If you spend any time traveling abroad--and you should--you'll probably spend the bulk of that time in hostels. This is a good thing--although they may seem like wrteched hives of disease and debauchery, at least they are funfilled hives of disease and debauchery, distilling all the best elements of living in a college dormitory without any of the drawbacks, like having to go to class, write papers, or worry about when the RA is finally going to call the cops on your drug-addled ass.
But checking into a hostel for the first time can be a daunting affair--imagine your first day of kindergarten, except all your fellow kindergarteners are drinking heavily and most likely carrying some form of multi-bladed backpackers tool, or at very least a decent corkscrew. Some wary travelers might be tempted to flee to a B&B, or heaven forfend, a hotel, after their first glance around a hostel. But fear not! I'm here to walk you through some of the unspoken guidelines and rules of hostel life.
First of all, congratulations for getting out of the country--I know it was difficult to make it through security and onto the plane and across either of those two large moats that surround North America. Welcome to a foreign country. Please attach this Canadian flag to your backpack so no one harasses you about our foreign policy.
Now. Welcome to the hostel. I dearly hope you're not obsessive-compulsive, for the mess here will destroy any shred of sanity you have left. No obsessive-compulsives make it much beyond the check-in process, so if you've made it to the desk and been assigned your dorm bed without going insane, congratulations. Now wash your hands five times with five different bars of soap, and try not to step on any cracks on the way there.
You're in your first hostel room. Welcome! You've most likely been assigned a bunk bed in a room that holds anywhere from four to twelve people (possibly even more), all who have been there for at least a couple of days, if not months or years (if you're in a Commonwealth Country--any country other than the US where English is a first language, really--expect to find Aussies, Kiwis, Saffies, and Canucks taking advantage of the two year work visa that they have available. Many of these people never bother to find a permanent flat, preferring to work a couple of months in one place before moving on). The detritus of people living their lives out of an industrial size backpack in a place where a professional maid has never been seen can lead to conditions one might label "squalid" were one so inclined.
So shift someone's pile of dirty underwear out of the way, set down your backpack, and slowly try to claim some space for yourself. Subtlety is the key to this--you must let your flotsam and jetsam slowly claim a space for itself, creeping out until the room reaches a sort of equilibrium. Beyond that initial shifting of someone else's possessions to give yourself the starter plot, you should never have to forcibly move anything--hostel possessions are like gases, expanding and contracting to fit the space provided.
Good. Now that you've planted yourself, and started the slow kudzu creep of all your worldly possessions, it is time to find the common room at the hostel. Every hostel has at least one; many have three or four. The hostel I lived in in Edinburgh had three: a TV room, a lounge/billiards room, and a large dining room/kitchen (where most people congregated). If you're in the Mediterranian or the Tropics, the common room may be outside. If you're in Amsterdam, it'll double as a coffee house. You'll recognize it when you see it. The common room is the most important room in the hostel, more important even than your bedroom; it is where you will spend the most time and meet the most people. It's also where you can drink and smoke.
I hope your tuberculosis doesn't start acting up, because you're going to meet a lot of smokers over here, and you might possibly become one yourself. In Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, they'll be smoking factory-rolled cigarettes, but in NATO countries, backpackers tend to roll their own smokes. They'll light one up, and immediately get to work on rolling the next. It makes chainsmoking seem more like a crafting hobby, like knitting, and less like an addiction. And there will be lots of chainsmokers on the road. In Edinburgh, the TV room became such a smokers' hangout that two weeks prior to my departure from there, the entire room had to be repainted due to "toxic levels of nicotine" on the walls." (In an effort to retain the elaborate paintings of Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd's "The Wall," this was done with clear paint, thus locking in a deadly yellowish layer of nicotine for historians to ponder over years after our incipient lung cancer kills us off).
Now that we've found the common room, don't lick the walls (unless you're completely out of smokes). In fact, don't lick anything. The trick of the common room is to find a safe place to sit down and claim as your own. Crumbs and food are easily found and brushed aside, but what you're really looking for are wet spots. Every surface in a hostel, at some time or another, has been spilled upon, vomited upon, and fucked upon (occasionally in very quick succession). What you're looking for is confirmation that none of this has happened in the recent past (sticky spots are the Trojan Horse of hostels--you don't know about it until you sit down, and then it's far too late).
If the thought of this disturbs you, put off your search for a spot in the common room until after a night or two. By then, you will probably have been the one doing the spilling, puking, or fucking, and the thought will bother you less.
But there is an important lesson here: a hostel has no private sphere, and neither do you whilst there. You very quickly have to get used to not being alone ever, and you also must get used to others not caring that they're not alone. I had a crash course in this my very first night in Edinburgh, when a short-timer decided that his girlfriend's leaving to shower gave him the perfect opportunity to jerk off , but for others, it might be more gradual. Most hostels have co-ed rooms, so you must steel yourself not to react when the hot Spanish girl strips down and changes her clothes in front of you without warning or modesty. You must not make a big deal of this, not only because it's rude to make a fuss, but also because they might also stop.
The ever-present danger is that you'll walk in on an...overly amorous couple, shall we say. Or that you'll be walked in when you're feeling overly amorous. There's really nothing to be done about it. It happens to everyone until they can afford a private room (which occasionally hostels will earmark for trysts, if they're feeling extra nice). We should all be happy that they're going at it in the room where you just wanted to watch reruns of "Friends," rather than the bathroom.
So yes, if you must indulge in a little carnal experimentation with your new ladyfriend whose name slips your mind just at this moment, please do it in the lounge, not the toilet. People who monopolize the bathroom deserve every STD they get from that painted Jezebel, that strumpet, that...that slapper!
(Also, it helps to learn the Aussie phrase "slapper." It means roughly, "That bitch who went home with him instead of me," if you're male, or "That bitch who he went home with instead of me," if you're female. Useful phrase, that.)
The hallway, incidentally, while better than the restroom, is not really an acceptible place. Trust me on this one.
So, resign yourself to a little coitus interruptus from time to time. But after you're done getting your knob polished, join the rest of us here in the common room. It's time to make some new friends (in different ways than you just did), and enjoy the reason we're all here: booze.
Drinking is the primary occupation of the backpacker, even if they have a job in the town they're traveling through. We drink even more than we sleep. So sit down and start the 12 oz. curls. You'll probably start out with freeform drinking early in the evening, but as people return from their jobs or their sightseeing, the formal drinking will start, usually in the form of drinking games. You can tell that the night has really started when the deck of cards or pair of dice come out, or when someone starts off with a round of "I never..."
There are a number of rules that most people playing drinking games--no matter which country they may come from or what game you're playing--agree upon as "International Drinking Game Rules." These are the default rules that either considered to be active no matter what game you might happen to be playing, or they are the first rules to be introduced in the games in which you can make up rules as you go (the best kind). Violation of these rules means--surprise surprise--that you have to take a penalty drink (anywhere from a sip to a healthy swallow of alcohol. Not shots, unless you're playing with particularly cruel people).
- No pointing. You need to either indicate by nodding your head, or, more popularly, use your elbow to indicate.
- No swearing. Depending on the crowd, blasphemy is usually excluded as "swearing" (people who play drinking games aren't, on the whole, particularly religious).
- You must drink with your left hand. Failure to do so means you do all your drinks over again. Sometimes an added wrinkle is included: you must drink with your left pinky finger extended, as if you were a "sissy drinking tea" as a co-drinker so colorfully put it.
- You are not allowed to say "drink," "drunk," "drank," or any variation thereof. You must find other euphemisms for the oral consumption of alcohol.
- No calling people by their popular names. (Usually this rule is ignored unless you know everyone quite well and have plenty of pet names for people, as it can make a game quite chaotic and disorganized when everyone is trying to learn everyone else's name).
- False accusation. If you accuse someone of violating a rule that they in fact didn't, they drinks karmically come back. As you sow, so shall you reap.
So, a typical line of dialogue from a neophyte playing a drinking game with us goes something like: "Okay Stu, that's three drinks for you. [pointing and catching himself] Oh shit, that means I have to drink as well now. Fuck, no swearing either. I hate that fucking rule! How many drinks do I have now?" earning himself a total of 8 drinks (one for rule 1, three for rule 2, three for rule 4, and one for 5). If telling Stu to drink was a false accusation, he has another three drinks waiting for him, and there will be a crowd of people watching his every move to see if he slips up and uses his right hand to drink so they can make him go through it all over again.
The upshot of this is that it creates a very palpable aura of paranoia through the hostel. People learn to act as if these rules continue to apply even when they're not playing drinking games (or sometimes, not even drinking), and get into an extreme state of unease about the entire thing. You can figure them out because they're the group of people gesturing with their elbows, who never learned each others' names, won't swear, and have a Muslim's deference for "clean" and "unclean" hands to use while consuming their "tasty beverage." Generally they speak in elaborate euphemisms and seem pathologically afraid of violating the rules. They are suffering from an alcoholic form of shellshock. They are the bottlecases.
This is complicated even further by the individual rules of various drinking games--including the drinking games that allow you to make up rules as you go. In games such as Around the World, one rule forces you to drink if you were to answer someone's question, in another game you must ask permission to leave the table, and every once in awhile someone makes up a rule that you must ask permission to smoke or touch your face. It's easy to tell what specific games a bottlecase has been playing by their neuroses.
Extra rules come in very handy as well. My personal favorite is "Acceptance," meaning that you drink anytime someone hands you something, and you take it out of their hands, which is very deadly if anyone buys you a drink or hands you the dice on your turn. People get very creative when they're forcing others to drink.
Well, there you go. I hope you feel a little bit more prepared for your time in a hostel. If nothing else, remember these three rules. Don't lick the walls, don't fuck in the halls, and remember to have a spare liver waiting for you when you come home.