(Yasmina Martin)–As I was checking into my Madrid hostel this past Friday morning, I scanned the room, marveling at all the travelers chatting over the breakfast of Nutella, bread, coffee, and granola. After getting my key, I lugged my backpack up to my 4th floor room and kind-of loudly entered the dorm, only to be greeted by the snores of 3 people taking afternoon naps. One guy in the top bunk closest to the door woke up as I stumbled in, and semi-glared at me. I made an apologetic face and tried to stuff my backpack in the locker as quickly and quietly as possible, then snuck out of the dorm room to go buy some churros.
Oh, the hostel life.
I spent four days in Madrid, one with a friend studying in Spain, and the rest exploring on my own and with my new hostel-mates. I tagged along on the free walking tour, explored the Prado and Reina Sofia museums and bought too many churros. Most of my interactions at the hostel started with: “Where are you from?” Then, “How long are you in Madrid? Where else have you been?”After, if I was lucky, I’d get their names and promptly forget them. It’s much easier to remember people by their home countries rather than their actual names, I find.
I met backpackers and students from Australia, the U.K, the U.S, South Africa and Ireland. One of the Australians had been on a 2 month road trip in the U.S, where he jammed with a band in Nashville, got mugged in Chicago, had the best hot dog ever in Memphis, saw a jazz concert in New Orleans and explored the national parks of California. He had seen much more of the U.S than I had. I also had a spontaneous 1 A.M conversation with a South African who had went to middle and high school under apartheid, had run marathons in Tokyo and Chicago, and was now a trout fisherman in Scotland. Over the simple breakfast of cereal and toast, I met a German who was backpacking around Spain and an Australian who never traveled without some Vegemite for her toast.
Among the tourists and wanderers, I met backpackers who were traveling alone for two to three months. One guy wasn’t even sure if he had a hostel booked at his next destination (Lisbon), but he was planning on living there for three months or so, renting an apartment and just seeing where life took him. These traveler’s independence and resilience amazed me, and I almost wished I could drop everything and jet off for South America or so Southeast Asia for a few months, re-wearing the same 4 outfits and dining on cheap food. At times I feel as if my life is boring in relation to those of the travelers I meet, but then I remember how much more of my life I have yet to live, and all the places I have yet to see and experience.
The relationships formed at hostels are always interesting and short-lived. Depending on where you stay, it’s usually easy to meet a group of people if you’re traveling alone. Most of the time you end up hanging out with people you barely know, people whose only connection with you is their place of accommodation. That Saturday night I found myself in an Irish pub near Plaza del Sol with a group of Americans and Australians. Before they left, we exchanged e-mail addresses and our Facebook pages, knowing that this was the end of yet another brief hostel encounter, and content with the fact that our paths might never cross again. Despite it all, we were glad to have had our few days together.
I suppose my primary reason for staying in the hostel is the price—it’s hard to find accommodation for less than 20 Euros in a European city like Madrid—but I also love the experience of being around so many different people on different stages of their journeys. There’s something exciting about not knowing who you’ll be sharing your 8-bed dorm room with: will they be Italians? A family of Brazilians? Or maybe some backpackers from Colorado? And while you may encounter some unsavory characters, more often than not hostels are (mostly) safe spaces filled with young travelers who prefer to cook their own meals and save a few bucks. While being surrounded with loud snorers doesn’t really make for an ideal night, learning about the Australian education system or Japanese temples over a home-made dinner of pasta and veggies can make up for that. I can’t really call my hostel-mates “friends”, yet they’re not exactly strangers either; these short-lived connections fall into a different category of relationships defined by my travels.
Hostelworld.com is an incredibly valuable resource to avoid any awkward and/or sketchy experiences. Always, always read the reviews.