Those who know budget travel know hostels: multi-lingual staff members, sharpie-stained world maps, free “breakfasts” consisting of stale bagels and brown bananas, and flip-flops slapping across wet communal bathroom floors.
We know the awkwardness of the first hour of a games night and the spirited conviviality of its last hour when everyone slumps back to their rooms. Tipsy and tired, they twist their tongues around some new phrases they’ve learnt in Dutch or Turkish or whatever language their beer pong partner was native in.
And we know the feeling of apprehension that makes its entrance the moment we’re about to make ours through the door of our dorm.
When it comes to hostel rooms, you just never know what you’re in for. Your dorm destiny is about as uncertain as the outcome of a Justin Bieber concert at any point after 2015 – will he refuse to appear on stage? Cry? Yell at the crowd when they fail to clap in time to the music he’s lip-syncing to?
Who knows, who knows…
Anything can happen. You could open the door to find a temporary new bestie who has adorable packing cubes and Croatian candies ready for you to sample. Or you could find three empty beds surrounding yours that never end up getting filled (“Lonely” by Akon plays in my heart☹). Or maybe a woman who is clearly pushing the 14-day maximum stay limit with 15 tote bags full of shoes, books and hair products shoved between doors and under beds, or a couple of crazy Californians you warm up to at first but grow to resent when they burst into the room at 4am, turn on the lights and scream “DJ SNAKE WAS HERE!” (This did happen to me. There is no context to provide.)
The good, the bad, the stinky…
I’m grateful for and willing to endure it all. Because nothing defines a hostel experience better than the magic of making fast friends. One of the best things about travel is the speed at which your circumstances allow you to form meaningful connections with total strangers.
So much of navigating social relationships outside of travel can be laced with anxiety and practical constraints: finding somewhere to meet people, coming up with a conversation starter, deciding what you might have in common with someone you can’t find any similarities with apart from the fact that they’re also wearing shoes.
This is all just too much energy.
Communal travel situations, like living in hostel dorms, remove these constraints. It’s like they’re a claw machine, dragging you out of your comfortable little box and chucking you into the abyss, only you just happen to land among like-minded people, or at least those in a similar situation to your own. No need for mortifying icebreaker activities – the ice is already broken.
I have a recent example to recount of a bond formed at bullet-speed. It’s a pretty warm and fuzzy story, so if you don’t like cheese, close this tab and never ask to visit me in France.
A couple of months ago, I had just landed in San Francisco after a 5-hour flight from Chicago, during which the airline’s entire entertainment system had failed… they had one job! I had really been looking forward to crying to Pixar movies/ seeing myself on screen at 42 Wallaby Way, so I’d been clenching my fists like the Arthur meme for five hours straight.
I needed my first day in SF to be a good one.
When I finally burst red-faced and sweaty into the room I would be sharing for the next three days, there were two bunk beds, and a woman was sitting on the bottom of one. I chose the bed across from her.
“Hi,” I said.
My bottom bunk neighbour smiled and responded, “Hello.”
My ears pricked up. Just one word uttered and already I suspected what I hope to be true in every dorm I enter: my roommate was French. Bless those beautiful thick accents. I didn’t want to scare the poor woman by yelling “T’ES FRANÇAISE?” and proceeding to word-vomit about how much I loved saucisson! So instead, I simply asked “where are you from?” and pretended to be surprised when she answered.
30 minutes later, we were 30 minutes deep into a conversation in French about “deep” things like quitting jobs to travel, differences between French and Australian culture, the words “beauf” and “bogan” and whether they meant the same thing.
I hadn’t even unpacked my suitcase. Already, we were making plans to attend a baseball game that evening, since her knowledge of baseball was non-existent and mine was limited to what I’d learned from the “I Don’t Dance” number in High School Musical 2 (aka also non-existent.)
My new mate went off to do some exploring; I stayed to unpack and nap.
About half an hour later, I heard the door click and smiled as another person entered. We said our hellos and introduced ourselves, which is often where the hostel roomie relationship starts and ends. You don’t have to make friends with everyone you’re sleeping near, after all – respect and politeness can be enough. But we kept talking, and I found myself increasingly baffled. Surely not, I thought. Another one? So soon? This person and I were clicking. Just like my new French copine and I had mere minutes before.
What kind of magic match-making hostel was this? This time my new friend was German, and this time she was the one who didn’t have a chance to unpack her things before we were organising how to get to the baseball game she was now invited to. She was only staying for a night on a flying stopover and had planned to spend it sleeping, but clearly, the friendship gods had other plans.
I’m not going to recount the whole evening because this isn’t Les Mis, but I did end up going to the “ball game,” as they say (do they?) with both of my hostel roommates. We ate overpriced hotdogs that were much smaller than the ones in the movies and didn’t understand anything about the game, so mostly we chatted for 3+ hours. We did some more chatting on the slow walk back to the hostel, then in the supermarket, while we shopped for late-night snacks, then in the common room while we ate these snacks. Then the following morning when we ate breakfast together, feeling like a proper girl gang and revelling in the fact that everyone we introduced ourselves to in the shared kitchen thought we were a group of friends travelling together.
It was clear that we’d found a special little bond.
When Miss German (I promise I know their names, just withholding their privacy so they don’t get papped in public for being a part of P. Sherman’s inner circle) checked out a few minutes later, we were all sad to say goodbye. We remarked at how crazy it was that we’d known each other for literally a few hours, but felt like we’d been friends for weeks, months. I received a text from her the following day, saying she wished she were still with us, and when I read it I felt like I’d received a message from a childhood friend or someone very close.
I spent the next day cycling over the Golden Gate Bridge, exploring Sausalito with my French bottom bunk neighbour, completely at ease. We had burritos and ice creams, stretched out on the grass by the water, and disassociated separately and in our own ways when we had to wait in the ferry line for an hour and a half. I remember being on the windy top deck of the boat on the journey back to the city, too lazy and tired from the bike ride to stand up and take photos like my new friend had gone off to do, and seeing her re-emerge at the top of the stairs to join me. I recognised her with such familiarity and immediacy, I had to remind myself we had been strangers only yesterday. This person was five years older than me, from a different country, culture, mother tongue, but we were assigned the same dorm in our hostel, and that’s all that mattered.
We sang corny French pop songs as the wind battered our hair, and I was – as we say in Australia (and New Zealand; I don’t want another Pavlova fight) – happy as Larry.
Before this story comes to an end, I’ve got a crazy cherry to place on top. Last week, I received a message from the lovely German character in this story, who was holidaying in Hawaii at the time.
“Guess who I bumped into in the supermarket?” she had written.
The photo attached was of her and our French roomie.
I mean… If I had a glass in my hand right now (give me a few hours, I’m in Paris after all), I’d make a toast: to fast friendships. The ones we make in hostels, on planes, buses, boats, you name it. On that one pub crawl night or that one walking tour, in the park or the club, maybe even at a baseball game.
Genuine connections can be formed between people extremely quickly (just ask Ariana Grande and her new fiancé) – if they’re the right people for you, and this occurs perhaps especially when we travel.
There is nothing to lose, no expectations… all there is to do is say “hi.”
Meet Alyssa: I’m a young Australian woman from P. Sherman 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney. Before you ask, yes – I do love Vegemite and yes – growing up I did ride kangaroos to school*. I’m about to move to France for a year; you can follow along with how many baguettes I eat here.
If you’d like to contribute, submit your post idea to firstname.lastname@example.org