Traveling While Introverted, Part 1: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Hostel

First, a confession. I am in love, with a town called Granada. It was a beautiful romance and I’m a bit sad by the thought that I won’t find another like it for a long time. I’ve been to a number of other places in and around Spain now — Madrid, Seville, Cordoba, Barcelona, and Cueta in Spain, as well as Tetuan, Tangier and Chefchaouen in Morocco; and I set down in Toledo on Friday. All have had their own flavor and experiences, but none have made me feel as at home or swept away as Granada. If I could live there, I would. While I traveled out of town in my time there, I left for good last week when I came to Barcelona. It would have its own bag of experiences to give me, but it made me realize how much I loved what I had just left.

As soon as I left the station in Barcelona, boom — I could immediately feel the difference. Not just see it, not just identify it, but feel it viscerally in the spaciousness and pacing of the city: still warm but playing things a little cooler, still welcoming but a little more distant, and everything with a gloss and a magnificence that hypnotizes more than Granada. (And the Spanish in Catalonia is far easier to understand than that in Andalucia, the region containing Granada, Seville and Cordoba.) Barcelona makes the jaw drop, but Granada made my heart melt. I had fun in Barcelona, but I wanted to live in Granada.

In college parlance, if this were a game of F*&k / Marry / Kill: f%#k Barcelona, marry Granada, and… I guess I would kill Madrid. It has a LOT to offer and I’ll see more of it next week, but so far it’s had the least personality and warmth compared to the rest of the country. It’s like going on a date with someone who comes highly recommended, being a little let down but deciding to give it a second chance. 

When I first came to Spain, Granada was where I settled down. I stayed with a homestay family, where I taught English to a young boy, shared dinner with the family, and contributed to the daily life of the house. And not only could I practice my Spanish with the family, but based on previous placements they recommended a local language school in Albayzín, a beautiful and historic neighberhood in the center of Granada. I didn’t plan on it when I came to Spain, but suddenly my life fell into a satisfying routine:

  • wake up at 7;
  • go to the gym until 10;
  • go to class until 2;
  • explore or socialize until 7;
  • teach English until 8;
  • eat dinner and drink wine until 10 and go to bed;
  • Rinse and repeat.

I am a creature of habit and for a time this made me very content, having a structure around which to build my day at a time when that was what I needed. However, after a month and a half I decided it was time to strike out on my own, wanting more freedom than I could have staying with a family; so I went to a hostel right next to my classes in the Albaycin, Oasis Hostel. It was a drastic but very welcome transition. I did have more freedom to live how I wanted and make my own schedule, and it was also easier to see the nightlife in the incredible downtown area, but the transition brought another welcome change that I didn’t foresee.

Suddenly, I went from making a new friend every day or two at the school to making one every few hours through the hostel. It was a little out of character for me, being a pretty private and low-key person. But it was perfect.

There is a beautiful spirit to hostels that I find inspiring, so much that my goal to write a blog every week began in Oasis Hostel. No matter where in the world they’re from, everyone staying there is on a journey, everyone is eager to see the city and meet people, almost everyone is a traveler rather than a tourist, and seeing as they’re sharing a room with 10+ other people, everyone is open to new experiences. And while almost everyone speaks English — Hostels really drive home how much this is the worldwide lengua franca — everyone is also immediately interesting because they are almost certainly not from where you are from and are eager to share their experiences, both back home and from their other travels. And it’s been the same at hostels in Madrid, Cordoba, Barcelona, and even back in Uganda. Sure, it’s crowded and lacks privacy, but I’m happy just to have hot showers, regular internet and cheap prices that don’t require negotiating. For someone with a Peace Corps-mindset, a hostel is a paradise. 

However, hostels are a mixed bag. God help you if you can’t sleep through people stumbling in at 2 in the morning, and prepare to feel self-conscious for spending too long in the bathroom and for every fart you eek out in bed. Huge traveler groups occasionally stampede through, taking up the lobby and soaking up all the Wifi. However, for an introvert, there’s another pitfall to hostel life: they’re also full of well-intentioned extroverts trying to convince you to go on that bar crawl for the third night in a row, brosefs still in college who will try to set up beer pong in the kitchen, and local tour guides working with the hostel who need just one more person to have enough for the hike Thursday morning. Hostels are a breeding ground for FOMO and the introvert will need a certain mindset to make it there long-term.

