Dumped unceremoniously. I was alone on a train from Lisbon to Porto when my six-year relationship reached its final stop. I wished I could be underneath the wheels of the train in that moment. However, the universe gave me a helping hand, and I reached for it. Sitting in front of me there was a young German guy. I could see through the space between the seats that he was on Hostelworld’s app, looking at hostels in Porto. “I’m going to a great place in Porto called Wine Hostel. You should check it out,” I said. He nodded and swiped to their profile. He checked out their photos and prices and decided to book it.
This is a story about something totally ordinary for hostels. Millions of travelers around the world have stories just like mine. But for those that don’t frequent hostels, the tale of finding human connection demonstrates why hostels are magical and the world is a better place because of them.
Coron is located on an island called Busuanga. They have a small airport with flights from Manila. This is definitely the easiest way because the flight is only an hour. However, Lianne and I took the cheaper, more memorable way to get from Manila to Coron: St. Augustus of Hippo
This ferryboat goes from Manila to Coron twice a week. It departs at 1 PM in the afternoon and arrives at 4:30 AM the following day. While on board, you have a dorm bed (either in an air conditioned area or an open air deck), there’s a bar with live music, a restaurant, and even a hair salon. It cost less than half the price of flying to Coron ($21 without air con, $30 with air con).
For anyone on a short trip where time is precious, I’d say you should fly to Coron, especially because flights would be cheaper (less than $100) when booked further in advance. However, for backpackers who have plenty of time, not a lot of money, and don’t plan everything out in advance, the 2Go ferry is a great experience. On board we quickly met other backpackers and got to know them during our night on board the ship. It was a like a really low quality cruise, or a very, very short semester at sea.
Hot tips for the ferry to Coron
Your ticket will say to show up to the port terminal 4 hours before departure. This is grossly unnecessary. We arrived an hour before departure and had ample time to spare.
They serve one free, small, sad meal with your ticket. There’s a restaurant on board if you want a hot tasty meal. If you’re being extra cheap, go to a grocery store before boarding the ship and bring your own snacks and alcohol. There’s free hot water so bring noodle cups!
When you arrive to Coron early in the morning, take a tricycle into the center of town. It should cost between 25-60 pesos for the ride. If your hostel isn’t open yet, there’s at least one 24-hours restaurant in Coron town where you can have breakfast and wait for the town to wake up.
Coron has a very new hostel called Hop Hostel. I’m recommending this hostel even though I didn’t even have a chance to stay here. Hop Hostel was fully booked the entire time I was in Coron which made me very sad because they had beautiful facilities and the perfect location located right on the hill overlooking the water. I met others who stayed at Hop Hostel and all spoke highly of the experience.
Because I couldn’t stay at Hop, I stayed at Marley’s Guesthouse, located right on the main road in Coron. Marley’s has fun reggae decor, a very chilled out vibe, and most unusually, a share kitchen. Most hostels in Asia do not have a kitchen where you may cook your own food (after eating out for $2, why would you want to, am I right?) but for anyone that prefers cooking for themselves instead of enjoying all the great food Coron has to offer, this is definitely a unique amenity. I paid only $10 (500 pesos) for a private double room at Marley’s. The room was very simple and there was only a fan, but it was a great value. Hot tip: See if you can get a room in the back, furthest from the street noise.
Activities in Coron
The town of Coron has very few attractions. It’s mainly a starting point for all the adventures in the surrounding area. All the tour agents in Coron sell mostly the same tour packages. I did the “Ultimate Tour” and the “Reefs and Wrecks Tour.” Each tour agent has slightly different prices so shop around and you’ll save yourself 100-200 pesos.
They picked me up at my hotel at 9:15 AM and brought me the docks where all the tour boats leave from. The boats in Palawan are almost all handmade bangka boats. Mine was a larger one, sat about 20 people tops, and included a little kitchen area and an enclosed “bathroom.” Most of the people on my tour were in their twenties or thirties. We had a large group of friends traveling together from the US and they greeted me with a bottle of brandy. At 9:30 AM, I knew this would be interesting. Here are a couple of the places we stopped at:
For lunch they took us to a beach with a bunch of picnic tables. They had been preparing our banquet on the boat the entire morning while we were putting from point to point. The family style meal was a sweet spread of chicken, pork, fish, rice, eggplant, and watermelon.
The places on the tour were completely full with other tour boats and tourists, which did slightly detract from the experience, but fortunately the natural sights remain unspoiled. The waters were crystal clear, the sandy beaches free of litter, and the coral reefs vibrant.
Reefs and Wrecks
I enjoyed my Ultimate Tour so much, particularly the snorkeling spots, that the following day I took another tour that was loaded with more snorkeling areas.
