What It’s Like to Live in a Youth Hostel In Your Own Country
“Every day I come home from work and wonder, why are so many people living in my house?”
After four months of living in Coffs Harbour’s Aussitel hostel, Isla, the longest-staying resident, felt it was impossible to settle down
The four other people at the table agreed. Despite living in Coffs long enough to memorise the local supermarket layout, none of us felt comfortable in the hostel like we would in a house.
Two months later, everyone at the table had moved to Base X, a resort-style hostel on tropical Magnetic Island. There, we met other backpackers who had stayed months or even years in places where most guests would prefer not to sleep at all.
So why would anyone sign themselves up for this kind of impoverished limbo?
In the case of my friend Pippa and I, the answer was COVID.
After a year of attending university online and being locked down with our families, nothing seemed more attractive as living the backpacker life – which for us meant moving to a hostel in Coffs Harbour and picking blueberries on a government contract.
Despite what our families and friends told us, participating in semi-forced agricultural labour was not as bad as it sounds. Even after our fruit-picking contracts ended, Pippa and I immediately picked up more jobs when we moved to the island. This might make us sound like workaholics, but is common behaviour for people actually on working holiday visas. Even the most party-crazed backpackers we met held down at least one job during their stay.
Many people ‘holidaying’ in hostels long-term rack up high numbers of casual jobs just to stay financially afloat. Even those not short on funds tend to work just to ensure they don’t get stuck sitting around in the common room all day. Work not only saved my bank account – it gave my summer some level of structure. I also found it a great way to motivate myself to get out and explore the areas I had travelled so far to see.
Pippa and I are big walking advocates, but eventually conceded that getting a car or making friends with another resident who has one is crucial for those not wanting to spend all their days in or around the hostel.
Our brief fling with car ownership began when we acquired a hail-damaged Toyota Corolla in Coffs Harbour. To celebrate our new purchase, we packed five extra people and seven boogie boards into our beloved ‘Benedict’ and headed for the beach. Whether it’s buying a bomb or renting a scooter, getting a vehicle is usually a good investment – unless of course you get caught overloading by the police.
While staying at Magnetic island, Pippa and I worked for our board. This was a great way to save money and meet the other staff – backpackers who ran the hostel’s bar, maintained the gardens and cleaned the toilets.
Many staff members had worked for board in hostels all around the country and were full of stories about the “interesting” complications they ran into. From being paid in bar tabs to falling asleep trying to ignore the asbestos in the accommodation walls, living and working in hostels is an exhilarating but inherently unhealthy lifestyle.
Different hostels offer very different experiences for long-term residents. The same place can vary wildly from week to week depending on who the guests are. Often, the only way to find out whether a hostel is worth staying at is to visit it yourself.
When living with people who can come and go at the drop of a hat, I found myself wanting to enjoy their company as much as possible. It’s fairly safe to say that life in Australian hostels has never been more precarious than during COVID. Waking up every day with no plans forces you to live in the present.
If someone had told me that by the time I returned to uni in 2021, I would have caught trains from Melbourne to Cairns, owned a car, worked as a receptionist and bartender, learned to surf and scuba dive, dyed my hair and gone to court, I wouldn’t have believed them.
The combination of sleep deprivation and constant over-stimulation made me feel like I had lived in each hostel for years rather than just over a month. It’s a risky lifestyle that doesn’t always pay off, but one that I would highly recommend.