Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Worst Hostel Roommates Ever

Sometimes all you want is your own room
I wandered rosy-cheeked up to my room at the Florence Youth Hostel, where I met my roommate from South Carolina. She had the drawl to prove it. She was studying in England and on a six-week break, taking time to go through Italy (“agin, Ah’ve already bin here wonce,”) and told me she found my accent “real harsh” in comparison to British English. “Even them snobby upper class Brits sound better than an American accent raght now,” Needless to say, we did not keep in touch.
She was not even close to the worst roommate I’ve ever had in a hostel. In New York I had one roommate –waiting for her apartment to be finished – who would get off work, crawl into bed and call everyone she knew, talking about nothing long into the night while the rest of us tried to sleep and even after we’d tried to give her a hint by turning off the light. In Belgium two years prior, I had met two girls from Nebraska who took two hours getting ready for a 30-minute dinner, then got tired and refused to check out the town. I once showed up in Barcelona and got the only remaining bed, in the men’s dormitory. I curled up into a ball, pretending I was asleep as they all came in and undressed, and tried not to think about the whitish-greenish-purplish stain under my rented sheets. The worst roommate, however, was at a hostel in Munich, a few blocks from the train station in what were also the very last beds available in the whole place.
He was about 50 years old, and had brought his own miniature TV that was always on and perched on his big hairy belly. He had a gristly graying beard where he collected leftover food, greasy long gray hair and a hole-riddled gray sweat suit. Mr. Gray had a large potbelly that made it impossible for him to keep his pants hiked up, displaying for all to see that he wore no underwear and the rest of his body was covered in gristly gray hair, too. My friend Tara and I never figured out what language he spoke, unless it was Mumble Tongue, and he constantly burped, snorted and snored, making it all the more horrifying when it woke you out of a dead sleep induced by too much German beer and saw his naked, gristly-gray-hair covered body cast in the light of some late-night show.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


My name is Morgan, and I am an addict. You see, I have a problem: I love to travel. Other people spend their money on cars, stereos, houses, clothes, shoes, maybe food. Me? I live in a cardboard box when I'm not abroad.
That may be somewhat of an exaggeration, but not by much. Every time I travel I come home exhausted. All of my clothes are so well worn I throw most of them away. I've slept more on airport floors than I have in beds, eaten more meals consisting of bread and whatever local spread is cheapest, and walked more miles to save bus fare than can possibly be healthy.
Each time I come back, I bury my backpack in the closet, throw some domestic goods on top of it, and say to myself and everyone else, "Good riddance. I'm done. I want to be able to eat real food, buy nice things for my house and have a job I like and want to stay in. No more traveling for awhile."
I'm lying.
I don't do this purposely. It's not like I don't believe myself. I come back and scramble to find a job, any job that will help me pay the bills. I can't afford to wait for the one I want. Once there, I find myself a cheap place to live after spending at least a week on someone's couch. I move all my stuff in and set it up like a home, like I'm going to stay.
Within a short amount of time, there's a positive number in my bank account. It starts to grow, even though I've begun to splurge just a little: I start buying vegetables again, or go out to eat every now and then with my friends. I go to the movies. I might even buy some new clothes if they're on sale.
At whatever job I have, I get settled. I start to get to know the people. I develop a routine. And slowly but surely, I begin to hate it.
The change is almost imperceptible. Gradually I become irritated at work, I find my routine mundane, and I can't bring myself to stay still. I start taking long drives on the weekends, and all of a sudden I decide I spend too much money on food. I cut down to frozen vegetables and Top Ramen. I check my bank account, then airline fares. I start thinking about where I want to go next, and cutting my expenses to a minimum. I rifle through my closet and find my backpack. I look it over and put it back, but in the front of the closet, where it can greet me every time I open the door.
At work, some small thing sets me off, and that's it! I'm done! I bide my time for just a little while, then I quit, move out of my house, put everything in storage, and I'm gone.
“Where are you going next, Morgan?”
I hear this a lot. And a lot of times, like this time, I say, “Well, I found some really cheap tickets and I’m heading to New York, New Orleans, then to Europe. Should be fun.”
I know. It’s a lame thing to say. But what do you say? Inevitably, the next part of the conversation is the one that I hate the most.
“Are you going with anyone?”
“Nope. Just me. But I will see some people I know while I’m there. Besides, I’m sure I’ll meet people along the way.”
“How are you paying for this?”
“Well…ummm…I sold my car/stocks/soul and I’ve been surviving on cheap food for the past six months.”
“Wow. What are you going for?”
“No special reason. I just want to go.”
