BACK TO THE FUTURE. HOSTEL STYLE.
Preparing for hostels
Unidentifiable stains on the sheets. A door that didn’t work. A toilet that was last cleaned when Jesus was a young man. What the hell was I doing in a hostel? Working in travel, I had become accustomed to business class flights and 5 star hotels, often at hostel like prices. But here I was staying at a hostel in Bogota, Colombia. What had I done?
I had come to visit my cousin Yonatan who was on a 12 month adventure around the world. This was our second overseas jaunt for the year- in May we visited Scandinavia and Russia, a trip planned by me and as such we had a solid itinerary, luxurious accommodation, free VIP passes, room upgrades and tours. This time I handed the planning over to Yonatan. The “planning” involved a loose idea of where we wished to visit but beyond that very little- no advanced reservations, no VIP passes and definitely no luxury. Well, not unless your definition of luxury is merely the presence of a roof over your head- and even if that was the benchmark we still failed to meet that low standard on some nights.
Aside from the array of bacteria and unidentifiable specimens festering on my bed, the other apprehension I had was around my age- quite frankly was I too old for this shit? On my own world adventure at the age of 21, which was last century, (damn I’m old), I remember coming across travellers in their 30s, 40s and older and mocking them for staying in hostels and advising they would be better suited to hanging out with the grey rinse set on cruises. Was I to be the mocked on this trip? Despite the harsh Australian sun, I did look perhaps 5-8 years younger than my actual age and my maturity level is probably close to a teenager so I was hoping to fit in. Yonatan made a good travelling partner as he was similar to me. In fact almost a carbon copy of my 22 year old former self. Outgoing, ready to speak to anyone, funny, cocky and with the goal of trying to sleep with every female on the planet. Aside from the last point I hadn’t changed much and I was content to play Wingman to his Maverick. So with the belief I looked and acted young I thought I could fit in and was ready for hostel life once again.
The only condition I placed on this “Back to the Future” trip was that we had to stay in private rooms. Whilst happy to be immersed in the life of a backpacker again, I wasn’t prepared to stay in a dorm with 10 other people. I had experienced enough of this before and didn’t enjoy the symphony of sounds involving snoring, coughing, farting, packing, rustling and of course sex noises. I got enough of those with Yonatan without adding strangers to the mix. At first he wasn’t overly enthused by this as he felt staying in dorms was better for meeting people, but when I offered to pay for the room, he enthusiastically agreed. Saving money for backpackers is the ultimate priority. Even ahead of having sex.
This was illustrated when I arrived in Bogota. Yonatan was at the airport to meet me and when I suggested a cab to the hostel he was mortified. As if I had just asked him to burn all the money he had. He explained that we could take three buses and then walk for 20 minutes and save $15.
A mere pittance to me but to a backpacker enough for a nights accommodation. OK Ash…. I need to think like a backpacker I reminded myself and grabbed my luggage and headed to the bus stop. Public transport it is. Can I at least get a porter?
Yonatan called me a flashpacker- I think I was more of a hackpacker as I was very unprepared. I had no towel or soap, which made showers difficult. I was carrying more electronic equipment than Calvin Harris, had no locks on my bags, no photo copies of passport or important information, no money belt to hide my $15 from the plethora of Colombian drug lords or any form of security. It really had been a while since I backpacked. I would be eaten alive. And dirty.
The first hostel in Bogota was quiet. Well the atmosphere in the hostel was quiet. Our room was perhaps the noisiest place on Earth. But I shall get to that. Wanting to get into hostel life I was eager to have a few beers with my fellow comrades. Discuss travel plans. Head out to explore Bogota nightlife together. But there very few people about and those that were, were too busy on their iPhones and laptops. This was a big change for me. In my days (God I sound like my father..if I use that phrase I really will be ostracized from hostels) there were no mobiles or laptops so people had to talk. Now they seem to want to email or Skype or update their Facebook status. “Today I sat in a hostel and emailed all day” 23 people like this.
With everyone busy on Social Media we went back to our room. Our room had walls seemingly made of paper (very thin paper) and faced a busy street on one side, a bar on one side and the main hallway to the hostel on another. It also had the bonus of being next to the doorbell to the hostel. I soon learnt the peak time for ringing the bell was between 4am and 6am. Not a great start for this veteran road warrior. No people, no shower and no sleep. I joined the Apple brigade in the reception area and begun looking up hotels. I couldn’t do 2 weeks of this shit.
