December 27, 2016
New Orleans, Louisiana
As I’m sitting at a picnic table under an umbrella in the courtyard of the India House Hostel in the Mid-City section of New Orleans, I am reflecting on the past four (five?) days and nights that I’ve spent in the Big Easy. It’s a good day for reflection. The sky is overcast, the ground is wet and the trees are still dripping a bit of the remainder of the latest shower. The temperature is noticeably cooler today, which is nice. I have just bid goodbye to a nice German girl who was hoisting her backpacks onto her shoulders, front and back. By her own admission, she has too much stuff. In one of her hands is a plastic bag full of items that would not fit into her luggage. I’m left to assume that she purchased some t-shirts or other memorabilia from New Orleans, perhaps as gifts for people back home, where she told me she is headed. She strikes me as someone who is not a novice at traveling, and has stayed in many hostels in many cities. I don’t recall her name, just where she is from, and the brief conversation that we shared with a guy from Colombia the other night.
Hostel living is a relatively new experience for me. It’s completely different from staying in a hotel, where you have your own large room, television, bathroom. In a hostel, you are usually sleeping, dressing, and storing your bags in the same large room as perhaps 12 other guests. It can feel a little close. Most of the time, the actual occupancy is much lower than the availability of beds. Which means that most travelers select the bottom bunk (nobody but a kid likes to have to climb up and throw themselves on the mattress while trying not to bump their head on the ceiling) and then use the top bed frame as a hanger for their clothing. If you want some semblance of privacy, you use your blanket as a curtain, stuffing one edge of it under the upper mattress and draping the remainder down, covering your own bed, a trick that comes in handy if the hostel has provided a small light on the wall next to the bunk, because then you can read a book without disturbing your fellow guests. I do not have a light this time. My current “room” is a converted shotgun-style house that holds 8 bunk beds, and sleeps 16. There are two toilets and three showers. It’s not as clean as some of the hostels in which I’ve stayed in Asia, but neither is it a roach-infested, smelly pig-sty which is how some other hostels have been described. I am told that the original owner was enthralled by Indian culture, hence the name and much of the colorful decoration found on the property.
The courtyard where I am sitting is equal parts beautiful tropics and rustic shanty-town. There are lush plants- ferns, banana trees, etc.- scattered throughout. Ringing the courtyard are several clapboard-clad houses that are covered in colorful murals of smiling lobsters, a brass jazz band, a Mardi Gras parade, and several other eclectic works. Directly in front of me is the outdoor kitchen, a collection of rusting white refrigerators of various sizes, a large, stainless steel utility sink, and a restaurant-grade gas grill. This kitchen is also laid out in an “L” shape, but unlike most others, the “L” is inverted, meaning that the cook must walk around a 90-degree corner to get from the stove to the sink, with the refrigerators in between. Incongruently, there’s a 50″ flat screen television mounted on the wall above the sink, facing the large portico that houses church-pew seating that surrounds a large table. There is an old, dusty piano against one wall. I have no idea if it works, but I’m guessing that it isn’t tuned, even if it does. The only other building that is visible from where I sit is a large, brick, mission-style church with terra-cotta tiled roof, rounded stained-glass windows, and a six-story bell tower. The entire effect is of being transported to an unnamed developing country.
The morning cook is frying up some bacon that is tempting me sorely. I remember that I’ve not eaten since yesterday at noon. (Strike that, I had a small portion of multi-grain tortilla chips with hummus a short while ago. What’s wrong with my memory, anyway?) The hostel provides breakfast cooked-to-order every day from 9am – 1pm for a reasonable price. Dinner is $6, and the offerings vary. On Christmas Day, the staff put on a killer feast- including baked ham, deep-fried turkey, homemade stuffing, potatoes, green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, and much more. The cranberry dressing was delicious. For dessert, there were two massive pans filled with an outstanding bread pudding. We were served family-buffet style, and after at least 40 of us had filled our plates, we hadn’t even taken half of what was prepared. Seconds, anyone? And in the spirit of Christmas, dinner was free.
I’m on my second cup of coffee as I wait for my new exploring companions to rise and greet the day. On Saturday night, I met up with Jonny, an Aussie couchsurfer who was having banking issues due to the holiday. I bought him a beer in the Famous Door bar on Bourbon Street as we listened to a pretty good band play rock music. When the first set ended, he and I walked a few blocks down through the perpetual party to a piano bar where we found Alejandra and MayLing, two Panamanian girls who were part of the couchsurfing messaging group that had been set up for a Christmas party here in New Orleans. It turned out that the girls were also staying at India House. So, because of convenience, and because we enjoy each others’ company, we have been discovering the sights, sounds, and tastes of NOLA together. Sometimes we are joined by Daniele, an Italian guy who stayed here for a couple of nights before being hosted through Couchsurfing. Alejandra, who promised that she was getting up at 7am, has just messaged me (at 9:30) to say that they are up, and will be ready in an hour. I’m guessing it’ll be more like 90 minutes.
The bacon trick seems to be working. A crowd of at least a dozen are ordering, sitting, eating, while yet others wander in and out of the main house. Most of the crowd is much younger than me, although one of my bunk-mates is roughly my age, if I had to guess. He seems quite at home here, and for all I know, he may live here semi-permanently. He got up, showered, and dressed himself business-casual. He’s using the portico as a makeshift office with his laptop and phone. I guess I’m doing the same.
For the past half-hour or so, I’ve been talking to a delightful girl from New Zealand. Pat is visiting New Orleans for the third time, and we’ve been swapping travel stories. I think that’s what really makes hostels so appealing to me. In a hotel, you’re protected from having to deal with other people by your four walls. But, why do we want to be protected from being in contact with other people? Aren’t other people and the interaction we get with them the very things that make travel and life interesting? Hotels can be very comfortable in a physical sense, especially the luxury ones. But I find them to be very uncomfortable in a spiritual sense, as they tend to disconnect us from life. The beauty of being human is in embracing our humanity, being interested and engaged with other humans. We are supposed to be a social species. Yet this whole “stranger danger!” outlook has been allowed to separate us from each other. Many of my fellow countrymen dream of a vacation in Paris or London, or if they are bold an exotic locale like Hong Kong. They save their thousands of dollars, buy the round-trip ticket, stay in the best hotel they can afford, then they go see the sights. They eat at the same “quaint” little cafes where their friends ate the year before, and go take a picture in front of Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower, take a ride in a cycle-powered rickshaw to the noodle place that the concierge recommends to every western tourist. They purchase their trinkets, get back on their plane, and come home with the same fucking boring stories, pictures, and experiences that their neighbor has. They didn’t experience what it’s like to live in France. They tell the cutesy stories about the conversation they had with the cabbie with the Bri’ ish accent, but other than speaking with people in the service industry, they really didn’t connect with the locals at all. And so their experience was sanitized.
I’m not trying to say that hostels or couchsurfing are for everyone. But if you don’t take the effort to have a real and meaningful interaction with other people who don’t look, talk, eat, or dress like you, then you have missed out on some of the best life has to offer.
I’ve just now come back from spending the day with Alejandra and MayLing, riding the trolley, walking down Chartres Street while drinking beers at 11am, eating gator sausage dog and crawfish ettouffee fries before seeing the outdoor art museum at City Park. They have gone off to see a Dr. John concert. It’s taco night at India House, and I’m about to head over for a plate, and then join a group of other travelers, including an Aussie who seems to have lots of cools stories about kangaroos and snakes.