Backpacker hostels might be cheap, but there’s so much more to love about them | Lamorna Ash

SA few years ago, at the Naughty Squirrel backpacker hostel in Riga (twice winner of the best hostel in Eastern Europe at the Hoscars), I met a small brunette woman in her thirties . She lay on a bottom bunk, her pregnant belly heaving like a child’s drawing of the sun dipping into the sea. We attended concerts and free tours together and hung out in bars with Australians. I asked what she was doing here, why she had come now. She said she was afraid having a child would erode her personal identity. She was determined to live all the life she could before that happened. After we parted ways, she texted me asking for all the pictures I had from those few days. I imagined her holding a baby in her arms who was moaning and seizing as she scrolled through images of this now lost version of herself: warm and rosy, carefree and alone.

When I was younger, I made an equivalent wish with my future self. Traveling alone (UK, Europe, wherever I could afford) at least once a year as long as I was able. It was a way to protect myself against what I feared becoming: sedentary, impervious, inflexible. Like everyone else, I lost a few years. But I’m back to it now. An unspoken clause in my promise was about where I would stay. It wouldn’t count if I took cover behind the card door of a hotel room. Inns or nothing: that was the deal.

John O’Donohue, the philosopher-poet-priest, believed that there is a vital tension in the human heart between desire and belonging. To live well, each person needs some form of shelter, a place where they feel at home. But to belong without desiring or yearning for another life would be tantamount to a pale and empty existence. I read O’Donohue’s book Eternal Echoes: Exploring Our Hunger to Belong in spurts from the top bunk of a triple bunk bed in a brightly lit hostel in Galway, my sleep interrupted by the snoring of a man passed out in his jeans two beds under me. I remember how obviously true O’Donohue’s words were. The temporary communities that spring up in hostels expose the human tension between desire and belonging like nowhere else. They are the embodiment of desire, our incessant need for new experiences. And yet there is also a kind of fragmentary belonging there, which disintegrates and re-forms with each new influx of visitors.

I was attracted to hostels because they are cheap and because I don’t travel alone to be alone. Since then, I’ve found so many other things to love about them. I appreciate their consistency across the world. The same indie-rock time warp blasted through the shared living space speakers: Green Day, The Killers and Linkin Park. The same grim graffiti, cartoonish world maps (clusters of stickers indicating where each traveler is from), enlarged images of the Taj Mahal and Empire State Building lining the walls. I love how quickly you become a veteran, magnanimously advising bug-eyed newbies which showers are the most powerful or where to get the cheapest rendition of local cuisine.

Upon entering a hostel, I feel sensitive to light, like photographic paper, able to take on clearer impressions of those around me without myself getting in the way as much. Discuss its outline trilogy, in which the protagonist, Faye, becomes a filter for other people’s stories, Rachel Cusk suggested that a person “could find a different way of living, through a different way of inquiring or listening”. For me, the reverse is true. My hostel diaries are full of people, not places. Once there, I become a different kind of writer.

Earlier this year I stayed at the Deep Ellum Inn in Dallas. American hostels have more space: higher ceilings, wider beds. The guests are mostly Americans, arriving from other states with ambitious plans to start over – “I’m wiping the slate clean,” they were like, “I’m done with who I was there.” Most of the friends I made in Dallas worked at the hostel. We always took the night shift; the two of us leaned against the reception, chatting from very late to very early. He dreamed of becoming an inventor, hoping to achieve success with a near-sanitary new drug he had developed that you could take with a hookah. He asked me if I wanted to try. “Come on: if you die, it will give you something to write about,” he joked.

That’s not to say that staying in hostels is easy all the time. Plunging depressions suddenly arrive, spreading out like concentric rings in the water. There are nights that seem to go on forever, where I don’t have the energy to meet new people and find myself alone in the dorm at 10 p.m., with a sort of teenage embarrassment. Nights when I’m woken up at 4am by drunken guests falling on top of each other in their bunks. The men who decided on my choice to travel alone mean that I must want a romantic encounter, and I must get out of their way at night to find hostel workers I feel safe with. But each new encounter with someone great and surprising feels like an incredible stroke of luck, a fluke. I also know the tricks now: Buy a six-pack of beers and it’ll guarantee you a good night’s sleep, with the drinks coming your way in multiples.

Once I accompanied an old woman from the berth opposite me to dinner. We spent much of it hunched over her phone: endless images of smiling children and grandchildren. As she was leaving the next morning, she took me firmly by both shoulders and said, “I hope you find what you are looking for. It was probably innocent, but I felt discouraged by the statement. I found what I was looking for: keep looking, leave so that I want to come back, and come back to leave again.