Another town. Another hostel
From Bogota we flew to Santa Marta. This was the cause of another debate. A train would take 18 hours. A plane just 1 hour. The price difference just $50. To me a no brainer. To Yonatan, also a no brainer. However our brains differed as we came out with different answers. As I only had 2 weeks and was off to a rough start, hostel wise I offered to pay for his flight to save time. He was pleased. I felt like I was married. Paying for another person and not getting any sex in return.
We arrived in Santa Marta with no plans. We had no idea where we were going or staying.. This was true backpacking. No reservations. Not even an idea on which town we were going to stay in. On the plane we asked the air stewards for advice, having narrowed the choice to two towns- Santa Marta or Taganga. They proved little help and so our decision was only made whilst waiting for our luggage when we found another couple going to Taganga and decided to share a taxi with them. (Sharing costs is always high on the agenda for backpackers so Yonatan was suitably pleased).
We were dropped off on the edge of town out the front of a hostel. As we entered this hostel, the vibe already seemed different and I had a good feeling. Our complete lack of planning proved fortuitous, every room and bed in the hostel was booked out, except the “apartment”. Normally a lofty (in backpacker budgets) $70 a night we could have it for $35- an absolute McBargain. This “apartment”, whilst never going to be showcased in Luxury Travel Magazine, was massive- it had 6 beds, a small kitchenette and an outdoor deck with BBQ. The perfect party place. Except we had been told at reception that parties were forbidden by the humourless Colombian who checked us in. WTF? Isn’t Colombia supposed to be a party place?
This hostel proved far livelier than our Bogota digs. Lots of common areas full of people drinking and talking. Located on the Caribbean coast, Taganga had a warm climate and this was conductive to people being outside. Of course many were on their laptops and emailing but there were enough still engaging in old fashioned face to face talking. (Yes the original FaceTime). We sat down with a small group and soon were chatting and drinking like the best of friends.
The guide to hostel conversation
A brief interlude to summarise the first few minutes of any hostel conversation:
Everyone jokes about it, everyone tries to avoid it and be different, but within the first minute of meeting a fellow traveller I can guarantee the same four benign questions will be asked.
- What’s your name? Yes stock standard and totally acceptable.
- Where are you from? From my extensive mathematical research 90% of travelers in Colombia I met were from America, Germany, Australia, Israel, England or Switzerland and in that order.
- How long have you been travelling? This is like a badge of honour with the longer you have been travelling supposedly the better. My answer of 2 days was usually scoffed at, as if I was a novice who knew nothing. (Despite the fact I had been to over 90 countries)
- How long are you travelling for? This is the ultimate test. Anything less 12 months is scorned upon. Fine when you are 22 and just about to start your working career. A lot harder when you have been on many trips and this is just a short sojourn. I must admit to being jealous when speaking to people and hearing of their long term travel plans. Many were surprised I would come all the way to Colombia for just 2 weeks. But for me 2 weeks in Colombia was better than 0 weeks in Colombia.
Once we had all exchanged answers to these questions and established our credibility we could officially join the group. Beers flowed, stories were exchanged and new relationships were made. Our choice of groups to sit with proved quite a fortuitous as this group became our family for the next week and basically shaped our plans for the rest of the trip. This is what I loved about staying in hostels. You meet some great people. Hotels provide comfort and cleanliness. Hostels provide people and experiences. People of different backgrounds and cultures. The perfect place for globetalking.
My hostel family
My new family was quite a diverse group of people who ordinarily wouldn’t spend time together but were thrust together by the cheap accommodation and a desire to travel.
There was Allan, a young German who was the model for the Aryan race- blonde hair, blue eyes and chiselled jaw. Travelling solo for 8 months at just 20 he displayed maturity beyond his years and was often the wisest of the group. Allan was nearly half my age and back home I wouldn’t spend time with someone like him. But by the end of the trip we were sharing a room and became good friends. He was far more mature than any 20 year old I had met, and probably more so than me.
Katja and Steffi, two Swiss Germans. Don’t call them German and don’t tell them Swiss German is the same language as German. Doing either is the only way of angering the Swiss. They aren’t so neutral under these circumstances.)They were in their late 20’s had quit their jobs and were travelling together. They had me onside straight away when they told me I looked like a rock star. I like to think it’s because of my uncanny resemblance to Dave Grohl, though in truth it’s probably because they thought I was close in age to Keith Richards. Attractive and friendly they were a beacon for many males who often mistook friendliness for a desire to have wild sex with them.
Carter, Mason and Dean- three Americans from the South. They could have been cast as “frat boys” in any film set in a US college. At first I was put off by their loudness and desire to party 24/7 but as we grew to knew them and look beyond the outward bravado they too became great mates and part of this family.
