Drink, drugs, sex and parties. That’s it. More concise than usual, eh?
Here in León, Nicaragua’s second largest city, I am staying in a hostel which is off the beaten track. It’s probably not even in the Lonely Planet, though I wouldn’t know since I am working my way through Central America without a guide book. My hostel is cheaper than Bigfoot or The Chilli Inn, two of the mainstream, it’s also very quiet. I have a dorm to myself, and a double bed.
In Granada, I spent one night in a mainstream hostel, before shifting to the more obscure Casa Abierta. It was populated by Nicaraguans and other Central Americans, and a Spaniard, the language was exclusively Spanish – no-one else spoke English at a good level. Most of the guests were the artisans who peddle their wares down the main backpacker street during the evening.
I like to stay in these types of hostel. The people are more chilled, I get to practice my Spanish, and, perhaps most importantly for me, I get an insight into the local culture. And let’s face it, if I wanted to get drunk with a load of Europeans, I could do that in Europe.
Now let’s look at how the other half travel: from Lonely Planet recommended hostel to Lonely Planet recommended hostel. They party almost every night. They spend almost every day feeling hungover. They hang around other Westerners – whose culture is so similar to their own. Aren’t they missing out on something?
For me, they don’t get the opportunity to see beyond their comfortable horizons. Sure, they see some pretty places, and sure, they meet some lovely people. But, they return home with the same attitude with which they left. Perhaps a bit more worldly, but more so within the world they already knew – like an accelerated learning process into a Western system which is severely straining under its innumerable issues.
So what am I saying? I’m saying that I’d love to see more people throw their guide book in the bin and ask a taxi driver to recommend a decent place to stay, or talk to an old man on the street about which sites he recommends in and around his town. Sure, sometimes you’ll end up in a crappy place, and sure, sometimes the language barrier will make it real tough, but that’s all part of the fun. And you’ll learn something too. And for me that’s what travel is about – learning and expanding ourselves by opening our minds and our hearts. One just needs to take a little chance every now and again*.
*Obviously be safe – I’m not advocating taking crazy risks. But at the same time trust yourself and trust the locals so long as it feels right.