“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” wrote Charles Dickens in the opening line of A Tale of Two Cities. He was referring to life in an area of Europe in the late 1700s, but one could also feasibly slap this line into a book about overnights in hotels and hostels around the world in 2011.
Since this is a blog and not a book, I’m short on space and will focus on “it was the best of times.” Take the photo above, for example. This is my bedside view at the Al-Rabie Hotel in Damascus, Syria. It is morning, and I’ve just slept like a rock in a comfortable bed, recovering from a long but good day walking all over one of the Middle East’s most fascinating cities. Still sleeping are the three people sharing the dorm: an Australian guy who never talks, a vivacious Argentine woman with Lebanese heritage, and a super-courteous Japanese girl who tomorrow will fly back home to begin a job as an air traffic controller. I sit on the edge of my bed and look out the window into the courtyard of this centuries-old Damascene house-turned-hotel. Down below are more interesting people, a choice of two kinds of chairs in which to read or write in my journal, a fountain bubbling just out of view. There is also breakfast waiting — bread, a boiled egg, cheese, olives, a piece of fruit, and tea. And just outside the building, of course, is the city itself.
The list of other cherished hostels or hotels I’ve temporarily called home is long. I think of the Ocean View Beach Resort on the north side of Ko Phangan (amazing staff), any number of places along Lake Toba in Sumatra (the beauty of the world’s largest crate lake!), the Mountain View Hotel in Sapa (it lives up to its name, and the thick fog on Christmas morning — absolutely magical). There is the Madina Hotel and Guesthouse in Gilgit, Pakistan, with a manager whose aching, burning desire for peace moved me no less than the site of the surrounding Karakoram Range. And how can I neglect the Platypus Hostel in Bogota, which I give two thumbs up to if for no other reason than that here I met Jason Howe, a combat photographer fresh from Afghanistan, whose photos and stories (and a little Jack Daniels) made my head spin? It’s not every day you meet a guy who has written an article titled “I fell in love with a female assassin.”
This list is but the tip of the iceberg, and it shows that a place is more than its walls and mattresses. It’s also the people and surprises, the views and the voices, the space in which we travel in ways that can’t be found on a map.