I looked at our room in Mexico City. Two narrow beds crowned with flat pillows, slid side by side. A window. A miniature wastebasket. That was it. Our door opened into the communal bathroom. My husband asked at the front desk if we might have a room not by the toilets. Nope. A later request for another pillow yielded the same response. Toto, we’re not at the Mandarin Oriental anymore. I don’t need a tv or phone, don’t mind the lack of most amenities. But I’m too old – ok, that’s not an excuse; I’m just too high maintenance – to stay in a room without a closet, a chest of drawers, or so much as a hook on the wall.
But that’s where we were staying, at a hostel in the center of the megalopolis. At a cost of 550 pesos a night (less than $45) I couldn’t really complain. And I didn’t. Much. All things considered, I might even be considered a trooper. On our most recent international trip we flitted from one set of luxe digs to another, trading a plush suite in a brand new resort in Bali for the butler-staffed quarters at the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok where the very letterhead was embossed with my name and we needn’t bother so much as pressing our own elevator buttons. I’ve gotten too used to being picked up from the airport in a cushy car, greeted with a bottle of bubbly or barrel aged cocktail in my room, and generally having my every whim catered to. But, to steal a phrase from a friend and fellow travel writer, I can’t afford my own life. And when I’m not crashing courtesy of the hotel or local tourism peeps hosting me while I’m on assignment, this hostel in Mexico City is more in line with my travel budget. And I was here on purpose.
When my husband and I decided spur of the moment to take a quick trip to Mexico, a re-do of our honeymoon, we didn’t have to talk long to decide we wanted to just do it ourselves. Sure I could’ve probably wrangled some assignments that would’ve led to some fringe benefits like a room with its own bathroom, and someone to coordinate all those pesky travel arrangements. But more than anything, I wanted this trip to be real.
When we interacted with people I didn’t want special treatment because they thought they would get something from me. I wanted to discover, and marvel, and be surprised – not follow a bullet-listed itinerary of carefully orchestrated experiences. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy and appreciate the awesome things I sometimes get to do. But when somebody else is pulling the strings, the spark that drew me to travel is lost. When I’m pimping the place, dutifully hashtagging with whatever the marketing people from the host company prefer, it’s no longer about my experience. When I’m buried in my phone, snapping shots and posting and captioning, I’m no more than a vessel for the place I’m visiting, a means to add a few drops to the heaving ocean of social media .
So yeah, it’s nice, really, nice, to have the excessive dinners, the never-ending cocktail hours, the special access, the VIP treatment. But we wanted to travel like we used to – when it was challenging, complicated, sometimes absurd, and always in some way meaningful. That meant this hostel with my clothes on the floor. It meant public transportation, a guesthouse in the next city and Airbnb in the following. It meant street vendor tacos and getting turned around in the endless sprawl of the city, losing metro tickets and dealing with the language barrier.
And it meant meeting people who talked – really talked – with us and helped us when we needed it, offering up their suggestions for where to eat and drink. It meant pick-up basketball; stopping at a cerveceria for a drink and staying all evening watching futbol while a storm raged outside because we had nowhere we had to be; whiling away an afternoon in a cantina learning to sip tequila from a local as the piano music bounced off the yellow walls. It meant a trip that belonged only to us. And no matter where I’m sleeping, I’ll take that over the butlers and bubbly any day.