What my break-up can teach you about the magic of hostels

Dumped unceremoniously.  I was alone on a train from Lisbon to Porto when my six-year relationship reached its final stop. I wished I could be underneath the wheels of the train in that moment. However, the universe gave me a helping hand, and I reached for it. Sitting in front of me there was a young German guy. I could see through the space between the seats that he was on Hostelworld’s app, looking at hostels in Porto. “I’m going to a great place in Porto called Wine Hostel. You should check it out,” I said. He nodded and swiped to their profile. He checked out their photos and prices and decided to book it.

This is a story about something totally ordinary for hostels. Millions of travelers around the world have stories just like mine. But for those that don’t frequent hostels, the tale of finding human connection demonstrates why hostels are magical and the world is a better place because of them.

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Last 24 Hours in a Foreign Land (Tokyo, Japan)

After the baths we showered. Ironically, this part of the ritual is less communal than it is in the United States. There are stalls where you sit down in front of a mirror on a little wooden stool and you shower yourself with a shower head. There’s even liquid soap, shampoo, and conditioner for you to use. Next we headed back to the locker room where we’re finally allowed to use our towels. They had everything in this locker room you could need; hair gel, razors, shaving cream, toothbrushes, hairdryers, etc. After getting cleaned up we left the locker room feeling relaxed and clean. Next we went to the foot baths; a separate area for men and women that’s actually outdoors, set in a tranquil garden setting.

The footbaths were nothing special but they did have one feature that interested me: skin eating fish! These little guys nibble away at the dead skin on your feet while you sit on the edge of a kiddie pool thats filled with hundreds of them. Although I saw them in Cambodia for only $2, I didn’t try it and I wasn’t going to miss my second chance. We paid with our barcodes and sat on the side of the pool. Bob and I were the only ones there so all the fish swarmed towards us the moment our feet entered the water. It was the most bizarre sensation I ever felt. There is nothing that I can think of which feels similar to having a hundred teeny tiny fishes nibbling at every millimeter of your feet. Bob and I busted out laughing. It was like a weird vibrating tickling sensation as the motion of these little fish moving their fins rubbed against me. I had to pull my feet out a few times at first because I couldn’t handle it but eventually I calmed myself and kept them in there, letting the fish do their thing. Soon a Japanese man came and joined us and we got to watch him writhe and giggle from the sensation. Eventually our time was up and we exited the foothbaths, our feet now silky smooth.

Having exhausted all the activities of the bath complex it was time for us to depart. We repeated the check-in process in reverse, paying for our barcode purchases with real money and returning to the now rainy streets of Tokyo. We took the subway to Roppongi, the area with the most happening night life in Tokyo. Bob was exhausted and ready to head back to the ship, but seeing as this was my only night in Tokyo I had to make the most of it. Bob and I parted ways and I walked around, exploring Roppongi. Roppongi has probably the greatest density of clubs, strip clubs, bars, and restaurants of anywhere in the world. Every building in the area was full of them on multiple levels. Most of them were accessible via elevator which was sketchy because there was no way to just pop your head into a lounge and see if it was your kind of scene. No, here’s how it works instead. On the street there are dozens of black men (not being racist; they were actually all black) trying to get your attention and befriend you so that you will come into their lounge or club. If you agree, then you must board the elevator, take the awkward ride to the top of the building and step out. Then, if you like the place you stick around (as we did with the Reggae Bar). If you have a look around and its just you, a bunch of white couches and a room full of eager strippers (possibly prostitutes), then you must make your slow, awkward retreat (as we did with one place which actually had boob or tit or some variation of the word breast, in the name of the establishment. we should have known but we went for the novelty anyway). These places are all small. I didn’t see any super clubs, but I liked it because it meant you could probably come to Roppongi for a couple of months (maybe years) and try a new place every night.

