I Gave Oxygen To My Wanderlust

TWP Tilden

© Copyright 2021 by TWP Tilden


During my very first sojourn to Los Angeles, all those years back, my nights were spent at no less a haunt than the Cecil Hotel. Back then, in the early aughts, memes didn't really exist, conspiracy buffs weren't mainstream, and “Cecil Hotel” meant absolutely nothing to me. But enter its name in any search engine nowadays and one can easily click himself deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of know-it-all YouTube plagiarists, replete with slick video-editing and tiresome voice-over narration.

I clocked hundreds of miles on Greyhound traveling from New York City to Chicago then on through Denver, followed by a long connection in hot, tree-less Las Vegas, where there were no shadows anywhere!

Upon pulling in to downtown Los Angeles, I was only too glad to be pointed toward any budget hotel. A man shrugged and suggested I might try the Cecil. The outside surroundings were dodgy and the inside surroundings had suspicious long-term guests but I took the adventurous divey quality in stride. Daily rates were about $17 plus tax with cheaper 3-day and weekly specials handwritten on a square of lined paper taped to the front desk window. It was choice lodging for a backpacker and I stayed, off and on, for several weeks, visiting San Diego, Santa Monica, San Francisco, and circling back to the cheap and centrally located dive.

My time coincided with renovations. At some point the establishment started touting itself as a European style hostel. In addition to the gleaming lobby, now immaculately buffed to a shine, I was aware of three other new aspects: the laundry room was nicely refurbished to double duty as a television lounge (as awkward as that combination is), there were more young tourists passing through and – BAMM! Right in the kisser – its new and improved rate: $50! For a bum hotel slash hostel?!

What did this new and improved rate get me? Apart from a shiny lobby, nothing.
The hotel room looked the same as before but, now with the seasons changing, I learned the radiator attached to the wall was non-functioning (because there was no central heating). Guess that's what they meant by European style? At any rate, it was, and remains, zero fun trying to sleep in a cold room. For ten or, say, sixteen, twenty dollars – ie, hostel prices – one can grin and rough it. But at fifty dollars, baby, I am not a happy shivering camper. Same as the radiator, the fatback television set weighing down the dresser was more decorative than user-friendly. Despite the rate hike it was still without a remote control – probably the hotel's way of keeping the Section 8 applicants from hawking the gadgets – which meant I had to get up and manually change channels like it was the 1980's.

On the last morning I was to check-out I overheard an investor's group as it toured the premises. According to the tour guide, the hotel had goals to supply Wi-Fi throughout the building. I hoped the big plans also included central heating and cooling.

While the haunted Cecil Hotel is now officially, and with much brevity, Stay (technically, Stay on Main) it apparently cannot remodel itself free of the curse. Even minus the supernatural 'if', infamous Skid Row remains nearby and its tent city of very scary junkies, insanity cases, filth and rats is very, very real.
Onward and upward, I made my way on Greyhound to Portland, Oregon, where Hostelling International's H.I. Portland - Hawthorne was cozy hippy in appearance but corporate in attitude. I had telephoned ahead – phone first! – from a payphone (because I didn't own a cell phone) about a dorm room vacancy and was told I had to be literally thirty minutes away before the bastards would "probably" hold a bed for me. Great backpacker spirit! Minutes after I'd signed in, having stayed awake through their small litany of house rules, I witnessed a poor fellow, with his arm in a sling, feel the full bite of the corporate smile.

While entering his John Hancock in the guest register and making small talk with Front Desk, the new guest happily shared of being off and on in Oregon since December looking for steady work. “Man, been living in my car! I'm so glad you guys ––” Whoops, too much information! The guy behind the counter, inexplicably dressed like a 19th Century Scottish golfer, was also the manager and he bitchyly reiterated the hostel's house rules expressly prohibited "residents" from receiving lodgings. He would not and did not budge from policy. It didn't matter either that the distraught customer paid with a credit card. And just like that, broken arm homeboy was sent back out into the rain, amid a torrent of profanity and insults which only made the fancy dress, ephebic manager smirk. Seriously, how scary can a guy be with one arm tied behind his back, or in a sling, as it were?

But my absolute worst American hostel experience was L.A.'s Hollywood Highland Hotel & Hostel (H&H). A dump. I would never recommend staying at H&H for more than a night—if ever.

For starters, I was refused a bed unless I booked through hostelworld.com. At the time I did not own a bank card, and was traveling back from Las Vegas, Nevada, so I called and asked my white friend, who lived in north Hollywood, to please book the room for me. Dude got it done without a hitch. And wouldn't you know: he was not asked to give a credit card number or told to go through the third-party website. Ahhh, the perks of being white—even over the telephone!

Now with the room confirmed, that was one less worry on my mind as I boarded the bus departing sweltering Nevada. I counted myself lucky to be paying $25 nightly. I quickly found out that was roughly twenty dollars too much.

Located a stone's throw away from the Kodak Theater smack in the loins of famous Hollywood Boulevard, the “hotel” and hostel had for its manager Rico, a lumbering, lowly-educated, uncouth “asshole” (his words) who, recognizing my voice, greeted me with a constipated grunt, “Oh. You.” Yeah, me from the telephone. People do say I should be on radio. Rico struck me as one of those fat human waste sacks who improbably lands work in interracial gang-bang flicks, the ones so awful they actually needle you out of fantasy mode with the thought, she can't possibly be getting paid enough for this eye-sore humiliation. I would not describe the man as crass or sloppy or ghetto; those adjectives overshoot the mark. Thankfully, the sloven was inhospitable enough to fill in the blank for me: “I'm not only surly,” Rico huffed, quoting verbatim my feedback deposited in the Suggestion box, perhaps the only slip of paper inside. “I'm an asshole too.” We all have our talents.

Apart from that dreadful hotel employee, entrance to H&H was up a flight of steep, narrow and creaky, dingy carpeted stairs. Picture shimmying up a laundry chute with a big suitcase or rucksack. The rooms were unbearably hot and crowded together with flea market rickety metal bunkbeds. Many of the other guests were quasi-long term, either hustling gig works or fledgling aspirants of one passion or another, as they vied to make it beyond the boulevard of broken dreams. In fact, some of them “performed” as those cartoon characters, like Minnie Mouse, Batman, Pirates of the Caribbean's Jack Sparrow, Shrek, which one sees on the street, and in Hollywood movies about Hollywood, posing for tourist snapshots.

Internet access was coin-operated. (Is that still a thing??) The free breakfast consisted of white bread slices, coffee and tea, and more peanut butter than Ben Affleck ate on the Voyage of the Mimi.

Funny story: Some years after this disappointing trip I befriended a Japanese boy in Mexico City. As we swapped stories about our travels around American cities his face suddenly and fiercely crinkled up at the mention of “Hollywood Hotel&Hostel.” I instinctively spun around, expecting to shoo away another Mexican beggar child aggressively approaching with stickers and open palms. “Oh my god!,” he gasped, getting my attention and mock gagging. “You stayed there too?!” Unlike me, the Japanese foreigner had no problem getting a reservation but, same as me, my new friend found the place – and especially manager Rico – memorably disgusting. Damn if it ain't a small, small world after all!

As a point of note, USA hostels are the pits. Overpriced, poorly staffed (usually starting with the owner), inhospitable, racist, and unabashedly cheap on amenities. They nickle-and-dime guests coming and going; see themselves as hotels for naive youth who, supposedly, can't afford real hotels and so the guiding attitude appears to be you get what you pay for.

I was sometimes told I could not book a bed because the hostel didn't take American travelers. Racism is so standard in the USA it's not for certain if “American travelers” is shorthand for American travelers who look like you. Either way it is a stupid policy but, tellingly, not an uncommon one in America. And if I wasn't refused service, then I was almost certainly routinely charged a steep(er) key deposit than non-American guests (and, to be honest, I don't recall coming across very many other American backpackers).

