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.

 

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Puerto Rico, Who Are You?

Sunset over the bay, from Old San Juan.

Latin America encompasses parts of two continents, hundreds of islands, and peoples and cultures too numerous to list.  Yet we use catch-all words like Latin American, Hispanic, and Latino to refer to anyone born anywhere in this vast territory.  The theme of layered and overlapping identities courses through the literature of Latin America.  You find it in the fiction of Borges, in the poetry of Neruda, and in the tirades of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who nevertheless dreamed of unifying these peoples with their varied origins and experiences of Spanish colonial rule and foreign imposition.

Cemetery below el Castillo del Morro

The people of Latin America are Colombian, Mexican, Argentinean, Chilean, Bolivian, Guatemalan, and Puerto Rican.  They are Incan, Aztec, Mayan, Aymara, Quilmes, and Olmec.  They hail from Europe, Africa, North America, South America, and Asia.  Their cultures are at once young and old, their religions indigenous and imported. 

The people of Latin America are complicated and multifarious.  They express their multiplicity of identities through their art, their architecture, their language, and their religion.  I have felt this complexity in Mexico, Perú, Chile, Argentina, and the United States.  Now, I’ve felt it and seen it in Puerto Rico, where in a single day in Old San Juan one may set foot on Spanish forts that date back nearly five-hundred years, stroll along narrow blue cobble stone streets that would not be out of place in Europe, eat lunch at McDonald’s, speak Spanish and English in the same sentence, and mail a letter via the United States Postal Service.

The beginning of Condado Beach, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Little evidence remains of the original inhabitants of this island.  Their blood courses through its people now, but one sees little in the way of ruins left over from the days before Europeans sailed toward Puerto Rico’s shores, unleashed themselves on this fertile land, and enslaved the people who variously welcomed, resisted, and fled from them. 

Spaniards have conquered this island, the British have bombarded it, pirates have marauded it, and Americans have occupied it.  Disparate tribes have mixed, tourists have invaded, and what emerges from these vicissitudes and whims of history is what we call Puerto Rico.  Ask me to describe Puerto Rico and though I may attempt to trace a rough outline of the country and its people, in the end I’ll throw up my hands and say, “Go there.”

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

 

Condado Beach, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

 

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

 

From el Castillo del Morro, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

The Ocean as Sculptor: The Old Forts of Viejo San Juan, Puerto Rico

On most coasts the ocean batters and tears down rock indiscriminately, so that along an extended coastline like that of the Western United States sea stacks jut out of the water here, eight-hundred foot cliffs tower over the Pacific there, while elsewhere, in coves hidden in the shadows beneath precipices and along gentle shorelines that attract bathers by the millions, the ocean laps at sandy beaches, some white, some brown, some black and grey and striated with purple or strewn with smooth pebbles.  But here, on the north shore of Old San Juan, in Puerto Rico, atop cliffs overlooking the Atlantic ocean, there meander a series of walls eighteen feet thick, connecting two of the largest old Spanish forts in the Western Hemisphere: El Castillo del Morro and el Castillo de San Cristobal. 

Watch Tower near el Castillo del Morro

It would be easy to imagine that human minds dreamed up these forts and that human hands quarried their rocks, shaped them, and fit them into place with an eye toward repelling invaders.  But although this of course explains the presence of these massive fortifications on a lonely island in the Caribbean, the ramparts and towers of Old San Juan are so massive that we might as easily imagine that the ocean itself chose to direct its erosive energies to sculpting a work of art rather than to pulverizing an island; that it hurled so many crashing waves here, sprinkled so much salty spray there, and through patience and care crafted watch-towers and cannon niches, erected walls and dug out tunnels.  No lonely fins of stone rise out of these waters; random outcroppings of rock do not line these shores.  Only order reigns.  The Atlantic whittles away at its project to this day, showing off its delicate touch, its million white hands that now caress, now pound, now pull back from their creation so that the ocean that guides them may admire its elegant work.

More to come about Puerto Rico.  I hope everyone is having a good weekend!

El Castillo del Morro

 

View of Catholic cemetery from el Castillo del Morro

 

Watch Tower at el Castillo del Morro

View down the coast from el Castillo de San Cristobal

Random Kindness on a Plane

Sometimes people say things so strange and so nakedly positive that you smile and carry their words with you for the rest of your life.  On landing at DFW at the end of a flight from Detroit, as a procession of passengers and I passed by the cockpit and deboarded the plane, a woman whom I had sat next to for the entire flight turned to the pilot, smiled, and said, “What a beautiful experience.”  She didn’t thank him mechanically, as I did; she commented on the pleasure of flying.  She complimented the pilot on his art.  She experienced the flight as a child might, with innocent wonder, yet she spoke of it with the gravity of an adult who has seen many wonderful things and who comments only on those her experience tells her are transcendent. 

Moments before her comment to the pilot, this woman had turned to me as we began to file toward the front of the plane and told me to “take care.”  On this three-hour flight from Detroit neither one of us had uttered a word to the other.  Yet despite this lack of any connection, even a fleeting one, this woman felt compelled to wish me well.  She smiled so tenderly at me.  I don’t know why.  She did so even after I dumbly made her repeat herself because I didn’t understand what she had said. 

And hers was the middle seat!

—–

Recently I got back from a trip to Puerto Rico.  I haven’t had time to write anything of quality about it, but I did want to share a few pictures. 

Castillo del Morro

View down the coastline from el Castillo de San Cristobal

Sunset