Most of us seem to have a very romantic idea of what it means to be a drifter, well at least I do. Some Tom Waits-esque character living out of a hotel room in downtown Los Angeles, writing song lyrics on a paper serviette. This romanticisation is partly what got me interested in travel in the first place. Just the idea of not being bound to single place, and simply drifting from town to town, city to city; a stranger in a foreign land with endless possibilities of experience and good living. I wanted to experience life as a “character” from a Charles Bukowski novel. That’s what I’ve always imagined life being like as a drifter.
This past winter I travelled across Spain from north to south for 6 weeks. For the first month, I slept primarily in the cheapest hostel dorms I could find throughout the country, and some of the worst if I’m to be honest. I expected the dorms to be fairly quiet considering it was the off-season and a lot less people travelled in the winter. This turned out to be the case a lot of the time, but some of the hostels I stayed in were surprisingly full. My biggest surprise was that most of the people staying in these dorms weren’t travellers at all, well at least not in the traditional sense of the term. They were drifters. Down and outs without a home. It had caught me by surprise, and not in the sense that I thought it would if I were to ever come across a real-life drifter. These people weren’t there to socialise, make friends or explore the cultural differences of a foreign city. I learnt that lesson quite quickly when trying to strike up a conversation to break the awkward silence of being in a room with a complete stranger who hadn’t even noticed my presence since arrival.
My first experience of this was in Barcelona, when a fellow “traveller” staying in my room ignored my greeting and stormed out as if I had ruined his day and invaded his personal space by attempting to interact with him. Or at least that’s how my comfort inclined, home-bred self had perceived his response at the time. I soon realised he wasn’t a traveller at all, and had probably been there for quite a long time. Perhaps a youth hostel was the only form of accommodation he could afford? Or maybe he was just up to no good, and therefore a youth hostel rendered the perfect temporary residence for his suspicious activity?
There were quite a few characters like this that I met throughout the trip. There was an old man in Tarragona who was built like a skyscraper with constant ticks and fidgety movements. After observing him for 2 days, I became curious about him and tried to dig out as much information as I could, because apparently he wasn’t entirely against having a conversation. He seemed to spend every single day locked up inside on his laptop, sitting in the same position. It amazed me how one could live like that. He told me he had been there since September (5 months prior) sorting out “medical documents”, and that he was from Zaragoza. We spoke about Fransisco Goya and other Spanish artists, and even though he spoke English, I only understood about 15 to 20% of what he said. The rest I responded to with mere nods of agreement. His current situation was all very vague and unspecified, so I decided to not ask too many questions in fear of accidentally irritating him with my suspicion. The old man happened to be one of two drifters that were temporarily living out of that same room. The other was a middle-aged man from somewhere in eastern Europe who refused to say a single word and played incredibly annoying videos out loud on his phone. He seemed to sleep in till about 7pm, and then disappear into the night and return before I awoke the next morning, like some strange drifting vampire. Both these men’s bizarre actions and daily activity soon became a running joke between me and a female Argentinian traveller who I think felt slightly more than a little uncomfortable sleeping amongst such characters, but it would be a little naive of me to assume she felt any different around me either.
At first, all of this was a little bit of a culture shock to say the least, but perhaps culture shock isn’t the right term. It was more of a lifestyle shock, or a mild awakening into reality. Real-life drifters (a person who continually moves from place to place without a fixed home) weren’t at all what I was expecting, though at the same time, acted very similarly to what my pre-conceived notion of a drifter was like. Their actions were just performed in a manner that resembled a lack of hope in humanity and existence. For some reason, all I’ve read that formed my pre-conceived notion of a drifter, carried a sort of romanticism about it that cried for hope, despite the nihilism. These people I came across in Spain were far from that fantasy of mine. They had given up hope a long time ago. They stunk of failure, defeatism and misery. They were completely alone in this world, but not in the glamorous, social outcast sense of the description. They were so alone, almost nobody would ever notice they were alone. There’s nothing more lonely than being completely alone and having nobody know about it.
The most interesting of all the strange characters I met throughout the trip was a young man named Costa; a fellow Londoner who was also half Spanish, just like me. I met him at a hostel in Nerja; a resort town in southern Spain. I went there thinking and hoping that it might be one of the few places on that stretch of coast that retained its authentic Spanish charm, but boy was I wrong. Nerja was a lazy, patriotic English man’s paradise, or hell, depending on who you ask. Aside from the beautiful view from the Balcony of Europe, the town offered little to nothing for me. Costa on the other hand, was fascinating to be around, though hard to keep up with and slightly exhausting for an introvert like me. He had a rough, croaky voice, a cockney accent and far too much charm for his own good. All the travellers in the hostel loved Costa and would sit around listening to him ramble, drink cheap wine and crack jokes all night long. It was by far the best form of entertainment you could get around there. I soon realised he was a sort of local legend. We all talked about him, wanted to know where he was all the time and would gather around to listen to him talk from the moment he awoke at midday from a drunken, late night bender. On the night I met him, we went out drinking with a few other guys from the hostel. Costa just happened to know everyone at the pub we went, and a bunch of people around town as well. If he wasn’t such a nice, genuine guy, I would have felt a little envious of how everybody treated him, but the attention was well deserved. Costa was like a character from a movie. I can’t remember how long exactly he said he’d been staying at that little hostel, but I think it was almost a year. Costa was undoubtedly a drifter. He relied on occasional construction work in Granada to fund his chaotic lifestyle, but admitted he was nearly out of money and needed to work again soon. He had served up to nearly 5 years of jail time throughout his short lifetime, which he’d served in small amounts for a build up of small, petty crimes. He also had a lot of exciting stories to share with me, like surviving a stabbing in Beneficio; a hippie commune in the mountains of Andalusia near the village of Orgiva. He had a big scar on his stomach to prove it; a battle wound he wore proudly, and rightfully so.
Costa was similar to the sort of drifter I had initially imagined somebody who drifted to be like. He was a walking Tom Waits song with a little less romance and a lot more trouble. He even sounded a little like Tom Waits with his croaky, burnt-out ramble. What differentiated Costa from the other drifters I more regularly came across, was the glimmer of hope in his eyes; a need to live in the moment and enjoy life. A thirst to get drunk, chat to strangers, cause trouble and live wherever he wanted, as long as he was on the road and far away from home. Perhaps this is not the purest, most common type of drifting, but this was the kind I had been hoping to discover. Costa put the cherry on top of the cake for my hostel experiences throughout that trip. After that, I stuck to private rooms for the remainder of my journey due to a desperate need to return to my own space and company. Nevertheless, it was an intriguing experience sleeping amongst drifters in youth hostels throughout Spain, from the good, the bad, to the ugly. It got me out of my comfort zone and forced me to see the realities of drifting. Not everyone has the privilege of travelling as a means of seeing the world. For some, the road is their home. They have no one or nowhere to return to when in need of company, or when times are rough. The closest thing they have to family is the strangers that come and go, and frown upon their forgotten souls. It must be because accommodation is so much cheaper to find in the winter that these lonesome drifters resort to youth hostels as a means of survival. I wonder what happens to these people in the summer when the prices almost triple? That’s a question for another occasion, but one can only imagine.