It may sound trivial, but the art of choosing a good hostel is an under-appreciated art. I'd like to say I've always had a knack for it, but the fact that I wasn't at all suspicious of the pay-by-the-hour "hostel" in South Africa when I was eighteen begs to differ.
The fact is, there is plenty of trial and error in the learning curve. I've ended up in back alleys, hammocks on rooftops, old bomb shelters, what I'm pretty sure was a boiler room, and a hut in the middle of a sand dune. But, we all learn from our errors in judgement and I've come to recognize the characteristics a first time traveller wants to find in a hostel. But as always, the most important thing when travelling by yourself is the people you meet.
Europe is a prime example. It has an excellent hostel system, and as long as there's a bed for you, you can ensure a colourful patchwork of fellow travellers to keep you entertained and/or clenching your fists to stop yourself punching a wall. As a lone traveller, I've come to identify common culprits occupying every common room. Repeat offenders include:
The Plastic Bagger: That one, one person who will get up at 3.30am to repack their bag for an 11am flight, rolling up their underwear inside their shoes before packing everything into plastic grocery bags. Equals the annoyance of that person who opens a bag of chips at the movies.
Masterchefs: Want to cook your two-minute noodles in peace, and more importantly, in two minutes because the pub crawl is about to leave? Nope, sorry, every available surface as well as every clean pot is taken by a self-proclaimed culinary master whipping up a creation costing twice as much as any of the local cuisines found at the local restaurants ten feet outside the hostel door.
Middle-aged Gap Yearer: The 45-year-old divorcee who got married too young and has finally embarked on her dream trip of adventure, discovery and self-actualization. Has probably pierced and/or dyed something, and her passport is kept in a beige money belt safely concealed under her khaki button up. Extra pockets hold sunscreen, chapstick, rubber bands, a torch, rape whistles, electrical tape and the kitchen sink.
The Sub-Species: Leaves all the mundane comforts of home to travel halfway across the world to an exciting and unfamiliar territory, immediately locates the best wifi zone and spends the next two weeks downloading episodes of Breaking Bad.
The Photographer: Equipped with a fancy SLR with buttons and dials he only pretends to understand, he comes back from a day of taking black and white photos of pigeons and trashcans to download on the communal computer. Will swivel the screen to show his 'shots' to whoever is unfortunate enough to make eye contact. May come with tripod.
Lonely Planet Hoarder: Can be identified by the Lonely Planet where a face should be. Can reel of the Editor's Top Picks like clockwork but leaves without really seeing any of the place they were just in.
Serial Traveller: My favourite. Usually male, left home when he was around 22 after finishing a degree in finance to get a taste of the world before going home for a 9 to 5 and a long-term relationship. Fate did not agree with this plan, however, and it's ten years later and he's wearing pub crawl hats to conceal his receding hair line and his flag-sewn backpack is held together with electrical tape. Drinks boxed wine and humbly accepts leftovers.
I’ve come to find that these people cannot be avoided. In fact, they will become your best friends whilst travelling. If there is one 'life lesson' I've learned in my travels, it's to go with the flow. I've witnessed screaming matches over the light switch, someone's dinner thrown in the trash for taking too long to cook and once watched a girl lose a tooth over a bottom bunk. The last thing you want is to look back on your trip and realise how many relationships could have been forged if you just took the top bunk and didn't punch someone’s tooth out. Because the friends you meet travelling are the ones you will end up crossing continents for.
Flying solo isn't as daunting as Bear Grylls makes it out to be. Fresh 18-year-olds are donning Kathmandu gear every day and walking out the door to make their way around the world, usually without a hitch (give or take a drunken mishap here or there). The trail is well worn for you, it's just up to you to take it. I can assure you, you'll never be alone, because as bizarre as the colourful quality the list above are, they're here to meet new people, and that includes you, and you'll never be alone. Whether it's in a bar in Madrid, the beach in Brazil or a deep-fried cockroach stand in Thailand, there's always someone in the same boat as you.
By Caitlin Morahan, 19