As I plonk myself on the yellow couch at Stops Hostels in Delhi, I am joined by Jenny, Ginger and Pepper and together we sink further into the large soft cushion. The three resident dogs cannot be better mascots for backpackers from around the world as they are quite the touring cavalcade themselves, having arrived just a week earlier from Varanasi. The blast of cool air from the air-conditioner nudges us to a comatosed half-hour snooze in the middle of a hot May afternoon. In those 30 minutes, five different travellers contribute to belly rubs, affectionate coos and behind-the- ear scratching, while a plan to visit a Parsi eating joint in the evening ensues.
Conveniently located at the cusp of New and Old Delhi, on Asaf Ali Marg, Stops Hostels is the perfect hub from where to scour the slim atmospheric lanes of Old Delhi for local food and history. Alternative Indian music hums in the background as the plan for the evening is tweaked a gazillion times and then finalised. Everyone disperses to their favourite spots&mdashthe bar, the &lsquohundred cushion&rsquo lounge and the comfy dorm&mdashand some even valiantly set out in the 42º C heat to explore the city. As the fun swirl of chaos subsides, owners Pallavi and Pankaj, and I veer the conversation to the Indian traveller.
With the advent of backpacker hostels in India in the last couple of years, the travel industry has seen a new dimension of social, reasonably priced and safe accommodation options for travellers. Asterix, Goa&rsquos first backpacker hostel, opened in 2013, but shut down soon after, barely giving the Indian traveller a chance to experiment. With hostels like Stops, Zostel, Jugaad, Moustache, Madpackers and Jugaadus opening shop in the past two years, the arena has expanded. So has the travel quotient for young Indians. There is a deluge of post-college travellers in the country, with a taste for adventure and a penchant to explore their own country. Pallavi attests that her recent experience with 40 Indian students from an architecture school was heartening. The exchange between them and the foreign travellers was pulsating, both expanding their knowledge about the countries and cultures.
With the time spent at Stops, it is easy to shrug off the impression of hostels that I&rsquove carried with me for ages&mdashstuffy dorms, penny-pinching travellers and downsized facilities. Most of the hostels in India are anything but that. Apart from being secure, hygienic, well-located and optimally priced, they also offer well-lit rooms, ample facilities, local insights and a strong &lsquosocial vibe&rsquo.
The credit for spreading the buzz within the community of Indian travellers can single-handedly be attributed to Zostel. Co-founded by seven friends from pedigree business schools, Zostel was first set up in Jodhpur. There are now seven more in key tourist destinations around the country. Bean bags, board games, bright Indian-themed posters, a world map with Post-its announcing the imprints of travellers, and a guitar fill the common area. The &lsquoZostel passport&rsquo is an innovative way to incentivise travellers to use the hostel in other cities too. It is a card that you get stamped at one city and use the number of nights you stayed there to redeem offers at your next stay.
Katie Garber, a 29-year-old American, has made the minimalistic Jugaad in Delhi her home for three months. She&rsquos using this as the base to explore as many cities as she can. Katie admits that before booking her tickets to the country, there was a sense of nervousness about the word &lsquoIndia&rsquo. With rapes, molestations and compromised safety in cabs making headlines all over the world, it took a lot of cajoling from friends for her to finally set off. But it&rsquos been more than pleasant at Jugaad, where owners, Vasu and Udit, have ensured that she gets insightful tips and help with her travel plans. We sit down to chat in the rather quiet common room (the off-season buzz is palpable), and agree that it&rsquos nice to interact with more Indians in the hostels to get a perspective of the country&rsquos many nuances and diversities.
Amber of Moustache Hostel in Delhi confirms that while Indians make it to the list of top 10 nationalities at his hostel, as a percentage they are as low as only a tenth of the entire year&rsquos footfall. It is a reassuring figure nevertheless. Even the diffident retiring types are willing to give this a try. As Anita Joseph puts it, &ldquoI stayed in Moustache in January last year for a short while between trips to Uttarakhand and Bangalore. I was the only Indian and questions about why I was staying in a hostel in my own country were aplenty. I thought it was the best way to alleviate any nervousness about being in big bad Delhi, and have company for the famous Qawaali evening at Jama Masjid. We were two autoloads of travellers, and I spontaneously became the translator and guide for the foreigners in the group and got a generous compensation of free meals at the hostel.&rdquo
Back at Stops, Pallavi and Pankaj talk passionately about the need for social interactions. Their cookouts in Varanasi are popular with all guests, where a few take over the kitchen to prepare meals from their countries for the entire hostel. Impromptu music jams break out, and the sense of community is cemented with pastas and paranthas alike. The days are packed with yoga, walking tours and anything that sparks explorations&mdashboth outside and within. A near-unanimous voice resonates from hostel owners and travellers alike we would love to see more Indians using the hostels for a better cultural exchange. After all, being a large country, we could do with as many perspectives to understand this socially complex country.
ZOSTEL The aim of this hostel chain is to facilitate longer and cheaper stays for travellers. It has eight branches around the country Jodhpur, Jaipur, Udaipur, Agra, Varanasi, Delhi, Goa and Vadodara. www.zostel.com
MOUSTACHE The first backpackers hostel in Delhi has now expanded operations to Jaipur under the command of one of the first backpacker hostel enterpreneurs of India, Amber. www.moustachehostel.com
STOPS HOSTELS Focussed on being social and explorative, this hostel chain can be found in Varanasi and Delhi. The husband-wife team that runs the chain ensures that the stay is personalised, efficient and full of discoveries. www.stopshostels.com
JUGAAD HOSTELS Its minimalistic vibe with uncluttered aesthetics, white unplastered walls, recycled wooden crates for tables and beds, and bright sprawling terrace are the biggest draws of this hostel in Delhi. www.facebook.com/jugaadhostel
JUGAADUS For a thorough introduction to everything Punjabi, stay at Jugaadus in Amritsar. www.jugaadus.com
VEDANTA WAKE UP This hostel chain has branches in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. www.vedantawakeup.com
LE PENSION The hostel is conveniently located in Jaipur, offering its boarders easy access to the sights to see in the city. www.lepension.com
INNDIA The five-roomed hostel in Amritsar can host upto 26 guests in its four-, six- and eightbed dormitories. www.inn-dia.com