached ¾ of the way to the ceiling – I never really worked out why, surely an extra foot of plywood wouldn't cost that much. One extra that many places did provide was a pair of rubber flip flops – nice touch? They were apparently there to wear in the shower to reduce the risk of electrocution. Electricity in these establishments was always a bit hit and miss. I remember many a clammy night lying staring at a ceiling fan slowly whirling, willing myself to get to sleep before the electricity was switched off for the night, at which point getting to sleep was impossible. The Oxford English Dictionary describes a hostel as “an establishment which provides inexpensive food and lodging”. Nowhere in that description does it say or even imply that they are dirty or down at heal and they're not, nowadays they can't afford to be there as there is too much competition. I must just caveat that last sentence by excluding India. Everywhere in India is dirty, I don't care if you're staying in the flashiest 5 star hotel available, scratch beneath the surface and it will be grubby. Whilst on our way to a train station in Mumbai, we passed an establishment obviously hosting some society bash, I don't want to be sued, so I'm not going to share the name of the place. Rolls Royces& BMWs were dispatching beautiful sari draped and designer frocked ladies accompanied by bejewelled men, Mumbai's finest were out in force. To reach the station we had to cross a bridge that went over the outdoor kitchen catering for the posh event. Let's just say there was a certain disparity between the glamorous event being staged upfront and the fulfilment out back.
Anyway I digress; back to the hostels. They have evolved. A backpacking trip is no longer exclusively about students on extreme shoestring budgets. Although I do quite miss those days, there was a certain street cred in swapping horror stories about the dingiest, the dirtiest and the cheapest. I remember one hostel stating “no weapons are allowed in the dining room”, they didn't even have a dining room. The overall quality of hostels has improved dramatically. During our recent trip the hostels we stayed at included a beautiful Casona (large village house) with a swimming pool, garden and free salsa lessons. Another was a wooden tree house some 6 metres off the floor with a huge arching wood and thatch ceiling a further 6 metres tall, with vines growing through the thatch. The room rate of about 27 euro included a bicycle each and the best breakfast in Mexico.
Another place offered traditional Mayan wattle & daub thatched huts. Well when I say traditional I'm guessing that the original Mayan versions probably didn't have en-suite bathrooms. It wasn't all glorious; we stayed in another place that was spotlessly clean but totally devoid of character. Every inch of wall and floor was covered in white tiles, it could have been a cell in a mental institute and it did leave you wondering if it was designed to be hosed down after the owners had murdered the guests and turned them into burgers, or sold their organs.
Many hostels now market themselves as catering not only for the gap year gang but an older world-savvy clientele. There are still the dorms charging bunk beds out for pennies a night, although, at risk of losing my traveller cool I have to confess that in over 20 years of travelling I have never slept in a dorm. However they now provide a selection of rooms offering en-suites, air-con, views, king size beds and other “luxuries”. Many of these new styles of hostels also focus on a trendier or quirky interior design and a more intimate feel. I'm actually not keen on any of the ways of classifying hotels. The star system is too focussed on facilities. Ok by booking a 4 star hotel, I know that it will have a pool and a gym and that I will have a mini bar, a trouser press, a TV and a Gideon bible in my room but none of those things are very important to my stay. I don't like the homogeneity of a large hotel hotel chain where everything is standardised, I prefer to stay in a hostel that not only offers diversity and a focus on individuality and comfort rather than gadgetry but also is nearly always privately owned meaning that you are contributing directly to the local community. So if the star system doesn't work for me there is the alternative of the individual rating system, most popularly Trip advisor. I have many problems with this kind of system. Firstly it is so open to abuse. There was recently a story floating around about an author, RJ Ellory, who used pseudonyms to fake his own reviews. He described his book as “magnificent genius”. There is also of course the Libor scandal, where banks inflated or deflated their rates so as to profit from trades and then the companies who use creative but entirely legal accounting to avoid paying tax. What surprises me most about all of these stories is that people are surprised, one man's fraud, is another man's thinking outside the box. I am sure there is not a single successful entrepreneur who hasn't bent the odd rule.
I have a plan for making my fortune which doesn't involve breaking any laws. On the eve of my move to Spain, just as a was ducking out of the rat race and any real hope of making money, I made a deal with my five year old nephew that the first of us to make a million would give half to the other. Now as he approaches 13, with a lot of working years ahead of him and inflation bring a million a lot closer, I think that he is realising that he's made a bum deal, and far from letting him off, every Christmas I remind him of the deal and make him spit and shake on it. So now that we've established my moral fibre, or lack of, I can tell you that if I had a hotel I'd definitely do my own reviews, I wouldn't stop at “magnificent genius” there are so many adjectives out there to choose from. Secondly, it's so open to individual likes and dislikes. I hate bright lights, large portions and sushi, I also hate speedy food, I need time to take in the surroundings, digest my food one course at a time and obviously squeeze in an extra glass of wine. I recently read a review of a restaurant that had been given 1 star, the complaints were, that it was dingy, lit almost entirely by candle light, the service was slow, they had to wait 15 minutes between courses and the portions were too small. Now that sounds like my kind of place, for me it sounds like an almost guaranteed 5 starrer. Thirdly, as a small business owner I don't like the idea of something that can ruin a business to be without measure or control, or so open to abuse. There are fourthly and fifthly and maybe even sixthly & seventhly points too but I'm at risk of ranting.
Trip Advisor isn't all bad. One thing that I do like about it is reading the reviews, some of them are pure comedy. We read a review about a place we were planning on staying in Valencia. Reviewer after reviewer mentioned the creepy guard who patrolled the corridors by night. I was quite looking forward to bumping into the subject of so many scary tales. Unfortunately, probably due to his Trip Advisor notoriety, by the time we w