Good Nights at Hostels

January 8, 2013

hostel dorm

I don’t know how many different kinds of budget accommodation I’ve seen in my travels. Jjimjilbang in South Korea, where one can enjoy a hot soak and set out floor mats when it’s time to crash. Capsule hotels in Japan. Practically any hotel in Thailand. Couchsurfing. Each country and culture offers their own method for backpackers (and occasionally those down on their luck) to find places to sleep.

One universal ideas has been hostels. Before 2004, it had never occurred to me to stay any place besides a hotel if I was away from home. As far as I was concerned, hostels were for European backpackers, and somewhat sketchy. Nevertheless, I tried one in Anchorage while waiting for my morning shuttle to the Kenai Peninsula. Nothing remarkable. In fact, it wasn’t your typical hostel, as I had a private room and didn’t see too many others around… maybe they could have stopped me from nearly slicing my face off that morning with a dull razor… ahhh, memories.

Anyway, I first learned of just how widespread Hosteling International was during my stay in Japan, when I did a weekend trip cycling from Kagoshima to the southernmost point on the main islands, Cape Sata. Imagine my surprise when searching for places to stay in the middle of nowhere to find an official youth hostel, and next door to a hot spring no less. Since that time, I’ve made it a practice to at least visit hostels in countries I’m exploring.

My nomination for the best, most friendly, most activities oriented, and cleanest is definitely Boston’s new downtown location. The place is completely new, the kitchen is modern and designed for dozens of guests, there are games, free computers… but most importantly (in my opinion), each dorm is designed to put the traveler at ease: TWO individual outlets at the base of each bed (no cords going across the room); individual lights not bright enough to annoy other guests; and lockers (quietly opening) within reach of one’s bunk. Love it.

In San Francisco, I typically stay at the downtown hostel during my transition periods between landing and finding temporary housing. I don’t know anything about the one in the city center or on Fisherman’s Wharf, but based purely on their locations, I wouldn’t want to stay in the middle of the Tenderloin or surrounded by heaps of tourists, respectively.

By and large, I don’t have any hostel horror stories. I haven’t had anything stolen while I slept. I HAVE been woken up at 3 AM by drunk idiots at XBase Auckland, but at least they didn’t kick me or try to pull me out of my bunk. On the plus side, I did bribe the staff with triple chocolate chip cookies to give me a private room after they had had a stressful morning.

In SF downtown, the staff are friendly, there are good places to relax, and everything is reasonably quiet and orderly… depending on the guests. There is only one electrical outlet for each 4-6 person dorm, something they might want to address before rioting begins, and the lockers are metallic and noisy for opening in the wee hours, but other than that, it’s a nice place to stay.

Better than nice, when I have had two of my best ever hostel nights at the same location, months apart. Different seasons, different guests, same great experience. And I suppose it all started months before that, when I saw a request on SF Craigslist for travel story tellers looking to perform at something called a “Travel Tavern”: drinks, games, and performances. This season, it was the best of stories from the road.

I hadn’t been staying at the hostel at the time, but this experience put me in touch with the events coordinator, and made me aware of just how entertaining HI’s events could be. So when I happened to be visiting in early November and saw another Travel Tavern was going to be performed during my stay, I threw off my jet lag and mental fatigue at not having been able to find a job, and gathered in the lobby to await a ride to the Mission District. One benefit of being a guest rather than a performer (albeit a paid one) was the camaraderie of my fellow hostel-goers. No one had been to one of these before, and it was the perfect conversation starter. Most of us were about the same age, with the exception of the crazy talkative 50-something lady. When the bus intended to take us directly to our destination broke down, the front desk provided a taxi ride free of charge.

I don’t know what it is about being well dressed with somewhere to go, whether it be a job, a night out, a date, even just catching a plane, but it provides me with a sense of purpose, a security blanket, saying to the rest of the world: “I don’t know what you’re up to, but as for me, I’ve got places to go, people to see, and things to do.” Now if I could just look dignified saying those things while eating a cupcake…

The cover to the Travel Tavern was free for HI guests, which included two free drink tickets and a chance to spin the wheel for a free vacation stay at hostels around California. I tried in March when I was the performer, only to receive a button. This time, however, no sooner had my hand released the wheel that I was informed I won a stay on the coast for two nights. Not only that, but the next three people cleaned out the inventory of hostel stays, by all landing on different locations. It was so surreal, yet gave us something to celebrate and talk about over our first free drink.

The evening had just begun, with a travel-themed improv night. Drink tickets going to audience members with the best suggestions. I finished two glasses of red wine and was just about to wrap up the evening when the announcer said everyone got another free drink. And pizza. I regaled three beautiful women (in fairness, haven’t spoken to them since) with travel tales, and returned to the hostel safe and sound by midnight.

When you consider bad hostel stories – the flatmate who wakes you up at 5 AM preparing to check out, the mysterious theft of your food from the common fridge – just remember what it does provide: the ultimate social glue for travelers. Not to mention the occasional free drinks and entertainment.

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