By Kate Alvarez
"SEE KATE, THAT COULD BE you!" teased my friend Rich during my first big Manhattan adventure last year. He was pointing to a wall plastered with movie posters of 'Hostel II.' I laughed nervously as I stared at the bloody torturer and his victims.
I was staying at a three-star hotel, and my travel budget was depleting by the New York minute. I needed to find a cheaper place to stay or I would have to go back home and forget about my two-month exploration.
I had no luck finding a decent apartment to rent. Hundreds of people move to The Big Apple every month and they compete for a pad. I browsed maniacally online and learned that no Manhattan hotels go under $100 a day. Four to five-star hotels go from $300 to $1,000 a night, while humbler ones cost $125 to $300.
I had no choice but to click my mouse on a word I had been avoiding for weeks' hostel. Whoever coined that term must've known that adding an 's' in the middle of 'hotel' would make all the difference. That it rhymes with 'hostile' is just a coincidence.
Real vs Reel Life
In Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth's 'Hostel,' three American backpackers head to Amsterdam. After a night of partying, they are locked out of their hostel and end up sleeping over a new friend's house. There, the man tells them of a European hostel where incredibly beautiful locals have a taste for American men. The testosterone-driven guys head to Slovakia, where they realize that everything is too good to be true. The hostel is just a front for a bloody business-rich sadists pay to torture and kill unknowing tourists. 'Hostel II' has a similar plot; only this time the stars are female tourists in Prague.
"It's just a movie," I kept telling myself. But as I did my Internet research, I found out that there is truth to the reputation of hostels. There are many murder and rape cases all over the globe where the victims are backpackers killed at their hostels. Being a budget-oriented place, hostels don't provide as much security as hotels' if any at all. The rooms are usually made of fire-hazard wood and other cheap materials.
I came across hundreds of online reviews from travelers' personal hostel experiences. The words 'dirty,' 'unkempt,' and 'dangerous' were common descriptions. But balancing the ratio were good reviews. "It's a decent place, especially if all you need is a place to sleep," said one guy's review for an Upper East hostel. He had a point. I would spend most of my time doing tours, dance classes, shopping, and clubbing, so why waste hundreds of dollars for a room that I would only shower and sleep in? I didn't need spas and bellboys anyway, so I went for plan B.
A typical Manhattan hostel costs only $30 a night. Here's the catch: you will share the dormitory-style bedroom with 11 to 13 other guests. Whether you're alone or a small group of friends, you will share the bunks with strangers. Some rooms are for girls only; some are mixed. The bathroom is shared by the entire floor, so get ready to fall in line while holding it in. Breakfast is free, but don't expect anything fancy. Self-serve grocery items such as bread, cereal and coffee are laid out in the kitchen for everyone. Other amenities such as WiFi and game rooms vary per hostel.
If you want more privacy, your group can book a two-, four-, or six-bed dorm for an additional fee. If you want to be alone, a private hostel room starts at $75. My friends breathed a sigh of relief when I told them I was getting a private room.
I narrowed down the search to my top 10 picks - hostels that had the least negative reviews and were located in tourist areas with good security. I asked Rich to give me feedback on locations near his apartment. "Don't even go there!" he blurted upon hearing the address of one hostel. "That street is ghetto!" I quickly crossed it off my list.
Hostels number two to five were crossed out as well. My friend RJ helped me check them out, but all were booked. Hostel number six was not only shabby, but also had a gang of homeless men camping in front. I ran away as soon as I laid my eyes on them. Numbers seven to 10 were promising.
1291 International Hostel is located at West Manhattan, home to a lot of European tourists. Just as I suspected, the place looked better in the website. It was cramped, but decent enough. The price was unfortunately above my budget. Tax included, the private room totaled to about $120 a day; I could get a three-star hotel with that price! "Why don't you just share a bunk?" suggested the manager, who used to be a backpacker and hostel dweller himself. I pictured myself saving a lot of money by getting a 12-person bunk room. Then 'Hostel's' trailer crossed my mind.
Jazz On The Park was part of a series of hostels. Everything seemed perfectly fine until I asked the receptionist if I could see the rooms. "Sure, just help yourself," he said hurriedly. My mouth dropped as I entered the hall. Food wrappers and paper napkins were scattered on the floor. People were running in and out of their rooms, slamming the doors in the process. The walls and stairs seemed paper-thin; I could hear every scream, chatter, and footstep from the rooms. I've seen college dorms in better condition than that. My visit lasted less than five minutes.