Anyways, SAS being the beautiful thing that it is, it wasn’t more than half an hour before I found some friends to hang out with in Roppongi. They were already intoxicated and were headed to the convenience store for some more cheap alcohol. They led me to another place with a lot of SASers, some of whom were staying the night in a capsule hotel down the street. I wanted a place to crash, knowing that I was staying out late tonight and not going back to the ship. Some people were going to do that and just party until the early morning, but given previous experiences of that nature, all-nighters sound really fun, right up until 3AM when you’re simply utterly exhausted and have a few more hours to go until the next day begins. Thus, I decided to check into the capsule hotel, drop off my stuff, and head back to the party.

capsule hotels are unique to Japan (as far as I know). Real Estate is expensive, space is at a premium, but people need a place to sleep. The solution is clearly do away with all the fiddle-faddle of a hotel room and keep nothing but the beds and a tiny little television. Each capsule was about the width and length of a college twin-sized bed. The height was enough for me to sit up in but obviously not stand. The capsules were in two rows  and spanned the length of a long hallway on both sides. My capsule came with a locker in the locker room so I ditched my bag and returned to the party.

back on the scene, we picked the reggae lounge and headed up there for the one hour unlimited drinks package (tequila shots and draft beer. nothing fancy). I feel bad for bartenders that work in places where it’s all-you-can-drink and there’s no culture of tipping. It adds up to a lot of work for no extra compensation, especially when it comes to college kids. For me, I treat an fixed price all you can drink special like a treat a buffet restaurant. I have as much as I care for, but I don’t over-do it. Food isn’t as satisfying if you eat so much that you feel like you need to puke. The same goes for alcohol. Unfortunately we didn’t all feel the same way. Oh well, we were in the party capital in Tokyo and this was our last night in port for the entire voyage. It was a meaningful occasion, and I’m not surprised that some people decided to go all out. For me it was one last hurrah. We club-hopped after the drink special ended, finding more SAS kids wherever we went. The rain came down but nobody cared. This was our last night together on land and we weren’t going to let a silly thing like inclement weather interfere.

Most of the night followed the same pattern that other SAS port nights did. The trends include being surrounded by your friends and people that will look out for you, even when you’re in a strange and foreign place, drinking a lot, traveling to a number of different entertainment venues in one night, listening to loud American music, and standing around outside hot and packed night clubs, enjoying the evening air and having genuine conversations with your SAS friends. To me, I only noticed a critical difference at the end of the night. It was the end of the night at the end of Japan, which was the end of our main ports. There’d be one day in Hawaii, but its only a day and its America. For all intents and purposes, the essential reason for going on a semester at sea was over. I felt overjoyed to be surrounded with all my friends, and it didn’t feel sad because we had more than a week at sea together to look forward to, classes, finals, Hawaii, etc. etc. The ending didn’t come all at once, but one of the many instruments that blended together to make the beautiful symphony that is my Semester at Sea, was finished playing.

Once I was exhausted I returned to my capsule hotel. I skyped with my dear friend Kelsey, probably the person whose absence I felt the most during the semester, and seeing her face reminded me of the good things I had to look forward to at home. After we talked I rehydrated expensively (3 evian waters in a Japanese vending machine) and passed out until 630AM. I returned to the ship and then set out again, going shopping and eating, and squeezing out the very last of my international experience, like a toothpaste tube that you refuse to throw away until there is absolutely not a single smidge left.

Agra to New Delhi

After experiencing the glory of the Taj I allowed everyone a moment to purchase sundry souvenir items. Then it was back in a rickshaw and on to the train station. We stopped at the tourist information desk and told them we wanted to go to New Delhi. He wrote down the names and numbers of two trains and we then proceeded to the women’s ticket window. Train stations in India are one of the most hectic places on earth and that is why I am grateful for these two inventions. The tourist information desk is available in every train station that tourists frequent. They speak English and know the train station and can help you out. They don’t sell the tickets, though. You must go to the ticket window for this. You could wait in line for a ticket for hours. Not only that, but cutting in line is widely acceptable in India and its all about jockeying for position. If someone’s train leaves in two minutes, they won’t hesitate to jump the line and shove their hand in the window, doing anything they can to promote their cause. Thankfully, there is a window just for women. It is, as you might imagine, far more civil. We used this window to get our New Delhi tickets. We gave the man the paper with the two trains written on it. He looked at it for a moment and then said, “New Delhi?” Yes. New Delhi. He printed out five tickets. We had a little less than an hour until the train would leave and everyone wanted to get dinner. There wasn’t a restaurant in the station so we began walking away from it. Outside the train station there were plenty of restaurants, none particularly clean or tourist friendly, but we were crunched for time and hungry, so we picked one of the cleaner looking ones and ordered food. The three of us guys had no trouble with this, seeing as we had survived the roadside restaurant we considered ourselves delhi belly immune and ready for anything. The “kitchen” was out in the open and we watched as our food was freshly prepared, then we scarfed it down in a matter of minutes and headed back towards the train station.

