“When you travel alone, you’re never alone.”
– Some creepy, shirtless, old guy laying in his hostel bed in Galway, to me, upon hearing I was traveling alone.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santayana, philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist
Over the past few weeks, I’ve veered away from the details of my travel tales a bit. Things got pretty introspective [The Art of the Pilgrimage], kinda geeky [The Power of Twitter] and animated [Being Bold in Zadar, Croatia].
So this week, I’d like to lighten things up and tell a fun story. I’m going to apologize in advance to new readers or easily offended family members. This post is a little vulgar. But in the spirit of being honest and real, vulgarness is part of the journey. It’s not all waterfalls and rainbows out here.
We last left our hero (ahem, me) in Scandinavia with parents. On the early morning of August 22, I walked with my parents the ten minutes from our hotel to the airport in Tallinn, Estonia. As we kissed and hugged, my mom reminded me of my promise to be home for Christmas.
“Yes, Mom, I’ll be home for Christmas…” I said unconvincingly, even to myself.
I waved goodbye as they disappeared through security. Soon, they’d be boarding a flight to Copenhagen, and eventually continuing onward to the US. Our trip together quickly filing itself away alongside other past, pleasant memories.
As I walked back to the hotel alone, I instantly became more self-aware. With every step, I felt myself armoring back up to super-traveler status, kinda like the meticulous and magical way Tony Stark suits up to Ironman.
The determination of an explorer. The tough skin of a renegade. The courage of a lone journeyer. The introspection of a pilgrim. Even on the short walk back to the hotel felt like I was blazing new paths (probably because I somehow took a wrong turn and actually went back a different way).
I was back on my own…a free man! First order of business? Nestle into the king-size hotel bed, go back to sleep, and spend as much time as possible in the last single-person bedroom in my foreseeable future.
When I eventually woke back up, I gathered my things and jumped on a bus back to Tallinn’s Old Town. I decided I’d stay there five more days. After seeing it through the eyes of a son traveling with parents, I was itching to experience it as a single, male, solo traveler. I was ready to party.
The Best Hostel Ever! (If You’re a Douche Bag)
I base about 90% of my lodging decisions on Hostelworld.com reviews. I found a highly rated hostel in Tallinn Backpackers Hostel, ‘Backpackers’ signifying it’s social and geared toward solo travelers. Great location. Friendly staff. Social atmosphere. Happy hour specials. Pictures of people having the best time of their lives. Plus, highly respected perpetual traveler Nomadic Matt listed it as one of his favorite hostels in Europe (dude, we gotta talk). All that added up in my head to a flawless weekend in Tallinn.
It was about noon when I checked into the hostel. Upon entering, I was greeted by a friendly, mustached Australian (no surprise here, as I’m almost positive Australians invented and reinvented the concept of a backpacker hostel the world over). As I checked-in and surveyed the common room, it immediately reminded me of my fraternity house in college on a Sunday morning. Lethargic bodies strewn nonchalantly across couches; the whiff of stale beer in the air; a guy strutting around in hot pants while his friends egg him on to do erotic dance moves (not an exact scenario from college, but hey, it could have been).
Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time in college living in a fraternity house when I was 21. Do I feel like reliving it again? Not at all.
Well turns out Tallinn Backpackers is the best hostel ever, if you’re A) a douche bag, B) want to experience living in a fraternity house, or C) all of the above.
Maybe I’m finally maturing in my ripe age of 28. It’s not that I don’t like partying or being at a social hostel. It’s that I don’t like a social hostel that makes me be social. I’m a big boy, I can be social when I want to be, and not social when I don’t want to be. I like the option of being social. Just because someone announces it’s “beer o’clock,” doesn’t mean I should feel pressured to have a beer or 8. I’ll drink a beer when I want to drink a beer.
I admit, it’s completely my fault — no one made me stay here. You don’t dive into a pool and then complain it’s too wet. But that weekend I became clearer on the type of hostels I hate. And I’ll never dive into this one again.
During check-in, I was told Tallin Backpackers has one rule, and one rule only: No Facebook After 7pm. In encouraging it to be a social hostel, it wants to replace virtual interaction with face-to-face interaction among guests. I respect that. If you break the rule, you take a shot. Apparently I wasn’t paying much attention to what kind of shot, which you’ll see will bite me in the ass later.
Earlier that evening, I went for a run. I showered, grabbed some food, and headed back to the hostel for some drinks. I settled onto a couch between an Aussie (let’s call him Gary, as to distinguish him from the other Ausssies in the story) and a Kiwi I’d become friends with. I poured myself a vodka & something and joined a drinking game.
I had plans to meet up with a fun German couple I’d met earlier, but decided to have some drinks at Tallinn Backpackers first. I actually wasn’t feeling too great. My mind wanted to party, but my body didn’t. I figured I’d convince my body otherwise with the help of a few drinks.
So the concept of a social hostel is all well and good, but I have a lot more tolerance for a co-ed social drinking group than an all-dude binge-fest. Well, it turns out that most respectable girls don’t elect to stay at a hostel that touts itself as a party hostel. This leaves you with a bunch of guys sitting around a room in fraternity-like-pre-gaming fashion trying to get drunk enough to find the courage to talk to girls, which ironically is the same level of drunk that inhibits them from forming coherent sentences.
Quickly playing out this situation in my head, I was eager to leave this scene, meet up with my German friends, and hit the town. I agreed to message them on Facebook to coordinate. It’s amazing how Facebook has become the social conduit to connect friends around the world. It’s the best, easiest, and sometimes only way to communicate with fellow travelers and locals.
Remembering the ‘One Rule’ at Tallinn Backpackers, I duck into the kitchen to Facebook message my German friends. I was doing it discretely, but not very stealthily, as my ego refused to let a liberal traveler’s hostel, of all places, dictate my freedom.
While I’m in mid-message, some douche stammers into the kitchen. While grabbing a beer or a cup or something, he peers over my shoulder and sees I’m on Facebook. Well, all of a sudden this whistleblower erupts like the fourth of fucking July, running into the main room, red-faced and screaming, “We’ve got a rule-breaker!”
I confidently walk into the main room. I own up to it.
Yes, I was on Facebook, you 22-year-old twat. Tell me, do you know what country or city we’re in? Because to you, every night is the same — drink your face off, stumble around town, make zero effort to learn about this place you’re in, about the people or the culture or the history, or to even entertain the notion that there’s a world outside your hunk of braincell-depreciating skull meat?
I’m a much bigger badass in my mind, so of course, I verbally said none of this.
So everyone in the hostel jumps up all hot and heavy, excited to watch me take a shot. No stranger to shots, I welcome it. Bring it on. Gimme ‘dat shot!
“Oh, this is not just any shot, mate.”
“I know, I know. I have to lay on the ground and someone pours it in my mouth. I get it.”
Someone grabs a towel and hands it to me. Another guy pulls over a trash can and sets it near me.
“You might need this.”
What I failed to pay attention to during check-in, was the type of shot I’d be drinking. Basically, the Aussie staff, those crazy, walkabout-ing mother f-ers, get to concoct a shot using anything in the kitchen. An-y-thing. Alcoholic, non-alcoholic, cooking oils, spices, sauces, food scraps. God forbid, I didn’t even want to think about cleaning supplies. They’d be sensible enough to avoid those, right?
At this moment, I’m getting nervous, but mostly just pissed.
I feel a hand on my shoulder. It’s Gary.
“They’re just bullshitting you! Don’t worry mate.”
“Oh, we’re not bullshitting. This is a very serious offense,” a Backpacker staffer reassures.
“Screw it then, make me one too! We’ll both take a shot!” Gary challenges.
The room erupts again. Two shots!
Almost immediately, an English guy is hustled over to the area where Gary and I stood anticipating our shots.
“I just caught this guy on Facebook too!” says the staffer who caught him. “What an idiot. Now we’ve got three…this is a new Tallinn Backpackers record!”
Now this room of mostly dudes and a few bro-like Aussie girls is at near-orgasmic levels. I’ll never understand why it’s so fun to watch other people succumb to miserable situations.
The three of us lie on our backs, side by side on the cold, dirty wood floor. An Aussie girl lays a towel over my torso and neck, and gets ready to pour the mystery shot down my throat.
I mentally prepare myself. I imagine the forthcoming concoction as a sweet, syrupy, exotic delicacy. If people around the world are simultaneously munching on weirdo things like sheep testicles, monkey brains, and pig’s blood, surely a mixture of common kitchen condiments is nothing to gag about.
There’s a countdown to our collective demise. 3…2…1…SHOTS!!
