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Backpacking

Things

Living Amidst the Bunk Beds

July 11, 2019

Hostels have a rhythm and atmosphere of their own which (dare I say it?) I think I prefer to hotels.

Don’t get me wrong. Certainly there is nothing to rival the treat that is staying in a nice hotel, preferably one with a grand lobby where one can take a seat in a wingback chair, alternating between reading and people watching, and with an elegant, moody bar where visitors from around the world mix with local business folks meeting up for drinks after work. And after being on the road, a charming room, luxuriant bed, spa-like shower and plush hotel bathrobe are the stuff of nirvana.

But there is something about the communalism of hostels which has consistently proven to be a source of fascination and pleasure for me. In order to make my travels more financially feasible, I have spent a great deal of the last six months bedding down all over Europe in these funky domiciles for backpackers. And from Porto to Prague, Inverness to Istanbul, each hostel has its own individual personality and style, yet all of them offer the same engaging, relaxed atmosphere and homey vibe which engenders camaraderie and friendships among their guests.

When I was in my twenties and backpacking around Europe, there was always this one weird old woman staying in the youth hostel who was traveling on her own for six months or so. Now the torch has been passed, and I’m that weird old woman. Turns out, I’m very lucky and proud to be her.

It helps that, mercifully, they don’t seem to be called youth hostels anymore. These days, they’re just hostels, with folks of all ages staying in them now. Still, most of my roommates in the six- to twelve-person rooms I tend to land in seem to be in their twenties and sometimes early thirties. But you never know. Along the way, I’ve shared space with three generations of family traveling together, and backpackers ranging from barely drinking age to pushing seventy.

No matter what the age or story, we are all kindred spirits, sharing a mutual passion for traipsing about the world, exploring, taking in and immersing ourselves in whatever place we alight. What’s more, we share the identity of being strangers in town, which allows for fast friendships to be formed as we stumble around on unfamiliar streets, discovering a place’s history, hotspots and treasures.

Together in the hostel’s kitchen, we cook meals of varying complexity, oftentimes sharing our creations as we exchange stories of who we are and where we’ve been, offering up recommendations of “must-see” places. In the lounge, we make plans with our new friends for the next day’s adventures even as we’re texting loved ones around the world. And flopped down in our bunk beds, we swap ideas, secrets and dreams just as we did at childhood and adolescent sleepovers.

(I should probably mention, one change in this new era of hostel living is that mixed dorms are the norm, with males and females sharing a room. The only thing I found surprising about this is how relaxed and natural it feels. Well, that, and the fact that college-aged young men nowadays seem to have no qualms about walking around in mixed company in just their underwear. Even in the morning. You know what I’m getting at here?)

Yes, there are the irritations which are part and parcel of communal living – people coming and going at all hours, snorers, a complete lack of privacy, the rustling of others’ plastic bags when you’re trying to sleep (hostel-goers know exactly what I’m talking about) – but the enjoyment, the fun, the novelty of it all far outweighs any drawbacks. My time in the hostels has provided me with a number of my favorite memories of the last six months, along with the best of gifts: some of the closest friends I’ve made in my travels.

And, oh, the conversations I’ve had – from the cutie-patootie theoretical physicist from Cambridge who was so amazingly brilliant, he was able to explain the universe in terms my little brain could understand, to the scientist from Algiers (the first Berber I ever met) and his unshakable faith in the goodness of people, to the divorcee from Shanghai who was beginning a new chapter of her life not with timid baby steps but with a gusto and exuberance I found dazzling.

As this round of travels concludes for me, I know I will miss the noise and high spirits of the hostels – and probably even more than that, the way they make me feel young and carefree and quite the bohemian vagabond.

Even if, in reality, I’m just the token weird old woman. I’m cool with that.

 

Photos:

Above: My ten-person room in Edinburgh.

Below, top row: Abisko’s hostel on a winter wonderland day; the perks of staying in a mansion-turned-hostel — a grand piano and glorious antique heater in my room; packing for a journey in his anime underpants.

Below, bottom row: The utterly beguiling and oh-so-fun hostel in Instanbul; sometimes amenities are spartan — and strange, like the non-existent bathtub and shower; some kitchens are sleek and modern, others are cozy, but they are always a great place to hang out.

 

Places

Two Miles and Two Hours to Thurso

July 9, 2019

At the tippy-top, most northern part of Scotland, the first ferry of the day from Stromness on Orkney Island arrives in Scrabster on the mainland at 8am.

I had taken this early morning service, which had given me the option of staying the night before in one of the cabins on the ferry (see my previous post, Savoring the Local Hero Vibe in Orkney), where I got the best sleep I’d had in months.

So I was full of vim and vigor as I strapped on my big backpack and stepped onto the dock at Scrabster. Adding to the spring in my step was the weather: it was a stunner of a day, with sunshine, an occasional wisp of a white cloud, and a hint of a coastal breeze to keep the temperature right at perfect.

My plans were to travel back to Inverness that day on the first available train service – a dainty two-car affair departing around 1pm, a good five hours after my ferry docked. Which, in this remote area of Scotland, is ample for what the populace requires.

The train service itself runs not from Scrabster, but from the neighboring town of Thurso. Three days before, I had taken a bus – the one bus of the afternoon – over from Thurso to Scrabster on my outbound journey to Orkney. From this, I knew the distance between the train station and the ferry port was only two miles, making it possible to walk from one to the other.

It was a sublime day, I had five hours before my train arrived, and the first bus wasn’t due at the Scrabster dock for another hour and twenty minutes. “Why not make the walk?” I thought. Sure, there was a hill to climb, and the weight of my big backpack to consider, but with loads of time on my hands, I could take it as slowly as I needed to. The idea of the hike rather appealed to me, though I wasn’t overly keen on the route – from what I remembered of the bus ride, we had traveled along a main road which may or may not have had a sidewalk for the entire trek.

Before I set off to take the hill with my big backpack, I thought it might be a good idea to check with the locals about the walk. Popping into the dockside café (where, very importantly, I’d had a divine ham and brie panini a few days earlier), I told one of the waitresses what I was thinking of doing, and she informed me that, yes, it’s possible to take that main route, but that it’s much nicer to do the cliff walk, which runs along the coastline. Pointing out the window in the general direction of Thurso, she gave me the name of a road to turn onto, and a description of the entrance to the path I would take from there.

This sounded far more picturesque – and quieter – than the main road, and with that settled, off I started up the hill. As I was nearing the top and beginning my lookout for the road I was to turn onto, a man came towards me from the other direction, walking his dog. I stopped and asked him if I was nearing the road for the coastal walk, and he pointed to a small street just up the hill. He then asked me where I was from, and all of the usual “tourist questions” while I petted his friendly mixed-breed pup. We chatted about the beautiful weather and the joys of living where he does, and pretty soon twenty minutes had passed. I thanked him for his help, and he said that he would be passing along this way later and if he saw me looking lost, he would stop and give me a ride to the station, which I thought was exceptionally kind.

Fortunately, I didn’t lose my way. The coastal path, once I located it, was very straightforward. Following the contour of the coastline, it runs along the top of the cliff above the rocks and beaches, and isn’t nearly as treacherous as it sounds. It is a beautiful walk, completely paved, and is traversed by the residents of both Scrabster and Thurso, who take the path to go to the market or into town for dinner at one of the quaint, tantalizing restaurants.

The waitress at the café had given me a gift, I soon realized, when she told me to go this way. With its stone walls, high grasses and spectacular views of neighboring islands, the cliffside path was utterly enchanting, to the point I completely forgot about the backpack on my back. I was aware of feeling only blessed and grateful to be in the sunshine and the beauty of it all, and I delighted in every step.

But it was the people along the path who put the whole experience over the top for me. Every fifty to a hundred yards or so, I would cross paths with one of the locals and we invariably would stop for a chat. Some were coming back from doing errands in town, others were walking their dogs (naturally, I had to stop and speak with every single one of these folks), while others were simply out to enjoy the gorgeous day.