I was getting desperate, so I checked the other branch, Jazz On The City. All the receptionists looked like teenagers. The head of the pack, Carlos*, showed me around. I felt comfortable at the place, so I had a glimmer of hope. There were European and Asian tourists happily relaxing on the roof deck, where the walls were filled with graffiti. "One of the guys who stayed here did that," Carlos said. "He's an artist."
"Would you like to join our barbeque?" asked Linda*, the 16-year-old receptionist. "Wow, you're still a baby!" I quipped after getting her age. "I know, but I'll be 17 soon," she said with her unmistakable Brooklyn accent. "C'mon, join our barbeque."
It was hard to tell which was the employee and which the tourist. Almost everyone was dressed in faded jeans, a shirt, and a cap or bandana. There was an open house eat-all-you-can barbeque on the roof deck, and it cost only $5 per head. My gut didn't sense anything wrong, so I paid upfront.
At the barbeque, I chatted with my fellow tourists. Ryan, a barefooted Australian, had just gotten out of college and is taking a year off by traveling all over the world. I told him about my fear of hostels. "There's nothing to worry about," he said. "I've been doing it for months with only one small luggage."
He was sitting next to Sophie*, a French girl who was taking English lessons in the city. At the grill, an out-of-towner named Hannah was in charge of flipping the burgers. "You should pay me for this," she jabbed at Carlos.
"Guess what?" Carlos asked me in between bites. "I was just promoted to manager!" Thanks to his celebratory mood, he gave me special rates for my room. It was still too pricey for me, so I told him I'd think about it and give him a call.
Two Russian girls arrived. They, too, were in town for school. The taller one, Rimma, went up to Carlos, her face just inches away from his, half-smiling. They barely said a word to each other, but I could tell there was something going on between the two. Seeing them hold hands later confirmed my hunch.
"Sorry, I don't drink beer," I said when Carlos offered me a can. "Well, what do you want to drink then? I'm going to the grocery to get it for you." He asked me to go with him so I could pick which soda I wanted. Rimma flashed us a look. I wanted to tell her she had nothing to worry about, but she hardly spoke a word of English so I didn't bother.
Carlos started telling me stories of his work. He started with hostels back when he was Linda's age. At 20, he's seen the ups and downs of hostel living. He told me that only tourists are allowed to stay at hostels. Locals have the tendency to take residency there - bringing in furniture and all - so they're harder to kick out. "You don't want them to treat it like an apartment?" I asked. "Exactly," he said. "One day I'd like to put up my own hostel. There are a lot of things I'd like to improve on."
When we went back to the barbeque, one guy handed me a beer. I gave in, took a couple of sips and enjoyed the view over the balcony. I helped myself to another burger and chatted with Ryan. When I realized that the sun was nearly setting, I said goodbye to everyone and went back to my mid-town hotel. I never called Carlos back.
There was one last hostel on my list before I called it quits - Chelsea International. I called up their office and a friendly woman named Heidi answered. They were fully booked. She noticed the dismay in my voice. "Wait, what type of place are you looking for?" she asked, and I told her my story. "I think I can help you," she said.
She hooked me up with Bruce, the resident caretaker of her mid-Manhattan guesthouse - the Sutton residence. A guesthouse, as I came to learn, is a cross between a hostel and an apartment. Unlike hostels, guesthouses don't cater to the usual rowdy tourists. I realized that when Heidi asked me questions about my travel needs and lifestyle, it was to see if I was fit to rent her non-smoking guesthouse.
I met up with Bruce to see the six-room apartment with three bathrooms, one kitchen, and one common room. The place was tidy; it was like going to grandma's house. Best of all, the rate was $100 a day, tax included. I nearly cried when I shook hands with Bruce. "Thank you so much. I thought I'd never find a place to stay," I told him. "We're glad you found us. You're very welcome here," he told me.
My stay at Sutton was cut short, as RJ eventually found me an apartment at East Village. But I will never forget my days at the guesthouse. Bruce was like an uncle to us. He brewed fresh coffee every morning. He answered all our queries about New York, from where to get cheap Broadway tickets to which subway route is the fastest.
Bruce kept an open journal on the table. Every guest he's ever had, from Norway to Japan, wrote on the journal before checking out. The pages were filled with touching thank-you's and drawings. "Please call us when you visit our country!" was what almost everybody wrote. I, too, scribbled my e-mail address, hoping that I could one day repay Bruce for the wonderful hospitality he showed me.
I'm back in New York City this month, but my budget is unfortunately lower than last year's, so the Sutton Residence is out of the picture. I was about to book a hostel near Central Park until I got an e-mail from my Tita: "Nicole moved to an apartment in Brooklyn, and she said you're free to stay with her." My hostel worries are over.
(Some names have been changed in this article.)