The ‘electrician’ had been twiddling live wires for the last hour while I watched and waited for him to suddenly fly across the room or start smouldering when one of the guests in the outer rooms announced that all of his lights had gone out. I dragged ‘Sparky’ to the hall to investigate then grabbed a candle from the cupboard near where one of the guests was playing with his phone. “Have you ever seen Fawlty Towers?” I asked him then remembered he was German – thank God he hadn’t! A goosestepping Basil flashed into my mind and I prayed Carole wouldn’t mention you know what!
Each bunk in the six-bed dorm had a personal light and power socket but half of them were hanging off the wall and the rest were taped up, none of the small fluorescent lights worked so my first request to the owner was for an electrician, which, to be fair, he organised swiftly.
The town of Tanah Rata is bigger than I’d imagined. The winding road up into the Cameron Highlands is also not as expected. The main route is cut into the hillsides of each valley mostly at the bottom of a series of steps. Instead of top-to-bottom jungle much of the scene is of plastic poly-tunnels and corrugated roofs that cover garden centres and nurseries. Excessively large, multi-story hotels also scar the landscape. It’s not pretty.
For those that may not know, a ‘workaway’ is typically a short-term job done by someone travelling. It can be organised over the internet and is a simple exchange of man-hours for accommodation and food. Ours is to help in a hostel, checking-in and out guests while monitoring bookings online. Most are for five hours per day, five days per week but we learn our day starts at 5pm and ends at 11pm, seven days per week. This suits us as we get the days to explore the jungle and the nights to watch films on the telly. Volunteer tips (money for food) per day is 30 Malaysian Ringgit (£5.43), enough to purchase two slices of cheesecake and a milkshake each.
Another surprise was our accommodation. Not a private room but two beds in the mixed dorm. We share our shifts with Yanti, a young girl who’d recently started working for the boss who is never on site – he lives in Kuala Lumpur – so we’re pretty much left to our own devises.
One of the first tasks is to organise some signage for the front of the building – several online reviews complain of it being hard to find. The business has recently been purchased and the new owner decided on a name change. Luckily, I’m fully equipped with the tools of my trade and knock out the artwork in no time.
As you’d expect, there’s a constant stream of people coming and going through the hostel. All seem to be nice people, the vast majority make an effect to chat and swop travelling tales and probably about fifty percent are German. To list just a few; there was the genetic scientist with the Japanese wife accompanied by their three young children, the nice Canadian lad who shared his corn with us, the ex casino consultant that Carole grilled about private healthcare and the Australians on an extended honeymoon.
Regardless of nationality, we all seemed to talk of the same problems within our individual societies; a lack of jobs, expensive housing and a distrust of the political class and our leaders. Europeans expressed concerns over the rise of right-wing parties and the negative attitudes towards refuges. North Americans mocked Trump, “Build a wall? What for? They dig tunnels!”
The daily routine went roughly as follows; 8am, get up, open the door then make tea and toast (take malaria tablet). Encourage guests checking-out to do so before 11am – remembering to return their key – so that Ani, the cleaner, could get to work. Head out for the day then return at 5pm and check online bookings. Check-in any late arrivals, take several phone calls from the boss, lock the door at 11pm and hit the sack.
Our days out generally fall into two categories; the first, lazy days, when we’d walk up and down the high street, stop for cake then sit in the park. The second, tourist days, when we’d either do a jungle trek or walk to a tea plantation.
Most guests opt for backpacks, a small number try cases, many have a second ‘day’ bag worn to the front if they’ve already got something on their back. Regardless of choice, nearly all are huge or crammed with stuff. Our target was to carry 7kg backpacks each. This would be both practical to carry and acceptable as hand luggage by all major airlines thereby saving on checked luggage costs and speeding up airport exits. Due to heavy tech we only manage 8kg and 10kg bags but have a plan that, if forced, we can quickly shuffle some contents limiting our check-in to one bag only. Major plaudits go to the American lad whose complete kit filled a small ‘day’ bag and weighed in at a mere 4kg.
The last words that you want to hear from a guest when checking-out are, “By the way, you’ve got bed bugs”. Thank the god of your choice that we no longer slept in the dorm, having wangled a move to a private double room the week before. I apologise profusely and thank him for his feedback, as a result we spend the day helping Ani to clean and hoover bed frames and mattresses then spray with chemicals.
Remember the earlier dodgy wiring? Turns out that bed bugs hide in cracks and crevices and nowhere is better than a plug socket or stretch of cable trunking. This explains why all of the electrics were in such poor condition on our arrival. The faceplates weren’t secured on purpose, allowing the cleaner to regularly spray inside. While our intervention had possibly saved a guest from electrocution it had inadvertently created the ideal habitat for bed bugs.
The four weeks fly by. We’ve picked up a little Malay; terima kasi (thank you) and jumpa lagi (see you again) are the most used. We’ve learnt both positives and negatives of running a hostel and had an insight into managing an Airbnb and Hostelworld online presence. However, the one experience I could never have predicted was buying a toilet seat for a bargain RM14 (£2.53).
We take a bus to Kuala Lumpur where we stay for a few days before catching a 13-hour, direct flight back to Heathrow. We’ve a summer of housesits and another workaway booked all located in the south of France and Spain.