Coral reefs are pretty but the photos never do them justice. Instead, here’s a look at where we ate our lunch:
Seriously, this little island was unspeakably paradisaical
Hot tip: Book a private boat
If you’re coordinated enough to get 8-10 people together, you can go on your own private tour and set your own itinerary for about the same price as these package tours. The package tours are great, however, your enjoyment can partially depend on the other people in your boat. On my first tour we had a bunch of fun-loving young people who wanted to play music, drink and dance on the boat. It was fun 90% of the time, until a few people got a little too drunk at the end of the day. Another boat tour I went on was the opposite atmosphere. Everyone arrived as a couple, no one interacted with each other, and it was pretty quiet the whole day.
Rent a dirt bike and cruise around Busuanga Island!
For 800 pesos ($16) I rented this bad boy for the day. It was 110 CC and really fun on the dirt roads of Busuanga Island. There aren’t very many attractions on Busuanga besides a waterfall, an African wildlife park, and a beach. However, if you enjoy riding a motorcycle or a scooter through a tropical rural island with mostly paved roads, it’s a joyful way to spend the day. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective) the cell signal can be spotty outside of Coron town so navigating was difficult. In the end, who cares if I got terribly lost? It was about the journey, not the destination!
Whenever I rent a motor vehicle in a foreign country, I ask two standard questions from the rental company:
If the police stop me, am I expected to pay a bribe? How much is an acceptable amount?
If I get into a crash, what should I do?
In Coron, the answers were:
You won’t get stopped by the cops and you won’t be asked for a bribe.
If you drive like an idiot and crash the bike, you’ll have to pay for the damages. No one will crash into you.
At first, the second answer seemed a little surprising but then I understood why. The Filipino islanders putter along on their scooters at about 30 km/ 20 miles per hour. They’re in no hurry, they’re wearing flip flops, no helmets, and have their grandma and infant daughter along for the ride. Being a young white male, I was the biggest threat on the roads that day. Fortunately the island offered plenty of empty stretches of road where I could lean into the twists and turns without disturbing anyone.
Climb Mount Tapyas at sunset
Above Coron town, there’s the second highest peak on Busuanga Island. I highly suggest taking a hike to the top of the mountain’s 700 steps to appreciate the sun set. It’s good exercise, free, accessible from the center of town, and offers a very rewarding view from the top.
I flew direct from Sydney to Manila. The majority of trips to the Philippines will start and end in Manila, but there’s also a big international airport in Cebu, so check for flights there too.
Hot Tip: Grab a SIM card
As soon as you pass through customs, there are numerous kiosks in the airport selling SIM cards. This should be your first stop after an ATM to get some local currency. There’s a duopoly in the Philippines between Globe and Smart, their AT&T and Verizon. Coverage is pretty comparable although Globe is better in Palawan so I’m glad I chose it for this trip.
Lesson Learned: You’ll use less data than you think
Traveling alone, I was eager to actively share my trip on social media. I had big plans to keep my friends and family updated regularly and give them enough photos and videos to feel like they’re traveling vicariously. Unfortunately, the cell coverage in the Philippines is pretty bad. I purchased 8 GB of prepaid data for 1000 PHP (approximately $20) and discovered that I managed to use only 1.2 GB in 2 weeks. This was not for lack of trying. The signal is simply so poor that oversharing your Filipino holiday isn’t technically possible in 2018.
Lesson Learned: It’s easier at the airport
I met numerous backpackers who waited until later to get a SIM card. You can easily buy them at any small shop, however, then you have to figure out for yourself how to set it up, which can be confusing. When I bought mine at the airport, the helpful Globe staff configured my account for me, and in less than 5 minutes it was all set and ready to go.
Hot Tip: Download the Grab app
Grab is the Southeast Asian version of Uber. It’s available in Manila, which is great considering how big the city is and how little public transportation exists. With the Grab app, I was in an air-conditioned car on my way to my hostel within 5 minutes of stepping out of the terminal. Best of all, I didn’t have to start my trip by negotiating with a cab driver not to rip me off.
I went straight from the airport to Makati City. Manila reminds me of Los Angeles in that its such a sprawling area, you’re better of focusing on specific sections than thinking of the city holistically. Makati is an affluent area close to the airport with plenty of hostels, bars, and restaurants, so a good starting point in my opinion.
Lub d is a growing Southeast Asian hostel chain that I’ve been wanting to check out, so when I saw they have a Manila location that opened only 2 months ago, it was an easy choice for me. Everything about this hostel is top quality and it definitely makes me want to visit their other locations.
I spent a couple of nights in Makati because I had a dentist appointment in Manila.
Hot tip: Go to the dentist!
I went to a dentist in Sydney for a routine cleaning, exam, and x-ray. I was told that I had 3 cavities, which would cost $250 each to fill, or $750 in total.
After doing a little research, I realized the Philippines has plenty of competent dentists and I’d save hundreds of dollars by having some fillings done in the Philippines instead of Australia. Do you need some dental work done? Do your wallet a favor and get it done in Manila.
