Home is where the hostel is: Hester Wolton on hostel living
I have spent the last three weeks in hostels. But this time, for the first time, I'm sharing my route with pilgrims.
Lager louts have turned into laypreachers, string-vests into softly worded prayer. More than once I mistake these intimate circles - smiling, handheld, humming - as an invitation to play an OAP game of Ring of Fire.
These are good people. Nice people. I have shared a dorm with four men in their sixties. I have shared a bunk bed with an 87 year old. But I have also come across the following truth. No matter their age, the same recurring characters flesh out the sad, sordid sitcom that is hostel life worldwide.
Half of my new friends might be pilgrims but - and let's be honest with ourselves here - most of them are still pricks.
We'll begin with John, who is most likely the very guy you are already imagining.
John is an experienced traveller and forgoes traditional greetings as he ambles over to my bunk: "Let me guess", he says, motioning at my dumbfounded gob, "Capricorn?"
He is spewing advice within seconds. "If you do India, you just have to do it properly."
Or, "Don't panic but you will find it overwhelming on your first go. Especially as, you know, a lady."
I have walked through the streets of Delhi before in 40 degree heat, lacquered in sunburn, gripped by food poisoning, scaled with eczema, totally alone, and I suffered less misery than talking to John is currently causing me.
I should also mention that we are meeting for the first time outside India. Quite far outside, actually, in Jerusalem.
I try to raise this but I am cut off. John has had the world's best korma in Delhi and he wants to tell me all about it. For someone who has confessed to no real interest in the Christian stuff here, the man has a talent for preaching.
"It just has to be eaten with your hands", he is now explaining.
My own are too busy curling themselves into fists and digging my nails into my lap to join John in holding up his palms to the room, by way of explaining to all our eyes these new-age eating utensils.
They remain upturned to the heavens, in hushed reverance, for several seconds too long.
I consider the possibility that I am being asked for a double high-five. I consider the possibility that I'd rather be punched in the face by these two hands instead. I make the mistake of asking John how much time he spent in India.
Three days. John spent three days in India, specifically Delhi, and accidentally, after his connecting flight from Dubai to the US was delayed on a business trip.
John doesn't tell me this though. The morsel is served up by Megan, his long-suffering girlfriend.
The mood between the two is starchy and pressed. So are the Hawaiian shirts John is decanting from his backpack. He deflects Megan's backhanded revelation with a wall of silence so stony that even the prayer beads in his pocket, purchased in India but "from a local" (Terminal 3), cannot placate him.
He nestles down that night into a dog-eared copy of Shantaram which doubles as a travel pillow. A smug smile, a cheery "Night all!" and a deep, untroubled sleep confirm at least one thing. John's days must actually be as enriched as his Twitter bio claims.
Couples who travel together fascinate me. And Megan is fascinating.
Megan works for the government. She wears Capri pants and gladiator sandals and waterfall skirts and she manages to make all three of these things seem normal. Cool, even. It's just such a shame that her other accessory is John.
Pleasingly, even Megan seems to loathe him.
Her anger is unwavering. With the exception of the rhythmic noise the crotch of John's harem pants makes as it sweeps the floor while he pads from his bunk to Megan's and Megan's (dismissed) back to his, her anger is also arbitrary.
The only thing I have ever directed such persistent rage towards is people who organise birthday parties around team sports. Meg's anger lacks even this direction.
Yesterday, I heard her blame John for a freak dust storm which had settled over the city. I don't know what was worse: this frankly insane thing to do, or John, scrambling to manage his allocated portion of the blame.
"But I swear there hasn't been one here on a Tuesday in April since 1987? I googled it at the airport, baby, I promise. This is, like, so random", he gupped.
I weigh up a theory that they're on a backpacking spin-off of Married At First Sight. Two days of spying pass and I conclude they could technically afford a private room in a hotel, but that Megan just prefers the sanctuary which a single, slimline, bed-bitten mattress offers her from the korma-soaked hands of John.
Despite this all, when they go to check out the couple hover nervously in my peripherals.
John, it would appear, wants to keep in touch. Megan, it would appear, wants to shoot me in the neck. I type my name and number into John's phone. I work painfully slowly, adding enough emojis to blind Megan the next time she checks his Whatsapp. "Just one more koala face", I breeze, Megan inching towards the trigger.
The upside of this couple is that they could not be further from my next bunk mate, Mariko.
Mariko is an 87 year old Japanese woman from Tokyo. She is travelling with her daughter (neighbouring bunk) on a Christian pilgrimage for Easter. Mariko embraces me like the hammy, sweating 6-foot English pet she never knew she wanted.
I am obsessed with her. She morphs for me into a cross, ironically, between a mother and a grandparent, a hot water bottle and a freshly whelped lamb, so frequent become the hugs in which she envelops me.
At night, when she sleeps (8pm onwards), I restrain myself from climbing in and folding myself around her papery frame. I learn to hold tight from afar the sweet figgy gift that has befallen us all - a dorm room without John.
Mariko is only the second person I have hugged in three weeks away. The first was our hostel manager. And only because I refused to fistbump.
Hostel managers have a way of threading their happy-go-lucky, Along Came Polly, good time vibes into even the smallest instructions. They say passive aggressive things to encourage community spirit while keeping the rules in place. They live out the mantras and the life wisdoms which they lift from Pinterest on a daily basis for the chalkboard in reception, but from behind bullet proof vests.
Hostel managers say things like "Don't forget to label your personal food in the fridge - if you're one of those people who doesn't like to share!"
Mine follows up with, "I dig you either way!"
Except she doesn't. And her voice, through lips wet with the sweat of a woman maintaining a 24/7 smile, follows me through to the kitchen, where I am hastily arranging a small fortress of empty egg boxes around my precious and limited food supplies.
My dinner has now been decanted into, and disguised with, roughly 34 plastic bags. The shame I feel building this barricade - in a country divided by conflict and walls - is not enough for me to share my tin of beans with Megan and John.
It is, however, enough for me to prepare and eat all of my meals alone, by torchlight, under the cover of darkness, and while the hostel sleeps.
Except guess what! Hostels never sleep! And that's something this one prides itself on. Deep down we are all about self-love and self-exploration and the self-imposed therapy of the unbeaten trail.
But we are also about bar crawls and neon paper wristbands and small, putrid blue shots of free diluted mouthwash on entry to empty clubs, clubs which survive exclusively on mass-marketed tours of lonely, sunburnt travellers - endurance athletes who can bear the drum of Come On Eileen on repeat until, nauseated and euphoric, they move on to the next, identical, safe haven.
And that is what Jade is all about.
Jade replaces Mariko when Mariko eventually (her) and tearfully (me) checks out of our hostel.
Jade sounds like she's also from the UK but, on asking, I learn that she is actually, mystifyingly, from somewhere called The Open Road.
At the risk of sounding like Boris Johnson, I push forward: "But where are you REALLY from?"
Jade's home, it unfolds, is wherever her bag hits the ground.
From the pristine backpack next to her bed, I can see that up until now Jade has been living on a shelf in the backroom of a Cotswolds Camping shop. I decide we should be friends.
But unfortunately for me, the girl is a nomad. And her inability to settle down kicks in a mere hour later on the hostel bar crawl.
Neither I, nor her bed, will ever know Jade. She emerges from the night just gone, the room next door, and the arms of a precariously young-looking Swede, at precisely 11am the next morning. I am both in awe and stupidly jealous of her.
But now is no time for petty envy. A bigger storm - the real thing - is brewing next door in Room 112. And with 34K Instagram followers between them and, might I add, no real need for filters, I actually don't stand a chance.
To be continued.
- Hester Wolton