I’ve learned to create “alone spaces” in a hostel, even when amongst tons of people. It’s much more psychological than physical. My eyes avert contact with others and the headphones stay in, while maintaining an aura of positivity so as not to scare off potential friends. I try to say hello to people I recognize, but I also develop my nonverbal communication to signal to people that, yes, I like you, but if we’re going to be together right now it’s going to be while I sit here not saying anything. Essentially, the goal I shoot for is a compassionate badass, not giving a shit in the kindest way possible.

The two things I find draining about social interactions are having to actively respond to people’s conversations and feeling like I have to modify my behavior in front of people. Pretty quickly, I find ways to not give a shit in the nicest way possible: smiling at people while I walk around shoeless, or networking people and activities for those who ask me to go out, or being comfortable saying no. And again, I’ve learned to develop my nonverbal skills, both to overcome language barriers and to refuse people without rejecting them. I highly suspect this is a key to greater well-being anywhere, not just abroad, and I hope I can maintain it once I get back.

When People Don’t Understand How Great Being an Introvert Can Be

Introverts have to be strategic in how they meet people. It’s possible that if you plop me in the middle of a bar on my own, I might eventually strike up a conversation with someone, but if I don’t know anyone there I will probably hole up with a drink in the corner or just leave. Not because I can’t talk to anyone there, but because I’m now comfortable enough with myself to know there’s just other things I’d rather be doing. I’d much rather meet someone in an art gallery, a bookstore or a hostel lobby, and it just has a higher probability of going well there. 

It’s worst when meeting fellow Americans, who fit a stereotype of being more extroverted than most other cultures. And the stereotype is sort of true, sort of not. In my experience, Americans behave more as extroverts and from asking others how they perceive Americans, their first words are generally “outgoing” and “friendly;” however, statistically we are no more extroverted than any other culture, but reward extroversion and encourage people to behave as such. I think as a consequence many Americans compulsively behave as extroverts and feel guilty for not going out as much as possible. To help you avoid falling into the sin of introversion, your grown of “Ah, I don’t know” will often be interpreted as “I really want to go, I just need you to convince me.”I met one guy from Venezuela like this, but if someone’s guilting me for not going out I could bet money it’s an American. 

It’s sad to let people down and it’s hard to fight the guilt. Worst of all is the internalized voice telling me that reading a good article or watching my favorite YouTube channel or catching up on Netflix for any amount of time while traveling is “a waste.” Even if I know it’s what I need, it becomes a compulsion to go out. Indulging this compulsion might be possible for a week or two, but when you’re traveling for three months as I have, it stops working. The car runs out of gas. 

The thing is, it’s not even something I should do because I have to; it can be qualitatively different when you’re traveling. Sometimes, all I need to have a moving experience is to read a book in a new place. To drink coffee in a spot I find beautiful. To just think about the experiences I’ve had earlier in the journey. 

My favorite memories in Barcelona? It wasn’t the pub crawls or the dinners at the hostel, though all of those were fine. It was, in this order, writing a blog underneath the Arc de Triomf of Barcelona, the feeling of wanting to kneel as I entered the Sagrada Familia, and seeing the city below my feet from the Bunquers. Only one of those was done with other people present — the tour, and most of my talking was done with the Costa Rican tour guide. Incidentally, even though she also did the pub crawls for the hostel, I met her for drinks later and had a much better time with just the two of us and her friends we ran into along the way. There’s always alternatives to the Heinekin-guzzling tour stampedes if you’re willing to take risks and look hard enough. 

I want to drive home that typical introvert activities can be just as rewarding while traveling as extroverted ones. Yes, I can read books and watch TV anywhere; but reading a book about Queen Isabel is a lot more moving when you’re 20 feet from her tomb, and reading about Gaudi is a lot more visceral when you’ve set foot in some of his most impressive buildings. As far as television, there is something bizarrely comforting to me — familiar and yet unfamiliar — about watching the weather forecast on TV in Spanish. It drives home for me how similar we all are and that our concerns are largely the same: is the rain going to complicate my day tomorrow or not? And it works the other way around, too: what I had read about Queen Isabel’s rule from Toledo has guided my itinerary in visiting it, and my favorite movie featuring a plot about Queen Isabel helped drive my fascination as well.