It would be great if American hostelers actually traveled abroad and gained perspective on how a comfortable, clean, and affordable lodging is operated instead of simply nailing kitsch to the walls, reveling in legalized pot, hitting on female guests, and otherwise basking in sorry cashcow and/or hippy delusions of worldly cool.

I am no stranger to life abroad, having traveled, and lived, a fair deal across the Pond. I visited many of the European capitals: Paris, Madrid, Athens, Venice, Vienna, Zurich.... The year was 2012 and, following trips to Istanbul then London, I took the train up to Edinburgh, Scotland, where, to my surprise, I comprehended the locals more so than I did almost anyone in London.

On the Grassmarket, beneath the grand and imposing Edinburgh Castle, was Art Roch Hostel, a converted old Salvation Army barracks from way back before The Brady Bunch aired with so many long-term characters who couldn't be farther from salvation if they died and went straight to Hell. I had never met so many socially inept and eccentric people under one roof.

This much could be said of the three floor structure: it offered great rates and not a dull moment, and was supposedly owned by the fifth wealthiest Scotsman at the time, one Malcolm Scott, a useless point of trivia which never went unmentioned by the long-term guests as though they and Scott were drinking buddies of a wee dram or pint every now and again.

Months later, while chilling in Berlin, Germany, gobbling down hot pretzels and Radlers I also got to taste schadenfreude at the expense of the social awkwards, courtesy of the following headline, complemented by a photograph of familiar forlorn faces behind barricaded doors:


The self-righteous characters sought to standoff but, alas, got nothing but the boot!
But what sort of adventurer and world traveler could I play at if I didn't head to a Third World country besides Mexico?

In Guatemala my friends bypassed Guatemala City and, instead, booked us into The Black Cat, a proverbial frat house abroad in Antigua. The city of Antigua was exotic, full of ruins (or just poorly constructed churches), and cobble stone roads. It was also not lacking decrepit plumbing. While there, the hostel was without running water for two or three days. Ewww. Imagine! But the one thing it went without even longer was customer service. The staff were not the friendliest and came off like douche bag occupiers. There was one meathead who bragged on being an American Marine and always scowled and glowered. Always. It would not surprise me a bit if the ugly American was among those raving red in D.C. on January sixth.
With our bowels finally relieved and having visited a volcano on horseback, we restuffed our backpacks and said adios to Antigua. One choppy motorboat taxi later and we had arrived to San Pedro la Laguna (Lake Atitlán). I paid $8USD for a dorm room at the Mikaso Hotel, one of the more expensive lodgings in Lake Atitlán.

It was luxurious with beautiful tiling, plush furniture, big mattresses, crisp white linen, and sat right on the lakefront (translation: nice breezes ... gorgeous vista of lake and mountain views) with a private hand built dock which many of its guests found enjoyable for reading, sun bathing, or just dangling their feet into the water.

This stomp was the complete opposite of The Black Cat. With its many nooks to sit and read in peace, Mikaso was a classy refuge from the bustling excess of cheesy extreme cavalier behavior. It was a little off the beaten path but it was worth it. And, anyway, I could always hire a zippy tuk-tuk (Shanghai taxi) to get me there easier. I recall the fare was only about 5Q (Guatemalan quetzales) to go anywhere around the lake. Five quetzales was less than one American dollar. Back then that was cheaper than a bag of Dorito chips!

I used to love to travel. Airport security and TSA in the wake of 9/11 gradually eroded the fun out of it for me and then COVID-19 put the smackdown. At least I can say, Been there! Did that! For many years following college I was restless and wandered as far, and for as long, as I could. Here is a teeny taste of those early backpacking years. 

Contact TWP

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Another story by TWP

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher