Recounting The Culture Shocks That Chronicled My First Hostel Experience
My first time backpacking at a hostel in India.
My first experience of hostel life happened towards the very end of the first set of Coronavirus lockdowns in India in December of 2020.
The final lockdown for the year had just been lifted and after being caged indoors intermittently for 9 months, my soul desperately craved for some fresh air and sunshine. Being a trekker who spends most of his weekends out in the natural world, it was agonizing and painful to be cooped up inside a concrete structure for months on end. I just had to get out.
I was so overwhelmed by the lifting of what turned out to be the very last lockdown for the year, that I drove down to Auroville the very next day from the city of Bangalore. Auroville is a hippie commune situated on the outskirts of Pondicherry, a coastal town on the Coromandel coast of India. It is an intentional community whose residents partially depend on tourism for their livelihood. And hence the proliferation of backpacker hostels and homestays deep inside the village for those looking for a quick, short getaway from city life.
No prior reservations were required at the hostel I was going to be staying at, thanks to the pandemic. Moreoever, they were desperate to take in anyone they could get to make up for months of lost income and revenue. So very naturally, I was welcomed with open arms the moment I arrived there and the owner even gave me the private hut for a subsidized rate when I later extended my stay. I specifically booked my stay at a hutment type hostel so that I could breathe in fresh air 24/7 and take as many sunbaths as I needed (they had a charpai placed outside for that) after being stuck inside a concrete building for almost a year.
Here are a few things that came as a culture shock to me during my stay there:
As most people are aware, backpacker hostels in India are hubs and centers of recreation for Cannabis lovers looking to enjoy some good quality weed whilst on vacation. Call me ignorant, lazy, or stupid, but I just wasn’t aware of this fact at the time. People literally go to these hostels for the weed. The culture is such: During the day they’ll all sit and socialize together (or work) in the lounge area while passing around a joint. During the nights, there’s a bonfire and jam circle where one person plays a musical instrument and everyone else is singing, dancing, and — you guessed it — passing around a joint.
Being a non-smoker, my lungs were assaulted with weed smoke the moment I checked in to my hut the very first day. I couldn’t sleep the entire day due to the smoke. Since these were stilt huts that were erected a level up from the ground and had no concrete walls or solid flooring, one was bound to be assaulted by cigarette/weed smoke the moment anyone lit up in the lounge area below. The smoke passed right through the gaps in the planks like water.
The smokers below were continuously chatting amongst themselves and I just couldn’t sleep due to the combination of smoke and noise. I hadn’t slept properly the previous night, and was extremely fatigued from driving on the highway for 6 hours straight after starting from my house at an extremely odd hour that very same morning. I coughed, twisted and turned all afternoon before finally getting up in the evening to ask the host for a change of room to one that was away from the reception. Only after that, I able to get some much needed sleep and give my tired body some rest.
Even after shifting to a private hut a week later, I would have to resort to keeping the ceiling fan on all the time, even when it wasn’t hot, so that the weed smoke wouldn’t penetrate the room and so that I could sleep smoke-free.
If you are averse to smoking, do your due diligence in checking if your hostel is a smoke-free one before making a reservation.
Welcome to light sleeper hell.
Since all buildings barring the kitchen and bathrooms were log huts, anything that anyone spoke on the property could be heard all around. This includes neighbouring dorm rooms as well. It was an open ground and the dorm huts were squeezed tightly next to each other. One had to speak in a very hushed manner and be careful about what they said, lest someone seated in the adjacent room or someone loitering down below heard something they weren’t supposed to.
For the very same reason, one cannot sleep without ear plugs if there is a group boisterously chatting away with each other totally indifferent to the needs of their weary hostel mates who might be trying to catch some sleep in the dorm rooms above. Dogs barking, vehicles moving about on the adjacent property, and people constantly shuffling in and out of the hostel were some of the minor disturbances that just didn’t let me nap during the day.
I had to resort to using ear plugs and setting the ceiling fan to its highest speed whenever I wanted to catch a snooze and had something important to do later.
If you are light sleeper whose sleep can easily be broken by the tiniest of sounds, it would be wise to call up and check with the owner in advance about the noise level in the hostel, or rather — since the very purpose of a hostel is to cram as many people as close together — not stay at a hostel at all.
Getting along with others
Generally, everything in backpackers hostels, whether huts or concrete structures, are communal and shared. This means you’re constantly sharing areas like kitchens, bathrooms, dining rooms, and lounge rooms with other guests, and this might also include people whom you don’t get along with.
On one particular ocassion during my recent stay at a hostel in Goa, I was forced to wait for my fellow dorm mates to finish using the bathroom so that I could brush my teeth. Because of this, I missed my complementary breakfast in the hostel and was forced to venture outside in the searing heat in search of a place to eat. The ratio of toilets to people is pitiably low at most hostels and one has to wait to use the bathroom in the morning. Usually, there are 6–8 people in a dorm room with just a single toilet for them all. This can be a cause of friction if everyone has an early morning sightseeing or work schedule that they need to get ready for.
With so much diversity and variation in the nature of people staying at hostels, there is bound to be some kind of friction between residents. What might feel tolerable and/or acceptable to some might be extremely inconvenient to others. The fabric of a hostel is something that has to be stitched together by its residents. The cooperation and understanding of each and every resident is required to keep the hostel peacefully functioning on a daily basis.
Even if you booked your stay at one of the private rooms of the hostel, you’d still have to get along with others in all the other common areas such as the kitchen, dining, and lounge areas. This includes a lot of forced interactions, such as when you’re completely worn out in the evening from a day of sightseeing and just want to call it a day, but your new hostel mates are continuously chatting amongst themselves and trying to pull you into the conversation.
