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Adventures in Work Exchange: Hostel Life Part 1

Updated: Sep 13, 2022

Occasionally a cough moves violently up through my airways, surprising me, shaking me back into my body long enough to realize I don’t want to be in here. In my body, that is. Being sick has been the main theme for the past week, having spent three full days in bed, barely able to move except for the very regular rattling of my thick and chunky coughing. Maybe it’s the basic cold-flu. Maybe it’s dengue fever. I’ve finally finished off the last of my Amoxicillan, something I am rather bothered by as it means the end of my decade long antibiotic boy cot. My energy levels are so low it seems sleep is the only reasonable option, so I make my way into what feels to be my tomb for an evening of regularly interrupted sleep.

It’s 6:00am and my eyes open. It’s only been thirty minutes since I’ve fallen back to sleep and I don’t want to be up. For the last two hours a loud game of cricket has blasted inconsiderately on a radio coming from the other side of the green mesh separating my room from the one next to me. I take in my surroundings: a white mosquito net frames the bottom bunk bed that I’m currently inhabiting, one of ten lined against the walls of this spacious, yet poorly designed warehouse of a room. The ceilings go up way higher than necessary and a rusty steel fan spins uneffectively above me. I check my watch and decide to set my alarm back another half hour. I don’t need that much time to get ready this morning anyway.

The half hour quickly passes and the beep beep of my watch barely sounds as I slap it, rolling up and out of my bed. It’s my very first morning of hostel life, working in exchange for rent for the next few weeks. I’ve recently done the math in my head and realize this is slave labor, 25 hours a week for what feels like a dirty bed in an orphanage. Every time I start to do the numbers again I remind myself I’m here for the experience. It’s like a box in my brain that I have to shelve for the time being because if I give it too much attention I start to feel extremely annoyed.

I make my way out of the room toward another hostel volunteer; she’s unlocking the gate that barricades the kitchen at night. As someone who is currently suffering from a sore throat, being able to use the kitchen in the middle of the night might be helpful- just another thing to add to my list of why this hostel is deplorable. As I’ve basically received no real instructions on what I’m doing, other than that I’ll be mostly focused on cleaning the upstairs bathrooms this morning, I ask how I should go about my duties. The volunteer tells me to head downstairs to the laundry room and put together a cleaning basket.

Generally what washers and dryers (AKA makes it drier, not dry) look like around here. This one has no traceable lid.

The instructions are vague, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out when I get there. I walk down the wooden stairs and spy the red and white face of a heeler puppy staring at me expectedly from behind a short metal gate dividing the back patio from the open hallway. After a some moments of what you would might assume is a poor attempt at a Chinese accent (it’s not- it’s just what I sound like when I talk to animals) I take a right into the laundry room. I crisscross my way through lines of drying clothes towards the far wall. The ceiling is low and I notice dog crap on the ground. I continue to take stock of the room as my nostrils raise up in dissatisfaction. Based on what I’m seeing there is nothing in this room that seems sanitary enough to touch, including the cleaning products.

The cleaning baskets are extremely shallow, small white tubs that you might find in a classroom to hold markers or pencils. There are two of them, each with a couple of old plastic bottles filled with pink and blue fluids, rags that should have been thrown away by now and clumps of hair and dirt. My gag reflex twinges at the back of my throat, but I take a breath and hold it together. Another volunteer, Harry, comes over and shows me how to use the mop, taking out an old rag held between two metal pieces and replacing it with another that I would barely consider to be cleaner.

He speaks to me with a British accent as we go back and forth about how to clean up the dog poop. I’m looking for a paper towel or something to pick it up, while he grabs a dust pan off the table- he tells me it’s what he usually uses to throw the dog shit out into the back. I ask him if he cleans it after using it for such things and he shakes his head and says he doesn’t think that’s necessary. Sliding the plastic underneath the mound, it rolls away across the floor. He attempts again, is successful and heads to the backyard to throw it out into the grass.

When he walks back in he grabs the mop I’m about to take upstairs. He explains the typical procedure is to spray some of the blue liquid onto the rag and then smear it around on the floor. It’s a simple process, and I think to myself it doesn’t sound particularly effective. Mop in hand he starts to make his way over to use it on the section of floor where the poop just rolled around. Ahhh helll no. I stop him and break it down why this isn’t going to work for me- I’m not trying to smear poop particles across the floors I’m about to mop upstairs. Instead I grab a rag that’s about to be thrown in the wash and start cleaning the floor as he shrugs and walks away.

The cleaning lady walks over and introduces herself as Darlene. I say hello and nice to meet you in Spanish, prefacing that my Spanish sucks. She responds with something long and drawn out and I ask her to repeat herself. With way too many words she says something that I still can’t make out so I settle with an awkward smile, nodding my head and giving a generic response like “siii,” while slowly side stepping my way out of the room toward the upstairs bathroom.

