For a female student traveling alone in Spain’s capital, hostels are the opposite of the vast majority of safety tips and the epitome of one of Billy Joel’s iconic lyrics detailing the conundrum of travel security: they will tell you you can’t sleep alone in a strange place, then they’ll tell you you can’t sleep with somebody else.
While this version is more explicit than this particular situation necessitates, it remains an apt description of the juxtaposition of a hostel stay. Taught from a young age not to talk to strangers, travelers now pay cheap rates for the opportunity to stay in expansive rooms with entire groups of unfamiliar individuals. The rooms are mixed-gender and available to all ages, which further breaks more childhood prohibitions.
These factors, topped by the hostel’s physical location in a foreign city, are enough to make the most intrepid of parents suffer tinges of fear at the thought of their student’s stay. Even experienced travelers can find themselves in a state of uneasy anticipation about the conditions of their temporary dwellings.
Perhaps questionable on paper, a stay in a hostel can add a unique and enjoyable dynamic to any viaje or excursion. Akin to any hotel, the prices vary based on amenities and location—not always on quality.
Eager to save a dime and try my luck, a month before I had reserved a bed in the cheapest location available that included WiFi and a decent breakfast. From the safety of my computer screen I had felt confident in my twelve euro a night booking; wandering the streets of Madrid, mobile map in clammy hand, I felt less sure with each twist and turn of the narrow streets. The alleyway location and doorway that forced me to duck did little to assuage my trepidations (though it did reinforce my belief that this country was designed with short people in mind).
Immediately met by welcoming staff and an impeccable lobby, the aching weight of my backpack replaced the apprehension in my gut. Reaching my assigned room on the third floor, the associated view eliminated the aforementioned mental and physical irritations. A brief pause allowed a languid glance over nearby residential rooftops before they became dominated by their corporate and apartment-complex cousins. The hostel’s central courtyard facilitated the view and transformed the inward face of each floor into a continuous, rectangular balcony. Mentally I rescinded some of the harsher curses I had muttered at the constantly-increasing elevation on the thirty-minute trek from subway to hostel.
The lack of Thursday travelers afforded me my pick of spaces; by Sunday, each bed would be filled. For now the presence of only two other roommates offered peace, quiet, and ample space for all. The Argentinian and I discussed his undergraduate studies and plan to travel Europe before entering medical school; the Egyptian and I the joys of running a new city after spotting my sneakers tied to the outside of my backpack. Together we swapped travel stories and split the cost of dinner—pasta, spinach, and half a kilogram of oranges from the local Gadis.
Too cold to use the patio and too early for drinks at the bar, the kitchen served as the building’s primary common space and social center. As the extended weekend progressed, I met an increasingly interesting and entertaining cast of characters during my meals at one of the many slatted, wooden tables: the British teacher who could tell you the weekday you were born from your numerical date of birth, the American-Austrian who spoke four languages and worked at the Austrian embassy, the Indian marathon runner who had lived at the hostel for the past six months, the stereotypical American with a penchant for boisterous (albeit well-meaning) ignorance, and numerous other students and vacationers.
Similar to my first roommates, the American-Austrian student, an Austrian marketing professional and I met over a mutual need for dinner and spent the rest of the second evening frequenting the famous tapas bars in the La Latina district while enjoying one another’s company. Occasional parts of the remaining weekend were spent together: on Saturday, El Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia , and on Sunday El Rastro, Madrid’s infamous flea market. Fast friends, the temporal nature of our relationship meant our conversations came without obligation and with ease, an airy retreat from the long-term implications of real-word conversation.
Though only a temporary home away from my [temporary] home in Valladolid, the space served as a momentary sanctuary from the constant commotion of Madrid’s streets. While they will tell you you can’t sleep alone in a strange place, that’s lie—you can, for about ten euros extra, though I am certainly glad I didn’t.