These words are coming to you live from Stay on Main, a boutique hostel for the discerning traveller to Downtown LA. They use words like ‘hip’ and ‘vibe’ on their website, and the photos are of light filled rooms painted in primary colours. I totally fell for that. However, room 1216 (where I have spent the last 14 hours not sleeping) with its stuck open window and lumpy shower floor, was sporting a design aesthetic that could be described as ‘three day old porridge’.
I suspect hostels around the world all smell the same: a heady mix of floor cleaner, stale coffee, and unwashed hair. By my calculations, I’ve spent close to a hundred nights in hostels over the years. I remember the one in Istanbul, travelling on my own for the first time. I closed the door to my room and burst into tears. And the one in Tallinn, that was so unassuming it took us an hour to find it. Down a cobbled alley, we finally discovered the stairs leading to the most insane lobby at least three stories high, with a massive crystal chandelier and marble everywhere.
I remember the one in Florence - my only proper backpacking experience - I rocked up with eight weeks of precisely no plans. On the first night I met a load of fellow travellers shyly chatting in the communal lounge, I suggested a game of Scrabble and didn’t look back.
If you are wondering what its like to travel, go. And stay in hostels. You’ll meet adventurers. You’ll get foot fungus from the communal showers. You’ll find yourself falling in love with freedom, you’ll talk about everything and nothing and you will form friendships that feel so fucking integral to who you are becoming.
You’ll see cities from the perspective of your eight new best friends and they will infuriate you when no one can make a decision about what to do next but you won’t care – you just want to soak them all in. You’ll judge your old friends for being sensible and fast tracking it to adulthood. You’ll worry about going home because you can feel yourself transmogrifying a little more each day. You’ll feel lonely. You’ll realise that there is a condom vending machine in every hostel for good reason – you never have to be alone.
Of everyone you meet, you’ll stay in touch with precisely 2% of them. It won’t matter.
You’ll learn how to navigate complicated transport systems in languages you don’t speak. You’ll get braver, seeking out locals to show you where the hidden treasures are. You’ll find yourself playing cards until 3am in an underground Estonian bar with several German backpackers, communicating largely by sign language because the music is too loud.
You’ll laugh so hard. And you’ll miss home and you’ll buy postcards and be baffled at the size of the space left to describe where you are – this magical place that smells like nowhere on earth but here, with architecture brings tears to your eyes. You’ll try to capture it – with words and pictures. Please do write it down.
Be uncensored in all of it.
Years later you might find yourself in a hostel, watching a group of new best friends laughing over last night’s adventures. There will be something in the easy way they have with each other – no boundaries, no small talk – diving from politics to how shit the coffee is to what Tim did, in a nanosecond.
You’ll remember what it is to be young and free and high on life. It will feel so familiar – so expansive and full of possibility – a little of that energy will rub off on you.
And if you’ll feel so fucking grateful that a hundred years ago, you bought the ticket.