The Virtues of Hostels

After a long day at the Basketball Without Borders showcase and a gutwrenching afternoon visit with UNICEF to the Diodi primary school in the Soweto district of Johannesburg, I stumbled back through the double gate in the high wall of the Ghandi Backpacker Hostel at about 10:30.




As I walked through the bar to the back of the property, I ran into Heinz, the Swiss-German proprietor and Bob, a 60 year old American gemologist from right down the road in Louisville as they tried to solve the world’s problems over glasses of bourbon and rum.

I introduced myself to Bob, and asked Heinz about booking a safari to the Kruger National Game Preserve. As I sat debating options for lodge, treehouse or tent for the safari, a conversation ranging from history to diamonds to high school basketball broke out.

They also informed me that this hostel is so named because Gandhi actually lived here for nearly 2 years during his formative time in South Africa. Right here in these very walls, a man synonymous with the non-violent movement against imperialism and racism formed the thoughts that would someday change the course of the world’s second most populous nation.

I’m pretty decent with words, but I’m not sure we’ve invented one in English to describe the feeling of accidentally harmonizing with a hitherto unknown history.

I bet the Germans have a word for that. And I bet it is 45 letters long and impossibly to say without sounding incredibly angry. (Fabio/Marlene, please advise.)

Soon it was 1:30AM and I was totally knackered, my mind spinning from the wide-ranging conversation of the evening.

I did have one cohesive thought as I drifted off to the Land of Nod.

Of all the inventions of man to create a more perfect harmony between the people of different nations, my vote for the greatest is the hostel.

It is a melting pot renewed daily. The hostel system does more to break down the walls of preconception and mistrust than everything the United Nations has done in the past 60+ years.

It’ll throw a girl from Holland in with a pair of German cousins with the three Scottish girls with the solo traveler from Argentina and a couple Canadians to boot. There is usually a Gallic womanizer darting in and out between rendezvous as well, but only one person will actually see the man that the others think is a ghost.

Over the course of the next 2-3 days, they’ll each be swapped out for new faces but not before heading to this beach or that historical site. They’ll share sunscreen and contact solution, epiphanies and viewpoints, and maybe if they are lucky, some morsel from their faraway homelands if travels are still in the early stages.

There will be stories swapped about the university system in 5 different countries. Travel tips will be offered, swapped and accepted. You’ll share meals, and in the occasional hostel with a full kitchen, there will be the hastily thrown together potluck dinner with 5 different cuisines represented. Politics will be debated, almost always lightheartedly, unless an inebriated English girl decides that she wants to try her hand at “American-style political shouting.”

There will be a little language diffusion as well, usually in the form of profanity and toasting words.

For a few days, they’ll be a pretty highly functioning family, complete with a black sheep who has been given some funny nickname like “Klaus the Angry Kraut.” A few will realize that they are headed down the same direction and a traveling partnership will be formed.

Unfortunately for others, there will be that bittersweet morning of hungover packing, as someone is heading down the road in a different direction than the others. Facebook info will be swapped and pictures from the road will be liked. We may or may not ever see each other again, but occasionally you’ll be walking through a night market in Kuala Lumpur and there will be a long lost Argentinean girl standing there just like a storybook day dream.

Then we all go home, (well, almost all of us, some seem to travel indefinitely, lucky bastards.)

We’ll read the news on the way to work, and we’ll see that something has happened in some faraway corner of the world. A debt default in Argentina, an avalanche in German Switzerland, an earthquake in Ecuador or a new round of bellicose threats from North Korea to its much taller and better looking southern brother.

We’ll jump on the Facebook machine and check-in with our friends from that remote hostel in Laos or Cambodia or Spain. We’ll ask how they are, and get a real on the ground perspective as opposed to the processed, sound byte ready narrative we find in our media.

We’ll know how violent the protests actually got in Athens or what the Dutch actually think happened to that downed airliner. All the sudden, the world gets a little smaller, and the interests and narratives of a for-profit media get short-circuited by the brief rekindling of a 3 day friendship.

Hostels become laboratories for great ideas and deep conversations. There is no pretension, no need for political correctness, just people talking truthfully about the widest range of subjects you could possibly imagine.

The only even remotely comparable thing I can compare it to in standard American living, is the freshman year dorm floor in college. This is a substandard comparison though, because most of those kids will be from within 200 miles of a place and nearly all will be American. To any parent whose child has come back for Thanksgiving after that first big stint away, the changes in personality and temperament are usually incredible.

Imagine that process replayed with a more diverse cast of characters and situations…every 3 days for as long as someone is traveling.

The opportunities for growth are endless. So too is the constant bombardment on those engrained beliefs that we had held as sacrosanct “truths.”

I hope that my generation sees fit to elect foreign policy representatives who are alumni of this non-exclusive club. Don’t tell me how many years you studied Mandarin and Spanish in some Ivy League ivory tower. Tell me about your 15 year correspondence with the Chinese lawyer you met in Malaysia, or the Christmas cards you get annually from the Argentinean girls you met in your 20s.

Just like the politicians who have totally forgotten what “home” looks like, as they stare across the Potomac from their tony Georgetown condos, these highly educated frauds only know about a politically correct status quo. People interacting with people give rise to real breakthroughs in foreign policy, not blank faced bureaucrats sticking rigidly to a status quo.

It is an awful lot harder to look “objectively” at a number on a page in the “Expected Collateral Damage” column when the face of the Iranian on the top bunk floats to the front of your mind.

All this can be had for a night on a lumpy dorm bed and $5 to $25 a night. I guess you do have to have a smile on your face and a few requisite social skills as well.

Seems a pittance all things considered.

Forget the 5 star hotel. There’s proper traveling to be done.



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