Though I had been up in the highlands for a while, and was getting accustomed to their captivating, thick Scottish accent, I still caught myself thinking, as I was conversing with one of the locals, how strange it is for us to be speaking the same language, saying the same words, yet we sound so very different from each other. What is really remarkable is that we can actually understand each other’s pronunciations well enough, at least most of the time.

Even stranger than that, I realized I was starting to pick up some of these Scottish pronunciations, when I heard myself talking about biscuits. Naturally, when speaking of the British digestives and shortbreads, one uses their term, “biscuits” instead of the American word “cookies” (just as Oreos and Nutter Butters are always cookies and never biscuits). But saying “biscuits” here in northern Scotland, I was startled to hear it come out of my mouth with a proper Highland brogue, as “BESS-ketz.” When did this language gap start closing?

In the end, it took me over two hours to walk those two brilliant miles. Yet I still had hours left to kill before catching the train. I spent that time sitting in the picturesque little square opposite the church, where my backpack enjoyed resting on the benches, alternating between sunshine and shade, while I had some takeaway lunch and did some reading until it was time to catch the train.

It was such a small moment in my travels – a mere few hours between destinations – but that dazzling day has stayed with me, and promises to be one of my favorite memories of the entire journey.

 

Photos below:

Top row: The start of the cliffside trail: view to Hoy on a splendid summer day;

Bottom row: Visitors staying in the cliffside campgrounds enjoy a stroll along the path; relaxing in the village square.

People Places

Dancing My Arse Off in Edinburgh

June 24, 2019

Edinburgh Castle

This isn’t the first time my trusty backpack and I have ventured into Scotland’s beautiful capital city. We were here a few decades ago, during my first time traveling in Europe. My study abroad group had come here for two weeks during the world-famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and I spent a good amount of time dashing between plays, stand-up comedy performances, and authors’ lectures. I spent even more time hanging out with a street band and learning to eat fire from street performers Gareth and Pepe.

Ah, misspent youth…

This time around, it’s a rather different experience, but equally magical, because this time around, I came here to dance.

The whole idea for my travels and the story I hope to get from them is that I go beyond simply being a tourist, and immerse myself in a place’s culture and community by learning its dances. Where better to begin than in Scotland, the home of myriad ancestors of mine? Banking on that highland DNA of mine to carry my through my first dancing attempts, I figured Scotland would be a natural starting point for my journey.

The closest I’d ever come to a highland reel was in elementary school, when we spent a few weeks learning square dancing as part of P.E. class. I remember finding this fun. To me, it was certainly better than playing basketball or kickball or – geez louise! – dodgeball, which we did on a frighteningly regular basis. Even our rudimentary attempts at the Virginia Reel offered the benefits which dancing brings, breaking down the awkward barriers which exist between school boys and girls, allowing us to pair up, hold hands and trust each other. Definitely better than dodgeball.

Upon my arrival in Edinburgh, I booked highland dance lessons at Dance Base, a handsome studio in the Grassmarket area of Old Town. So far, I’ve had two lessons, both of which have been good fun and a good workout. The skill level of the other class participants varies greatly from person to person, and that is absolutely fine by all. It seems everyone in the class is there mainly to enjoy themselves and each other’s company. I couldn’t have asked for a better, warmer welcome to Scotland.

Then again…

One of the best things about Latin dances like the salsa and bachata* is that they are done all over the world by scores of talented devotees (in some of the larger cities, aficionados take to the dance floors and streets on almost a nightly basis). Having touched on some salsa and bachata basics in Florida with Grigol Kranz, my superstar dance teacher and friend, and having taken what I’d learned for a spin around Havana, Cuba in January, I knew I wanted to do more of the same in my travels around the world.

So, concurrent with my search for some highland dancing, I went looking for some salsa and bachata in Edinburgh. Happily, I didn’t have to look far, for there is a thriving scene here, thanks to Ami Emirato, a rock star teacher whose charismatic, high-energy personality has brought together a strong community of dynamic, engaging, just utterly marevlous individuals, who have all become fantastic dancers under Ami’s tutelage.

From the moment I joined this merry band on the dance floor at Club Cuba, they have taken me in as one of their own, embracing me and my fledgling bachata skills, cheering me on and shoring me up with tips and tales of their own struggles with dance.

For three hours, four nights a week, my fellow students and I share countless good laughs as we take on the sultry, sometimes challenging bachata steps, and I find I’m actually starting to get the hang of it all. What’s more, with Ami’s and the gang’s support, I’ve mustered the courage to stick around after the lessons finish, and join in the social dancing.

This is something I’ve always been too shy and afraid to do in the past, so it’s a sizable accomplishment for me to find myself doing salsa and bachata into the wee hours. Sometimes I just stop and marvel at how I got here. I hardly recognize myself.

(A big thanks to everyone who encouraged me to stay on Saturday night – it was glorious fun. And a special shout out to Piers, who not only was willing to brave the dance floor with me numerous times, but insisted it was a pleasure doing so – a true gentleman.)

So even if it’s not exactly the way I originally envisaged  it, my experience in Edinburgh is still in line with what I intended my journey to be, and I find it all quite perfect.

Added to the phenomenal workout I’m getting on the dance floor, there’s lots of cardio and muscle-toning to be had on the stairways of Edinburgh. The old part of town is built on a hill known as The Mound, and is peppered with steep staircases which link together the thoroughfares – a small but significant detail I’d forgotten about this ancient walled city. A person can spend a lot of time huffing and puffing up thirty to sixty or more stairs just to get to the next street. A couple more weeks here, and my quads will be strong enough to crush tree trunks.

But even the steps have their charms. Many of these stairways are located in what are called “closes,” which are utterly beguiling little hidden lanes populated by shops, restaurants and residences. It always feels as if I have stumbled upon a delicious secret anytime I tuck into one of the closes. And I certainly find it immensely satisfying to traipse over for a morning walk on the Salisbury Crags via the Miss Jean Brodie Steps, which just happen to be next to the hostel where I’m staying. After all, what could be more of a treat than starting one’s day with a bit of Dame Maggie Smith when she was “in her prime?”

And speaking of the hostel…

When I first started planning these travels last summer, I wrote about how in my twenties, whenever I stayed in youth hostels, there was always this one weird old woman in there, who was backpacking around for a few months… and how I’d come to realize that, nowadays, I’m that weird old woman.

Happily, as it turns out, I’m not the only one, at least here at the hostel in Edinburgh. In fact, I’m not even sure anyone calls them youth hostels anymore. There seem to be people of all ages here, including many who are older than me. And to a person, those folks I’ve met amidst the bunk beds – both the young and those in their prime – are all pretty darn cool.

With all of this going on, I have been too preoccupied to spend any time reminiscing about my first, youthful visit to this city. Still, the other evening as I was walking home from Club Cuba in the wondrous daylight of 11pm, I caught a glimpse of my twenty-something self as I was crossing Princes Street. I hadn’t seen that girl since last summer when I ran into her in Oxford. This time I kept my distance and let her go on her way. I didn’t feel compelled to catch up with her and speak to her, like I had that day in Oxford. The girl here in Edinburgh didn’t need any reassuring about her experience or what lies ahead for her. She was doing just fine on her own.

Walking away from her, it suddenly dawned on me: Edinburgh doesn’t belong to that twenty-something me, the first time visitor. Edinburgh belongs to the present me and to the happy times of this moment. So when I come back here in the future – whether it’s in a couple months’ time, or a couple of decades – I will be returning to the memories I’m collecting right now.

I have one week left here before it’s time to strap on my backpack and take off for the highlands. I’m hoping to slip away just in time, before it becomes hard to say goodbye. But I’m not sure I will make it. In fact, I’m pretty certain it’s going to sting.

I can live with that. Edinburgh is worth it.

*Bachata is a social dance which began in the Dominican Republic, and could be considered a kissing cousin of salsa.

 

Photos below:

Top row: My favorite throwback photo, eating fire on the steps of The Royal Scottish Academy; the Miss Jean Brodie Steps

Bottom row: Within the centuries-old confines of Advocates Close; co-ed communal living in the hostel dorm room.