The first time I was ever in San Francisco, it was December, and I stayed in a hostel on a hill in North Beach. I think I met Ally (name changed) in the large common room, but like with most memorable friendships, the beginning is always the part I forget. She was from Australia and I’m from South Africa, so we connected over our first-ever winter Christmas and became hostel buddies; or rather, we dove into that relationship you form with another person when you’re traveling solo and you cling to each other so that you have someone to do stuff with.
We joined some hostel activities together, like the bar crawl and ice skating under the twinkling Christmas lights in Union Square. She taught me how to roll cigarettes with Top tobacco and we ate our first Mission-style burritos together. Ally was on her way to Guadalajara, Mexico, and I was returning to Los Angeles, where I was a graduate student. We ended up finding a ride down to LA with a pair of brothers who I had befriended over our shared love for the Beatles.
The four of us spent an unforgettable day driving down Highway 1, stopping to hug the giant redwoods in Santa Cruz and marveling at the unbelievable sunset in Big Sur. Though I hadn’t known Ally for long, I invited her to stay with me and we went out for Vietnamese food in downtown LA. The next day she took off in a cab for the airport, and that was the last time I ever saw or really spoke to her.
It’s been a while since I thought about Ally, but the other day when I saw a social media post by another friend I had made at a hostel, it struck me how cool it was that there were these people out in the world with whom I was able to bond in a meaningful way. And although our time together was short, those one-time friends would also always be a part of my favorite memories.
The Hostel Friendship is a phenomenon kind of like a comet: it burns bright and fast but leaves a lasting impression, without all the expectations of the permanent stars in the sky. Even though I appreciate those moments when you do get to meet someone and be in their lives forever (I met my husband at the same hostel, after all!), I think there is an underrated beauty in getting to build a strong connection with someone for a snapshot of time and then carrying on with the rest of your life.
There’s something about traveling – and especially traveling solo and staying at hostels – that makes it easier to drop all the walls that we usually have up in our daily lives. As you sit around on the couches of a common room and open up a conversation with a standard “So, where are you from?”, there seems to be no need to hide the weird, vulnerable parts of yourself that would take a while to show a new friend back at home. Here the rules of regular friendship are sped up, and because you’re getting to experience a lot of new things together with someone else, you’re more receptive to a deeper connection.
When you’re traveling and getting to see and do new things, you’re also creating a new layer of yourself; discovering as you go new things about who you are and what you think about the world. And that Hostel Friend is there experiencing, discovering, and feeling all that’s new right alongside you. When you take that new part of you wherever you are headed next, it exists forever in tandem with the piece of the other person they created as well. During those several days in San Francisco, Ally and I had the chance to make repeated memories – we had dinners and partied all night, and walked around a city we’d both never been to before – and all of this was like fast-forwarding the process for making a meaningful connection.
And the thing is, out in the real world we may never have been friends if, say, we went to the same university or lived in the same town. But it was like the things we had in common were highlighted (we were two young women traveling solo so there were foundational similarities) and there was no time to experience all the weighty things that may be placed on long-term friendships. There was no pressure to do anything, and we still got solo time when we wanted it. Ultimately, we held none of the same expectations we’d have for friends we’d known for a long time, and it made companionship easy.
The thing I find most valuable about this kind of friendship is how my memories are forever connected with those of another person. I love that when you experience something as life-changing as travel – because it does change something within you, whether big or small – there is another person embedded in that alteration. It makes the world feel a little smaller and the degrees of separation between you and the rest of humanity even less significant.
If the world is starting to embrace the importance of friendships and how they are just as significant as romantic relationships, I think it is worth acknowledging that a good friendship can also be brief, and that the length of a friendship doesn’t make it any less meaningful. When I think about those few days with Ally, I feel grateful for the warm nostalgia that comes up as I recall the early memories of a city that I have grown to love, and I feel thankful for the person who was there as a witness. The Hostel Friend is the underrated spark of a good travel experience, and though I haven’t spoken to some of mine in a while, I hope they know they’re magic.