“What’s the name of your hostel?”
“Mai Thik Hoo”
“What is the name of your hostel?”
“Mai Thik Hoo”
“I’m glad but what is the name of your hostel?”
“Mai Thik Hoo”
“Good, but what is your hotel called?”
“Mai Thik Hoo Hostel”
“Oh, okay sir…”
Such are the phone conversations one while working at a hostel named after the Hindi phrase meaning “I’m fine.” It’s 8:30 A.M. on a Saturday. I’ve been awake — more or less — since six o’clock when Sharuk, our housekeeper, woke me to attend to an unannounced checkin. The hostel reception was supposed to open at eight although none of the managers — myself included — bothered to staff the front desk until ten-ish. If a guest came, Sharuk would wake me up. He could hear the bell from the dormitory in which he slept while I was in the private room separated from the reception area by apatio. Occasionally it would be the guest waking me up. But while I’ll be the first to disabuse any one of the idea that I was a professional hostel employee, I do believe that such tasks undertaken by the guests complimented the donation-based hosel model. Guests were invited to contribute to the hostel and to pay accordingly. We treated them like house-guests offering them meals, movies, and yoga.
As we wrote on the Mai Thik Hoo website:
“We know that traveling in a foreign land can be daunting. While Indians are for sure some of the warmest people on earth, being a tourist in India can be an exasperating experience when it comes to side-stepping touting shopkeepers and tuk-tuk drivers vying for your business. More than any other type of traveler, the budget-minded backpacker becomes acquainted with the mantra of "no!".That's why we decided to empower our visitors by giving you a break from the “Please Pay!" world of the streets. The idea is simple. You pay as you please for your Mai Thik Hoo experience.”
The pay as you please model was a vestigial element of the dream project of forming an intentional community, the catalyst of my decision to live and work in Jaipur — a commercial and historical city around six hours south of Delhi. Mai Thik Hoo Hostel was initially supposed to be a first step towards setting up an intentional community based on an idea that Frites — my English traveling partner — and I had non-seriously discussed while camping on Paradise Beach in Gokarna. After leaving the beach and arriving in Udaipur (our introduction to Rajasthan), we met Amelie from Germany who was dating Hitesh — a partner in the Jaipur branch of a Rajasthani hostel chain named Bunkyard. Frites, as I recall, had chosen to express through dance his realization of an aporetic universe — a reaction to a youtube video on the double-slit experiment. Amelie, the only other customer in the cafe, had taken notice. We imbibed bang lassi together, which is legal and sold through government shops in Udaipur. Frites bought up the intentional community idea, Amelie told us about Hitesh, and within a week, the three of us, along with Hitesh and his business associate, Rakesh, had taken over Bunkyard Jaipur’s property.
Frites pitched the idea to Hitesh and Rakesh (or the “eshes” as we came to call them) at a bar our first night in Jaipur. I had stayed back at the Bunkyard Hostel to get an early night. Around 2 A.M., I was woken by an inebriated Frites yelling in my face that we had funding for the idea. Intrigued but suspicious, I wondered why the hell anyone would give money to strangers to start an audacious community center after knowing them for just a night. But sab kooch malega as they say in India — “anything is possible”. I knew that Frites’ excitement about big ideas was contagious. So I dragged myself out of bed for a celebratory nightcap and then went back to sleep. In the morning, Hitesh informed us that a deal had been reached with Bunkyard; the hostel was now ours. We would use the property as a base of operations while we developed the idea for the intentional community.
Neither Frites, Amelie, nor myself wanted to devote time to running a hostel. But possibilities of improving the hostel emerged the more time we spent at the property (where we were all staying) and soon we acted like hostel design visionaries, focusing our attention solely on improving the hostel. We made long lists of things to buy and meticulously detailed any maintenance work the property required. We researched the psychology of color schemes, elicited three different contacts for pro bono logo design (eventually we eschewed the idea of a logo all together), designed business cards and posters, registered for online booking platforms, and took a month-long staff bonding trip while the property be was to be renovated.
