Where Loners, Wanderers and Weirdos Sleep: Thoughts on Hostels

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.

Hostel in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Outside a hostel in Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Hostel in Puerto Iguazú, Argentina.

Hostel in Menneapolis, Minnesota.

Exterior of hostel in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Hostels near beaches tend to have this look (Tulúm, Quintana Roo, Mexico).

Hostel in Viejo San Juan, Puerto Rico. Sometimes hostels have better locations than hotels.

Hostel in Austin, Texas.

 

What on Earth Is This Blog About?

I have no idea.  I’ve posted enough essays, vignettes, and what I’ll call blurbs that I should have a sample of writing large enough to reveal a pattern.  But the only pattern I can discern is that I love to talk about everything.  I love to show people things as I see them and ask if they see them in the same way.  I love to share the enigmas that perplex me, even if by doing so I won’t solve them.  Maybe I don’t want to solve them.  Maybe I like that they’re insoluble.  So what I’ve ended up with here is a sampling of essays about travel, ideas, people, places, mysteries, and topics that fall into no simple category.  Jorge Luis Borges once wrote:

A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.

I run my fingers over the contours of the world.  I rest my eyes on its sunsets and its snow-capped mountains, its white beaches and its emerald seas, its glittering skyscrapers and its rickety favelas.  I try hard to listen to people rather than talk, to let their words, their experiences, and their wisdom settle like fresh snow on the jagged landscape of my mind.  And through it all I’m really trying to understand myself, which I hope will help me understand everyone.  So maybe that’s what this blog is about.  It seeks to answer two questions: Who the heck am I?  And who are you?  (as opposed to, “Who the heck are you?” or “Who the heck do you think you are?”  Sorry, I’m trying to be funny.  If I can match Borges at nothing else, maybe I can at least be funnier than he was.)

Please talk to me.  I want to hear from you.  I don’t know much, but I know you can teach me a few things.  And thank you.

It’s time I created some structure for this blog.  So here’s my plan:

  • Beginning next week, I’ll post Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
  • I’ll devote Tuesdays to pictures (usually falling under a theme).
  • Thursdays I’ll usually post something short of my own, but when life gets busy I’ll share favorite quotes from favorite authors.
  • Saturdays I’ll post longer pieces, usually all “authorial” sounding.  Some will be essays, some will be stories, others will be travel narratives, and still others will be, well, random miscellany.  I’ve noticed that when I write these sorts of pieces, they tend to hover around 700 words in length, so that will be my goal.

Today, I want to share Argentina with you.  These photos are from a summer I spent traveling there while I was in college:

*These photos are sized wrong for my homepage.  For some reason the edit option isn’t working, so I’ll have to re-size them later.

The Andes near the Argentina/Chile Border

Iguazú Falls, along Argentina's border with Brazil.

Iguazú Falls

Iguazú Falls.

Northwest Argentina, near Salta.

Purmamarca, el Cerro de los siete colores ("the hill of seven colors"), Northwest Argentina.

El cerro de los siete colores.

Convent in Salta, Northwest Argentina.

Cathedral in Salta, Northwest Argentina.

This one is actually from Santiago, Chile.

Be a Traveler

When I go somewhere new, I don’t want to be a tourist; I want to be a traveler. To tour is to touch the surface of something, to understand its general outlines, to arrive at a condensed summation of what it is. To travel is to penetrate deeper, to discern the nooks and crannies of a place and to become aware of its beautiful and ugly imperfections. It’s not the postcard picture that defines a place. The lifeblood of a place is everything the postcard leaves out. The postcard says nothing about a city’s slums and ghettos, or the people who live and toil there every day. A city that is stripped of its inhabitants, with their daily comings and goings, their problems, their hopes, their fears, and their dreams, is an empty shell, a vacuous ghost town. In a word, it is dead.

Iguazú Falls, Argentina

Likewise, one view of one sharp mountain peak leaves out the expansive range that peak is a part of. To understand the scope of the range, we must traverse its rugged contours, peer over its abrupt precipices, drink of its fresh lakes and rivers. Only then can we arrive at an intimate understanding of its immensity and scale. But even this understanding would be incomplete without an attention to the details: the trees, the mosses, the flowers, the birds, the bears, the marmots, the lizards, the bats, the bugs, everything that goes unnoticed, a favorite rock to lie down on, a gurgling spring, a misshapen tree trunk carved in the form of Richard Nixon’s face. Even with all of these details, we exclude a multitude of others. The mountain range’s features are infinite; its wealth of discoveries and marvels boundless.

The Andes, near the Argentina/Chile border.

When I arrive in a new city, or even when I arrive in a familiar one, I want to stroll its streets as just another pedestrian, to smell its air and watch its people as they go about their routines. I want to know their wishes and understand something of how they live. I want to talk to them in cafes, in markets, in plazas, and in parks. I want to see the uglier side of town, to know the vicissitudes of local life, and to learn about local preoccupations and partake in local customs. Anywhere I go, I want that place to tell me its story through the mouths of the people who live there, through their music and their dance, their laughter and their smiles, their tears and their sorrow. Let me decipher old buildings with my eyes, touch their decaying structures with my hands, read their history in the flaking paint and crumbling brick of their aging walls.

Drink it all in. Experience it all. Don’t let the opportunity to see something new, to feel something strange, disconcerting, and unexpected pass you by. Seek out the unknown, throw yourself off balance, challenge your conception of the world. Grow. Be a traveler.

Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park, California, USA

Near Poás Volcano, Costa Rica

San José, Costa Rica