I didn’t know what to expect from my first night in a hostel.
After shoving my electronics and important items into the lockable drawer underneath my bottom bunk, I zipped my luggage as tightly as I could and secured it with a pad lock. Sleepily, I stood up and hoped the night would just bring sleep. All I needed was sleep.
But I got much more than sleep that night. I got a story to tell.
It was my first trip abroad as part of the new UNH Travel Writing course in London. The rest of my class would be flying in the next day, on January 2nd (which actually turned into January 3rd, thanks to a major storm back home) but I had decided to fly in on January 1st and stay one night in our hostel on my own. The flights on New Year’s Day were over a hundred dollars cheaper than January 2nd.
“You’re going on New Year’s Day,” my dad had said. “You’d be crazy not to. Huge savings.”
He was right. I bought the ticket, and immediately booked a bed in the hostel for about $30.
“You mean you’re going to be alone? In London? Staying at a hostel?” my mother whined when I told her. “Oh, Shannon, I don’t like that at all.”
Truthfully I wasn’t alone; my professor, Sue, was also flying in on New Year’s Day and met me at the airport when I got there. We got a bite to eat, spent the afternoon feeling over-tired and fuzzy from the redeye flights we had just taken. We were together most of that first day, dragging around our luggage, waiting for the rooms in our hostel to be ready for check-in. Sue’s experience and confidence began to rub off on me as we purchased throw-away phones, ordered food at a tiny Indian restaurant, and explored the streets around our hostel.
My heart filled with a weird, never-felt-before bliss. It was independence achieved, curiosity fulfilled, imagination trumped by real-life. When I saw my first red phone booth, double decker bus, and tasted the curried chicken some British chef made for me, I was ecstatic. I’m here.
And then the flip side seeped in through the cracks of my bliss. I was flustered at each crosswalk, struggling to look the right way and not get hit by one of those big busses. When we turned a corner and walked through a crowd of people, my hand would immediately clench my luggage, my eyes darted to the zippered purse wherein my wallet lay. Every person was a potential predator, was foreign and therefore dangerous. I’m…here.
And when night fell and both Sue and I were ready to let the jet lag take its course, it was time to separate. Sue had her own, private room at the hostel. She retired to her own bathroom, privacy, a feeling of safety. I, however, had six months ago decided to do the most-unlike-me-and-least-expensive thing and purchase a night in a dormitory-style, 8-person room.
I waved goodbye to Sue as she exited the elevator on the third floor, leaving me to ascend to the fourth on my own. And then I really was alone.
Knowing I was tired, eyes glazed over with a need-for-sleep, if I had the option to upgrade to a single room I totally would have. I’m not on my A-game, I thought as I entered the room and sat on the edge of my bunk bed, waiting for the rest of my roommates to arrive. Tired. So tired. Exhausted.
My imagination ran rampant with ideas of freakshows and weirdos sleeping in the seven beds around me. I’ll die. I’ll absolutely die. My mother’s fearful words made their way from the thoughts in my head to a twinge in my fingers, forcing me to anxiously crack my knuckles. I don’t like this at all.
I pulled out the yellow journal my mom had bought me and just started to write. About my first day, the plane, the streets, the curry. I knew if I didn’t write them now, in my (hopefully) deep sleep I would forget the details, and it was a good way to pass the time. I remembered the white spots of paint on the sidewalk near our hostel, the way the phone booths and buses were a bit less exciting than I’d anticipated. “I mean really they are just phone booths and buses,” I wrote. I added how thankful I was to have Sue at my side during the day. “I don’t know what I would have done without her.”
Then my roomies began to file in.
An Australian businessman in his late twenties or thirties struggled to get in the door with two large suitcases and a phone lodged between his ear and shoulder. I had picked a bed in the far right corner of the room (not that I could really be far—the room was tiny) and I had a direct view to the door. I watched him over the top of my journal as he fumbled with his luggage and threw me a nod of acknowledgement, almost losing his phone in the process.
“I’m going to get settled in then,” he said in his glorious accent. “Okay, alright, see you tomorrow.”
Like clockwork, three beautiful twenty-somethings waltzed in, dressed in heels and dresses and sheer tights. For the sake of the story, we will call them the French girls (as they were tall and skinny and beautiful as I imagine French girls to be). They had very little luggage in tow. Each had what I would constitute as a large purse, and they plopped them down on three different beds before leaving the room without a word. Must not be anything valuable in their bags, I thought, glancing down at my own secured belongings.
At this point the Australian man was in the less-than-private bathroom. It was like an airplane bathroom, but smaller, plus a shower. I hoped and prayed he was going to be quick, because I desperately had to pee.
I remember I had to pee because while they were all entering and exiting the room, I was recording it in my journal as if it were breaking news. I didn’t miss a detail. “The man has hair like the prince in The Princess Bride,” I wrote. “But he isn’t as cute. His nose is kind of messed up like Owen Wilson’s. Nice body, though.”
Suddenly two German guys busted in, adorned with T-shirts that were three sizes too big and those knitted winter hats that guys let sag off the back of their heads. And these two had the sag down like pros.
I knew they were German because I can speak a little German—which is actually pretty sad because I studied the language religiously for almost six years, and still every time I am asked how much I know, all I can admit is “ein bisschen”…a little bit. Still, I recognized several words immediately.
“One of them definitely just said ‘dirty’,” I wrote in my journal. “I think he said ‘I am dirty’…but I don’t know. Can’t be sure.”
