“Do you know where the youth hostel at Fort Mason is?” I called out from the back seat of the cab. I was with my friend Anathea and her boyfriend, pleasantly buzzed after a few beers in San Francisco’s Outer Richmond district, explaining to the driver that there’d be a second stop after my friends got out at their apartment.
“Wait,” Anathea’s boyfriend interjected, turning towards me in disbelief, “you’re staying in a youth hostel? Why?”
I just smiled and laughed. It’s a question I get all the time and, I suppose, it’s a pretty understandable one. A lot of people my age have never stayed in a hostel, or have such bad memories of the few times they did that they’d never dream of going back. But me? I love them. And the reasons are too complex to convey in the final moments of a cab ride. They’re too personal to easily explain when someone asks me why, in a city like San Francisco where I have friends and relatives, I’d opt for a dorm room with strangers rather than a free couch or spare bedroom.
But that’s why I have this blog: it’s the place where I can share all those complex, personal, “maybe I’m crazy but I don’t care” thoughts on travel and life. So for my 100th (!) post, I want to discuss what my sister only half-jokingly calls my “life’s passion”: hostels.
While I don’t know that I’d call hostels my biggest passion, they’re definitely an area of expertise for me: I’ve stayed in cramped, noisy, dingy party hostels in Amsterdam. I’ve stayed in eco-friendly beach house hostels in Australia. I’ve slept in brightly hued, airy dorms in Thailand and no-frills barracks in Vietnam. I’ve gotten free breakfasts, free wi-fi, even free beer from hostels, and I’ve been charged for everything from towels to bed sheets. I’ve folded hostel linens to pay my rent and I’ve stayed up through the wee hours updating hostel booking sheets. And when my mom and sister came to visit me in New Zealand and Australia a few months ago, I booked us into three weeks’ worth of hostels without hesitation. So suffice to say, this is a topic on which I consider myself an authority. And even knowing everything I know, even having experienced at least as many lows as highs in the budget accommodation game, I still love hostels.
The key to loving hostels, I truly believe, is getting past the cliché. I clench my jaw so firmly my temples start to throb any time I hear someone say, “Oh, I wish I could stay in hostels, but I’m not 18 any more! Besides, the idea of cold showers and sleeping in a room with a dozen strangers? No thanks!” The truth is, if you end up in a hostel like that, it usually means you haven’t researched your options thoroughly. Because as many hostels as there are out there that fit this stereotype, there are countless others that completely defy it. There are hostels all over the world with comfortable beds, DVD libraries, small single-gender dorm rooms, swimming pools, plasma TVs, and bathrooms that are cleaner and fancier than any I’ll ever be able to afford if one day I have a “real home” again. And there are so many choices out there that there’s no need to sleep, bathe, or cook in sub-par conditions. As for the age thing? Well, I’m not exactly 18 myself.
So, we’ve established that there are nice hostels that you can save money by staying in. Useful, but hardly passion-worthy — right? Like I said, my love for hostels is complex, personal, and not so quickly distilled. But if I had to sum it up in one phrase — one phrase I’ll ask you not to roll your eyes, groan, or close your browser after reading — it would be this:
Hostels are one of the best places to witness the beauty and magic of travel, human nature, and good will in real-time.
Heavy stuff, I know. “Too heavy for a post about youth hostels, for God’s sake,” you might say. But since you’ve been patient (or indulgent) enough to read on after that sentence, you might as well bear with me.
As many hostels as I’ve stayed in, I’ve also stayed in some pretty plush hotels. I’ve worked for two different companies, you see, kind enough to send me all over the place and put me up in rooms with king-sized beds, fancy little bars of soap, private balconies and, in one unforgettable instance, my own personal plunge pool. But besides my colleagues, the only people who’d talk to me in these places would be wearing Hilton name tags. Still, even when traveling on my own, I always used opt for moderately priced private hotel rooms. The first time I ever truly “traveled solo,” I spent a weekend on my own in Paris at the end of a business trip in northwestern France. I stayed in a private room in a little hotel in the 11th and I ate and walked and lounged my way around all my favorite spots from when I lived in Paris in college. And all I could do the whole time was stare at groups of friends out on picnics or sitting along the Canal St. Martin and feel incredibly lonely. Not only did I not know anyone in Paris any more, but I wasn’t meeting anyone in Paris.
A year later, I spent two weeks on my own in the south of France. I stayed in some cute little hotels, slept soundly in huge beds, and spent 14 days lamenting my loneliness (though, admittedly, the local pain au chocolat, scenery, sunshine, and general joie de vivre mitigated the loneliness greatly).
These days, I know better. Half the people I saw living it up with their friends in parks from Paris to Perpignan had probably only just met in hostel common rooms. Evenings at little bistros with my dining companions David Foster Wallace and Paulo Coelho, while nice, could have been spent getting to know people who existed in the flesh rather than on the page. If it had even entered my mind to try staying in a hostel rather than a hotel, I probably would have befriended some very cool new people (and saved a bundle to boot).
“That’s peachy, Jess,” I hear you saying, “but you’re not going to make friends for life at every hostel you go to. That’s a bit optimistic, don’t you think?” Of course it is. But that’s not the point. The point is, when hostels really work, they attract friendly, outgoing, good-natured, “anything to help a fellow globetrotter out” types of people. So even if you aren’t meeting your new best friend, you’re still witnessing a pretty heartwarming microcosm of society. Because hostel users aren’t just sharing dorm rooms with eachother: they’re sharing recipes and noodles in the kitchen, travel stories in the lounge, pirated episodes of cult TV shows from their external hard drives. They’re sharing small spaces and, with shocking frequency, they’re sharing them with respect.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve woken up at 5:00 a.m. to the rustling of a random roommate packing her bags in the dark and actually smiled to myself because I knew her job would be much easier if she selfishly turned the light on. On my recent trip to San Francisco, I stayed in a four-person girls-only dorm. After 36 hours I still hadn’t seen or heard a peep from my three roommates. But when they came in late the second night, they kept the light off and whispered to each other so as not to wake me. Did it wake me anyway? Yes. But these girls, these total strangers who outnumbered me three to one, who’d never even seen any evidence of my existence save my unmade bed and my suitcase, still extended this courtesy just in case I was in the room and asleep.
Are there exceptions? Absolutely. There are people who don’t treat hostels with respect; people who make noise late at night and trash the lounge and steal your milk out of the communal fridge. I’ve dealt with these people. But when hostels really work, the people staying in them coexist. Retirees eat breakfast across the table from college kids on spring break. Brits and Indians and Argentinians and Germans live harmoniously in the same rooms. Groups of people with nothing in common besides matching room keys decide to make dinner together, to grab beers together, to go hiking together. When was the last time you saw that happen in a hotel lobby?
Most importantly, people in hostels are excited to be there, to physically be out in the world, experiencing a new place, meeting new people. And in the age of Facebook and LinkedIn and Instagram, I think that’s pretty incredible.
That’s why I love hostels. They give me permission, and often reason, to be an idealist. Call me sentimental; call me odd. But you can’t call me crazy.