Rare in America
Where Foreigners Meet
Saturday, June 1, 2013
How and how often you travel is often dictated by one important factor: money.
It’s easy to be a naïve young person too hyped up on caffeine and hormones, and too caught up in having the time of your life, to truly comprehend that traveling costs money – and plenty of it, as a rule.
Relatively inexpensive options do exist, though.
You may be as surprised as I was to discover that hostels exist outside of Europe. In fact, we have one—and only one—in Santa Barbara.
Although not quite as hip as the several huge hostels found in Berlin, pulsating with world travelers who are fine with sleeping in a bunk bed surrounded by 49 strangers, or the Amsterdam hostels equipped not only with a bar in the lobby, but with a marijuana smoking den, Santa Barbara’s hostel is nonetheless a unique spot. Tucked between Yanonali and Chapala streets, the Santa Barbara Tourist Hostel is a gem for foreigners looking to crash in downtown S.B. for a night or two.
I showed up to the hostel around 9 a.m. looking to talk to some young foreigners. I didn’t have to look far. The guy at the front desk, Rosko, was from Costa Rica, studying at Santa Barbara City College for a few years. He told me a little about the place. Guests at the Santa Barbara Tourist Hostel must foreigners with non-US passports, or prospective students in Santa Barbara. Rates are seasonal – currently $38 a night for a bed in a six-person dorm room. Even though it’s located directly south of the train station, Rosko said most guests arrive at the hostel with rental cars.
After talking to Rosko, I wandered around the colorful lobby for a few minutes. The smell of white-bread toast and rich coffee almost made me feel like a foreigner again, looking to fill up on a complimentary continental breakfast.
I approached a group of three girls and three guys sitting at a breakfast nook. The traveling trios had both arrived the day before from Ireland. “We’ve just met these guys, but it turns out we have mutual friends,” said one of the girls, Suzie. “Ireland’s a small place.”
The six of them just finished their second year at University College Dublin, and now they’re here for the summer on a three-month worker’s visa; yet another example of S.B.’s “Irish invasion.” They plan to stay at the hostel for at least a week, until they find part-time jobs and a place to rent.
The six of them were a hoot. They were determined to have a fabulous California summer, and suddenly they were the ones asking all the questions. I told them where to eat, drink, buy a cell phone, and rent a surf board. I encouraged them to keep asking people for advice and look online for ride-shares for weekend getaways. I even told them about the somewhat hidden and somewhat nude beach in S.B. They were shocked.
“I thought you guys were from Europe,” I said.
“We’re not that European,” Suzie said, and we all laughed.
I told them to wait until Thursday for College Night to go out on State Street if they want to avoid cover charges at clubs. They’ll fit in well. The nightclub Tonic is always packed with foreigners, I told them. I forgot to mention Old Town Tavern College Night Wednesdays!
As I shared more S.B. tidbits that I’ve discovered during my four years here, I remembered the real beauty of hostels: meeting people. Almost as important as cost-efficiency, hostels provide a friendly place to network and to make unlikely friends. I’ve met plenty of affluent travelers in Europe who opted to stay in a hostel over a hotel because of the communal atmosphere. Plus, many hostels offer private rooms for a higher cost.
Hostels help make travel possible for young foreigners. So why doesn’t Santa Barbara have more of them? Rosko said it seems like most people traveling to Santa Barbara tend to be older and richer than backpackers often looking for just a bed to crash on.
As for the rest of America, Hostelling International-American Youth Hostels is a nonprofit organization that runs 60 hostel facilities across the country. Unfortunately for young people, though, some of their hostels have curfews and restrictions on alcohol consumption.
In all, there are only about 100 independently owned hostels scattered across America. The rural South and Midwest do not have any, according to an article in the Houston Chronicle a couple of years back. The U.S. has more cheap hotels and motels than Europe has, though part of the charm of hostels is that they encourage diverse travelers to meet and share experiences.
Perhaps many Americans assume hostels are dirty, frat-house establishments where a full night’s rest is unlikely. And the truth is that some hostels – like some motels and hotels – are unsanitary and attract nocturnal partiers. I stayed in glorified jailhouse at Piccadilly Circus in London: Six color-coded stories packing in hundreds of “inmates.” That was an extreme case, though. All of the other hostels I stayed in while abroad were fairly clean and welcoming.
I wonder when California hostels will have pot-smoking dens.