It's amazing what you can do in the dark. When I check in at the international hostel downtown and lumber up to my room around 7 p.m., I open the door to find it already occupied and all three roommates in bed. Grunts and muffled groans let me know I'll have to make it to my top bunk by the light struggling in through a crack in the curtains. And brush my teeth, and put my valuables into the locker, and use the adjoining bathroom (no fair turning on the fluorescents in there, either). I clamber into bed and try to fall asleep to the click-click-click of my bunkmate below texting away. Intermittently, a tiny electric alarm sounds. An incoming call? A text?
In the morning I follow the sounds and smells to breakfast upstairs — a free continental spread in a capacious stainless steel kitchen and adjoining table area. Nameless but familiar music punctuates the collective stupor. Coffee, juice, bagel, napkin, plate, mug, find a seat. You will either be joining someone or will shortly be joined at a table. Talking is optional, but as the coffee takes effect, probable. My first morning I hear French, Chinese, German, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, and English with Scottish and Australian accents. Also Ohioan. Wash your dishes when you're done.
Not just for the youth
I was in San Francisco to attend a professional conference and thought it would be both thrifty and unusual to try staying in a hostel. Why pay hundreds a night when I could pay $25? I had hosteled as a college graduate all through America's eastern seaboard and into Great Britain and Europe, and I still held the stereotype that hostels were for youth, and even specifically restricted to youth.
Wrong on both counts. When I called to book and mentioned the conference, the young man said, "Oh, are you with the anthropologists?" Well, no. Literature. As it turned out, after the lit folks moved out, the economists moved in. It's a regular revolving door, since the Hilton, which hosts many conferences, is only half a block away.
If you enjoyed the communal life of college or the armed services, plus public lounges, free Internet, cool music (Interpol, 07, Chili Gonzales) — then hostelling may be for you. For $25 (one bed in a four-bed room that could be booked by an entire family) you won't get a private palace with marble countertops, a bathtub longer than you are, a phone or impossibly heavy curtains, but you can nevertheless find solitude, possible travel companions, conversation and the sense that people will share whatever they know or have discovered. The place was cleaned from top to bottom every day, and the staff seemed genuinely to care about their guests.
I stayed for more than a week, so roommate turnover was a given. Returning from the conference late one night, I find the lights on (for the first time) and a whole new set of girls lounging in their beds texting, talking, grooming, writing. We make introductions: Melanie, Helen and Karen, all staying awhile, the first two from a college in Texas, the last an Australian about to start an advanced degree in psychology in England. We manage to get lights out at 11 p.m., and I can't resist saying "Goodnight" in a twee voice, to which they responded, "G'night," as if we were the Waltons in their mountain farmhouse.
Roommate etiquette is a crucial social skill often learned in college, and it's safe to say that the clientele at hostels are largely college students and graduates, but hostels are not for youth only, nor are they necessarily outposts of the middle-class-in-training. Travelers — both the inveterate and the less so — in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond are not anomalous but integral.
The weathered Dutch gal wearing a T-shirt advertising a spot in Laos gets her coffee next to a quartet of American women of a certain age out for a 10-day jaunt in America's hilliest metropolis. Brenda, who arrived on our hall wearing a lovely cream-colored silk stole (and heels), looks as if she would be just as comfortable at the opera. Since she is just moving in and commenting on her room, I offer her a peek at ours. "Are you staff?" she asks. "No, I just live here," I said. It's sort of hard not to take ownership when you feel so at home.
More than one person over 60 mentioned "saving one's pennies" on lodging in order to spend a reasonable amount on food and entertainment. And it bears mentioning that one can stay much longer — and do much more — on a skinny lodging dime. I splurged on sushi and drinks (ANZU, half a block away) and didn't blink at paying for a tour through the city and over the Golden Gate Bridge to Muir Woods in Marin County to see the redwoods.
The hostels themselves sponsor free or cheap group activities. One day I took a walking tour which started from a sister hostel, HI-Fisherman's Wharf at Fort Mason, situated beautifully amid the park's trees and gardens on the bay facing Alcatraz. The hostel, a converted army barracks, bustled with homey activity, and before we left for our walk, I spied a family with three young children packing up their SUV. Yes, HI hostels accept children (though other organizations may not), and it is often possible to find a large private room to accommodate your party. Doubles are common, too, and though you pay more, you are still paying half the rate of a decent hotel. The mother confirmed, with a weary smile, that they regularly hostel as a family. "It's a great way to get out with everybody but feel like you still have a life."
Cause for celebration
On New Year's Eve, the lounge is busy and I'm trying to read (really, I am). An American guy is attempting a conversation with a French couple who have imported foie gras and Champagne to celebrate. I find myself translating from afar. Yes, it IS liver. He's trying to say he actually MAKES the Champagne — he doesn't market it. Finally I'm invited over ("Stop pretending to read and get over here!"). The Champagne is yeasty and light, the foie gras, salty, and in the morning, the collective wreckage is minimal. I take a few glasses to the kitchen after breakfast and wash them.
At dinner a Chinese woman, Kelly, asks to sit at my table. I ask how long she has been in the United States and the story pours out. She's attending college in Cincinnati and she has been away from China for four months. She bites into her burrito and tears start into her eyes. I think maybe it's the salsa, but it dawns on me she's unutterably homesick. She weeps openly and I give her my napkin and we talk.
The night before I'm scheduled to depart, I get two new roommates, medical students from Michigan. The lounge is occupied by suspiciously professorial types: the economists, all tapping away on their laptops, perhaps slightly surprised to see each other.
You know when the economists are staying in hostels, it's going to be a tough year.
Freelance writer Melanie Hubbard is a frequent contributor to the St. Petersburg Times.