And so for the next 2 days and nights in Taganga we hung out, we went to the beach, we drank and formed close bonds. Close enough that on night two, we all decided to head to an eco resort a few hours away together. Again this is the beauty of hostels. None of us had set plans so when we heard from a fellow traveller about a cool little eco resort that was off the beaten path we all decided to head there the next day. In my previous travels this would have not been possible as I had set itineraries and plans, but I was enjoying this freedom. An added freedom was my lack of a mobile phone. It had been years since I hadn’t carried one, and so it was refreshing not to be constantly checking work emails or texts from people back home. Heck I didn’t even know the time as I had always relied on the clock on my phone. It was like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders – no schedule, no work pressure, nothing to tie me down. I was a bird. An old bird with clipped wings perhaps but still a bird nonetheless.
The eco resort was small, hosting just 30 people and had a commune type feel. There was little to do but lie on the beach, talk and drink. Our family stuck close together within this little community. Had we already developed a little clique? Perhaps. At night we slept in hammocks. As I swayed in the warm air, listening to the waves crash in the Caribbean I thought to myself this was far better than staying in a hotel. Even if the guy in the hammock next to me sounded like an elephant having a heart attack as he slept and in the distance I can hear two amorous people attempting the almost impossible feat of sex in a hammock.
From the eco resort our new family temporarily parted ways with a promise to all meet again in 4 days time in Medellin. 4 days- it seemed so far away, yet I had only known these people for 3 nights. After a night in Tayrona Yonatan and I headed to Cartagena, a beautiful colonial city a 5 hour bus ride away. Once again we checked into a hostel, but this lacked the feeling and ambience of our Taganga hostel. Perhaps we were missing our family. We tried to recreate the experience but failed. The people just weren’t the same. They didn’t laugh at our jokes. No one called me a rock star. They hadn’t even heard of the eco resort. I think this impacted on our overall enjoyment of Cartagena. Many say this is their favourite city in Colombia but it just didn’t gell for us. Cutting our time there short we decided to head to Medellin early. We missed our family.
Arriving at the hostel in Medellin was like a reunion. This was a hostel like none I had stayed in during my many years of travel. Four stories high with a rooftop pool. Lots of common areas, a second story veranda with ample tables. A BBQ, a pool table. Lots of computers for those poor travellers who weren’t taking as many Apple products as could be fit into a backpack with them. And of course our family. I half expected them to be standing out the front with a sign, a cake and some Welcome Home banners. I guess it was a bit much considering we had only known them for a few days.
Medellin is a beautiful city. Situated in a valley between lush mountains. The temperature is perfect, the people are friendly and there is lots to do. We explored the city together. We went to bars together. We attempted salsa together (the dance not the food, though in retrospect I should have stuck to eating salsa, rather than dancing salsa). We went grocery shopping and made feasts together. I even shared a room with Allan when Yonatan found a female to share with. (This was a really bad marriage- not only was I paying for him but he was actively cheating on me and sleeping with other people). It was a great 5 days and an experience like no other.
On our last night, the family plus a few new additions all piled into my room in what was an impromptu farewell party. As I looked around the room at my German, Swiss German (don’t call me German), American and Israeli friends it was hard to believe that a couple of weeks earlier we hadn’t met each other. Now we were all piled into a small room and drinking together. It was with a heavy heart and with saltwater welling in my eye, that I bade farewell to the family. They were all continuing on, for many months, whilst I had to snap back to reality and head home. I didn’t want to. Couldn’t I reclaim my youth and join them for a few more months. Sadly not.
Relationships are amplified and accelerated whilst traveling. One week in the constant company of people seems much longer. You learn more about people. You certainly have more fun- there is no stress, no work, none of the mundane routine that you have back at home. The toughest decision is often what time to have your first beer. So the question is will these relationships last? Are they real friendships? I would like to think so, but in reality they will peter out. The beauty of Facebook means there is more chance now than when I back packed .On my big trip in the good old days (there I go again) before Facebook, emails and mobiles, when the Internet was only used by computer nerds with machines the size of a small town it was a lot harder. There were promises to meet again, phone numbers and addresses exchanged (yes young readers we used to have to write letters to keep in touch! I managed to correspond with a Swiss girl I met (and fell in travel love with….again not a real relationship but 2 weeks together and I thought I found my soul mate) for 2 or 3 years before it fizzled out. Swamped by reality and a reluctance to actually physically write and post letters.
Maybe this time it’s different. But will it start with emails and dwindle down to an occasional “like” or comment before disappearing altogether. I hope not but time will tell.