The Hostel on Second Street celebrates its 75th year providing the City of Santa Monica with their service on Saturday afternoon. All were welcome to spend the afternoon enjoying free food and music. (photo by Brandon Wise)

DOWNTOWN — There are few places in the world where a Cameroonian medical student can have a conversation with an Australian nurse, while watching a British tax accountant chase his young children past a Swedish backpacker exchanging phone numbers with her new Japanese friend.

But on Saturday, at Santa Monica’s branch of Hostelling International, hostel staff and members of the community experienced one such melting pot as they gathered with travelers from around the world to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the hostelling movement.

Hostelling International, founded in Germany in 1909, operates over 4,000 hostels in 80 countries. Santa Monica’s branch of Hostelling International was built in 1990, expanding out of a building that once housed a saloon. Saturday’s festivities — an open house hosted in the hostel’s common area — marked not only the 100th anniversary of hostelling worldwide, but the 75th anniversary of Hostelling International’s presence in the United States.

Though hostel guests made up a large portion of Saturday’s crowd, many members of the community played their role in the celebration. Curious citizens — some seasoned hostellers, others travel novices — mixed in with the crowd, while a group of local musicians played in the background. Local vendors donated items which were raffled off throughout the evening. Mayor Ken Genser appeared to present the hostel with a plaque in honor of its contribution to the city.

It was a motley mixture befitting the organization whose mission is to promote “a greater understanding of the world and its people” through cultural exchange.

“The way that we are designed is for people to meet … I think they become more open minded for other cultures. I think that we definitely make a difference,” Chris Lafollette, the hostel’s general manager, said.

The open house also presented an opportunity for Hostelling International to make its presence known to Santa Monicans.

“What we want is to increase awareness of hostels in the U.S. We want to tell the community that we are here,” Tatiane Rodrigues, the assistant general manager, said.

Referred to in jest as “the Hilton of hostels,” Santa Monica’s hostel is one of the largest in the United States. In addition to 260 beds, separated into single-sex dormitories with co-ed rooms for couples, the hostel contains a library, multiple common rooms, and a communal kitchen with six stoves.

Saturday’s open house event offered tours through these facilities, giving many people their first-ever taste of life in a hostel, and correcting certain “misconceptions” about its cleanliness, security, and comfort.

“Most people, when they think of hostels, have very low expectations,” said Lafollette. “We’re going to raise their expectataons and go beyond what they even thought.”

Though the current economic climate has led many people to restrict travel, the expansive facilities are still put to constant use. In the peak of its summer season, the hostel is operating at full capacity.

“Earlier in the year they were saying that the number of travelers was going to decrease,” Rodrigues said, “but I think what we are seeing is that people are shifting. They’re still traveling, but instead of staying in a hotel room which, in Santa Monica, costs about $200 a night, they’re coming here. So some people are experiencing hostels for the first time.”

Of course, for every person who is just discovering hostels, there is another person who has seen enough hostels to last a lifetime. One such person is Nina Diamante, a 72-year old Beverly Hills resident whose hostelling repertoire includes 93 countries — “so far.”

“A hotel is a hotel … anywhere in the world. When I go to other countries, I want to meet people from other countries,” Diamante said, adding, “I think that we are generally taught to be afraid of people we don’t know. ‘Don’t talk to strangers,’ we’re told … Well, some of the strangers I’ve spoken to have been great friends.”

The sense of camaraderie that comes from hostelling isn’t limited to the hostellers themselves. Staff members and volunteers also reap the benefits.

“I definitely feel like there’s a sense of community here,” said volunteer Du’a Kaisi, who began working with Hostelling International after her own experiences in Budapest inspired her to help other travelers. “When you’re traveling, you appreciate the people who help you out.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *