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The ABCs of Hostel Talk

It’s been almost one month since my quasi-backpacking trip has begun and inevitably, I have observed some patterns. First and foremost, one must make a concerted effort to be alone. Since I left my hosts’ home in Bogota, I have yet to have a meal by myself. True story.

Leaving Bogotá with a smile, I arrived at Renacer Hostel in Villa de Leyva following a long journey from Bogota with stops in Zipaquirá for a tour of Catedral de Sal and Ráquira, a small village famous for its pottery-making inhabitants. The hostel, which is a good 20 minutes walk from the town center, was quiet. Considering it was Monday after Semana Santa, it was not surprising to find Villa de Leyva, described in general as a sleepy town to be in total hibernation. Perhaps solitude would find me here, I was thinking as I put my bag in the dormitory and sat at the patio to rest. Three minutes barely past before somebody invited me to dinner. My first dinner overlooking the beautiful Plaza Major in Villa de Leyva set the tone for the weeks to follow.

I knew it would be easy to meet people while traveling alone but I could not have imagined that it could be this simple. Travelers at hostels, whether they are traveling “solo,” as a couple, or with someone they met a few days ago, are open and eager to make new friends. It’s a magical bubble in which jumping on a bus with a stranger you met half an hour ago to go see a lake that some other stranger at breakfast suggested is the most natural thing in the world.

There is almost a scripted question and answer session one must go through on a daily basis upon meeting the people you break bread with so easily: “Where are you from?” which is usually the first question, followed by some derivation of “Where are did you get here from? Where are you going?” and of course the “How long are you traveling for?” usually followed by “what is your profession?” The consistency of this script reminds me of my teenage days of MIRC chat-rooms and the popping window of a stranger’s chat request with those dreaded three letters: “a/s/l?”

Truth be told, I ask these very questions that annoy me just as often I am asked them since they provide the perfect icebreaker. Nevertheless, not even a complete month into my trip, I am already eager to skip those initial meetings that begin with “Where are you from?” and continue for at least 15 minutes in a monotone rhythm until we can go past the “so you went to that hostel and ate at that restaurant” and have a more meaningful conversation.

Beyond the dull repetitiveness of these scripted conversations, I have a particular apprehension to the most common opening question—the inquiry of origin—because I have yet to figure out the best answer. Considering I’ve never felt American even when I lived in the States, it leaves me with Turkey or Israel as my possible “home” countries. Having spent the past seven years in Israel, and since it is the country where I have an actual home, it should be the natural answer but who wants to be associated with the obnoxious Israelis tramping through South America? (Hint: not me!) So my answer so far has been the vague yet still accurate, “I’m originally from Turkey.” But this answer just catapults me into a tedious QA session of where I currently live and why I speak English so well.

A few days ago, eating one of the best meals I had in Colombia at Casa de Felipe in Taganga, I shared my dilemma with Guillaume, a French Canadian who travels the world as a Cirque de Soleil technician, and Alex, who as a Russian living in Germany since her childhood is torn between taking the German citizenship which would require her to trash her Russian passport.

“Just make something up!” they suggested to my predicament. “You can create a new identity with everyone you meet and that way, the conversation will never get boring.” Not a bad idea, if I was ever good at lying. I can’t even pretend to be simply from Turkey (which I have tried in the past few days) since the follow up question to that is what I happened to do in Istanbul, at which point I squirm with a sour face:

“Ugh… Actually… I live in Israel… ugh…well, I mean, now I don’t live anywhere…I’m in Colombia!”

But I digress. The point I actually would like to make is that there is an almost unnatural ease in which one can strike up a conversation with complete strangers in this surreal setting that is a hostel dormitory or restaurant or well…the street. And before you know it, you are traveling with them for days, sharing stories, making last minute plans, and complaining about muscle aches after hikes through rainforests.

As a new member of the world of backpackers I am still learning the subtleties of hostel hopping. I still haven’t figured out a way to pack my bag that doesn’t require me to make a mess out of it every time I need to find something.

These days I am trying to find the balance—the balance between hostel talk and self-reflection. I have much to write, countless places to visit, and many people to meet. In the next few days, I hope to find some seclusion amongst all the friendly strangers and fill you all in where I have been in the past two weeks as well as all the talks in between. I have my swollen feet that need mandatory rest after a 4-day hike to Ciudad Perdida to thank for this necessary breather, but before I tell you about the Machu Pichu of Colombia, stay tuned for my adventures in Villa de Leyva and Barichara.

Where to visit on the way to Villa de Leyva? 

Places to see between Bogotá and Villa de Leyva include Catedral de Sal, the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá and Ráquira, a small town famous for pottery. It’s not possible to make a stop at these places if you are traveling by public bus but I was lucky to have been gifted a private guide for the day by Jack, a Colombian friend who demonstrated the hospitality of Colombians even while on vacation in Panama.

The Salt Cathedral ranks high up there among the strange peculiarities of Colombia. It’s a Cathedral in an old salt mine turned into an attraction named “La Primera Maravilla de Colombia” – “The first wonder of Colombia.” Tourists are guided through a sorts of a Via Doloroso adorned with large crosses, three chapels symbolizing the birth, life, and death of Christ, and then herded into a 3D movie on the geological formation of the area, which was under water before the movement of the tectonic plates created the South American continent as we know it. Then you walk through a commercial marketplace with souvenirs and emerald jewelry.  All the while your guide continuously reminds you that you are in la primera maravilla de Colombia! Whatever that’s supposed to mean…

One of the stations in the Salt Cathedral’s version of Via Dolorosa



Lunching in Ráquira was much more pleasant than the Salt Cathedral, even though the town was empty the day following Easter Sunday.

The main square in Ráquira

Schoolboy in Ráquira. The small town which apparently means “City of Pots” was especially quiet the day after Eastern Sunday.