Go through immigration. Pick up your luggage. Find your hostel. If that sounds familiar, so familiar in fact that a very vivid memory of your backpacked self unfolding a map right outside the central bus station popped up in your mind, then you’re probably the kind of traveller for whom hostels are a first choice in terms of accomodation.
They are for me. I miss them when I’m home; I would miss them were I forced to stay in (just) a hotel. In my mind, they are part of my fondest travel memories. On my face, they translate into an affectionate smile.
Hostels are places where people intersect. Some are tidy, some are careless. Some are glorious, some are decrepit. But they all overlap in a strange, tacit way. I am not talking about the very principles of a hostel (informality; communal area; self-catering). I am talking about the details, the people that you keep finding in hostels, whatever the location.
There is the guy who stinks and sits in front of TV every evening from 6 pm to midnight, eating peanut butter out of the jar and potato chips. There is the noisy group of girls in flip-flops and giant ponytails (university hoodies are a plus) who come back from their hike and fix themselves a giant spinach-leaves-avocado-tropical-fruits salad. There is the pensive Korean girl who wolfs down cup noodles while reading a book.
There is the guy playing with his smartphone in the laundry room. Like you, he entered the room carrying a month’s worth of clothes. Like you, he stared in disbelief at the sign announcing “Washing: 4 dollars. Dryers: 4 dollars.” Like you, he considered handwashing a selection of his clothes: underwear, some socks, that thermal shirt he wears for hiking. Like you, he remembered the heater in the kitchen: that should do the drying.
Sleeping in a hostel, for a lot of us, is always a treat. Sleeping in a hostel means no protecting the gas cooker from the wind; no peeling of potatoes in the cold. Instead, you peel potatoes in the heat of the empty kitchen. You proudly serve yourself a plate of pan-fried potatoes, with salt and herbs, plus a can of those baked beans you normally keep for breakfast — but hey, life is short.
You sit next to this lovely and slightly unsettling Korean girl with her cup noodles. You carefully chew in silence, with satisfaction. While eating, you’re thinking about dessert. You don’t have dessert. You might have some chocolate left from your last trail, and a couple of fruits. You think you could arrange them all in a nice plate, make something fancy that’ll look good. You look up at the clock (London — New York — Paris). The larger hand is broken.
At 7 pm, people start pouring into the kitchen. The guy who stinks and who is out of potato chips, the three girls in flip-flops and a German couple. You put some of your stuff on the floor to make room on the table (your beanie, your sunglasses, used kleenex and the empty wraps of those Toblerone candies you saved from the plane two weeks ago). You smile, as a welcome, at the German couple. They take turns to cook. In the end, the guy comes back with two plates. Beef steaks (two each) and cream, rice pilaf and portobello mushrooms. At first, you’re taken aback: you wonder where they found portobello mushrooms. Then, you gloomily pat what’s left of your beans with your fork. Never mind. Fruit and chocolate will make a lovely dessert.
The day after, you leave the hostel; the next four nights will be camping nights. The loneliness of the trail, the fresh air, uncannily make you think about the guy who stank. You know he, with all the others, will be part of your fondest memories. Last night was just a one-night stay, but you know that when you stay longer, you always make interesting connections with the other guests. In hostels, somehow, we all look wretched. We all look relieved and disoriented at the same time. We all look like we swallowed miles. We all are far away from home. We all try to dig ourselves a home upon arrival, an anchor, whether with cup noodles, portobello mushrooms or university hoodies. We all are scattered selves among scattered selves. We all gather our selves together. We all smile anonymous welcomes at each others.
Further down the trail, you lay your walking sticks against a tree, take off your gloves and grab a handful of nuts from the side pocket of your backpack. Something is coming. Something that sounds different from the gurgling hurry of the river and the questioning cries of the local birds.
The three girls in flip-flops appear around the corner and pass you, cheerful, chatting, without backpacks, carrying 50-cl bottles of water and wearing sneakers. You consider them for an instant, peeking at them from under your ski jacket’s hood (and beanie). You wonder at the elasticity of their ankles. You wonder if they might die on that trail. You start imagining how, mentally browsing through the most entertaining options.
And then, all of a sudden, the affectionate smile.
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