They talked fast at one another, tossing things back and forth from one top bunk to another. I couldn’t see either of them, but one guy was on the bunk above me and one guy was on the top bunk of the bed next to me, and I watched as clothes and toiletries flew across the gap between them.
“The one with black hair just said ‘Gehen Sie lassen’ to the one with brown hair,” I wrote wildly. “I think. Pretty sure that means ‘let’s go.’”
I must have been right because they jumped off their beds—apparently they don’t use ladders in Germany—and cruised right out of the room.
Guess no one else has jet lag, I thought, yawning. I crossed my legs as my bladder felt as if it were going to burst.
“This Australian won’t get out of the bathroom and he’s been in there long enough that now I know what he’s doing. And I don’t want to go in there right after he’s done taking a crap…”
I got up, checked that my belongings were still securely locked, and walked down to the bathroom near the lobby. It was quiet and secluded and surprisingly fancy and I liked it. I considered bringing my stuff down there to sleep for the night. And then I stopped being irrational.
By the time I got back upstairs my last roommate had made her appearance. I have no idea what she looked like, her nationality, or why she was in London, but I could see her bright pink plastic luggae on the floor next to her and mob of blonde hair sticking out from underneath her blanket. She stayed that way until I left the next day, around noon.
So here’s the final layout:
I put my journal and temporary cell phone under my pillow, got into bed and decided to make like the mystery girl on the other side of my feet and go to sleep. The fluorescent light above us stayed on, as we wanted to be courteous roommates. Plus, at this point I think I could have fallen asleep on the surface of the sun.
At some point the Australian man flushed the toilet and exited the bathroom, and I heard him climb up into his bunk. It was no later than nine. The room fell silent, and I absolutely passed out.
Hours later, I heard a groaning. It was a weird, muffled and struggling sound. The lights were off and I cracked my eyes to see one of the French girls in her bunk beside me. Maybe half a second went by and then I heard it.
I sat up a bit, obviously startled. One of the German men had hopped out of his bed, looking ready for a fight. He was alert and clearly startled, too. In a few moments, I think everyone in the room had their head up and was looking in the direction of the noise.
My mind raced. Bomb. Intruder. S*!% is about to get real.
Then, at the end of my feet I could see the shape of a man on the ground.
Holy s*!%, I thought. The Aussie fell off his bed!
He landed right on top of the mystery girl’s big, pink, plastic luggage. And he was practically naked except for tiny boxer briefs.
He stood up, slumped over, and wobbled around by the door.
“Ow, ow, ow, ow…”
The German climbed back up into his bed, and everyone else put their heads back down into their pillows. As if this was absolutely no big deal.
“Oh my God. Are you okay?” I asked, frantic.
He said nothing. Instead, he started climbing back into bed.
“Hey, did you hit your head? You should not go back to sleep if you hit your head.”
Nothing. I lay there with my eyes wide open.
What if we wake up tomorrow and this guy is dead up there?
I checked my phone. It was three o’clock in the morning. It was too early to care about Mr. Princess Bride if he didn’t want me to.
At around seven I got up and changed into my running clothes. I had decided the night before that I’d wake up early and go for a run in Hyde Park, which was right around the corner. I laced up my sneakers as the Aussie began to get out of his bunk.
He didn’t say anything to me as I crossed the room to the door, and he crossed to the bathroom.
I ran for about an hour, and kept laughing to myself, thinking about how scared I was of that dorm-style room and how absolutely nothing happened. When I heard that loud noise the Australian Guy made as he descended from his slumber, yeah that was scary. But I was fine, everyone was fine, and we were all just there to get some sleep. Hostels were really no big deal.
By the time I had gotten back, everyone but the sleeping blonde girl was gone. I met Sue in the cafeteria for breakfast, and when the rest of my classmates got there I spent the first several days as the leader of a few girls in my class. I helped these new friends navigate the tube and fearlessly walk the streets to new places. We ordered food and drinks and experienced the history of a city that existed before our own country was even a dream. We traveled safely, we had a blast, and every night I recorded it all in that little yellow journal.
Now there are two sides to this story. One is clear: don’t be afraid. Stop worrying about what might happen to you or how much things are going to cost or how you’re going to make it work. It really does all work out, and as long as you travel safely, you’ll be fine.
The other point maybe isn’t so clear. The only reason I can write these details, why almost a year later I can write a story that explains my situation, is my journal. I don’t care what type of person you are if you like to write or not, you can relive your experience in vivid detail if you simply sit down every night and write about your day abroad.
Six months, two years, or ten years after your trip, a journal will be your passport back to that time you ate the best, crunchiest fish and chips you ever had. It was at the Olde Cheshire Cheese—supposedly one of the oldest pubs in London—and it was eight pounds and came with carrots and peas. The peas were a little undercooked but it didn’t even matter because by the time you finished the fish and chips, you couldn’t imagine swallowing another bite of food. After eating you walked through a narrow, brick alley to see a sunset view of the London Eye. Your classmates—your new friends—surrounded you, and you all sat on benches making plans for the coming evening. It was one of the few times you were all one group as opposed to scattered in several pods. You think you’ll never forget this moment, but just in case–just to be safe–when you get back to the hostel you write it all down.
And that’s the thing: I’d rather be safe than sorry when I travel—that’s why I lock up my belongings, why I save a little extra money, why I take a buddy if I feel uncomfortable, and why I keep a journal.