We found the platform for the train we were going to take. I pulled out our tickets and tried to figure out which coach we were assigned to. The tickets clearly said Agra to New Delhi, but there was no time, train number, or coach listed. A young indian man asked us if we needed help. He didn’t have an Indian accent though. We asked him for help finding where we were supposed to be and showed him our tickets. It turns out this guy is American-born and lives on Long Island, but he’s Indian and is here, staying with his uncle for a family wedding. He spoke Hindi and offered to help us. We raced back to the ticket office and tried to find out what the deal was with our tickets. They began talking in Hindi and after the conversation ran longer than a minute I realized this couldn’t be good news. As it turns out, the tickets we bought do not guarantee a seat on any particular train; they are like flying standby. We could get on a train and if there were left over seats we could take them with the conductors permission. This was not what we wanted. We needed to go to New Delhi tonight and these trains run full. We might be able to return our train tickets and buy new tickets on the train that the Long Island guy was taking to New Delhi in 45 minutes. This involved racing back to the ticket window, returning the useless tickets, and then going to a third window to fill out paperwork and get tickets on the other train. There were other Indians trying to get tickets on this other train, though. This time it was us pulling the shove-my-hand-in-the-ticket-window routine. There was shouting and hurried voices but no violence. We were at the ticket manager’s mercy. It would be his decision whether we received these last tickets on the evening train. Long Island told us to fill in the paperwork and have our money ready, exact change. There was uncertainty right up until the last minute. With ten minutes until the train arrived we received tickets for the last seats on the train. We thanked Long Island profusely. Surely without his knowledge of Hindi and how to get stuff done in India we’d either be standing up on the slow train or cramped into a taxi cab for four hours to New Delhi. Instead we had tickets on the Taj Express, a “super fast” train to New Delhi. Superfast by India standards means it only made one stop between Agra and New Delhi. There was food service on the train, which was an added luxury. Standing on the platform waiting for the train we found all the SAS kids who were in Agra on an SAS trip.

We swapped stories with our fellow voyagers and essentially our India experiences could not have been different. They spent their time being shuttled around on coach buses, staying in five-star hotels, their whole days planned out for them minute by minute. I wasn’t jealous in the least, but they too were staying in Delhi that night and returning to Kochi the next day. Their plans for the evening were simply to check into a hotel for the night. After some careful scheming we decided that we would try and spend the night with them. When we got off in New Delhi we asked Kat, the trip leader, if we could ride their bus to their hotel. Of course, as with everything else Semester at Sea related, this had to be approved by a higher-up, but after a phone call we were permitted to bum a ride. We arrived at the Royal Plaza hotel, had to put our bags through an X-ray and go through a metal detector, but then entered the most illustrious hotel lobby I have ever seen with glistening marble floors and columns, a giant chandelier and a ceiling that looked as though it were painted my Michelangelo himself. Obviously, this place was not in our budget. No matter. We had enough friends on the SAS trip that each of the five from our group could stay in a different hotel room with a different friend. Erica, my best buddy from Long Island, was sweet enough to take me in for the night. The first thing I did was shower for the first time in three days and change into my one coveted remaining pair of clean clothes. After the shower I felt reborn. The dirt, the dust, the sweat, the sunscreen, the bugspray, the funk of five indian cities covering my body and drifting down the drain, it was delightful. I looked at my white shorts that I had worn for three days and they were tinted gray. I know what youre thinking. Why did I wear white shorts? Because when you’re living out of a backpack for 72 hours you have to be functional not formal, and the zipper cargo pockets and fabric weight were ideal, I just looked a little nasty by the end. Anyways, I showered, someone ordered some pizza and we all just hung out. It was a great change of pace but I’m glad that our other nights had been much more eventful and lively. A few hours later it was time for bed. Gianna, Erica, and I pushed their two twin beds together into one kinda-big bed. I put my head on the soft clean pillow. With total darkness and nothing but the gentle sound of air-conditioning flowing into the room I’ve never fallen asleep faster.

