Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Zen and the Art of Hostelling

If you’re ever feeling bored or uninspired, as if you are measuring out your life “with coffee spoons,” as T.S. Eliot wrote, go stay in a hostel. I guarantee that it will snap you out of your routine. You can never predict what you will experience and whom you will meet. If you ever begin to feel that one day looks just like the next, hostelling will remind you of the variety of surprises that 24 hours can hold.

During my travels in Europe and Latin America, I stayed in dozens of hostels and took from each at least one noteworthy observation or story. There was the hostel in Budapest, Hungary, where you not only needed to bring your own bedding into the dorms, but also your own toilet paper into the bathroom (woe to the traveler who was not forewarned). In Paris, my hostel window overlooked a cobblestone courtyard filled with café tables, fragrant flowers, and a vagrant “entertaining” himself in the shadows. In Antigua, Guatemala, I stayed at a hostel that was home to a few friendly resident cats. I noticed a sign on the hostel door that said, "Please close the door at night. The cats are not allowed upstairs at night. Neighbors kill cat. Please help us keep the cats alive." Apparently the crazy neighbor lady didn't like the cats and had fed poisoned ham to one of them. As you can imagine, having this kind of element next door made me wary of going upstairs at night myself.

Over the holidays, I felt in need of a little inspiration and decided to try out the American version of the hostel, opting for one at Point Montara, north of Half Moon Bay. I had conceived the trip as a “reading retreat” and had brought dozens of books with me, intending to do little but read for several days straight. The hostel had a large common room furnished with couches and armchairs, a perfect makeshift library. I stacked an armload of books on the end table, swaddled myself in a comforter, and settled in next to the fireplace to read.

I found it difficult to concentrate, as the enormous dragon in the corner of the room made me uneasy. Suspended from the ceiling, as if from a great leash, was a massive, multicolored papier mache beast. Its red eyes gleamed, its striped tail curled maliciously, and it seemed to gnash its long white teeth. What it was doing in the sitting room of a hostel I could not imagine.

The dragon reminded me of an exhibit that was housed in the Santa Clara University reading room during my senior year of college. Displays around the perimeter of the room showcased the belongings of an Arctic explorer. One of these belongings was the explorer’s pet dog. A taxidermist had set this dog into a perpetually courageous pose within its glass case, its head cocked toward the sky. I found the dog grotesque and wondered what had possessed someone to put it alongside the study carrels. Perhaps an inventive university employee had thought of the dog as an inspiring presence, like a mascot, to the students who were cramming for biology midterms. On the contrary, the dog had consistently distracted me from my studies. It had prompted me to glance up from my reading every few minutes to wonder why on earth it was there, just as the dragon in the hostel reading room was doing now.

I later overheard the hostel manager explaining the dragon to a visitor. “It was part of our Halloween carnival,” he said. “A local hardware store sold me all of the materials at cost. These eyes even light up—the kids loved it. We decided to leave it here permanently, because every lighthouse needs a dragon.”

“Yeah,” I thought grouchily from my reading corner, “like a fish needs a bicycle.”

I had originally intended my reading retreat to be silent, but that’s simply impossible in a hostel, which is always full of characters ready to chat. The first two I encountered were middle-aged women wearing curious outfits: white bonnets, ankle-length homemade dresses in dowdy prints with aprons and “capes” (think Little Bo Peep, not Superman). I asked one about her background, and she said that she and her friend were German Baptists, who were similar to Mennonites, who are similar to the Amish. The two women turned out to have normal jobs (one was a caretaker for the elderly) and were allowed to use modern technology like cars and computers. I was more than a little disappointed that they couldn’t tell me about buggies or barn-raising or sowing their wild oats.

During the rest of my stay, I met a cast of other colorful characters, including:

· A cameraman for Hollywood movies, including the Spiderman series. He was telling a woman that during filming, he often chatted with Tobey McGuire about basketball. The woman said, “I’ve heard that you’re not supposed to talk with the actors between takes.” The cameraman replied, “Well, it’s not like he’s playing Patton—he’s Spiderman, for God’s sake.” Touché.

· A guy in his 40s who asked if I’d made my chicken korma yourself (Yes). “It smells just like my favorite Thai curry. You’re not married, are you?” (No.) “Well, you’ll make some man very happy someday.” (Thanks?)

· Three Spanish women who stayed in my dorm room one night. I have lived in Spain twice and love the country dearly, so my heart leapt at the sound of the vosotros verb tense, which is exclusive to Spain. “De donde sois?,” I asked (“Where are you guys from?”). One of the women had lived in “Sahn Frahn-thee-sco” for 10 years, and the other two were visiting from San Sebastian. They weren’t nearly as interested in talking to me as I was to them, so I sadly left them en paz.

· A girl named Anna, who was a 4th grader from Denver, as her mom told me in a brief kitchen conversation. As I ate my quinoa with vegetables, Anna stared at me intently from across the table. This made me uncomfortable enough to wolf down my carefully prepared meal, in order to escape her penetrating gaze. After dinner, I retired to the common living room to read and journal, which inspired Anna to deliver a play-by-play of my every movement.

Anna: She’s reading Eat, Pray, Love.

Anna’s dad: I’m sure they named it that because all the verbs have one syllable. (Anna’s dad was a literary genius.)

Anna’s mom: I read the first part of that book. It’s about a woman who goes to Italy, then India, then Indonesia, I think.

Indian woman in the kitchen: I heard an interview with the author on NPR, and it sounds interesting…

It’s not only distracting when people are conversing about you as if you’re not there, but unnerving as well. Was I supposed to look up and smile? Join in the conversation about me? I pretended that I was too absorbed in my book to hear. As I actually couldn’t concentrate, I pulled out another book with writing exercises, looking for an activity to focus my attention.

Anna: She’s reading two books at once.

Anna’s mom: Well, sometimes you need a few options. I brought three books on this trip.

I tried to ignore them and began journaling.

Anna: Now she’s writing.

I visualized Anna narrating, “She’s standing up. She’s walking toward me and raising her palm. She’s smacking me upside the head repeatedly.” Instead of indulging my fantasy, I gathered my belongings and left the room.

At first I was annoyed at the constant distractions and interruptions in the hostel. I had intended to do some serious reading during my retreat, not endure the stares of a monstrous dragon, or a 4th grade stalker in need of some manners (and a hobby). With time, however, I began to appreciate the element of surprise that each day, and each moment, would bring. One evening I would be cooking alongside a man who just returned from six months researching pathogens in Peru; the next I would be bunking with a Dutch woman on holiday from her work with incarcerated youth. I never knew if my plan at any given time—whether to read, or shower, or use the stove—would be thwarted by one of my fellow travelers and became more flexible. Most importantly, my stay in the hostel reminded me of how many fascinating characters and experiences I can have in a day if I open myself to them.

I’m telling you, if you need a departure from your routine and a dose of surprise, go for a stay in a hostel. It will give you something to write home about.

Flickr Creative Commons image of Point Montara hostel courtesy of gordon_landon.


Colette said...


I strongly connect with your "writer's block" entry and perhaps I should have posted this comment there but I didn't. I, too, look for and lust after a couple of minutes, and a quiet space (in my head?) to read and write. (The perfectionist and "did I peak at age 17?" stuff rang true as well, but I won't get into that). Thanks for the great story about hosteling. You made my iron "it's only Tuesday?!?" frown malleable in the best way. Maybe this is impetus to you as a writer, maybe it isn't, but in case it is: I am reading.


Keane said...

Wonderful post. I feel somewhat insignificant with my one minor trip. :) But in a good way...