I chuckle in recognition when someone’s negative review of a youth hostel on a travel website begins, “Maybe I’m just getting too old for these places, but…” Until my recent trip to Argentina, I thought I’d given up hostels for the rest of my life. I now earn enough money to stay in hotels, B & Bs, inns, and the like, and I’ve grown used to the comfort.
But I still balk at the prices, and as a woman traveling alone, I sometimes long for company, especially in a country 5000 miles from home. When I used travel websites and guidebooks to plan my vacation this spring, I couldn’t believe how much prices had risen in less than three years since my first vacation in Argentina, and I couldn’t see paying a total of a couple thousand dollars for hotel rooms in which I’d spend very little time. I wasn’t eager to be in a room with partying young people who might return from the boliches at 3 or 4 a.m., but I didn’t mind sharing a bathroom with other guests. So a double room in a hostel seemed like the solution – even when I had to pay for two twin beds, it was still $35 to $80 cheaper than a hotel.
I did feel a little self-conscious at times, hanging out with the 20- to 35-year-olds. I am well past the age of the average backpacker, but I’ve been running into middle-aged folks in hostels since I was 27, and this time I saw a couple of people my age or older at the hostel in Mendoza – the heart of Argentina’s wine-growing region, where hotels are pricey. My three weeks turned out to be the perfect mix: hostels in Córdoba and Mendoza, a hotel (most of it paid for with credit cards points) for nine days in the center of Buenos Aires, and my last couple of nights in a comfortable bed and breakfast in Palermo. I also spent one night on a long-distance bus, something I’ve tried to avoid since a 17-hour journey in 2009.
The hostel stays were a mixed bag; I felt as if I saw the best and worst of human nature in only a few nights. The staff people in both hostels and the B & B were consistently polite and positive, extremely hard-working, and catered uncomplainingly to some demanding, high-maintenance guests with ample senses of entitlement. In most cases, this was fairly minor stuff – answering a zillion questions and booking someone’s tours for her, or agreeing to drop off someone’s dirty clothes at the neighborhood laundry while he toured Buenos Aires all day.
But at one hostel in Mendoza, guest behavior crossed the line from demanding to appalling. On my second night there, I passed through the kitchen and noticed a group of young English folks having themselves a little party. Five or six had commandeered the tiny patio area so they could smoke outside (although smokers never seem to notice when their “outdoor” smoke all ends up inside), and they were laughing, carrying on, playing horrible English pop music very loudly on a CD boom box, and raising a good-natured ruckus. I chatted with one or two of them, then headed off to bed much earlier than usual, as I had to arise for a 7:30 a.m. pickup for a tour in the Andes Mountains. The room I was sharing with a young Belgian woman was across the back patio, with several hostel sections and closed doors between the partiers and my bunk, and I was so tired, I figured I could sleep through three thunderstorms.
But around 2:30 I was awakened by hollering. Turns out the by-now-besotted British boys and girls were staying in the room across the patio only yards away, and the guys were engaged in full-scale warfare with one another. The punching, falling, and shouting – mostly phrases beginning with “f—!” and ending with “c—!” – went on for what felt like forever. I kept waiting for them to grow exhausted and pass out, mostly because I was in the top bunk of a none-too-sturdy, steel-framed bed with a ladder that wasn’t welded to the frame. I’d already come close to pinching my toes on the way up, and exiting gracefully was impossible in daylight when I was fully awake.
Finally a large piece of glass shattered. I climbed down gingerly, no longer fearing waking my roommate, and crossed the patio to the main hostel building to find the manager. Several other sleepy-looking guests in bathrobes and sweatpants emerged from other wings of the building. The night manager, an easygoing young Mendocino, had the unenviable task of telling the drunks that this was their last night of hospitality. As I’d learned in the hostel in Córdoba, the police would not be called, and a further ruckus would not be raised. I returned to my room and climbed the Ladder of Doom again. Thank god, we could all get some sleep now.
Or not. As soon as the manager had returned to the lobby area, the boys started again. This time it sounded like wine glasses breaking, and perhaps a bottle. A fine response, I thought sarcastically, to the hostel’s generous offer of a complimentary nightly glass of Malbec. I believe they finally ran out of steam and passed out around 4 a.m., although I’d left my watch on the counter far below my bunk.
I was already tired, and I was exceedingly annoyed when I fell asleep on the minibus during the Andes tour. But by afternoon I felt fine, and returned to the hostel around 6 p.m., just as a man from a local window replacement business was entering with a new pane of glass. I expressed sympathy to the evening manager, who showed me the bill: 95 pesos for the replacement window alone.
I remain incredulous that adults acted this way in another country – especially given the tense jousting between the Argentine and British governments over the Malvinas/ Falkland Islands that had begun a couple of months before I’d left for vacation. As a U.S. citizen visiting other countries, I try to be on my best behavior, given the imperialist, bullying manner in which my nation’s government has behaved in various parts of the world for the past 115 or so years. If I were an English tourist in Argentina, I’d be keeping a pretty low profile.
But the night after I returned home, I recounted the incident to a friend who’s traveled more extensively than I and calls himself an Anglophile. “Oh, yeah, the Brits are notorious for that,” he said. “The Spaniards hate them, because they go to Spain and stay in their hotel rooms and get plastered.” Frankly, I can’t see the point of ever leaving the British Isles – why not just get drunk in Manchester? (Before anyone accuses me of stereotyping, they were from that neck of the woods. And I’ll add that this was the only incident like this during my trip, and I studied with, shared rooms with, and talked with many young Europeans who were lovely, beautifully behaved people, and in fact less obnoxious than some of the USians I met.)
