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.
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.