The next morning, the stowaways met up and slipped out of the hotel undetected. This was our only day in New Delhi so we had to do it big. We hopped into a cab and headed to Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque with capacity for 25,000 worshippers. Non-muslims were allowed in after the morning prayers but they had to be shoeless and covered appropriately. I brought jeans for the occasion but Adam and Jane had to rent blankets to wrap around themselves. Giovanni didn’t particularly want to go inside so he stayed outside with all of our bags. Not going to lie, after the Ganges River and the Taj Mahal, the mosque didn’t enchant me from a religious perspective or an architectural one. Adam and I opted to spend an extra Rs 200 ($4) so that we could climb up one of the minarets for a view of all of New Delhi. We scaled a spiral staircase that led to the top of the narrow minaret. From the top you could see everything within a mile radius, but the Delhi smog prevented any chance of a broad sweeping view. From the minaret you also appreciated the mosque more, seeing how the outer wall is laid out with the three gates, noticing the detail in the dome, etc. We came back down and moved on to our next thrill. Next religion, Jainism. We stopped by the 16th century Digambara Jain Temple, which is only a few blocks from the mosque. Although it was much smaller, the temple was far more beautiful. It had many polished marble surfaces. The building was pristine. A jainist temple reminds me a little bit of a cathedral. In some cathedrals there are little stations, each one to a different saint, and you can light a candle and say a prayer. In a jainist temple, each room is for a different deity. There is a statue of the deity and jainists come and offer some uncooked rice to the deity, say a prayer or do incantations from their holy book. I was a little surprised at how “normal” the building was from the inside. Although each room had a different statue, the deities were not incorporated into the walls or the architecture. Instead, there were photos or paintings or prayers in picture frames on the wall. It was like when you go to applebees and they have all the memorabilia on the wall, except it was all jainist-themed. I also noted how busy the temple was in the middle of the day on a Friday. There were people circulating all around the world, ringing bells, praying, chanting, lighting candles. It was a hoppin’ place.

After the temple we decided to get food. Originally I figured we’d go to McDonalds again because I wanted another Indian big mac and also we were obviously pressed for time. Instead we found a “fast food” restaurant that was Indian. We stopped here and ordered more delicious and hard to describe indian food. I tried my first sweet (delicious) and salty (gross) lassis. We ordered far too much food, ate as much as we could, and then headed off for the Chandni Chowk metro station. I didn’t know exactly where it was so we decided to try one more form of Indian transportation, a bicycle rickshaw. Impressively, this man pulled four of us on his bicycle. We gave him Rs 50 and proceeded into the station. This metro was more modern than the Kolkata metro. The cars were new, clean, and all air-conditioned. There was even a ladies-only car! We rode for a few stops and got off at Connaught Place, a circle in the city centre. Coming above ground in Connaught Place was like arriving in a different city all together. It wasn’t crowded or noisy. There was no traffic. All around us were western restaurants and shops like Gucci and KFC. In the middle of the circle was a park called central park. We walked around the circle, and then I did something dumb that worked out for the best in the end!

A man approached me and introduced himself. He asked me where I was from and I told him the United States. He then showed me a little notebook, which various tourists had written in. I took a moment to read what was written, and essentially this man cleans people’s ears out. A number of people had written in his little book that he did an awesome job and was a friendly guy, so I said, sure, why not, I’ll do it! He sat me down and inserted a little metal wire into my ear. Obviously I’m not sure what he was doing in there because I couldn’t see, but just like when your nose has been stuffy and then suddenly it is clear, my ear felt suddenly clear. The air was exposed to the inside of my ear and it felt bizarre. He pulled out his little wire and showed me a wad of brown earwax about the size of a thumbnail. I was floored. That thing had been in my ear this whole time and I didn’t even know it. He did the opposite ear to the same effect, and then used his “medicine” (drops in a bottle) to break down the remaining dried wax. It felt great. He then asked me for Rs 1000. Of course at the beginning of our meeting, he said you pay what you feel like, and I certainly didn’t feel like Rs 1000. He then showed me his little book again and pointed to where the other tourists had written that they paid Rs 1000 and they were glad to have done it. Well buddy, just because other tourists are chumps doesn’t mean I am. And if I am, I’m certainly not a chump to that same degree. He explained to me that nothing is more valuable than your health, blah blah blah. He did a good job, I’ll give you that, but Rs 1000 is nearly a month’s salary to some Indians, and it had only taken him 2 minutes tops to take care of my ears. Given that he did a good job and didn’t poke me deaf with his metal wire, I gave him Rs 500 ($10) and he accepted. Oh, in the meantime another man had been cleaning my shoes. These shoes were originally white. I’ve had them for a year and a half and now they’ve been trekking all over the world. They were essentially disgusting and I planned on throwing them away once I got back to the ship. I looked down at my feet and my shoes were as white as the day I bought them. I couldn’t believe it. Again, this guy expected the tourist price but this time I paid it because his Rs 300 ($6) cleaning prevented me from tossing out a $60 pair of Adidas sneakers. I walked away with my ears feeling great and my kicks looking fresh as they day I bought them.

