Picture it: A group of Portuguese boys play ping pong and try not to spill beer. Behind them, Spanish girls converse– loudly– with strangers via a smartphone translation app. Upstairs, Karaoke. Someone knocks over a stool with a bang. Ten bunk beds crowd into a room about 5m2; the room is rarely quiet. Dirty dishes accumulate in the sink, and most people cook pasta.
No, it’s not an international frat house. It’s a hostel.
If it sounds rowdy, messy and overwhelming, well, it often is. If it also sounds like a one-stop-shop for meeting other travelers and making friends from other places, well, it’s that too.
Once upon a time, I loved to stay in hostels. At 18, I found the chaotic collision of cultures exhilarating. Likewise the endless procession of potential friends. The noise, the mess and the banality of bar-stool banter? It was new to me.
Over the last five years, however, something has shifted. I prefer noise in moderation. Though I still enjoy meeting new friends—and I hope I always will—I am no longer awestruck by the air of international cool that hostels exude.
Last week, I spent six days in a Barcelona hostel after all better options fell through. For seven euros a night, I didn’t mind that one of the two stoves didn’t work, or that I had to share space with twenty people smellier than me.
My second evening I overheard a conversation that brought home the change in my relationship to hostels. What once would have seemed a thrilling exchange of travelers’ stories and philosophy now felt decidedly, disappointingly… trite, I suppose.
Certainly not the people, the stories, or the philosophy. So it must be me. Hostels are the same everywhere, anytime, and maybe that’s the problem. I have started to see what is the same rather than what stands out and enchants. My god, I have never felt so cynical!
As I look at hostels now, I see less the excitement, more the noise. I see lecherous older men rather than good stories. I see travelers who never leave their rooms and parties that I could just as easily find at home.
This is no longer where I want to be.
Picture it: “Dragon’s breath” fog rolls in between purple mountains in the twilight. Terraces of fruit trees reach out above it. The nearest town, where square white houses cling to the mountainside, measures an altitude of 4,000ft. Nobody speaks English. Home is a small caravan with one outlet and the most spectacular view of sunrises and sunsets. Farmers load bags of almonds onto mules to carry them up the slopes.
For the next two weeks I will be “wwoofing” (working on an organic farm) in the south of Spain. I still like parties and socializing and noise, but lately this environment feels much more my speed. There is nothing wrong with hostels, per se—my criticism may be heavy-handed—but I think I am done with them.
I feel good here—in the heavy quiet of fog and deep space I can breathe. I can write, too, and that is more than I could say in Barcelona.