I was 14 years old the first time I stayed at a hostel. I was with my youth group, en-route to do service work in Maine when we stayed at HI Boston for the night. Before we got there, I remember we were all a bit skeptical - after all, we had no idea what a hostel would be like. It turned out, of course, that it was a great fit for us: I remember the long dining room tables, and the common room spaces where the adults would let us venture (alone!) and we would giggle about which boys on the trip we thought were cute.
The experience lead me to hostel in New Zealand, where I studied abroad, 6 years later. When I landed at a hostel in Christchurch, I remember meeting other American students who were also traveling solo. We made a stew for dinner that night. All I remember is throwing a little bit of every spice from the communal spice rack into the meal and then gathering around with everyone to share and indulge in our delicious creation.
When my school semester ended, I continued hostelling throughout the country. I landed in Nelson, where I worked at a hostel for three and a half months. This was where many of my most memorable college experiences took place. At this hostel I became friends with individuals from all over the world: Aili from Japan, Stefanie from Germany, Shane from Ireland, Elke from Belgium, Shayna from Colorado, and Lucila from Argentina. We would spend evenings chatting, asking things like “how do you say ‘let’s go dancing!’ in German?”, learning about where people had traveled to and where they were going next, and, my most favorite activity, cooking meals. We made everything from classic Chinese fried rice, to Canadian poutine, to Japanese sushi, to American apple pie. We celebrated ‘Half Christmas’ (25 July) by making cut-out sugar cookies, and people were convinced it was a real American holiday. In the mornings, we would scour the Free Food and Free Clothes bins for goods that fellow travelers were leaving behind.
I was incredibly homesick for New Zealand when I came back, threatening to quit school and move to Costa Rica to open a hostel of my own. I stayed in touch with my friends from the New Zealand hostels, writing letters to Aili from Japan on a weekly basis. Little did I know that Aili from Japan would come and visit me in the United States three years later when I got back from the Peace Corps. She had never been to the States, and there she was, visiting small-town Maryland, teaching my parents how to make sushi, and sharing our New Zealand stories.
After getting back from the Peace Corps, I immediately signed up to be a dinner night volunteer at HI Washington D.C. Facilitating conversation between individuals from different countries is one of my favorite things. At a hostel, guests talk about culture, stereotypes, and generalizations, breaking down barriers through meaningful conversation. Individuals begin to realize that just because they live thousands of miles apart, it doesn’t mean they don’t have anything in common. An individual can learn to laugh when fumbling to eat with chopsticks for the first time instead of never even trying. Hostels provoke curiosity to learn more about another country and understand how others live.
Today, I work as the group sales manager for HI USA in Southern California, and I continue to hostel myself because I want to continue challenging what I know about other cultures. Whenever I get a chance to interact with a guest, I try to guess where he or she is from before asking outright. I feel most comfortable surrounded by individuals who don’t look like me, speak like me, or dress like me. It helps me breathe and get outside of myself. Understanding that the way I do things is not necessarily the only or best way puts things in perspective. The world is a big place.
HI USA hostels are starting points for these conversations to happen. I appreciate that guests can learn to respect each other’s cultures while interacting in our spaces, whether it be while eating breakfast in the dining room or while playing a board game in the media lounge. In my role with HI USA now, I hope that window of curiosity cracks open to the students who stay with us. That they may meet someone from Argentina who encourages them to visit or helps them understand local farming methods. Maybe then the window swings open and they go to school for international studies or environmental science with a minor in Spanish. Maybe their stay at one of our hostels encourages them to be the change they wish to see in the world.
That is why I hostel.