We all have experienced that fantastic hostel. The one where you felt at home, the glorious one, the tidiest one. The 5-starred TripAdvisor hero.
And then there is the worst hostel ever. The one you’re still ranting about, five years later. The one with the shameful customer ratings. On a fairly regular (daily) basis, a flustered customer steps out of it and doesn’t want to hear about it ever again.
And yet: there is often a story behind these forlorn places. Were you to pause and sit for a moment in their smelly hall and watch people pass, you would probably catch pieces of lives, bits of humanity, echoes of tall tales, remnants of drama. Shall we sit down for a moment and talk about these places? I won’t cite any name, nor any location. But walking down their halls, entering their kitchens, in different countries, I heard, saw and smelled things that deserve a proper story. So today, let me tell you about
the one with the languorous woman in an armchair.
The hostel we had picked was fully booked that night. The lady at the counter redirected us toward another hostel with similar offers and prices, just a few blocks from there; another hostel where “there’d probably be some rooms left”.
We approached it like Alice approached the Mad Hatter’s house. We parked our van at the back, walked down a dark alley, and climbed a peculiar wooden stairway that meandered uphill through trees and bushes. We emerged in front of a grand, luminous, dignified Victorian house. We whistled in admiration. At first sight, we loved the Christmas lights they used to illumine the porch, balcony and entrance hall. A wooden table sat in front, in the small garden, with a glorious view over the whole cityscape. It was a beautiful night. A couple of guys sat on the porch, smoking cigarettes, chatting quietly, smiling silent welcomes at us.
We walked in to greet the Mad Hatter.
A beautiful, languorous woman was sitting in an armchair next to the counter. She sat with her legs up on the armchair’s arm, dressed in a dress and classy stockings. She held a glass of red wine. She sipped on it, smiling peacefully, listening to a guy telling her a story. We entered the hall with winter hiking clothes and hiking boots. She stopped the conversation and turned toward us. Her hand on her glass seemed playful, inviting. She didn’t put her legs down, she didn’t stand. She just said, almost in a whisper: “Hello, is there anything we can do for you?” I smiled. My wife mentally slapped the back of my head. We said we’d like to stay the night. She looked mildly surprised. (“Oh!”)
A brief pause in everyone’s conversation allowed us to glance at the other people present.
The story-teller is an old man, probably 70-ish. He wears very elegant, almost fancy clothes and a ponytail. For a fleeting moment, his gender is undetermined. He shoots the most cordial smile at us. Another man, quite young, with his head shaved, stands silently near the entrance to the communal area.
The languorous woman says: “What is your name?” And then, addressing the young man with a nod, “Could you take care of it?”. We pay for one night. I take out my passport. The languorous woman smiles, tutting: “Make yourself at home; if you need anything, tell us.”
We are now part of the house (much more literally than we realize in the first place). The communal area is full with a wide variety of people: some are backpackers, some are not. Everyone is chatting and laughing. But there is something in the air that we cannot quite define yet. A young man asks us where we come from and where we’re headed. His answer sounds disquieting: “I came here twenty-two days ago and planned to stay the night; well, I’m still here”. In the kitchen, several food racks are labeled with the name of their owner. “Billy”, “Sarah”, “Ming”, “George”. The labels look like they have gone through many seasons. Further down the hall, some of the rooms also have those labels. We come across men who seem to be alone and who are much older than the average backpacker. They walk up and down the halls looking vaguely disoriented; some look apologetic, almost sorry to even be there. We smell many smells, none of which is nice. Back in the kitchen, a guy is trying to cook his dinner with an ancient pan on a filthy gas cooker.
We come back to the counter. Nobody’s there. The languorous woman has vanished, along with the elegant story-teller and the silent youth with the shaved head. A prickle at the back of our neck makes us hesitate: did they go to bed, or did they vanish?
We eventually took out from our backpacks the appetizers and bread we had bought at the supermarket. We treated ourselves with a sophisticated picnic in front of the beautiful cityscape, the grand Victorian house watching our backs.
When we came back in for the night, we passed in front of a cupboard under the stairs. On the door there was, once again, one of those labels. It said: “Wizard’s Room”. That may explain it all.
The Hostel Life
This hostel blues I have been feeling (read Part One here) in fact announces a big change in my life and in Carrie Speaking’s editorial line. In less than a week, I am leaving (we are leaving) to British Columbia for 6 months. The two teachers that we are took a leave of absence to live a hostel life, tending to guests, backpacking around, living suspended between two dots on the course of our lives.
Carrie Speaking will go on as usual: twice a week, in two languages.
But there will also be new features. Rumors have spoken the magic word: books. But I can also make a more official announcement about a Tumblr project.
However secluded (high up mountains, deep into deserts) a hostel is, it is a place where people intersect. If you want to intersect with them too, you can always:
Like Carrie Speaking’s Facebook page
and Follow Carrie Speaking's new Tumblr.
A few weeks into our stay in the hostel, I will start uploading on a daily basis photos and stories about the people coming and going, about the people we have briefly met “at the crossroad” (pieces of lives; bits of humanity; echoes of tall tales; remnants of drama).
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