“I hate America,” a young man told me. “I am on my way out. I am going to Africa, from Cairo to the Cape. I need to be where there is some real culture, you know? I just came back from Central America and really learned how to live life, you know? The values they have, in those kind of places, inspired me.
I asked him to be more specific.
“As an American I feel guilty, guilty of how we treat the world, right?” he said. “I travel, man, okay? I see how the rest of the world is and when I come back to America I get disgusted with myself for being part of this. Now that Bush is ‘president’”—he makes air quotes with his fingers—“I got to go, right?”
A dreadlocked Canadian girl sitting near us nodded in agreement.
“I have this Canadian flag on my bag so people won’t think I’m American,” she said. “I am serious, really.”
I asked her why she travels.
“No economic distance,” she said. “Hostels have, you know, personality. You feel as if you actually are part of something, like a community. Besides, we are travelers, not tourists.”
There are three youth hostels on Maui. Two are in Wailuku and one is in Lahaina. To stay in these hostels you pay around $20 a night. Sometimes this includes breakfast and tours to various points of interest around the island. Most backpackers come here to surf, and the hostels are littered with surfboards accordingly.
I’ve spent much of my life staying in hostels. There were the putrid-smelling communal rooms in Damascus; the slow bake of a poorly ventilated dorm in Phnom Penh; countless other rooms throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa and Southern Europe.
Hostels thrive on a combination of unfamiliarity and fear. As much as backpackers talk about being in touch with the local culture, the truth is they need the reinforcement of surrounding themselves with fellow travelers.
The hostel and its little grotto provide a place to share travel advice, exchange gossip and cash in bragging rights. Johannesburg can be as cold as a knife, but it’s always nice to know there are warm, loving hostels to sleep in. People speak your language, understand your concerns and provide camaraderie during the painful throes of homesickness.
In one Wailuku hostel, I met Lars, from Denmark. He was traveling with his friend Peter.
“We wanted to, you know, see the real Maui and to see the Hawaiian culture,” he told me. “In Copenhagen we used to see on TV kids who would go to Maui, to surf and have this great adventure. We could have stayed in a regular hotel, but we wanted to…”
“What he means,” Peter said while Lars searched his English, “is that we wanted to travel a journey with a human face.”
Moti from Israel had just finished army service when I met up with him.
“I needed some time, some time to understand a little about myself to see where I will go in life,” he said. “I am 23, so when I go back to Israel I will start my education, perhaps a family. This was a time for reflection, I think.”
Others stay at hostels for pocketbook reasons. Some European university students told me they hadn’t the money to stay at “ritzy hotels.”
“You know, the kinds of places old people stay in, that cost 80 quid a night,” one girl said. “Who needs that? Plus, staying here you meet all these great people.”
“Yeah,” her Australian friend said. “I think what is more interesting are the people that don’t travel. I know people who are perfectly fine staying in Queensland, never wanting to leave, living their little life.”
Why is their life little and yours not? I asked.
“I travel, I see the world,” she said. “I try to understand the different cultures around me. That’s not while I am on holiday, though. While in India, I met up with a bloke, North American, and we agreed to meet up here.”
Backpacker culture is a culture of strangers. Relationships are built quickly and dismantled hastily. The backpacker relationship is also fragile, often broken apart suddenly, then picked up later in another place.
“It hurts sometimes, you know,” Sofia from Portugal said. “Each person that you connect with, I think, you maybe leave something with them and after all those times of separation there is nothing else left of you. You learn to be harder. That’s the first lesson of travel, is to be hard.
“Hostels are like a little community, you know?” she continued. “Like, you make all these great friends and people you will know for the rest of your life. It becomes a scene, like a little sub-culture. It all starts the first few days you stay in the hostel. You meet some people who say they will be at such and such place, so you want to see them again. So you show up there and then you meet more people. It becomes a routine. I came to Maui a few weeks ago and met some travelers here and now we are all staying together. Travelers are like a family.”