Everything is gross. I’ve surprisingly turned into somewhat of an OCD cleaner in my older age, although if you compare me to my mother I’d still be considered a slob. I look down at the dirt and hair encrusted stained whitish bin that holds my cleaning supplies and decide to start there. I have no gloves for this task, and opt for toilet paper to create a barrier. It immediately turns to a goo-like consistency when wet and just adds to the mess, but I get it clean and feel like I can breathe a little easier now that I’m just tackling the basics. The bathrooms are somewhat straight forward, and luckily most of the toilet paper has made its way into the basket, a relief after the floor previously observed a couple of nights prior. Here in Costa Rica, like many places on the planet, toilet paper doesn’t go into the toilet, as this would be a recipe for serious backed up pipes (so if you’re traveling here, keep this in mind). 

I recently heard someone complain about volunteers not cleaning the toilets, so I decide I want to make a decent job of it. Above each toilet is a little rhyme that reads “if it’s yellow and mellow, flush it here my fellow. It’s it’s brown and murky, don’t flush it here you turkey.” The second line is actually not at all what it says, but it captures the general jist. I assume the toilets shouldn’t be awful since no one should be pooping up here anyway, and I go to grab the scrub brush, accidentally dribbling a thick shitty gravy all over the floor as I do a double take toward the swamp the brush has been sitting in. I smile sarcastically, vocalizing that I currently hate my life.

I go on to wash and sanitize the shitty brush. I mop the entire upstairs. I change the sheets out on a bunch of beds, although as I do so I look over and see that Darlene’s beds look way more professional than the ones I’ve just changed out. Teach me your secrets, I whisper to her, so she does, and I go on to redeem my Spanish speaking skills as we discuss where she’s from and how long she’s worked at the hostel. Most of the pillow cases I look at have spots of mold on them and I wonder who’s in charge of regulating the cleanliness standards of this place.

I go to bed early and wake up 11 hours later, hot, groggy and unmotivated. My next shift isn’t scheduled until 10:00pm, where I’m expected to work security until 3:00am. Since I’m still sick I’ve requested not to work such outrageous hours until I’m feeling better, but I haven’t heard back about a new shift yet. Hoisting myself up, I slough over to the kitchen. The ad for this job mentioned free breakfast, but upon arriving I learn this translates to there being pancake batter above the fridge for my use; I am pretty sure this does not equate to breakfast being provided. I opt for the almond milk and granola that I bought from the store instead, eating it quickly and make my way out to the street to find somewhere to work on my computer for a while.

I settle into an artsy establishment with a solid smoothie menu. A local barista sprays down her tables a few feet away, wiping away the termites that continue to assault the integrity of her furniture. She walks up to the sink directly ahead of me and I look up to check out her thigh tattoos, which are many. Just under each butt cheek is a scrolling word, the text reading, “BRUJA VIDA.” That witch life though, I think to myself. I know something about that world, although recent themes leave me feeling a little unmagical.

It’s about time I invite a little more magic into my life. I wince briefly with disappointment, thinking about my tarot deck that went missing between here and LA. I’ve been on the prowl for some innovative ways to make money while I’m traveling, and that deck would be pretty helpful about now. I decide that if I walk around I’ll find a store that sells them here, which feels like a total stretch, but I have nothing else going for me today so I pay for my drink and head north on the streets leading out of Puerto Viejo proper.

The many winding streets funnel into one primary street, a two-lane path with regular cars and bikes zooming by in either direction. A pack of teenagers skim across the pavement on roller skates like a stylish flock of albatross as the colorful yet quaint buildings become a bit more infrequent. The ones I do see speak to a different vibe than the ones in town, with greater emphasis on what feels to be tranquility. Everything starts to feel cleaner and I breathe easier, the dirty streets making way for denser jungle.

There’s some reggae playing in the background, which is pretty much a given everywhere you go around here in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Last night I walked up and down the aisles of the grocery store, trying to weigh what to buy on a budget (and seemingly failing- a discussion for another time). Music from the U.S. bumped in the background, each song with a Caribbean remix behind it, in case the sweltering heat and papaya trees weren’t enough to keep you reminded that you’re currently living in the tropics. I’ve come to believe that you can think of any popular pop song from the states, especially from the 90’s, and it’s very possible it exists as a Caribbean rendition. With this, I’m pretty sure I have never heard the theme song from Cops, “Bad Boys” played so many times in my whole life, with more versions of it than I think it deserves.

I continue my way down the bustling street, occasionally stopping to check out the inside of an inviting hostel. Periodically I discover a large book collection (buy, rent or trade!) or a display case with artwork and jewelry. For days the town of Puerto Viejo had started to feel like a suffocating cage, yet this one street has opened the floodgates into so much more for my stay here. Some hope wells in me that magic might be discovered here afterall- It’s in the air, like the smell of ripening fruit caught on a wafting breeze.

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