Sunday, August 30, 2009

Los Amigos Youth Hostel, Flores

Once I learned that they had some private rooms, and that I wouldn't have to sleep in a dorm or bunk bed with snorers and farters with whom I was unacquainted, I was all in favor of a night at the youth hostel in Flores. It's been years - decades - since I stayed in such a place, so I guess it qualifies as a remote nation, one as curious as Chad or China. There aren't many people under 40 or even 50 in our circles on the Rio Dulce, which is a sad thing to admit!

As a 'coming of age' birthday present - I was 18 or 19 -my parents gave me a Eurailpass and a cheap round-trip ticket to Luxembourg. I left the next week and spent a couple months on the move, with not a backpack but a knapsack, before returning for my last year of college. It was a most formative experience, and I was glad to see that there are still so many young people on a similar quest now.

Los Amigos, the hostel, is in the center of town of Flores, which itself is a smallish island in a lake, connected to the mainland by a causeway. Whatever Mayan facilities once existed here were destroyed by the Spanish hundreds of years ago. The locals themselves are in the process of destroying the streets, replacing the cobblestones with interlocking pavers which will be wonderful, in another year or so.

Beyond the foyer it was a pleasant surprise to find a large courtyard as well as second story rooms and rooftop palapas. Banana trees, vines and flowers, even fresh-hatched quail in lieu of the customary chickens. Artists with a vivid palette and great sense of humor had made their marks throughout.

Our compact room with cordovan-colored walls, navy-blue sheets, electric fan and window to the courtyard cost a whopping $10. There were two kinds of dorm room, maybe half a dozen private rooms, and also hammock-sleeping spaces under a roof upstairs, which might have cost $2 per night. So you can see that Guatemala on $5 a day might be as do-able as Europe on $5 a day was years ago. Which is to say, barely. Still, the folks in the cheap seats are having just as much fun as in the front row.


Like a cat on a windowsill, I parked myself and my book in a hammock in a leafy little nook upwind of the parrot and just inside the rainshower drip line and dozily listened to the conversations around me. This is an active and vibrant hostel, lots of coming and going.
cat at hostel

I love listening to non-native English speakers using English as their common language.Young men sharing shopping tips, young women telling young men how to hitch-hike, that sort of stuff.

Several were going back to school in the fall, but several others were between jobs, or just travelling. A three-generation family was there, including a little girl who loved being pushed on the swing, and an older woman with luggage so big I wondered if she was shipping herself. A Belgian quartet arrived carrying a trumpet and something like an organ keyboard powered by blowing through a tube. They played for us all afternoon, and later that night they played at the Flores central plaza to a smallish but receptive audience of Guatemalans, who sent little girls in party dresses to drop Quetzales into their hat.

I got a kick out of the equipment the backpackers carried. The packs themselves look so much more sleek, organized than mine, and clean and new. One woman showed me her two favorite items - a silky sheet-sleeping bag liner, and a miracle towel (never wet, never dirty, never smelly!) made of miracle fiber. That sounds great - it's a challenge to get a towel dry before it festers.

But otherwise, we were pretty much out of it, conversationally. Not that no one would talk to us - they would, if we started it. Otherwise, we were nearly invisible, or irrelevant. Fine by me! I never went too far out of my way to chat up someone older than my mother either, and only recently do I wonder what I might have missed. That's one of the reasons I'm here, to make up for lost time.

The kitchen at Los Amigos is vegetarian and it puts out great food at great prices, worth going for even if you're not staying there. An avocado licuado, sugar added, is nearly a meal in itself. (Somewhere I read that Antiguans have a nickname based on the extreme availability of avocados in their diet). Tough to fit the country's best vegetable lasagne in afterwards, not to mention the brownie.

The staff is friendly and hardworking, which is good because a few things haven't changed about youth. They're not always tidy, and they still think they're invulnerable. Mainly I was disappointed to see how many smokers there were in this educated and advantaged group of people. It was hard to find fresh air in the courtyard at times. Do these Europeans and Australians think they're immune?

But I hope that I was as clued-up and tuned-in to the world when I was that age (and a smoker) as those kids around the table at Los Amigos while I was there.

Any questions?

Overheard: Australian lad says to American: "They want you to put your toilet paper in the bin." American: "In the bed? That doesn't sound right."