A Day in the Life of a Hostel Handyman


Willi and Teague on the rooftop talkin’ about stuff’n thangs

This post is a continuation and conclusion of a two part series on our daily lives while volunteering at a hostel in Kuala Lumpur. For the proper introduction please go back and read Sofia’s post.


You work the 10-3 shift and your day starts a little later.  You have trouble waking up. The room has a window, but faces out to the larger warehouse and there’s almost no light. You’re little disoriented: in this environment it could be anywhere between two to eleven am. You check your phone, see that you’ve got a few minutes and try to get the internet to work enough to read the news. It doesn’t and after turning your wifi off and then back on a few times, you give up. You brush your teeth and try not to make eye contact with the iguanas. At this point, hungover backpackers are starting to rise and you jockey for bathroom space. You think about taking a shower, but you don’t because in less than an hour you’re going to be covered in sweat.

You leave your room, careful to walk as quietly as possible on the worn and beautiful hardwood floors. The lobby is half full with lounging travelers, reading, facebooking, sleeping on the couches. You find your flip flops in the piles and stacks of shoes at the top of the stairs, step over the ever present sleeping cat and make your way outside. You fill up yesterday’s water bottle at the refill station on the street just outside. It looks like a perpetually wet cross between a vending machine and an ATM and you pay 20 sen for a liter and a half of water. You worry about the green mold growing on and around the machine but you’ve been drinking water from this machine for weeks now without keeling over. If it was going to kill you, it would have done it by now.

You make the quick walk over. The dead rat in the alley you saw last night is gone. You don’t know if it was taken by cleaners or a street cat. You won’t see either at this hectic morning hour. The city bustles in full swing and you take a calculated risk darting across the street between buses, land rovers and scooters. You turn a corner at the Chinese music shop, where they’re just setting up the ancient, wood paneled speaker that’s going to blast Chinese pop music all day, and you head towards work. In the narrow alley Hindi men are directing drivers on where to park and cars zip by. It’s not a problem because at this point you’re used to cars passing with inches of you. You used to worry about getting hit by cars, now you worry about getting hit by their mirrors. You frog hop along the side of the alley on the concrete drainage system, careful not to misstep. In a tropical city (and most of asia) streets are lined with two meter deep concrete moats, partially covered in broken and decaying concrete. Water, sewage and waste is flowing in the moat and a misstep would probably result in a broken leg and a terrible infection. Raw concrete, rusted rebar and uneven ledges make up your sidewalk, but at this point you only need to devote a small part of your attention to avoid getting nailed by a passing minivan or ending up waste deep in a concrete hole. To your left the wet market is in full swing. Entire pigs are being disassembled for parts like a junkyard car, right next to small soup restaurants, full of Chinese tourists in town for the new year. You’ll pick up extra eggs from the wet market,  where a little old lady a few stalls down sells them for 4.50 RM for ten. She doesn’t speak any English, you don’t speak any Chinese, but pointing, gestures and finger counting get the job done just as quick as a conversation would. You make it the hostel, give a quick wave to Moon Piou, the man who owns the camera shop on the ground floor. He’s a sixth degree black belt and when you buy a camera from him he’s going to insist on buying you dinner and you’re going to watch fifteen minutes of a bar prep course on criminal law in his shop, sit  in a hectic Chinese diner and listen as he waxes poetic on Malay politics, Singapore and asks shrewd questions about the distinction between assault and battery. But that’s later, after you shift and so for now you ring the bell to be let into work.

If it’s a busy day, Willi will be waiting with a project. If it’s not you head upstairs, snag a cheese toastie and a coffee and wait, helping out with breakfast but mostly staying out of the way. Willi will come find you and give you a handyman task (The result of saying you have construction experience on your resume) and then it’s off to the races.

All hostels suffer from a trifecta of problems: poor initial construction, lack of upkeep and haphazard repairs. Your job is to try to remedy these issues with minimal materials, tools and know how, resulting in an improvised, jazzy construction style. The tasks are varied; replacing tile, trying and failing to figure out an electrical problem, rehanging doors, hanging trash bins on tiled concrete walls. The tools you have vary wildly from hostel to hostel in terms of availability and quality, but you make do. You might spend a morning hand drilling a single hole in a metal electrical box, or breaking up four square feet of concrete with an old crowbar. You mix concrete by hand, straighten rusty old nails because you don’t have any extra, and McGyver your way through anything you don’t have or know. The work fluctuates on the availability of rooms to work on; as a result you spend some days breaking concrete until you’ve got too many blisters to button your pants and other days you have lunch beers with Willi and the other workers. Somedays, both.