I don’t like to interrupt the continuity of my blog posts, but I’m going to make an exception. When I got back to the ship I was worried that maybe having a random Indian man shove a metal wire in my ear on a street corner in New Delhi wasn’t the smartest idea so I went to the ship doctor and had them take a look. They looked inside my ears and she said, “Everything looks normal. There’s no visible infection or inflammation from being poked with a metal wire… But have you been somewhere where there was sand?” No sign of the ear man but two weeks later and I still had sand in my body from sand boarding South Africa.

Back to Connaught Place. Our flight was at 2:25PM and at around 1130 Jane and Adam asked when we were going to head to the airport. We had sat around in the airport on the way out here and this was our only day in New Delhi so I wasn’t going to waste it at the airport. Fifteen minutes to get to the new subway link to the airport, which takes half an hour, and we’re taking a domestic flight, which you need to check in for an hour before departure, which meant we could stay till about 1245 and be fine. They accepted this answer. At around 1215 Jane started asking when we were going to leave, and I said soon, but then we found this place called Rodeo. It was a cowboy bar and restaurant. I wanted to go inside and check this out. A wild west bar in India. Classic. There were saddles for bar stools. I said we’d stay for one beer and then head off for the airport. Jane felt we didn’t have time for it, but I felt we did, and so did Adam and Gio, so we saddled up to the bar, literally (bahaha) and had a pint of India’s finest, Kingfisher. 10 minutes later we were out the door and airport bound. The subway link between the city and the airport is amazing. They have the arrival/departure board right there and you can even check into your flight and print your boarding pass. We didn’t check in because Sydney wasn’t with us. She had spent the day with some of the SAS kids from the hotel and was going to meet us at the airport. We boarded the train and any anxiety I had about missing the flight (minimal) was erased. Sydney wasn’t at the terminal so we assumed she had already checked in and was at the gate. We got our boarding passes and right as we walked away, I asked the ticket agent if passenger Sydney Fisher had already checked in and she said no she had not. DUN DUN DUN! Where was Sydney? Just as we began fretting, she ran into the terminal. Apparently she came to the airport with the SAS kids but they were departing from a different terminal. She then discovered that the terminals were not connected and she was a 10 minute taxi ride away with hardly any money left. She begged a rickshaw driver to take her for what few rupees she had left and he obliged (ahh the perks of being an attractive white blonde girl). She had made it just in time to check in for the flight. We found out as we boarded that it was actually overbooked and some SAS kids that had checked in too late discovered that their seats had been given away. Another epic close call by Sydney Fisher…

Oh wait, I forgot to tell you about the first one in Kolkata. When we were in Kolkata, we caught a river ferry, remember? Well, when we arrived, the ferry was just about to leave. They casted off and were floating away from the dock. I decided to run for it and ran down the dock, jumping the gap into the ferry. Jane jumped behind me. Little did I know, Sydney was not immediately behind us but rather separated by a fair distance. She sprinted down the dock and leapt into the ferry, bridging the gap by only a few inches, much to the awe of the all the Indians on the ferry. Who knows whether they were sad or happy that they almost saw a white girl wearing a backpack plunge into the river. Jane gave me an earful for it: “Why did you do that!?” but Sydney was just laughing about it and bragging to her sorority sisters on the phone the next day…