It’s time for a lookback at 2017 and its highlights.
2017 is over. What did I experience? What did I accomplish? Let me show you.
2017 began with Erin and I ringing in the New Year aboard the MV World Odyssey. We lived in San Francisco, so driving down to San Diego was an ideal opportunity for us to reconnect with the SAS community. We had a blast during our short time in Mexico and ate way too many tacos, but most importantly, made some new SAS friends on board the ship. After the reunion voyage ended we got to spend another day with them in San Diego, and then once more up in San Francisco. It was just like our Fall 2013 SAS voyage, just compressed into 4 days.
For Erin’s birthday I surprised her with a weekend getaway to Seattle. 3 years after her Vegas birthday surprise, it was time for another surprise birthday vacation. We saw all the famous sites of Seattle like the Space Needle and the Public Market, but Erin’s favorite was actually Mimosas Cabaret, a drag brunch.
In March we had a few memorable San Francisco experiences. We went to Beach Blanket Babylon, a quirky musical show that is super touristy but still very entertaining. I also managed to pull off what feels like a nearly impossible feat by gathering together a large group of friends to go out to dinner. We went to a Moroccan restaurant called Marrakech SF where we ate Moroccan food, drank Moroccan beer, smoked hookahs, and spent way too much money. It was so much fun being surrounded by so many friends.
March was also a professional milestone for me. I met Darren Overby, the owner of HostelManagement.com, and we began working together, with me writing articles for the blog. This was an important step towards my big goal of transitioning to work that I find fulfilling and engaging.
In April Erin and I went to our first San Francisco Giants game. It’d been a long time since I’d been to a major league baseball game and it felt like a must-do as a resident of Frisco. I had an Impossible Burger, a techie veggie burger that tastes like meat. I highly recommend it.
Erin had to go on an overnight to Sacramento for work, with lodging and meals covered, so I tagged along. While she was working I toured the California State Capitol and we stayed at a beautiful hostel.
Erin and I went to Bhangra Night at a nightclub in San Francisco. It was fun to reconnect with Indian culture for a night and dance to something other than electronic or top 40 music.
In May Erin and I took a trip down to Los Angeles as a sort of dry run for our cross country roadtrip. It was Erin’s first time in Los Angeles and so we did heaps of touristy things like Hollywood Boulevard, Runyon Canyon, Venice Beach, and Olvera Street. The highlight for me was having eye-wateringly spicy thai food in Thai Town. The highlight for Erin was watching them film a television commercial in Downtown LA. In LA we interviewed the managers of Samesun Venice Beach and USA Hostels Hollywood for. This was our first time interviewing hostel managers for HostelManagement.com, which just made us more excited for our impending summer roadtrip.
As our final quintessentially San Francisco experience, Erin and I went to a performance of the Hotboxxx Girls at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge. At a hole-in-the-wall bar in the Tenderloin we were serenaded by a menagerie of Frisco’s drag queens. It felt like a glimpse into the old San Francisco; the city that local lifers wax nostalgic about, reminiscing about the days when it was a city of starving artists instead of startups.
Most importantly, in June we pulled away from our Castro apartment with an SUV filled to the brim and began our roadtrip across the United States. We saw so many fascinating sights and visited some of America’s best hostels. It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had since Semester at Sea. It’s impossible to succinctly summarize all that we experienced while crossing the United States twice but be sure to check out Erin’s blog if you want to read all about it. My favorites were: going out in New Orleans, hiking in the Grand Canyon, and kayaking in Grand Teton National Park.
In early July Erin and I safely returned to Connecticut after our road trip. We were awestruck and felt incredibly lucky that our journey from coast to coast and then back again went off without a single hitch. Back in Connecticut, it was time to figure out what to do next with our lives. It was then that we were offered our dream job: to manage a backpacker hostel in Australia. We booked our one way tickets and prepared for the next big chapter.
In August we had to say goodbye to our friends and family. I organized an amazing sushi and sake bomb party in New York City, surrounded by old friends from New York. I also had a barbecue in Connecticut and had some old friends from the nutmeg state over for some burgers and dogs.
On August 20th we arrived in Australia after an exciting day-long layover in Manila, Philippines. We spent the first week of our year in Australia getting acclimated in Sydney. We had the pleasure of meeting many members of Australia’s hostel community, who graciously taught us about the Australian hostel industry, in preparation for managing Port Macquarie Backpackers.
In September, Port Macquarie Backpackers reopened 2 weeks behind schedule, with half the building still under renovation. This was a very hard time for me and Erin. We signed up manage a backpacker hostel, prepared to get our hands dirty, doing laundry and cleaning toilets. Instead we found ourselves renovating a backpacker hostel, sanding paint off wood panelling and hauling construction debris.
The highlight of the month was celebrating our 5-year Anniversary down in Sydney, with a sumptuous meal at Braza, Sydney’s top Brazilian steakhouse.
In October we decided to leave Port Macquarie and move to Sydney for the summer. Our working relationship with the hostel’s owner grew increasingly intolerable until we decided that it wasn’t worth staying. Sydney quickly welcomed us with open arms and soon we were back up and running with an apartment and a part-time job to pay for it. Erin and I decided to work part-time because we wanted to make money with Backpacker Business Solutions. We decided to start a new venture, building websites for small businesses.
In November our new business started showing its first signs of progress. We received our first two clients, Parma Darlinghurst and Iguana Lodge.Erin and I also got to experience American Thanksgiving at a new friend’s house in Sydney. There we were, ten thousand miles from home but at least still enjoying turkey with all the fixings and the company of others
In December I started a new job as Events and Marketing Manager for Maze Backpackers, a 482-bed hostel in the heart of Sydney’s business district. I am ecstatic to be back working in a hostel. My job is to plan and orchestrate events, with the goal being that guests will have fun at Maze, leave us positive reviews, and extend their stays at the hostel. I’m also responsible for social media marketing, which is essential for hostels and I’m very excited to learn about how to do it well.
The focus for 2017 was to seek work that I find meaningful. It started with a realization that if my goal at my job is simply to get promoted to another job, then it’s not the right one for me. I think we spend too much of our lives working for our jobs to only be a means to an end. My work related to hostels brings me joy and adds meaning to my life. I think that hostels make the world a better place and so I consider this work more than just a simple business challenge.
Back in January, I certainly did not expect that this is how 2017 would end. In general terms, I hoped it would end with me “finding my calling,” but specifically living and working in Sydney, Australia I never would have imagined. Overall I’m pleased with everything I experienced and accomplished in 2017.
What will 2018 bring? I’ll save that for another blog post.
Erin and I arrived in Sydney two days ago. We plan on living in Australia for the next 12 months. Here’s the story of how we ended up Down Under.
After an amazing road trip across the United States, visiting the country’s best hostels and meeting their owners and managers, we landed in Connecticut, inspired and ready to take the next steps towards becoming hostel experts. We knew that to really learn, we would have to get our hands dirty. For any discipline, theoretical knowledge can only take you so far. You need firsthand experience to really know what you’re talking about.
We set out to find a hostel that would meet our criteria.
It had to be an opportunity for two people.
We needed owners or managers who would give us some autonomy. We didn’t just want to follow an instruction manual someone else had written.
It didn’t have to make us rich, but we also needed to make sure we could make enough money to live today and save for tomorrow.
We were willing to go abroad almost anywhere, but more importantly, we didn’t want anywhere that gets seriously cold at any point in the year.
We didn’t want a hostel that was falling apart and needed a superhero to rescue them like some sort of reality TV show.
It needed to be a temporary position since this is still pretty new to us and we don’t want to get stuck doing something we actually don’t enjoy.
Given this pretty specific set of criteria, we were prepared for a challenging search. However, the Hostel Gods smiled down upon us, and early on in our search we discovered Port Macquarie Backpackers, which was looking for a couple to manage the hostel. The job posting seemed to tick all of the boxes. We eagerly applied, hoping that the hostel would choose us.
The articles that Erin and I have written about the hostel industry made our application stand out, and the owner asked us to interview over Skype. During our Skype interview, it became clear to us that Port Macquarie Backpackers would be an ideal hostel for us. It’s a small hostel with 40 beds in a beautiful coastal city in Australia, owned by Tony, who in his younger days enjoyed being actively involved with management, but now that he is a father, he prefers to hire a pair of competent young people to manage the daily operations. He knows that most people in this category love to travel, and so he only asks for a nine month commitment. During our interview we shared ideas for improving Tony’s hostel, based off best practices we had observed in other hostels. He was “keen” on us, as the Australians like to say, and so Erin and I quickly accepted the job and booked our plane tickets.
We’re currently in Sydney for a week, meeting with some of Australia’s leading hostels. The Australian hostel industry is much more developed than the United States so there’s a lot for us to learn here. Next week we’ll begin in Port Macquarie and we couldn’t be more excited. Our first mission is to maintain the high standard that the hostel’s previous managers have set. Far from being a rescue hostel, Port Macquarie Backpackers currently has a 9.0 out of 10 rating on Hostelworld so the pressure is on for Erin and I to take up the mantle, and ensure future guests are as pleased as past guests. Our second mission is to move the needle forward. If and how we’re able to do that, we won’t know until we get there, but it will certainly reflect well on us if we can make this star hostel into a superstar. We have a very interesting 12 months ahead of us. We’ll be sure to let you know how it goes, or you can come visit us in Australia and find out firsthand!