Throughout December, I was WWOOFing at a hostel in Nelson as the afternoon receptionist/manager. It was a small hostel with a dedicated room for four WWOOFers: two cleaners and two receptionists, who acted as managers when the owners weren’t around. I worked ~18 hours/week in exchange for free accommodation and laundry, while the hostel itself had free wi-fi and bikes. It’s actually been fantastic to have some responsibility and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience of helping to run a hostel. It’s definitely helped stoke that vague and poorly-structured dream I have of opening my own hostel one day.
Anyway, here are some of the things I’ve learned from running a small, family-friendly hostel. (I imagine if you run a large backpacker hostel, then what you learn is that all matter in New Zealand is actually just made up of noise, alcohol, vomit, fast food wrappers and German teenagers.)
- Wear good pyjamas
Although my hours of work were meant to end at 8pm, WWOOFers were the only staff around at night, which meant we were responsible for evacuating the hostel in the event of a fire and generally dealing with guests’ out-of-hours issues, like We’ve locked ourselves out of our room and We’ve locked ourselves out of our room again. Turns out most of being a hostel manager is walking around in your pyjamas, trying to blink the sleep out of your eyes while replenishing toilet paper. So make sure you have great pyjamas.
- The Nelson noise control guy is your best friend
Ah, the joys of a suburban hostel. We quieten all the guests down by 11pm, and then at 12am, the neighbourific denizens of bloody PARTY HOUSE start rocking out and I’m treated to the melodic THUMP THUMP THUMP of their Spice Girls or Rolling Stones or Wagner or whatever hip punksters the youth of today are listening to. The music doesn’t so much drift over the fence as shatter the fence and then toss the fence’s broken body into a ditch at the side of the road.
Fortunately, I can always ring Nelson noise control for therapy. The man’s soothing tones are balm for my ears at 4am, and when he says Don’t forget to ring us back in 15 minutes and I joke Oh I really don’t think I will, I realise that the two of us have a deep and intimate connection. When I do ring back in 15 minutes and he says No problem, we’ll send someone out, it becomes clear that the Nelson noise control guy is the love of my life, and I’ve never felt this way about anyone before, and it’s definitely not because I’m sleep-deprived.
- You can save money, sort of
Why pay for excursions? Ring up tour operators, tell them you work at a hostel, and they’ll get you on a trip for free! The idea is that later on you can drum up interest for them amongst the guests. Thus: free $60 trip to Abel Tasman National Park, where you can gaze upon the breath-taking azure beaches to your heart’s content! Even better: free $5 entry to Nelson provincial museum, where you can read speculation about the name of the first white baby ever born in Nelson. Turns out, maybe it was someone called Mary, although also no-one knows.
Even better than free trips is the 10% deposit (*cough*commission*cough*) that I take when someone books a trip through reception. Sadly I’m a terrible salesman, because I feel guilty about convincing people to buy things they don’t really want. Still, there’s a certain thrill in accidentally making money because someone bought a trip despite my scepticism. It’s interesting to reflect on the fact that I used to earn a salary large enough to allow me to comfortably live in London, and now I’m pathetically grateful when I earn $5.80 (almost £3!) because someone booked a water taxi from Marahau to Anchorage. It’s actually wonderful getting excited over so little money. In fact, it’s easily enough to make me forget that I’m not being paid for any of this work.
- If I was a superhero, laundry would be my arch-nemesis
I hate laundry, but not in a prejudicial way (before you call me sheetist), only in a hilarious blog-ranty sort of way.
Okay, we’ll start with double fitted sheets. Double fitted sheets were invented by the same Committee of Evil that designed Bank underground station and plastic vacuum packaging. They cannot be folded by mere mortals and, if you show me how to fold one, it doesn’t make me think Oh now I know how to do it, it makes me think Oh now I need to burn you at the stake. They are so impenetrably impossible to fold that I slightly suspect nature intended for them to be left unfolded, and if anyone actually ever manages to perfectly fold one, plagues of seagull-riding possums will be unleashed upon the world via the resulting wormhole.
Only slightly less evil than double fitted sheets are fabric bath mats. They don’t dry. It doesn’t matter how many times you put them through the dryer or how long you leave them in the sun, they will still be as wet as Michael Cera when you’re done. If you ever plan to get marooned on a desert island, just take a wet bath mat with you, and you can suck on it to stay hydrated for I reckon at least eighty years.
And finally: toilet paper. No matter how many times you restock the toilet paper, there will never be any toilet paper left. This is either because travellers are so desperately short of money that they can’t afford anti-diarrhoea medication or because travellers are so desperately short of money that they’re stealing toilet paper or because travellers are so desperately short of money that they’re eating toilet paper.
- Be thankful for good systems
The booking management system at my Nelson hostel was a dream. Bookings from Hostelworld (and its kin) updated automatically and the whole availability calendar synchronised across all websites as soon as you added or removed your own bookings. I didn’t realise how beautifully efficient this was until I took up a receptionist position at another hostel, where the booking management system is roughly akin to smearing people’s names on papyrus using cheese.
- Small amounts of power easily go to my head
I had keys to the washing machine. Sure, I also had keys to the safe, but the power to empty the tokens out of the washing machine gave me far more of a god complex. YOU SHALL NOT WASH.
- Recommendations go a long way
When I told my manager I was looking for other similar opportunities around New Zealand, she very kindly posted a message on New Zealand’s largest hostel forum, recommending me as a manager. The same day, I received five texts, an email and a phone call from hostels around the country asking if I could come to them. The enquiries continued to drip through over the next few days, with hostels falling over themselves to tell me what they could offer me (everything except a salary, pretty much) and how desperate they were to have me (usually because they were so far into the middle of nowhere that the words Here there be dragons would cover up their location on any map). I briefly entertained the idea of spending my whole life running other people’s hostels for them in exchange for free stuff, but actually, even though it’s been a great experience, it’s time for me to do something else.
- The entire New Zealand economy is underwritten by volunteer backpackers
So, the slightly worrying angle. Though it’s great for me and my fellow travellers, it does strike me as somewhat bizarre just how much of New Zealand’s infrastructure is propped up by foreigners who are working for accommodation and not for a wage. My experience is just one of hundreds of similar stories across the country: hostels are run by volunteers. Beyond this, there are plenty of farms, orchards, ranches, etc. that take on huge numbers of WWOOFers instead of employees.
Furthermore, WWOOFing is supposed to be regulated and subject to a number of restrictions, but not once has anyone ever asked to see my working holiday visa or enquired as to my IRD (tax) number. Clearly it’s not something the NZ government monitors that stringently. If I was a young Kiwi looking for work in the tourism or agriculture industries, I can imagine that this system would terrify me.
I loved my time in Nelson, and made some good friends. There were times when it felt like we were living together in our own private house, and we had to be careful not to exclude the guests from our conversations or resent them for stealing our favourite couch. Sadly I’ve experienced WWOOFers at other hostels fail miserably at this, and it really does ruin the atmosphere.
After a month, it was definitely time to move on, as others were leaving and I was altogether too comfortable. Now I’m in Kaikoura on the east coast as I work my way (quite literally) down the South Island. But I’ll always cherish the time I spent in Nelson, playing endless shithead, watching endless Orphan Black, answering the phone a million times a day, celebrating Christmas and New Year, going on crazy road trips, letting Mikaela cut my hair and shaving Mikaela’s head.
P.S. This blog title is my favourite pun so far.