October 29, 2011 16 Comments
The Hosteling International Hostel in Austin sits on a hill that tapers down to the south shore of Lady Bird Lake, one of a series of narrow lakes that owe their existence to dams built up and down the Colorado River as it flows through Central Texas. Unlike most hostels, which tend to be in the middle of a large downtown where the sounds of the city never quite fade, even at night, the hostel in Austin neighbors no buildings. The whoosh of cars, the laughter of late night partiers, and the low hum common to all big cities at night do not disturb it. Instead, live oak trees wind their limbs around it, waters lap up on the tree-lined shore beneath it, and, at night, crickets and other nocturnal creatures serenade it. Downtown Austin, about a mile away, rises just a sliver above the tree line across the lake. A narrow dock extends into the water and affords a solitary place to sit and think, and to squint at the smattering of stars that manage to overcome the glow of the city. Inside, the hostel is more inviting than most I’ve slept in. Large round tables fill the dining area. An upright piano rests in the corner. I imagine that on busy nights traveling musicians gladden the room with their songs.
Hostels fascinate me. They come in all varieties and are run by some of the most eccentric characters. The proprietor of an Anchorage hostel I stayed at in 2006 interrogated me about Austin. He wanted to know where a man goes to cool off on a hot summer’s day. Answer: Barton Springs. “Yes, that’s correct,” he said. “And where does one go for live music?” Answer: Sixth Street. Correct again. He quizzed me on politics, asked who I voted for in the 2004 presidential election, inveighed against war and big oil. He ran his hostel out of his own house in the suburbs.
In Minneapolis I stayed in a hostel that felt like an abandoned mansion. I slept alone on one bed among thirty in a large, open room with a vaulted ceiling that rose twenty feet above me. Walls were missing, doors had holes in them, and the November wind whistled through cracks and little gaps in the exterior. In most hostels strangers from all over the world talk in various heavy accents about where they’ve come from and where they’re going. These rank among the dreamiest conversations I’ve heard.
Some hostels are musty and cramped. Their whole structure lists slightly and makes you wonder whether they might fall down. They smell of damp towels and bodies salted by the ocean. One in Mexico had a restroom so small that you couldn’t close the door to do your business. Some offer nice, simple breakfasts. In Argentina almost all hostels provide at no charge biscuits and mermelada, orange juice, milk and coffee.
The people who frequent hostels are sometimes weird, sometimes perfectly ordinary, occasionally crazy. A lot of them are lost. A lot of them are staying in a hostel because they don’t know where else to go, and they believe that maybe the simple act of moving will change their lives for the better. A man at a hostel in Fairbanks told me that he had moved from New York to Alaska on a whim, with no promise of a job and no friends in his new home to help him if he needed it. He said that he wanted to work for the oil industry, though he had lived in New York his entire life and had never seen a drilling rig.
Maybe I feel at home in hostels because I don’t know who I am and I’ve deluded myself into thinking that I can find what’s missing in me in the outside world, among people who are lost themselves and who, like me, have landed in the liminal reality hostels afford. In a hostel, everyone is no one and, for a moment, the pressures of being someone lift.