I just got off a 16 hour flight, hopped a bus to a bus station, then barely managed to snag another bus before it left.
It’s about 6:30am one day in the future…not quite sure how that happened, but I’m pretty sure the transition took place while I was sleeping. And here I thought the International Dateline was a phone-based service for lonely xenophiles.
Now I’m at a hostel. Goodie.
Standing in line, I glance around, though it’s just out of boredom…I already know what I’m going to see. At this point I can pretty much just close my eyes and list off what will be in the room.
Behind me there will be a whiteboard or chalkboard with the day’s events. There will be an emphasis on local deals and a happy hour at the hostel (or an unattached but affiliated) bar. There is a tour today or tomorrow to some local tourist attraction. Another is for the non-tourist; some kind of picnic, wine tasting, rock-climbing shindig, ostensibly in the company of locals.
I’m not sure who the locals are, but I imagine they’re probably the people who work here. Does that even count?
Another wall will have a massive map along with historical information about the area, fun facts and/or book-report-style posterboard displays sounding out important colloquialisms along with an explanation of what the hostel’s name means.
There will be photos of people who have lived there before and the people who work there. They’ll be doing fun things — rock climbing, canoeing, traveling with great big bags on their backs — “they’re just like you!” these photos say. “Trust us! Come to this wine tasting we’re holding at the famous cliffside picnic area that other visitors don’t know about! Only US$99!”
A booth or table will be conspicuously set up, nearly collapsing under the weight of fliers and informational brochures about local things to do, modes of transportation and concerts/parties that will be going on in the near-future (and very likely ones that already occurred up to several months ago).
Signs about how to access the WiFi are posted. There’s a kitchen (sign: “we’re not your mother, please wash your own dishes!”) and a shelf of books you can take, so long as you leave one that you’ve got with you. There are chairs in little groups for impromptu meetings with other travelers.
And you know what? Even though hostels are predictable, they’re great. Really fantastic, actually. The people are generally very friendly and helpful, the lodging is almost always very habitable and relatively clean (better than my dormitory in college, anyway), and the price is definitely right.
My issue with hostels is that they purport to provide a genuine experience, and the (generally) younger generation of travelers that stay there perpetuate this myth that hostels are somehow more legit than hotels or other housing opportunities.
This is simply not true.
Hostels are just as whitewashed and enclosed as any hotel. The only real difference is that you meet people from all over the world while there…the trouble is that they are all other travelers.
What do I have against meeting other travelers? Absolutely nothing! In fact, I almost always meet at least a handful of really great people when I stay at a hostel.
This is an issue all unto itself, however, because I find that when I meet these other travelers, I seldom feel the need to really dig deep into the local culture as much as I would going solo.
Sure, we may go on a day trip, walk around the city and eat the local food. But I’m certainly not forced to make friends with the locals, to work my way out of difficult situations or just sit an observe the local customs and mannerisms. I’m too busy exchanging travel stories with this chick from London and this guy from Germany. There’s a guy here who’s been traveling for years, and now I know all about where to go when I make it over to the Netherlands. Sweet, except that I came to South America to learn about South America. And all he can tell me about are the tours the hostel he stayed at took him to.
So stay at hostels — I know I intend to continue doing so — but be real about what you’re getting for the money. Don’t assume that because you’re staying in the cheaper option that you’re seeing the real (insert name of country you’re visiting here), because honestly you’re not. The bars they’re taking you out to or recommending are the ones that expect tourists from the hostels to show up. The landmarks they’re showing you and the excursions they’re taking you on are customized for foreigners. You’re not going to meet up with any locals who will work to integrate you into the local system, because there is a lot more money in keeping you separate. It’s just good business.
Try to live with a local or get a place of your own outside of the hostel/hotel system if you really want to get some dirt under your nails and live like the locals do.
Otherwise, just enjoy your situation for what it is. There’s a bar, library, theater, kitchen and clean bathrooms all throughout this hostel I’m in at the moment.
I’m going to take what luxury I can before heading back out into the real world.
Update: December 11, 2016
Re-reading this for the first time since I wrote it, I initially felt that I was being a little unfair to hostels. But I do think the message stands, and thankfully, these days, there are more options available than ever for folks who want to get out of the tourist track — the well-paved path that displays a not-quite-theme-park version of wherever you happen to be visiting.
Innovations like Airbnb have made this possible, and though there are completely separate housing-related and tax-related issues we need to consider as societies surrounding these sorts of companies, I think what they’ve done for a traveler’s ability to get outside the made-for-outsiders experience and into the places where locals actually go, and a less manicured experience of a place, is fantastic.