The hostel life is both beautiful and terrifying.
Upon arriving at the Kex hostel in Reykjavik, I checked into a 16-bed mixed dorm (this is just one room-there are over 250 beds in the whole hostel), joining dozens of other weary travelers from all over the world seeking cost-friendly dwelling while on their journey. This was a new challenge as I had never stayed in a hostel without a friend, and never for this long. The hostel day-to-day has been a mix of exciting, uncomfortable, and unpredictable.
I liken it to when Nemo gets yanked from the ocean and thrown into the aquarium at a dentists office in one of my favorite Disney classics, Finding Nemo. Our favorite crippled clownfish is immediately thrust into a new and confusing environment, surrounded by strange characters from all over the world, forced to reconcile with the fact that he must figure it all out while keeping his guard up.
Nemo was lucky to have a fancy French fish who cleansed him of outside impurities and prepared him for life in his new home. I had no such recourse…and the challenges of hostel living were present from day one.
(If only I had met a well-traveled, veteran Kex resident Frenchman who showed me the way on my first night. Really would’ve rounded out the metaphor.)
Sleep is an afterthought. Whether it’s the bar crawlers stumbling home at 2am, or the early risers getting up at 4 am for an epic hike, there are very few prolonged windows of time when there are no sounds of hushed whispers, backpack zippers, snack chewing, and the like. If you are jarred awake in the middle of the night, good luck falling back to sleep over the symphony of snores, grunts, and groans. Most importantly, you are at the mercy of your bunkmate. Even though the Australian girl who slept above me on the first night was an absolute sweetheart who gave me great tips for if (when?) I visit Melbourne, I have never loathed anyone so much as I did when she got up to pee thrice throughout the night, then violently crammed her backpack together at 3:30am in lieu of her early flight, while sitting on her top bunk, sending earthquake-level tremors through our bunk apparatus.
Sanitation is always secondary. Iceland is an outdoorsman’s country. As such, people are always returning home smelling all sorts of strange, and showering is unfortunately optional. The stench of dirty clothes ekes out from within backpacks and behind lockers. The kitchen exudes the fumes of a thousand different spices and aromas emblematic of the diverse array of international travelers using its facilities. Smelly farts linger in the air like that one friend who won’t leave your house after the hangout was clearly over hours ago.
Personal safety is perhaps the crux of hostel living. By choosing a hostel as your home, you are putting all your marbles on the goodwill of complete strangers. Lockers provide a marginal sense of security for stowing valuable items. But who’s to stop someone from swiping my precious smartphone during the wee hours as it sits on my pillow waiting to buzz me awake in the early morning? Who’s to stop some demented twat from pouring out my water bottle and replacing it with poison, or worse, Brennivin?? (This is a traditional Icelandic Schnapps stylized appropriately as “Black Death”).
Putting all the above aside is no easy task. But to do so is to step into the light; to fully realize the beauty of the hostel life. This is a place for those who are lost. For those who are chasing something. For those who just cried in the bathroom because they are thousands of miles from home. For those who are home where ever they happen to be in the moment.
This place houses people from every corner of the world, from all walks of life, each at a different point in their journey as a human being, brought together by a common goal of adventure and a deep desire to understand more about the world. When you step through the doors of the hostel, you are submitting to ego death. Accepting the lifestyle requires a certain “self-surrender and transition” (a phrase coined by Joseph Campbell in the Hero’s Journey), followed by a “death and rebirth”.
This allows you to step back and see that you are not alone in your travels. You are not the only one who’s uncomfortable. You are not the only one lacking sleep or sanitation. You are not the only vulnerable one. Everyone is in this together. Moving as one, learning together, coming and going as our journey dictates, discovering the world and ourselves.
I feel as though when traveling this realization is paramount, to kill the ego and move on to “complete transcendence” (or whatever, I just read the wikipedia page to jog my memory of high school psychology).
Anyway, the point is that hostels are awesome in spite of all the pitfalls.
I suppose I came around to this realization four years ago when I first traveled Europe as a young adult. But this time around the feeling is more overwhelming, especially after some of the deeply profound conversations I’ve shared with people here so far. I’m not kidding when I say there are people here from every corner of the earth. Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, all over Scandanavia, Hong Kong and other parts of Southeast Asia, Central America, Russia, the Balkans, and everywhere in between.
One thing among many that the Kex hostel has done right is create an atmosphere that unites Icelanders and travelers. The hostel is accompanied by an in-house bar and restaurant, which is frequented by locals. Last night I drank a few beers with four friendly and happily buzzed young Icelanders. They had just got back from a day of whale hunting (I’m not kidding, they showed me the boat they used with a massive harpoon gun and everything).
Their accents were thick but their English remarkably eloquent. The conversation ranged from Icelandic and American politics, to corruption in government, to the state of the world, to lighter fare such as stand up comedians and TV shows.
They probed me endlessly on all things American, and I returned the questions accordingly. It was a lovely conversation filled with learning, laughs, and cultural exchange.
At one point I asked one of the gents where he’s from. The lad promptly dropped trou and pointed to his hometown on the closest map available.
Only in hostel land…