I met a fun companion at that hostel, many hours before the Brits began breaking glass. “Elena” was a 31-year-old Los Angeles resident on sabbatical – or perhaps permanent break – from her law career. After seven years of 75-hour work weeks, she’d had enough, and she enlisted in a program for volunteers in Córdoba, Argentina. That hadn’t worked out either, so she was traveling the country, with forays into Chile and Uruguay. We met at breakfast in the hostel’s dining room and hit it off, so we went out to lunch before she hit the road for Santiago. It would be hard for anyone to not hit it off with Elena – she put the “extra” in extrovert. She was pretty, lively, and a little crazy, with a serviceable Spanish acquired from Rosetta Stone study, and she wasn’t afraid to use it. I’m a perfectionist about my castellano, which can be a real impediment on the road. And of course a little flirtation goes a long way toward international understanding – I don’t think our restaurant waiters cared whether she was asking for friend squirrel with chimichurri sauce, as long as the order was accompanied by a wink and a smile.
I’m an introvert, so I require a lot of down time between loud events and long excursions. I was quiet and polite during my hostel stays, but I did end up feeling pretty high-maintenance during my time in Córdoba (see the post “Dumb things I did on vacation: Leaving my wallet unleashed” for gory details). Given some of the truly impaired guests I’ve run into in U.S. hostels, I was totally sane – I’ve been in a bunk room in Washington, D.C. with an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s disease and incontinence, and 15 years ago I was awakened in a room in Arroyo Seco, 5 miles north of Taos, New Mexico, by a mentally ill woman telling us that a lunar eclipse was sending her personal messages.
By my last evening in Córdoba, I began to wonder if the hostel staff members were putting me into the “middle-aged wacko” category. The first time I’d stayed there, I’d had my wallet stolen and began crying when I asked for help. I made a return visit – on the way back from Mendoza and on the way to Buenos Aires – because I wanted to see something of Córdoba besides the police station. I spent a delightful day touring historic sites and art museums, returning to the hostel just before nightfall to reclaim my suitcase and head to the bus terminal. The young woman on duty at the front desk struck up a conversation with me, so I plunked myself down in one of the sleek, brightly colored, contemporary bar stools at the counter to chat with her about my day. The hostel owner (I’ll call him Marcelo, as that’s a common name in Argentina) came in, sweaty from playing squash, and greeted us warmly.
Suddenly the employee asked a question that seemed out of left field: “Did something happen to you?”
“No…” I replied. “I went to a few museums, walked around, took some pictures – it was a really nice day!”
“No, I mean did something happen to you before, besides your wallet being stolen –”
I started to try to answer her question honestly, and immediately burst into tears again, much to my disgust – and evidently Marcelo’s. He looked at me, arose from his chair, left the room, and never returned. I talked with his employee a little longer about my deflated dream of teaching English in Argentina, and she encouraged me to find a smaller town than Córdoba where I’d be happy. This friendly university student had lived in Denver for a year, was fluent in English, and was merely curious and trying to be helpful. She didn’t know that she’d aimed an arrow at the heart of my midlife crisis with one question. What had “happened” was that I’d rediscovered – while I was trying to get to the airport from Manhattan, really – that I’m not a big-city person, and rediscovered in Córdoba that 1) an Argentine city that size has enough happening that I’d like to live there, but 2) a city that size has all the elements that make my nervous system go into full meltdown within a few hours.
I gathered the shards of my dignity, thanked her for all she’d done during my stay, then retrieved my suitcase, swapped the items I’d needed all day for ones I’d want that night on the micro to Buenos Aires, and went to the bathroom to splash cold water over my flushed face. I was tired, hungry, and sick of travel. After a missed international flight, a stolen wallet, and a night of listening to drunken brawling, I was looking forward to planting myself in a hotel for a week and navigating a city with which I was at least vaguely familiar. Buenos Aires had its own challenges, I knew, but at least I had a good idea of how to find vegetarian protein there. My blood sugar hadn’t been at a normal level since I’d left New England 10 days before, and this was a deep source of the waterworks every time someone asked me a personal question.
Even after I’d taken a taxi to the bus station, bought my ticket, and found an unoccupied bench in a quiet spot, I couldn’t seem to get over the silent rejection from Marcelo – a near-stranger, a man I might well never see again. I could understand his not suffering fools gladly, and being worried that his small business would start attracting weirdos. But it seemed as if he’d overreacted to my own overreaction, and I still occasionally wonder why. I’ve felt tempted to email Marcelo to say, “Look, I’m sorry I messed with the buena onda in your hostel; I was going through a bad patch, and your attitude certainly didn’t help me regain my footing.” Yes, I could’ve been less of a drag, but he also needs to realize that occasionally a guest will show up who has a tough experience and needs more than internet access. (And an added note to him: don’t stand under the window of a foreign guest you know speaks Spanish and talk about her in that language. I understood every word, and I did find this behavior mal educado.)
I’m just grateful that his staff and a couple of the other guests helped me after the wallet theft, and I said so in a glowing review on a travel website. And I still have fond memories of another of his young female employees, who exclaimed “¡Mira vos!” every time a guest said or did something she found remarkable or amusing. Marcelo and his employees have created a solid community – one that won’t be harmed by one guest crying in the reception area. I wish them much suerte.