Know Your Hostelier: the Fair Trade well-read Traveller

The legitimate bum, a wayward soul who believes he is a beat poet on a higher plain will have an arsenal of tales to regale the crowd. And it is this traveller that strikes it out alone, often with a backpack, often with more reading material than clothes and with an idealist’s view of global affairs, paving the way for the next wave of backpackers. These can obviously include University leavers, those on a career break and then the more salubrious crowd in search of boutique hotels and polyglot guides.

Retracing my steps over the past few years and thinking over less than agreeable places or experiences, or often both as they so frequently are combined. Events start piling up such as being mistaken for an Irishman by Colombian authorities in the wake of the IRA members escaping that country. Or taking refuge in a rent-by-the-hour motel in Tegucigalpa. It was here that in order to lie down and not touch the grime on the linen I donned more clothes and upon checking the “en suite” found more delights such as an evil Trainspotting style toilet with feces smeared everywhere but the interior of the seat less bowl and some used rubbers congealing on the lino-tiled floor. Not to mention my dive of choice in Chihuahua, Mexico. I have been dying to fit this into a story somewhere, where carved into the headboard of the bed were the immortal words inset into a crudely shaped heart… “Here Arturo and Lupe lost their virginities.”  

Such observations, experiences and trials are the cement that makes a journey a voyage and not a package holiday. I hasten to steer clear of the term “self-discovery”, “global citizen” or that of “traveller”. All three conjure up images of the hippie Olympics, ethnic clothing, dreadlocks and grime-encrusted toenails. I think it was Paul Theroux who first identified such people as those who travelled for purely economic reasons, boasting of how little they part with on their financial exile of sorts or something like that. Travels that include periods of defined “self-discovery” often lead to blinkered statements about the socio political ills of a region and redefining everything through rose tinted glasses and funded by the sale of globally universal and easily recognizable traveller tat.

It has all been done before, regardless of how much a mud-disguised middle class bead vendor will protest otherwise. In the 1950s John Steinbeck foresaw the advent of guidebooks, career breaks and the romance of the hobo lifestyle and hammers home this fact in “Travels with Charley”: “I set it down only that newcomers to bumdom, like teenagers in new-hatched sin, will not think they invented it.”

So, I knew that I was not the first to come here or to follow this route through Colombia. And for my generation it was a well-known fact that bedding down in a hostel would be better than a mid-range hotel. Why? Even from the early 1990’s a hostel had better information about the country, in particular in Colombia where security is of utmost importance. Outside of Colombia on my travels I can recall speaking to some foreign visitors to Buenos Aires commenting that their children had opted to stay in a hostel while the parents, feeling ill equipped for the rigors of hostel life, chose a hotel. Upon visiting the hostel, there was no questioning who had picked the cleaner, better accommodation.

Returning to Colombia, in buying a flight from Bogotá to Santa Marta I broke the cardinal rule of “traveller” style backpacking, by showing a public display of wealth and a disregard for the code of obligatory land travel. By doing this, I separated myself from the masses of the great unwashed, the starry eyed and the evils of dorm porn. For those who have never shared a dormitory on the backpacker circuit, dorm porn, is the term for when a member of your room bunks up with another in the same bed while the rest of you try desperately to block out the sounds with iPods, mp3s or varying degrees of inebriation.

But had it not been for flying, I would never have met Alejandra. An architect from Bogotá, she offered me her window seat, spoke of a competition to design a new public space in Santa Marta she was entering and had me chauffeur driven to my flop house at the end of town.

“Be careful here,” she warned. “These places are just for drugs and prostitution.”

And it was. We had the room tossed by the police. I was accused of being a junky.

And so, all those years later when I set up my own hostel I kept these things in mind. I assume it could be referred to as a boutique hostel now. We have free Wi-Fi, offer breakfast and make sure our info is up to date and that all the staff is Colombian. By doing this I guess we appeal to the new travelling crowd that could be referred to as the “Fair Trade Traveller”.

And what’s wrong with offering a backpacker a nice place to stay? I call it forward planning. These are the guys that open the route, talk to other travellers, thus promoting the location, go home to work and return down the line with their partners ready to pay an increased fee for greater comfort. These guys and gals aren’t aimless, perhaps they are cutting the excess detritus from their lives after paying off student loans, but they are driven.  My visitors are loyal, and in the three years of being open my staff has seen everything.

As James A Michener put it in The Drifters… “a young person’s years   of indecision were not wasted if they provided thinking space fortified by relevant data, even though some of the latter might not be understood at the moment, so that when the lucky moment of inspiration struck, it found tinder to ignite…”

The tales of a well versed bum turned hostelier.

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