Photo: HydRometra

I WAS RECENTLY READING in a café when I heard someone telling his friends about his plans to go to London. As he listed expensive hotel prices, his friends suggested he consider hostels, and he seemed shocked by the mere idea. I wanted to interject, but I’ve never had a good understanding of proper social etiquette. Is it wrong to interrupt a stranger’s conversation? I thought it might be, so I went back to my reading.

When I started to travel, I also had a fear of hostels, but it wasn’t really a fear of the hostels themselves. I’d read enough travel blogs and had done enough research to know that many cities, particularly in Europe, had nice, clean, modern hostels that were almost like hotels with shared rooms. My issue wasn’t hostel quality, but rather having to always be around and interacting with other people. In hotels, there’s generally little interaction with other guests, but socializing is an an expected aspect of a hostel stay.

Looking back on how socially anxious I was when I set out on my first international trip three years ago — when I spent six months in the Middle East and Europe — I was initially surprised I did so well. But the reality was that I’d already made a lot of progress on becoming more comfortable in social situations.
I’d almost go as far as to call myself anti-social in my early years of high school, and, as a result, I retreated into the fictional worlds of books and video games. However, I forced myself to start working in customer service at the age of 15, and the longer I did so, the more comfortable I felt interacting with others. Once I decided I wanted to do some long-term travel, I knew I would have to stay in hostels, as it would be unaffordable to stay in hotels in many of the places I wanted to visit.

Hostel Anxiety

When I arrived in Istanbul, the first stop on my trip, I had booked a budget hotel for a couple of nights to get used to the city before checking into a hostel. I thought it might be too much to be both in a new city and a hostel at the same time. However, after a couple days of exploring Istanbul — an incredible city which I’d return to in an instant — I packed my bag and took the five-minute walk to the hostel I’d booked. “It had a good rating,” I told myself. “Everything will be fine.” In truth, I was terrified, but if I was going to spend six months traveling, I knew I would have to tame my anxiety.

I dropped my bag off at the hostel and completed the check-in process, which I remember as being hilariously awkward because I was so anxious, but maybe it wasn’t so bad in reality. My research on hostels was certainly confirmed. The rooms, beds, and bathrooms were clean, and the main door had a lock, along with each room, and everyone had their own individual lockers. As I expected, the North American stereotype of hostels proved to be unfounded.

That first night I went into the common area for mere minutes, only to quickly withdraw once I found myself unable to introduce myself to other guests, so I took off for an evening walk to calm myself down. In truth, it’s quite simple to get to know people in a hostel, but at that moment I was overthinking my every action, and the idea of sitting down and speaking to people I didn’t know was frightening.

Overcoming the fear

It wasn’t until the next day that I truly made a breakthrough. During breakfast I’d started talking to a young Turkish guy working at the hostel, who I got to know quite well over my next week and a half in Istanbul, and when I returned to the hostel that afternoon, he pulled me into a conversation he was having with a group of other guests. I’ve always found introductions the most difficult part of socializing. I typically rely on others to introduce themselves to me, and as soon as that’s out of the way, I feel much more comfortable.

Over the next few days, I did what most hostelers do: I went sightseeing with an Australian, shopping with a new Turkish friend, to dinner with a group of Americans where I devoured a bunch of baklava — this may be unique to travelers in Turkey — and spent the evenings sharing travel experiences and chatting with fellow guests about a wide range of topics.

On one of my final nights in Istanbul, the Turkish guy who worked at the hostel and had befriended me early in my trip, brought a group of us who’d gotten really close to one of his favorite cafés. We proceeded to spend hours drinking tea, smoking shisha, and laughing at each other’s stories. Having been so nervous about staying in a hostel, the time I spent in Istanbul remains my absolute best hostel experience. Nowhere else have I gotten to know as many people and so thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Hostels: Nothing like the movie Hostel

Since then, I’ve probably spent more than a cumulative year and a half in hostels, even to the point of living in them for much of the period between July 2015 and May 2016; half of which was in a single hostel in Melbourne, Australia, and the rest in various hostels around the world.

Through these experiences, I’ve learned a lot about the world and have successfully managed to get control over my social anxiety. I can still be quite reserved, but the time I’ve spent in hostels has forced me to realize that socializing isn’t a scary thing, and it certainly isn’t as difficult as my mind can make it out to be.

Hostels are amazing places where people from a whole range of backgrounds come together for a wonderful collective experience. Sure, some just do it because of the cost, but far more see hostels as place to meet fellow travelers and have a more enjoyable travel experience.

Any young person who has reservations about staying in hostels should give them a chance instead of writing them off because of false perceptions, or because, like me, they fear having to interact with so many other people. I can almost guarantee their views will be changed for the better after just a few days — as long as they check the ratings before booking!

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