If you come from a conservative background, or aren’t used to being around members of the opposite sex in casual environments, mixed dorms might come across as a rude shock to you.
Since I grew up in an extremely conservative culture where girls and boys didn’t mingle freely amongst each other and more so, studied at an all-boys school, I wasn’t accustomed to being around women who dressed liberally. I initially felt a bit awkward seeing them in their lounge wear, but the shyness wore off later. If they themselves weren’t feeling super conscious of it, then whom was I to unnecessarily prolong the awkwardness? After a certain point, you just get used to seeing the women walk around the hostel in loose lounge wear such as bralettes, tank tops, camisoles, shorts, and booty shorts.
During my second hostel experience in Goa, there was an awkward moment where I came across a European woman working on her laptop in my dorm room in nothing but a loose tee and panties. She was assigned the bed next to mine. I was honestly taken aback at first but later found out that this is normal in hostels, especially those that are situated by the beach and have mostly Western tourists visiting them.
Even the men dress very liberally, usually going for tank tops and shorts. In some tropical locations, the heat is so intense that some men decide to forego tee shirts altogether and go about their hostel chores topless. In mixed dorm rooms, you are most likely to see your roommates in their undergarments while they’re changing, or getting out of the bathroom after a shower. So be prepared for it.
If you’re from a conservative culture where orthodox ways of dressing, mannerisms, and behaviour still persist, hostels may not be your cup of tea.
If you aren’t capable of setting boundaries, you will be taken advantage of. You cannot live passively like you do at a hotel room. You have to be mindful of every word you say, and ensure that you don’t reveal too much about yourself while socializing with others in the hostel. This is regardless of how much they reveal about themselves to you. Nothing can be verified on the spot, and who’s to say that your dorm mate is only feeding you a bunch of lies with the expectation that you might reveal something personal about yourself in return?
You have to be capable of putting your foot down and saying “no”, or “that’s personal” everytime you get the tingling sensation that someone is crossing a boundary with you.
Generally what happens in these hostels is that people group up with their dorm mates, rent vehicles, and then go on outings together. I’ve seen it and experienced it as well. As long as it involves some harmless sightseeing, shopping, and dining, there’s nothing wrong with it. However, many hostellers make the mistake of assuming that these new people are now their friends. They aren’t! Just because you spent a day sightseeing and shopping with them, it doesn’t mean they can be trusted with your personal information or to go partying with that very same night.
I just cannot stress upon how important it is to draw extremely thick boundary lines in the sand when it comes to dealing with people at hostels. For certain people, the closer they get to others the harder it becomes to reject them or say no to them. But when it comes to people you’ve just met, that is your hostel mates, you must be capable of shamelessly and unapologetically saying “no” to them and protecting your boundaries. This is regardless of how many days you spent together at the hostel or how many outings y’all have been on together.
An outing to dine at a restaurant or buy groceries for the hostel kitchen, and an outing to go partying where alcohol and drugs are involved are two vastly different things. And so should be the difference in the people you’re doing these things with. Let me say this again: Your hostel mates are not your friends.
It is incredibly easy to get absorbed by the dynamics of groupthink and be hypnotized by the temptations of the party scene to ultimately lose yourself at many of these tourist places. One of my friends experienced this quite literally. He had agreed to join two of his hostel mates for a rave party somewhere in Gokarna and woke up the next day to find all of his cash and his Blackberry missing. The guys were long gone too. Some friends they were huh!
“According to psychologist Irving Janis, groupthink is “a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures.”
“Group members often suffer overconfidence and hold an unquestioned belief in the group’s competence and morality. Dissent by group members may be discouraged and even lead to expulsion from the group. Because people often want to avoid these punishments, they remain silent. This creates the illusion of agreement or unanimity in the group.”
This is why it is imperative that you don’t get too close to people or drawn into groups who try to pursuade you to join them in partying and getting high. Unless you’re with friends, and by friends I mean people who came along with you for the trip whom you can trust to be your drunken self around without being taken advantage of, you should never let your guard down and get drunk with a bunch of strangers. And by strangers, I mean your own hostel mates. Within groups, the scene can go from harmless innocent fun to insidiously dangerous in a matter of minutes. Sometimes, its too late to pull out.
Terrible incidents have happened to people in the past. They’ve had drugs planted on them, or have even been sexually assaulted and their cash and valuables stolen from them. Some of them have also been beaten up. Be extra vigilant while attending house parties or other private parties where you don’t know anyone else there. Drug peddlers are always looking to get rid of their stash on scapegoats when they smell a raid coming. Take each and every single step you need to ensure you don’t end up being the unintentional fall guy. Be shameless and unapologetic about maintaining your boundaries and being yourself. Get comfortable saying no.
I failed to draw boundary lines while renting a vehicle together with a hostel mate and ended up paying the price later. Thankfully, that “price” was just money, and no violence or drugs were involved.
Never get caught up in group drama amongst groups that aren’t your own people.
Staying at hostels can be fun and exciting if you are capable of being assertive and drawing strong boundary lines between you and your dorm mates, thoroughly letting them know what is acceptable and not acceptable to you right from the get go.
But if you aren’t capable of tolerating noise, passive smoke, liberal dressing, being spoken to when you aren’t interested, and don’t possess the ability to strongly assert yourself each and every single time someone’s crossing a boundary with you, you will succumb to fake friendships and will be taken advantage of.
You can make hostel life fun by booking an entire dorm room with a group of friends. One group had done exactly that during my second hostel experience. In that way, you don’t have to interact as much or put up with the crazy shenanigans of others.