Introversion as a Crutch 

Like anything worth doing, traveling is often not easy. And I mean real traveling, not touring — finding your way with nothing but a map and your language skills, eating food the locals eat that you may or may not recognize, avoiding hotels whenever possible, etc. I’m sure being a tourist is much easier, which is good since it costs so much more. (I want to say more about the traveler / tourist dichotomy, but a good rule of thumb is to ask: do you want your trip to be fun, or enlightening? If the former, you’re a tourist, and while there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, I can’t speak to your experience.)

It’s easy to get scared or overwhelmed. Sometimes, especially when you’re tired, you have to consciously make the choice to do the less easy thing: skip McDonalds for a restaurant you’ve never been to, for food that may be a gamble for your taste (or even your health); take a hostel, a homestay family or even couchsurfing over a hotel; go to where the locals say is the best place rather than where all the signs are pointing. And sometimes, you just don’t want to anymore; and sometimes, as when facing any difficult obstacle, you will revert to your favorite justification / defense mechanism / crutch for taking the easy route; and sometimes, if you’re an introvert, it’s the fact that you’re an introvert.

It is important not to mistake introversion for fear of the unknown, being a recluse, low self-esteem, laziness, or any number of unrelated psychological ailments like obsessive-compulsive disorder or social anxiety or a Peter Pan complex, as some do.  (<– Seriously, this comic series annoys me. Being introverted is not a free pass for full-blown dysfunction.) Being introverted simply means that social interaction requires energy, whereas in extroverts it creates energy. It doesn’t mean social interactions are bad, simply that introverts have to distribute and invest their energy wisely — and new relationships with interesting people who have relevant interests is almost always a great investment. And while I do go to bed these days pretty tired and “people-d out,” it is energy well spent. There are times when we introverts really do need to get out of our comfort zone, and we cannot let introversion be the label we hide behind to prevent taking risks.

It’s complicated because I do, like everyone, have moments of loneliness and homesickness when traveling– especially when traveling alone. It hit me hardest this week, having left cozy little Granada where I had established a little social circle for big party-central Barcelona, where I knew no one. It’s a more magnified version of the age-old paradox: I’m surrounded by people, yet I feel alone. The remedy might seem obvious: go on another guided tour! Go drink! Go join the Jenga game in the lobby! But often in these moments, going on another bar crawl is the last thing I need. Being unable to talk over the music, to people you just met, who may or may not be fluent in English (or even Spanish for that matter, which cuts all options for me) (unless they happen to speak Luganda) isn’t grounds for the kinds of meaningful interactions that I find recharging. Again, I can do these things, but since for introverts social interactions and high stimulation require energy, I have to look at the social return I get on that investment. When I’m feeling lonely, and I’m low on energy to invest, a loud bar with a big group of strangers just isn’t the best place to do so.

For extroverts, getting out of your comfort zone is equally important — maybe it means not going on that bar crawl to spend time journaling or blogging, or spending an evening watching a sunset instead of watching another concert — but I can’t speak to your experience. I can only say what it means specifically to get out of my comfort zone, which is approaching new people and going to loud places and asking pretty girls for their phone number. The same rule applies for everyone, though: keep putting gas in the car so you can keep moving forward. If you’re like me and what you find refreshing is to read or watch TV and movies, you can still do so in a way that’s educational and informative; but if you just want something familiar and mindless, give yourself permission to do that too. Just try to fall somewhere between exhausting yourself out of guilt and hiding from the world with “introversion” as a crutch.

Breaking the Blog

I’ve got more to say about long-term traveling and prolonged stays in hostels, but I want to keep my blogs somewhere between bite-size and a 10-course meal. In keeping with the psychology theme of the blog, I’m going to talk more about the kinds of relationships I’ve formed as an introvert while traveling, and the search for deeper friendships when things are so transient. Might throw in some other fun bits, too — the second part is a little too “bite-sized” at the moment — so we’ll see what evolves. TO BE CONTINUED.

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