The trip, which was the subject of previous post, resulted in Amelie leaving the project, as she and Hitesh broke off their relationship. Hitesh left early to go back to Jaipur while Frites and I travelled on a few weeks more.
When we returned to Jaipur, we were disappointed to find that the property had changed very little since we left. None of the numerous renovations we agreed on had been implemented. The walls containing gross art leftover from Bunkyard (depicting yellow-skinned Chinamen enjoying bhang lassi) had not been repainted. We couldn’t understand while the work had never been done but felt that Rakesh was probably just busy maintaining his other businesses in our absence. The painters soon came and we felt that things were progressing again. However, the situation was a portent of things to come.
Rakesh is a mild-mannered guy a few years older than myself. He has a family — a wife and a little girl. From a small Rajasthani village, he borrowed enough money from family to start a successful, if not lucrative (I was never really sure), business of refurnishing apartments in Jaipur. He is not fluent in English and we had to rely on Hitesh to translate. This proved to be problematic, as Hitesh proved to be unreliable. The details don’t matter here. But as distrust between Hitesh and Rakesh grew (again, for reasons unnecessary to detail here) it became increasingly frustrating for Frites and I to do our work, which as the weeks moved on, became increasingly clear would be limited to the hostel project.
Just to be clear. We were never asked to invest monies in the project and, I really do believe, that everyone wanted to create special sort of place. Rakesh and Hitesh were fully behind the pay as you please scheme. Although new to the hospitality business, Frites and I were certainlyluminaries with respect to the needs and desire of Western backpackers. The eshes listened to us and took our idea seriously, which is why it was extremely frustrating — if not bewildering — why certain ideas and necessary, agreed-upon improvements to the property took so long to implement. It was typical that Rakesh (translated through Hitesh) would promise that such and such thing would be done at the latest by this or that day. Then, he would amend the promise once that day came and passed. This pattern could go on for weeks regarding a particular item or task. Still, we trusted Rakesh. In Indian culture, especially village culture, it is often taboo to tell the truth. A lie is often deemed the more polite course of action. So while it drove Frites and I crazy (as it often does Indian city people), it’s important to note these cultural differences and recognize that there was nothing necessarily twisted or nefarious behind the, uh…incongruities, between what was said and what was done.
It was initially communicated from the eshes that there was 150,000 Euros in investment funds. This was certainly enough money to renovate the hostel property and to purchase another property to begin the intentional community phase of the project. However, it became increasingly apparent that there were cash flow problems. Rakesh became increasingly stingy with spending money on the property and it took longer and longer to receive compensation for items we had paid for (eventually I refused to use my monies to purchase items or services for the property). Eventually Rakesh explained that he was waiting for a return on investments but the money would still be available. There was talk about opening up other (hostel) properties, which was never part of the plan.
The dream project was definitely evaporating, leaving behind a hostel in its residue. But the hostel was doing great. The monsoon season was coming to an end and we started getting a lot of bookings. Guests left glowing reviews. In a matter of weeks, we had become a Hostelworld “top performer” and was one of the top-listed hostels for Jaipur in the Hostelworld booking engine. Guests (who even in our internal discussions, we refused to refer to as “customers”) admired the pay-as-you-please model, and also the homely nature of the hostel. It was rewarding. Nevertheless, running a hostel was not why Frites or I had decided to leaves our jobs and home and go travel. At this point, the initial vision of Mai Thik Hoo seemed quixotic — any return on the hipster-credit of starting and intentional community was insurmountable.
Frites left first, heading to Rishikesh to study yoga. I stuck around for a month longer, recovering from Dengue Fever and taking time to work on personal projects, before packing my own bag to resume my travels — first stop, Pushkar.
Mai Thik Hoo is still around and, from what I can tell, doing well. In fact, an article was just written about the hostel in an Indian newspaper.