Although I’m not the most adventurous when it comes to odd food and drink, I have a pretty good ability to power mind over matter. So as the concoction slowly traveled into my mouth and down my throat, I thought about how tasty it was.
Mmmmm… what is that, bottom-shelf vodka? That burning sensation, is that absinthe? A touch of olive oil perhaps? A splash of bar-b-que sauce? I guess it’s yogurt giving it that creamy consistency, huh? Maybe a hint of chili spice? Salt and pepper, of course. Ooooh…and basil…I love basil!
I sit up and look beside me. My fellow felons aren’t looking so hot. Gary is gagging. The English bloke has turned a pale shade of green. The next few moments are kind of a blur. I go into the kitchen and down a bunch of water. I burp a few times. Yep, definitely some chili spice in there.
Physically, I actually felt fine. My stomach was already bothering me, and I didn’t feel much worse than before. But I was burning inside. Yes, partly because of the concoction, but mostly burning with rage. Instantly, I realized how much I hated this place. These people. Not so much them as individuals, but what they represented. I didn’t travel so I could feel like a slave. I traveled to reclaim my freedom and carve my own path. Fuck this place. I walked out and headed alone into the streets.
Freedom Lost, Freedom Found
I hammered down the streets purposefully but directionless. My mind raced.
It’s one thing to be put on display and forced to do something. But the feeling of having your freedom sacrificed, at the mercy of a crowd, makes you feel helpless. On a very minuscule level, I experienced the very scary social phenomenon of Groupthink or Mob Mentality. How ironic this should happen in a place like Estonia.
The thing that resonated most for me during my time in Estonia was the perpetual loss of freedom and life of terror Estonians lived under. Between the countless KGB museums and prisons, memorials, defunct statues, and real conversations with Estonians and Russians, I learned more in two weeks about this dark time in history than I could ever learn in textbooks or movies.
I imagine most Americans under the age of 50 don’t really understand what happened here. It’s not really our fault. It’s impossible to make these things tangible in school. Until you can see it, feel it, and touch it, it will never be real. But it’s also no excuse. It’s reason #1,692 why every person should travel abroad.
Long story short, Estonia and the other Baltic countries (Lithuania and Latvia) were basically ping-ponged between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany from 1940 to 1991:
1940 – Soviet Union convinces Estonia to let it set up military bases, then promptly overtakes the Estonian government. Ping.
1941 – Nazi Germany invades the Soviet Union and occupies the Baltic countries. Pong.
1944 – Germany is defeated by the Allies, allowing the Soviet Union to reoccupy the Baltics. Ping.
From here, the story gets worse. The Soviets executed a series of mass deportations. In March 1949 alone, 90,000 Baltic nationals were deported. Estonia’s losses due to Soviet occupation totaled 370,000 people, about one-third of Estonia’s pre-war population. After almost 50 years of Soviet rule, the Baltics eventually reclaimed their freedom in 1991. Game Over.
As I roamed the streets, I thought about how my experience, while on a seriously minuscule level, parallelled Estonians losing their freedom. How would you act in this scenario?
- You do something normal and morally fine (check Facebook). But under your communist government (Aussie-drifter rule), it’s considered an unlawful act.
- You’re brought in front of the government to receive your sentencing of deportation or execution (social exile or one disgusting shot). Do you fight back, quietly accept your punishment, or volunteer to rat out the other three guys who you saw committing the same crime earlier? Either way, you’re probably dead.
- Your neighbors (fellow travelers), all heckle and denounce your criminal acts. Yet inside, they’re scared shitless they’ll be next. They attempt to safely blend into the crowd, where they’ll be safe (for now).
I admit, my experience pales in comparison to what Estonians and people from other Soviet-occupied countries went through. But it gave me a small taste of what it feels like to lose your freedom and feel helplessly at the mercy of a mob.
Fortunately for me, my freedom was found easily as I walked out the door. For Estonians, it took half a century of living in terror and paranoia before they finally tasted freedom.
Whoa, this kinda took a serious turn, huh?
So let’s end on a lighter note…If you ever find yourself in Tallinn, swing on into the Tallinn Backpackers hostel. Undoubtedly there’s a picture of me and two other miserable guys on the eternal wall of shame. Take a picture of the picture, or at least let me know how I look! Heaven knows I’ll never be back there. I’ve found my freedom and it’s far from there.
Have any fun/stupid/vulgar hostel stories? Share ’em below!