by Rebecca Brown
Volunteering in exchange for a bed and food has become a common means for young people to travel the world on a budget, the two dominant trends being in agriculture (WWOOFing) and hostel work (Helpx and Workaway), which are constantly in need of cheap young labor. My experience revolves around the latter sector.
I began my travels teaching English in Slovakia, and upon failing to get a work permit (due to bureaucratic issues on America’s end), I turned to volunteer work. Which is how I found myself in Albania working at a hostel in a small historical town.
Upon signing up on a volunteer site, I encountered what appeared to be an endless list of opportunities, the vast majority being offered by hostels. Free accommodation and food whilst surrounded by fellow travelers looking to have a good time and share their worldly experiences sounded ideal, especially after coming from three years of non-stop working in America.
One facet of the hostel volunteer experience I’d given little thought was what it took to be a hostel owner, a 24-hour job that breaks for only a fraction of the year, and depending on the hostel, potentially not at all.
With each place I volunteered and upon hearing stories of other volunteers, I grew familiar with the general character of a hostel owner, which I sum up as a functioning insane person. It’s the type of gig that necessitates a certain level of neurosis to sustain.
Peter is a middle-aged Englishman who continuously lied about his age and provided little personal information beyond the most superficial details; he served as the perfect introduction to the anomaly of le hostel owner. In his seventh year of hostel management, he was beyond burnt out. He was so beat down by this existence that in seven years, he’d taken up smoking and proceeded to smoke more than anyone I’d ever met, become a functioning alcoholic (sometimes not so functioning), along with developing a general paranoia towards people, referring to Albania as a “country of dogs” who were constantly taking advantage of his “big heart.” (In our six weeks together, I failed to glimpse this “big heart” he continuously referred to).
Initially sympathetic of what appeared to be a shell of a man, my sister and I did everything in our power to ensure his business was maintained and functional. Being our first volunteer experience and with plans to spend the whole summer there (a longer stay than most volunteers sign up for), we pledged a loyalty of fates intertwined. But as the weeks progressed, the cracks in Peter’s ego and intentions slowly revealed themselves. We realized his paranoia towards Albanians as manipulative and self-serving was a projection of his own nature. And so after six weeks, almost exactly halfway through our planned stay, he asked us to leave the hostel with almost no explanation, making some vague comments about the hostel benefiting from “fresh blood” and how it would be “good for us” to spend some time traveling.
Although Peter was our first glimpse of the neurotic hostel owner, he certainly wasn’t the last. And so began a string of hostel owners, men and women, all equally quirky in their own way, all abusing various substances to get by, and all functioning on a level of inconsistency caused by living a life of high demand with little relief.
I wouldn’t trade my experience with Peter or any of the other hostel owners for a more stable, consistent experience. My sister and I came abroad looking for a new perspective and some adventure, and volunteering provided no shortage of both of these. And for that I am grateful (although my liver might not agree).
Opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and may not reflect those of The Working Traveller.