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Hostel Memories

Sampling humanity at the world's youth hostels.



It's funny how the traveler's memory works. Some years back, I went to Hong Kong, but whenever that fact comes up in conversation and people want to know what it was like, all I can seem to think of is the youth hostel I stayed in.

I guess I'm supposed to dig up memories of shopping excursions or fantastic meals or something specific to Hong Kong, but all I bought there was a Walkman that served me well through months of travel. According to the journals I kept, the most exciting dining experiences were breakfast at a fancy hotel and the day I stumbled into a Pizza Hut. The traveler's palate is sometimes as odd as his memory.

But the youth hostel is practically a destination in itself. It sits at the top of Mount Davis, with a nearly 360-degree view of Victoria Bay. As you look out over the green islands and the dozens of ships at anchor, the sun rises to your left and sets to your right, and the city itself is mostly blocked from view. It's a pleasant place to start the day and a safe retreat after the claustrophobic city. It was about $3 a night.

The hillside below the hostel is dotted with World War II bunkers, relics from intense fighting between the British and Japanese trying to gain the strategic overlook. But it's also dotted, here and there through the thick brush, with the foundations of former homes. Every morning, as the sun rises over the ocean, people who live at the bottom of the hill fan out across the hillside, claim a foundation, and do their morning tai chi.

And every morning, usually right after 10, when the hostel closes for the day, a stream of travelers goes stumbling down the hill, backpacks slung over their shoulders and guidebooks opened in front of them. To "research" this column, I read back through my journal from that trip, and it was these people who jumped out at me. There might be no more interesting collection of humanity than the residents of a typical youth hostel on a typical night -- and Mount Davis isn't even a typical hostel.

The character of characters from that trip was Viktor, a huge German who did amazing things to the English language. When I told Viktor I was from Memphis, I thought he was going to hug me. I was prepared for the Standard Elvis Conversation, but it turned out Viktor was all about country music -- he claimed to have 500 records at home -- and Memphis was close enough to Nashville that Viktor and I, aided by several pints of Guinness, became quick friends. I can still hear him saying, "Ah, Nazhville! I don van go New York, or Shee-cargo, or Los Anguleeze. I only van go Nazhville!" Later that night, upon arriving at the locked-down hostel, a couple of Swedes and I got to lift a passed-out Viktor up and over the fence so we could all get in and crash. But I also stayed with him a few weeks later in Berlin. I cashed in, you see, on the Standard Come Stay With Me Conversation.

I met people there from Texas, New Jersey, Italy, Sweden, Scotland -- and Australia, of course. Australians must have an extra chromosome or something for travel. One of them explained to me that it's a migration thing, like salmon returning to spawn. I bet you could walk into the youth hostel in Memphis right now and find an Australian. But be warned: Based on my experience, Aussies' drinking habits share the same fish-like qualities as their traveling.

I spent one afternoon in Hong Kong with Neal, whom I described in my journal as "a thick, muscular, and talkative man who grew up in India, lives now in New Guinea, and had just gotten off a plane from Bangkok." I recall him telling me that in Thailand the weather was beautiful, the women were gorgeous, and there was a beer festival going on all over the country.

Conversations like this are typical in hostels. It's a worldwide circuit, and people going one direction share tips with people going the other way. For example, I had just come from Japan and was headed for Thailand, so I did a trade with an Aussie -- a Japan book for a Thailand book -- and we recommended sites and hostels to each other. When I got to Thailand, I hooked up with three people headed to India, and we joined forces. When I got to Germany, I stayed with Viktor. In Ireland, I met an English couple and later stayed with them in Nottingham. Then they came to Memphis and I showed them around. It just goes on and on.

And when I think of Hong Kong, that's what I think of: the people I met and the views I saw up on Mount Davis.

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