All work is done without safety equipment. You’re wearing shorts and a tank top and using power tools– at one point this bothered you, but now you use it to your advantage. Your flip-flops have gone from footwear to essential tools of the trade and you use them as doorstops, kneepads and, in conjunction with a hammer, as a replacement for a rubber mallet. When pulling up old tiles you perfect the technique of closing your eyes and looking away instead of wearing safety glasses as shards of broken tile go flying. This is par for the course, and honestly tamer than other work experiences. While worrying about using an electric drill with a sketchy power chord in a bathroom with standing water on the floor, you recall the time you and a debilitatingly stoned turkish DJ cut hardwood with a circular saw to make shelves on a Cambodian island. You were wearing less then, and he was wearing only a dingy pair of swim trunks and yellow crocs. You made it out of that okay, this will be fine. You squeegee as much water into the drain as you can, build an island out of floor mats, plastic bags and your flip flops and get to work. You make it through that just fine too.

Occasionally, there’s no viable McGyver option and you have to make a trip to the Chinatown hardware store, crammed into a colonial building in the middle of the market. You edge your way past the rows of fake watches and tank-tops and make it into the store, where a single narrow walkway along the long wooden counter has been kept clear. The rest of the building is floor to ceiling shelving crammed with tools, hardware and supplies. Used to the wide, suburban avenues of a Home Depot or a Lowes, you’re not sure how to peruse the goods. You’re lucky Willi is with you and he engages in a rapid fire conversation in Chinese with the owner. You use hand signals and the owner’s hardware based english vocabulary to make sure you’re buying the right items. You have a different opinion on the best way to fix a poorly hung door, but are unable to convince the store owner that his proposed solution might not work with the available shared vocabulary. The owner barks orders to one of the three or four guys standing idly around the shop. The guy scales the shelves and with well practiced efficiency delivers the items you need to the bar. On the way back to the Hostel, Willi buys you a soy milk drink from a corner stand. You’ve been working for several hours by now, are sweaty and tired and it’s the best thing you’ve ever tasted.

Sometimes you work well past your shift; when there are no guests you can get work done, so you make hay while the sun is shining. Other days, every room is full and you putter about. You take stock of your tools: two screw drivers, a drill, a small cardboard box of rusted nails, screws, a rivet gun, tiny hand saws, one extension cord, a crowbar, a hodgepodge collection of drill bits, hinges, a hammer and your own determination to get things done. You repurpose old hardware, stretch material as far as you can and build your own tools. You’ll wake up unbelievably sore from hand drilling and concrete busting, but you got the hole drilled and the tile replaced. You’re thankful for the tools you do have; other places have been worse and here you’ve got enough available that you can tackle most tasks that come your way. Sometimes you have every tool you need to properly do a job and you realize how lucky you’ve got it at home.

During your shift you also engage in a lot of non-handyman duties. When you first arrive, you help cook breakfast if things are busy. This means cutting fruit, making cheese toasties and plating. You do the dishes, clean up, answer questions on how to get to various temples. From eleven to one, depending on the day, you help clean rooms, which means replacing and washing all bedding, scrubbing the bathroom, sweeping and mopping. You help check reservations, get guests checked in and give out the wifi password. If the doorbell rings, unless you know Willi or another worker is around, you drop your tools and see who’s at the door.
By the end of your shift you’re usually filthy, sweat soaked and exhausted. If it’s raining outside (as it often is) you walk home slowly, letting the rain soak you. The street vendors are starting to set up shop– the rain doesn’t slow them down. You make it back to the hostel, take a shower as cold as you can make it, and realize you’re starving. It’s a five minute walk from the hostel to the best naan and noodles you ever had. But first you’ll probably wander back to the hostel, back to the rooftop, where your fellow workers and compatriots are gathering around a table drinking 3 for 10RM beers and swapping travel stories. Willi pops in and out– he’s always on call. On a quiet night he’ll be able to sit down and deliver dollops of travel philosophy and wisdom. You’ll discuss the ongoing projects, life on the road, life at home, what you’ve learned, where you’re going to next and when you’re going home. You realize that travel and road life very directly demonstrates a very basic truth about life: that you can’t go everywhere, that every decision made and path taken means you can’t take the other path. There are thousands of cities, tens of thousands of hostel rooftops, hundreds of thousands of travelers. But this is the city you are in now, this is the hostel rooftop you are on now, these are the people you are with now. And you love it all. You take a moment to appreciate that obvious fact. Then you realize it’s well after midnight, you’ve been sitting on this rooftop for six hours and you’ve got finish hanging those bins in the morning. 


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