“I wish I could do that.”
No, actually you don’t. I have a very unfair belief that most people can do what I do, they just don’t really want to. I am not referring to people who barely have enough money to eat. I am referring to most people I know whose priorities are different than mine. They drive nice cars that aren’t 25 years old, perhaps live in nice houses or apartments, like to drink expensive concoctions at the bar, and eat at sit-down restaurants where there’s a waiter you have to tip. These are all priorities that I don’t share when I’m going abroad. My travel habits force me to forgo these daily pleasures with the idea that I will do them later in a foreign country, even if it’s not the case.
So why do I do it? Because I love to travel. I love the high I get landing somewhere totally new and trying to find a place to sleep and having no idea where my next meal will come from. I love meeting people who know absolutely nothing about me except what I choose to tell them. I love finding out why these people are here and realizing it is either nothing like my own story, or mirroring my thoughts exactly. I love listening to all the accents and dialects and different ways of saying the exact same thing.
My travel lust really began after returning to Washington State University after studying abroad in Spain. I was incredibly excited to go home after the year abroad. On my flight home I wrote down all the things I had missed on an airplane napkin:
Dryer sheets
Free water
No siesta
My pillow
My bed
Starbucks coffee
Cold milk
Fresh fruit
Breakfast cookies
Customer service
Chai tea
Movies in English
Chocolate banana milkshakes
Deli sandwiches
My computer/internet
Gum (American brands)
The radio
Thai food
Japanese food
Mexican food
Vietnamese food
Choice between non-fat, 2%, whole milk
Toilet seats and seat protectors in public bathrooms
More clothes
Teriyaki sauce
My dog
I found this list later tucked into 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which I hadn’t finished. I couldn’t believe it. These were the reasons I wanted to come home? They were ridiculous. They meant nothing to me after about a week of being back in the States. After a week, counter-culture shock hit me full-force.
Few people talk about counter-culture shock, or even know what it is. Counter-culture shock is what you experience returning home after an extended period abroad. You are disillusioned because the place you couldn’t wait to get back to, the place that has represented comfort and home, doesn’t feel the same. It’s not that the place has changed; you have changed and it didn’t change with you.
My counter-culture shock was especially acute because of September 11. I arrived in Spain on August 30, 2001 and didn’t step foot on American soil until 11 months later. During that time my primary news sources were European. Their point of view, while similar to the U.S.’s at the beginning, was dramatically different by the time I left. I got home and there were American flags on every moving vehicle, and the fight against terrorism was in full swing. I was in Prague the day President Bush told the world that there was no middle ground and that you were either “with us or against us” in the battle against tyranny and evil as we defined it. I was walking across Northern Spain on a pilgrimage on the Fourth of July, and I was astounded when an American woman I met said that no one agreed with what Bush was doing, but they followed him because he was the president. Because of this day in history, the life I wanted to return to was no longer there, and the U.S. was feeling a cohesiveness that I was unable to understand or be part of.
As hard as a year in a foreign country and foreign culture was, it was nothing compared to the depression I felt returning to a country that had changed so drastically while I was gone. I was unwilling to state my point of view on what we were doing abroad because it was still considered un-American, but frustrated at my lack of courage and angry at what I was hearing around me. It took me a long time to realize that people’s views – including my own – are based on their personal experiences, and I had completely missed out on this one and the mentality it had produced.
Soon after returning to the States, I realized that I wanted to leave again. I felt confined, misunderstood, and that everything was too easy. After a year of struggling to speak the language, of trying to understand and be understood, college classes in my native language didn’t seem like much of a challenge. After a year of seeing pictures of the dead children killed by American bombs in Afghanistan on the front page of Spanish newspapers, I couldn’t fathom the light-hearted fun of grinding on fraternity boys at sticky-floored bars just because I was now 21.
So I started planning my next trip abroad. After this academic year, I would be able to wrap up my two degrees in Spanish and journalism with one six-month internship at a newspaper, provided that I wrote in English, but could somehow incorporate Spanish into the mix. Fortunately, I was close friends with one of the international programs advisors, and there just happened to be a program through Oregon State University where I could work at an English-language newspaper in a Latin-American country. My first choice – and the one I got – was for the Guadalajara Colony Reporter, a weekly newspaper that has written for the mostly American expatriates in Mexico for more than 30 years. I was working on an article at the Colony Reporter about cheap airfares when I decided that I wanted to go back to Europe via New York and New Orleans.
To understand why I decided to go to partake in this adventure, you first have to understand my time in Mexico. So that is where the story begins: in the cramped old house that holds the makings of the Colony Reporter in the city of Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco.