Love ‘em, hate ‘em, they still beat expensive hotels.
Hostels are both the bane and the salvation of the budget traveller. On one hand they can be an excellent source of information; notice boards advertise what’s going on in town and you can pick the brains of other travellers who’ve just come from the direction in which you’re heading. However all too often you can find yourself sitting around with a bunch of backpackers from your own country, speaking English and playing cards. You might ask yourself just why you flew thousands of miles to be there in the first place.
Some hostels turn this failing into a virtue with the intention of providing an oasis from all the stress of being on the road. A good example was a hostel in Nicaragua called the Bearded Monkey run by a bitchy American woman and her English husband. Both had spent many years on the road and so understood how to transform an old colonial house into a place that the traveller wouldn’t want to leave.
They set up a kitchen serving everything from Chinese stir fries to fish and chips (just when you couldn’t face another plate of rice and beans); they installed five computers for internet access; a pool tabel and a bar. Most of the travellers I met there spent more than half their days in the hostel, lounging around with the vague guilt that they should be off seeing the oldest churches in Central America. All week they lay around in hammocks reading books from the library or watching videos in the company of other Europeans and Americans.
Because, truth be told, most backapckers aren’t always too interested in hanging around with the locals in the countries they travel in. Sure, they say hi to the bartender who makes their cocktails, the waitress serving them lunch and maybe with the university student who wants to practice his English. But at the end of the day the culture and language gap is just too wide. The average traveller spends far more time hanging around with his own kind than getting to know the people who actually live in the places he visits.
To be fair, part of the reason of course is that it takes time to make friends. Arriving in a foreign city anywhere in the world you can’t expect to have a whole gang of friends at once. People are working, going on with their lives and the ones who approach you are sometimes just looking for a way to rip you off. The only other people with as much free time as you are the other backpackers staying at the hostel, the only affordable place in town.
Other travellers are also often the only ones in the same head space as you, adrift from their roots and attempting to understand the foreign culture in relation to their own. It’s quite normal to find a Pole, a German couple, some American students and a French family all sitting around a table in the communal kitchen of a hostel. Even if the local culture isn’t represented it’s still an interchange of culture.
Quite often young people travel less to see the countries they pass through but rather to learn about themselves. On the road alone they learn the skills of survival and gain a great deal of self-esteem for having accomplished such a journey.
The communal kitchens bring out the best and the worst in people. Some are moved to make pizza and bake cakes while others sit around like vultures in the hope that someone will cook more than they can eat. A crowd usually gathers each time an Italian comes into the kitchen. When he takes out a tray of pizza with pesto an hour later he finds he has more friends than he ever knew.
This tactic backfired when I was in Mexico when i set about cooking up a bit pot of black beans, the national dish. Noticing that i was boiling a quantity that would feed at least ten, no one else bothered to cook that day or go shoping in the market.
Lunchtime came and went and, although the aroma of beans and spices filled the kitchen, the beans were still too hard to eat. By dinnertime I had boiled away and refilled the water in the pot five times but the beans were still only slightly softer than stones. I began putting people on a rota to boil and stir the pot whilst I sneaked out to the street to grab a hamburger.
By midnight the gas bottle was running low and a sullen crowd fought off sleep in the kitchen, all eyes on the cauldron of beans. However hard we tried to convince ourselves that ‘perhaps they’re meant to have this texture’, we all knew in our hearts that they weren’t ready. A few brave souls tried anyway and awoke the next day groaning with stomachs like balloons. I lit the stove again and tried to avoid eye contact with an of the other guests who had long lost faith in me. The beans were ready by 5pm that day. Thus, in our own small way, we learnt just what Mexican housewives go through.
As fun as hostels can be and as comfortable and convenient as they are, you can sometimes get the feeling that you’re cheating yourself. In the eight months Ii passed in Israel i was every night in the homes of friends or living in nature. The result was that i didn’t meet one tourist and learnt a great deal of the language and way of life.
But that takes time and many backpackers are on a schedule. They have a list of countries to cover and for many they will never again have the opportunity to take so much time out to travel. Perhaps also on an unconscious level they fear to get too involved with a place lest it keep them from completing their voyage. Or from getting home at all.
If there was a hostel that would make someone want to go home it’s the Grand Imperial Hotel in San Jose, Costa Rica-. Everyone heads there as it’s the cheapest place in town and there’s always room at the inn. And though the people working there are friendly enough, you can’t avoid the feeling that you’ve just checked into central jail; at night you have to wait to be buzzed through a metal gate with vertical bars and the lighting is grey and dusty. You at once enter into a gloomy hall with neon-lit corridors running past rooms that are as windowless and uniform as a cell.
A hostel can be many things. There are faceless shelters for the impoverished traveller like the Grand Imperial; there are social clubs like the Bearded Monkey where boy meets girl over milkshakes and a video. They’re the refuge of grey-haired artists who have travelled too long and 18 year old students away from home for the first time.
Those that manage the hotels range from the ruthlessly opportunistic making the most of a travel trend to the big mamas whose shoulder is always available to those down on their luck.
I’ve been through most of them and more than likely will do so again. On the road there always comes the time when you wind up at their doors asking if there’s room at the inn.