I was sitting across from Ben, the hostel manager at Vientiane Backpackers Hostel where I had planned to spend only one night to take care of a Thai tourist visa. I had just connected to the horrendous wifi and had enough time, between loading pages, to get to know him as a Texan who had come to Laos on a whim and picked up a job at the hostel.
Feeling a little more blunt than usual, I was all “Why in the world would travelers take jobs at hostels in exchange for room and board when the compensation works out to be, like, $2 hourly? That just seems ridiculous.”
He pointed to a mural on the wall and said they had made that very offer to the artist. I replied “well that’s arts and crafts time. I freakin’ love arts and crafts time! That’s a completely different deal than slanging drinks and party flyers.”
As easily as that, the plan was hatched. I was going to paint a mural on the hostel wall in the lobby in exchange for room and board, and beer, of course.
Obviously I couldn’t agree to the deal without BEER!
And it was going to be huge!
Crazy Michael, the hunchbacked hostel owner with exactly one speaking volume (which is one decibel above shouting), had me jump on the back of his motorbike and with that, we were off to the paint store – an overstuffed Home Depot-like retailer all squashed into a few square feet space (I can’t give you the measurements in the metric system. I know, I’m working on it). We bought red, blue, and yellow paint, two brushes, and some paint thinner.
I was about to paint the largest piece I had ever done, mixing all of my own colors, going completely freehand. Oh, and I hadn’t painted for nearly 5 years, oh, and all I had done were landscapes before (but I didn’t really advertise that last bit of information).
They were blindly putting their faith in me.
I wasn’t sure exactly what to create, but after walking around the wat (Buddhist temple) across the street, inspiration hit me and a tattooed elephant came to mind, wearing all of the symbols of life I saw around me.
Day one was spent sketching, nervously looking to Michael and Ben for approval, and trying to ignore the pressure of onlookers. I hadn’t considered that I’d have an audience throughout this entire process.
The next day I got to work finishing the painting, listening to music, and sweating in the blistering Vientiane heat.
Every now and then someone would stop by and look pensively at my work, and give me a thumbs up. I’m insecure, I need approval. This helped me tremendously.
The final product, drumroll please:
I patted myself on the back, inadequately washed the paint off of myself while the guest house staff alternated between nodding and screaming something in a tongue I couldn’t understand when I was about to wash a bowl or paintbrush out in the “wrong” sink or with the “wrong” technique.
I thought I’d head out the next day. I only intended to be there for one night and had already extended it to three, after all.
But then, crazy Michael interjected.
“Please Ava. Pleeeaaase help us! I want my guest house BEST guest house in Vientiane. You paint more. I pay you.”
What’s that you say?! Cold hard cash? Yes. Sold. I’ll stay.
The next day, my feet killing me and my body extremely tired from the previous two 8-hour days of painting, I set back to work. Now each of the dorm rooms have themes!
I left Vientiane the next day – four days after I had originally planned. I suppose that’s the serendipity of travel. Even better, I met a few girls in Luang Prabang a week later who spoke about staying in the ‘tiger’ room at their hostel. I realized it had to have been the mural I painted.
“That was you?!” they exclaimed. It felt damn good.
So, I take everything I said about not working at a hostel back. I’ll happily paint in exchange for room, board, and beer any time. Have a bare hostel wall? Contact me (seriously), I’ll come paint it.
Have you ever picked up an odd job while traveling? Comment below!